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More effective churches

Churches want to know how they can be more effective

By Ronald E. Keener

The Willow Creek MOVE study follows on from the REVEAL survey in finding new insights into spiritual growth.

“Are we making a difference?” is a question that most churches and pastors ask weekly. Willow Creek Community Church, South Barrington, IL, essentially asked that question in a four-year process and a spiritual life survey, with the findings from 1,200 churches involving 280,000 people.

The study that Willow Creek gave its own congregants is known as REVEAL, that, said pastor Bill Hybels, “challenged some of our core assumptions about our effectiveness as a church.”

The results of the wider survey were published in the book MOVE by Greg L. Hawkins, executive pastor, and Cally Parkinson, brand manager (Zondervan, 2011). Hawkins responded to questions from Church Executive:

For you, what were the most startling results of the study?

The biggest insight was that we in church leadership are assuming far too large of a responsibility for our congregants’ spiritual growth. We need to move from being spiritual parents who feel the full burden of someone’s growth, to being spiritual coaches who walk alongside people as they grow.

If an individual does not own his or her own journey toward Christ, there’s really very little the best church in the world can do for them.

Also, based on hearing from more than 280,000 actual churchgoers, people really want to grow. The spiritual appetite is very strong, and with a few changes, the church can really meet that need in a powerful way.

How did the results of the national MOVE study compare to the original REVEAL results at Willow Creek Community Church? What new findings did you discover?

The national survey confirmed all our early findings about what drives spiritual growth. The work that led to MOVE has extended those learnings and allowed us to identify some best practice churches. We spent time studying those churches and discovered strategies that they had in common. Those insights form the basis for half the book.

How has involvement in the study affected the participating churches? What are some of the changes and results you have seen?

We have had hundreds of conversations with pastors who participated in the study and what we have heard over and over is that their individual church results helped them gain crystal clarity on what areas in their church they needed to focus on for maximum spiritual growth.

With more than 1,200 participating churches there was significant diversity represented in the study.

When we studied the churches which appeared most spiritually vibrant, we found no pattern of size, location, denomination or style. Church effectiveness appears not to be determined by those traditional categories. That has been one of the more encouraging discoveries for our team. Any church, at any size and location, can become more effective.

What are the four most important discoveries from the study for a pastor?

First is the realization that you can measure spiritual growth, thereby allowing us all to get some clarity on how people grow and what we can do to catalyze that growth.

Second, the most significant catalyst for spiritual growth, with no close second, is engagement with the Bible. Do whatever you can to inspire members of your church to fall in love with God’s word.

Third, involvement in church activities, by themselves, does not drive long-term spiritual growth.

Fourth, your congregants are looking to you, as their pastor, to teach them God’s word, show them how you yourself are living it out and then to challenge them to take a next step in response. Leadership really does matter and if you want a spiritually vibrant church, it starts with your own spiritual life and then extends to your bold, unrelenting leadership.

In MOVE you have identified the top 5 percent of the most effective churches in the survey.  What can churches learn from their best practices?

By studying some 1,200 congregations, we were able to isolate some churches with high spiritual vitality.

Something special was going on there. When we spent time with those churches we discovered four common practices that appear to be transferable to any church setting. What was inspiring was that implementation of these ideas worked in small and large churches and really were not dependent on the size of a church’s budget.

Why is it important for churches to pay attention to this information?

This work is important because Christ himself has asked us to go make disciples. Any insights into how our church can be more effective in that work should warrant our focus and attention.

We would ask any church leader to read MOVE and to reflect on its insights. Remember, we did not make this stuff up — it all comes out of the experience of real church attendees and real church leaders, confirmed by the teachings of Scripture. It is not necessary to have your church take the survey, although that is a very effective way to jump start implementation of these concepts. The ideas in the book are transferable, we believe, to every church, regardless if they take the Reveal survey.

Do ministers worry about their effectiveness in guiding people spiritually? Isn’t it all up to God anyway?

I have always felt a responsibility to use my gifts to help people get closer to God. I believe God gave me those gifts so that can actually occur. While I know that all fruit is a result of God’s activity, he has asked me to be faithful with what he entrusted to me, which consists of my spiritual gifts, abilities and experience. I must ask questions around ministry effectiveness and be open to learn from others.

Church leadership can do a lot to promote spiritual growth. What MOVE outlines with great clarity is what specifically a church should be doing at each stage of someone’s growth, and that list does change as a person changes. But our work has clearly found that there are practices a church can pursue that appear to accelerate the rate of spiritual growth.

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