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Willow Creek Reveal Study – a Summary

Summary of the Willow Creek REVEAL Study

by Russ Rainey, Ph.D.

The Research:

  • a three-year process led by a “world-class” marketing expert
  • an analysis of 6000 surveys completed by Willow Creek attendees (2004)
  • an analysis of 300 people who had left Willow Creek Church
  • an analysis of an additional 5000 surveys three years later (2007)
  • more than 120 in-depth interviews with people regarding spirituality
  • a study of Scripture and more than one hundred books and articles on spiritual formation
  • consultation with spiritual growth experts

 The Assumption:

Before the research, Willow Creek had been assuming that “the more a person far from God participates in church activities, the more likely it is those activities will produce a person who loves God and loves others”.  However, this assumption was found to be invalid by the research.  To quote the study: “Does increased attendance in ministry programs automatically equate to spiritual growth?  To be brutally honest: it does not.”

 The Problems:

The study divided church attendees into groups according to their level of spiritual formation: those who are “exploring Christianity”, those who are “growing in Christ”, those who are “close to Christ”, and those who are “Christ-centered.”

 The study found that those who were in the first two categories (exploring and growing – the least mature attendees) actually did benefit more from the church’s programs and ministries.  However, those who were more mature (the close to Christ and Christ-centered members) were often “stalled” in their spiritual growth or “dissatisfied” with what the church was doing to help them grow.  When the stalled and dissatisfied groups were combined, they totaled over 25% of the total membership of the church.

 Those who admitted to being stalled seemed to come mainly from the “close to Christ” category and they appeared to be “holding back or…somehow blocked from spiritual growth and progress”.  This group represents 16% of all those surveyed.  Even though they see Jesus as the only way to salvation, only 7 percent reported regular Bible reading and 25 percent of this group were considering leaving the church.

 Those who admitted to being dissatisfied seemed to come from the most “Christ-focused” segment of the church.  “They are active evangelists, volunteers and donors to the church.”  They are “also the ones most likely to report that they are considering leaving the church.”  In fact…the higher the level of engagement, the more likely it is that satisfaction with the church will be lukewarm.”  This group makes up about 10% of the total church.  The researchers made two important observations: 1) this mature group of believers were dissatisfied that their church did not “keep them on track” as they tried to lead a Christian life and 2) they were disappointed that the church had not “helped them find a spiritual mentor.”

Overall Conclusions:

The Church and its ministries seemed to have the most influence at the beginning of a person’s spiritual growth process.  This hand-holding approach appears to be necessary in the early stages of spiritual growth.  However, as with adolescents who long for independence, the more mature believers do not seem to benefit so much from programmatic hand-holding – “the institution of the church becomes less central to their faith development.”  The study concludes that, “Our analysis paints the picture of the church being too preoccupied with the early growing years, leaving the spiritual adolescents to find their own way – without preparing them for the journey.”

 The following “what if…” is worth quoting from the study at length:

Imagine the kingdom gains if the church figured out the ideal way to parent or coach (emphasis mine) Christ-followers all along the spiritual continuum.  Imagine the impact if all those Stalled and Dissatisfied people were put back on track and moved into higher stages of spiritual maturity and productivity.  Imagine what would happen if the church could create passageways that urge those who are growing and close to Christ to begin leading truly Christ-centered lives.

The data from this study “suggests that the church provides minimal support for those who are most devoted to Christ.  Since these people are the best equipped and most motivated advocates for Christ, providing them with increased coaching (emphasis mine) and encouragement could reap great gains for the kingdom.” 

 In Willow Creek’s follow-up study entitled Follow Me, the researchers state: “The Christ-centered people are the ball game…we’ve surveyed over 200 churches, and the headline is the same – the Christ-centered people offer the greatest high-impact opportunity for the church and the kingdom.”  The researchers admit that there is no “one size fits all” approach to discipleship.  However, the new goal of Willow Creek is to “transition the role of the church from spiritual parent to spiritual coach.” (emphasis mine)

 One final positive note: those who are most advanced on the spiritual growth continuum state that they have an increasing need for “someone to hold me accountable” and “speak the truth to me”.  The study concludes that, “… they also seem to want a personal growth coach (emphasis mine) or spiritual mentor.  That may be what would truly ‘keep them on track’ and from walking out the back door.”


Note: All quotes in this summary are from Reveal: Where Are You? and Follow Me: What’s Next for You?, Greg L. Hawkins and Cally Parkinson, Willow Creek Resources,


Summary by Russ Rainey, Ph.D.          Courageous Growth Coaching                 817-479-3231

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