REVEAL – Shock And Uhh…

Posted on July 11, 2008


There’s been a bunch of discussion about Willow Creek’s REVEAL work. You can watch the video here, and at Out Of Ur. Here’s the REVEAL website. There’s also way too much in the blogosphere to be cited here, but I’m sure you could find plenty to read.

UPDATE (June 2008): Willow released this video of Nancy Beach at the recent Arts Conference. Marshall Shelley posts their response at the OutOfUr blog. While I’m glad for the conversation, and the humble attitudes, I sometimes wish we could all just take everything in stride and resist any dramatic “tabloid-ish” development in the first place.

Below was the review I wrote/compiled of “Reveal: Where Are You?” back in 2007 when it came out. While it seems to dismiss the value of the study (or the conclusions at least), I want to reiterate that I hold Willow’s ethic of striving for excellence in everything they do in the highest regard. The journey of improvement is a never ending one, and Willow has perhaps contributed the most chapters to that tome. They are to be commended for it.

Hawkins, Greg and Cally Parkinson. Reveal: Where Are You? Willow Creek, 2007.

“For years, church leaders have relied on numbers to help answer questions like these. In other words, we ask the “How many?” question. How many… attend each week… are in small groups… actively serve… tithe? Numbers can be helpful, but they don’t reveal the whole story. Numbers can’t peer into the human heart. When it comes to spiritual growth, we need to be able to measure more than numbers. We need a glimpse of people’s attitudes, thoughts and emotions. We need a tool that reveals the heart of each person.

In an effort to better understand the hearts of people, Willow Creek Community Church undertook a three-year process of study and research to find a way to measure spiritual growth. And to see whether the church was accomplishing its mission of facilitating that growth. To that end, they surveyed not only their own congregation, but also six other churches across the United States. The results of the study were startling. Long-held assumptions crumbled. And willow Creek came to grips with the fact that things had to change. Now Willow Creek invites you to learn from its findings. You’ll discover the four segments that characterize the journey of spiritual growth. You’ll learn more about what catalyzes and stunts spiritual growth. And you’ll understand how the church needs to change in order to help people become more like Christ. What you discover here may challenge you. Or confirm nagging suspicions you’ve had all along. E ither way, the findings in REVEAL will undoubtedly change the way you think about church-and what it really takes to make a difference.” (from the back cover).

What I found difficult, though, is that to me, the findings weren’t that shocking. First, the formula: attitudes/emotions + behaviors = segments of people with unique sets of needs. How is this so radical? We’ve always been dealing with heart and action issues, and that’s always been the crux of the ministry of the Church; has it not?

The six discoveries:

1. Involvement in church activities does not predict or drive long-term spiritual growth. But there is a “spiritual continuum” that is very predictive and powerful. One, we’ve always known that busy isn’t better, and it has always been what kind of activity. Second, it just makes sense that as people grow in their personal relationship with Christ, that their attitudes and behaviors would correlate. It is telling that the causal relationship does appear to be “commitment first, behavior second.”

2. Spiritual growth is all about increasing relational closeness to Christ. Again, why is this shocking, surprising or telling?

3. The church is most important in the early stages of spiritual growth. Its role then shifts from being the primary influence to a secondary influence. I will admit that this was insightful at first read. But after thinking, it seems to make sense, and something that I have personally felt and witnessed among friends and colleagues. This is perhaps why there is much talk about the Emerging Church, and “alternatives.” The institution of the Church can only take us so far.

4. Personal spiritual practices are the building blocks for a Christ-centered life. Again, surprised are we? Perhaps it’s the “personal” that is so telling as opposed to the “communal,” meaning to gather with the saints in traditionally understood “services.”

5. A church’s most active evangelists, volunteers and donors come from the most spiritual advanced segments. Hmm, why should this be surprising? In fact, this is what we often have hoped for and striven for.

6. More than 25% of those surveyed described themselves as spiritual “stalled” or “dissatisfied” with the role of the church in their spiritual growth. I concur, and I am part of that percentage. What I did find telling about this is the percentage, 25, which seems low to me. But upon further thinking, it’s the funnel effect, right? The further down the scale of devotion, the thinner the number of adherents; makes sense. True in Jesus’ day, still true today.

Conclusion: well, thus far, a statement like this is helpful: “We want to move people from dependence on the church to a growing interdependent partnership with the church…Our people need to learn to feed themselves through personal spiritual practices that allow them to deepen their relationship with Christ.” (p.65)

The concluding appendix discussing “brand” can be challenging philosophically for it feels very much like the marketing industry’s invasion of the spiritual.