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Issue Date:  January 11, 2008

Study: What brought people to church may not keep them there

Willow Creek Community Church, the suburban Chicago megachurch that has become a model for some of the nation’s largest churches, started more than a quarter-century ago by asking the question: Why don’t people go to church?

Now, church leaders are looking for new ways to keep them there after new research revealed that worshipers’ spiritual growth did not keep pace with their involvement in church activities.

The findings, based on research at Willow Creek and similar churches, showed that involvement in church activities did not carry with it a boost in spiritual growth, defined as “increasing love for God and others.”

The findings were not only enlightening for Willow Creek and its 20,000 weekend worshipers, but also for the more than 12,000 churches in the Willow Creek Association that look to the church for guidance on meeting the needs of spiritual “seekers.”

Church activities “don’t seem to be lifting them up the spiritual ladder to a new level,” said Cally Parkinson, who helped manage the evangelical church’s research effort.

Senior Pastor Bill Hybels said it was “almost unbearable” to learn that nearly a quarter of his people were either “stalled” in their spiritual growth or dissatisfied with the church, with many considering leaving.

“It is causing me to ask new questions,” Hybels writes in Reveal, the 110-page book that detailed the research results. “It is causing me to see clearly that the church and its myriad of programs have taken on too much of the responsibility for people’s spiritual growth.”

The initial study looked at Willow Creek and six other churches across the country; it was expanded to include 23 additional congregations. In response to the research, Willow Creek is retooling its programs and providing pointers to churches that belong to the association.

Greg L. Hawkins, the church’s executive pastor, said the research showed that Willow Creek was doing well in terms of evangelism, serving the poor and encouraging Bible reading.

“But what we found was our people were hungry for even more,” said Hawkins. “They wanted to go deeper with personal spiritual practices.”

Willow Creek is now building an online “next-step tool” that will direct people to books, videos and other activities based on answers to questions about their spiritual path.

-- Religion News Service

National Catholic Reporter, January 11, 2008

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