Saturday, November 3, 2007

Participation: What Kind?

One of Christianity Today's blogs recently blogged a new initiative out of Willow Creek Community Church--one of the largest churches in the U.S. The initiative was born out of a bunch of research Willow Creek did on the relationship between church programs and individual spiritual growth, defined in terms of increased love of God and neighbor. The study found that there was essentially no correlation between increased participation in church programs (defined in terms of attendance) and spiritual growth. This was an alarming finding, of course, for a church that invests millions of dollars in such programs. (They repeated the study at 31 other North American churches, involving feedback from more than 20,000 church goers, and got consistent results. Check out executive pastor, Greg Hawkins explanation of the study and its findings here.)

The solution suggested from the data? Senior pastor, Bill Hybels, suggests that churches need to be teaching people "that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their bible between services, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own." The CT blog concludes: "In other words, spiritual growth doesn’t happen best by becoming dependent on elaborate church programs but through the age old spiritual practices of prayer, bible reading, and relationships." True enough, but I still have some questions...

As Jason pointed out to me when I forwarded him this article (and several of the commenters on CT's blog mentioned), aren't small groups chief among Willow's programs? Aren't those small groups built around "prayer, bible reading, and relationships"? Why aren't they working?

I think at least one key has to do with how we understand "participation." As I said, Willow's survey defined "participation" simply in terms of attendance. In this light, the fact that attendance of church programs isn't bringing about spiritual growth seems more obvious and more relevant to the problem. Passive attendance at anything seems unlikely to help deep spiritual growth.

Perhaps the question is more one of a passive or active orientation, rather than a question strictly regarding the "program" itself. The critical question is: Does the program permit--or even encourage--passive "participation"?

God's been teaching us a lot lately in the Thursday night homegroup about participation. We've realized that even a small group can be a place that encourages passive attendance rather than active contribution. And I experienced that in my small group the summer I interned at Willow; the question in choosing a small group was "Whose small group has a leader whose bible studies most closely emulate the brilliant Sunday teaching of John Ortberg or Bill Hybels?" Harder to admit, is that all too often I think we've continued to experience this same vibe in the Vineyard. As a leader I've strived to be that brilliant teacher in Ortberg's mold. Homegroup may be a small show, but, gosh darn it, it'll be a good show.

Instead, God's been challenging us on Thursday nights to begin to think about how to create a homegroup rhythm that provides opportunity for--and even requires--active participation from each of our members.

After all, if we're about calling our City to revolutionary lives of action, we better not accidentally train ourselves in consumer passivity when we gather. God has called us to more. God has created us to live lives of authority in the mold of Jesus. "Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father." (John 14:12)

What do you think?

1 comment:

Care P said...

hey ecv,

i think that's pretty right on. that actually a lot of what danny and i were feeling as the original 180 Colony group grew too large. is that we were feeling less able to co-operate and that our attendance was becoming rather passive. with the split though, we've both been able to feel more useful and less like we are stagnent in our spiritual growth because we have more of a outlet for our gifts and more space to use them in. and i also really enjoy the weekly coporate prayer as a part to that as well. i had been feeling that our time in coporate prayer was really limited and now that we're taking more time and specifically designating time for it, i feel that God has re-opened doors to the spiritual realm for many of us and at least i know for me. there really is something intensely growth inducing about simple coporate prayer.