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Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World, by Tina Rosenberg

by davesandel on September 11th, 2011

Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World, by Tina Rosenberg, 2011, 402 pages

(Introduction and chapter on Willow Creek: “A Problem That Has No Name”)

Tina Rosenberg, 41, won a 1995 National Book Award and 1996 Pulitzer Prize for her book The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism.  In this book she tells ten stories of how peers help each other become better, stronger, more skilled, more spiritual.  She calls this the “social cure.”  Tina Rosenberg spends 51 pages telling the story of small groups at Willow Creek Community Church, named after the Evanston, Illinois theater where the churches’ first members met.

As a youth group leader in the early 1970’s, Bill Hybels shaped the church experiences he offered according to results from surveys of the community.  This was immediately successful in drawing people, and thirty years later, numbers are staggering.  18,000 people attend weekend services in South Barrington, Illinois.  6,000 others attend four other Willow Creek campuses in the Chicago area.  And the Willow Creek Association consists of around 11,000 churches in 35 countries.

As Rosenberg describes the rise and fall and rise again of small groups at Willow Creek, she zeroes in on the last step in effective problem-solving: revisiting the solution to see how its working.  That’s tough to do for leaders, who have already done the hard work of wading through alternative solutions and settling on one.  But it’s crucial for the followers: it’s their chance for input and often the moment when they really buy in.  Especially when they see their input taken seriously.

Some quotes from Join the Club (Chapter 8: “A Problem That Has No Name”):

 Despite the “community” in its name, there was little community in Willow Creek for the first few decades of its existence.  The very idea of the church, its founding mission, was to provide anonymity: to allow those beginning a relationship with God to come pursue it at their own pace and in their own way.  The seeker – Willow Creek calls him “Unchurched Harry” – could come to Willow Creek and would not be asked to say anything, sign anything, or sing anything. – p. 160

In the 1980s, as churches across America began to establish small groups, Willow Creek did so as well.  But from the beginning, the church has struggled with them, changing the model every few years.  It was not that Willow Creek did worse at small groups than other churches – indeed, by all traditional measures, Willow Creek’s small groups have been relatively successful.  What set Willow Creek apart is that, unlike other churches, it surveyed its members to see whether they believe church programs are working.  And it found that achieving real spiritual growth in a small group is not as easy as people had believed. – p. 166

In 1992 Willow Creek went from being a church with small groups to a church of small groups … The main point of connection was affinity: profession, hobby, marital status, struggle with a particular issue, or desire to help with a certain type of service project … At one point there were more people in Willow’s small groups than the 21,000 who at that time attended services on the weekend … There was a waiting list of two months – Willow Creek didn’t have enough trained leaders.  It certainly appeared that small groups were a big success at Willow Creek. – p. 167

In 2004 the church did something that churches rarely do, but that is absolutely crucial to the effectiveness of the social cure: it asked for the congregation’s view.  Even though it had been doing basic congregational surveys for twelve years, now it carried out a more in-depth survey to determine how different parts of Willow Creek affected members’ spiritual development.  The results, Bill Hybels wrote, were “almost unbearable” … He called the results “the wake-up call of my adult life … one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to digest as a leader” …  About a third of the parishioners described themselves as spiritually “stalled” or “dissatisfied” with the role of their church in their spiritual growth; the higher the level of their engagement with the church, the less satisfied they were with it … A third of the small group leaders said they did not ask other group members to pray for them about significant personal issues and didn’t encourage their members to, either. – p. 167-168

But being Bill Hybels, he figured out a way to turn the bad news to good employ.  He publicized the survey results and used them to overhaul Willow Creek’s programs.  After that, Willow Creek branded the study, calling it “Reveal,” and proceeded to conduct the same survey in other Willow Creek Association churches: first six, then twenty-three, then 200, then 1,000 … Few organizations have ever put such dismaying information to better use. – p. 168-169

Buried in Willow Creek’s 2004 bad-news congregational survey lay clues to a possible solution … Three of the main things that produced satisfaction were genuine friendships, shared experiencing of helping others, and personal accountability … small group members needed less curriculum and more community to listen accept and walk with them through their troubles … But how do you build that depth of community in six hours a month? – p. 171

Willow Creek’s answer upended its small-group structure.  The answer was: You don’t.  (For a new shape for their small groups, Willow Creek turned to) Randy Frazee, a pastor at Pantego Bible Church in Arlington, Texas … His idea was that proximity is community.  If your small group is made up of the people next door, you can plan meetings with them that don’t require long drives, or any drives.  They know your family.  You run into them at the grocery store. – p. 171-172

This idea is several thousand years old, but it has fallen out of favor in the fractured, high-tech, multi-tasked modern world. – p. 172

The problem, said Gene Appel, lead pastor at Willow’s main church, was that Willow Creek had so many church activities that people didn’t have time to carry out the most basic of Jesus’ instructions: Love thy neighbor.  – p. 172

Bill Hybels, who has the money and clout to do these things, hired Frazee away from Pantego in 2005.  Initially Frazee said no … but how could he pass up the chance to carry out his ideas about doing life together at the most influential church in America?  So Willow Creek, formerly a temple of anonymity, was suddenly pushing its membership into a kind of community seldom seen in the American suburbs. – p. 172

In The Connecting Church Frazee explores five characteristics that make up a real community: A community has the authority to hold members accountable.  It has a shared understanding of beliefs and practices.  A community has traditions.  A community has standards.  And a community has a common mission. – p. 175

At Pantego small groups are made up of five to seven families who live within a half-mile of each other.  There is no set curriculum: groups read books together but also gather to serve food to the poor or see a play featuring the child of one of the group’s families. – p. 175

Frazee: “The Bible doesn’t talk about placed-based community, because it’s really only been within the last 100 years that anybody’s experienced anything but placed-based communities. – p. 176

Researchers at MIT did a study about how friendships form.  “The hypothesis was that friendships are based on affinity,” Frazee cites. “But it ended up that proximity was more important – your next door neighbor is your best friend.  But people don’t know that proximity is meaningful.” – p. 176-177

He thinks the megachurch is unsustainable.  “Build a large church on the freeway and they will come – this era seems to be coming to an end.  People are affected by rising gas prices …”– p. 176-177

In attacking suburban anomie Frazee has diagnosed a syndrome that afflicts many Americans, religious or not … 1963’s The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan ignited the American feminist movement and also (uncovered the uncomfortable fact that) we think we are so evolved that we don’t need people anymore.  America has been a society built on associations and civic groups, but we have grown very poor at embracing community. – p. 177-178

Robert Putnam in his book  Bowling Alone (2000), blames the decline of community on four factors.  One is new time pressures, especially those on two-career families … A second factor is suburbanization, which brings isolation in itself, and long commutes … Then there is the rise of television, a form of recreation not requiring human contact.  And the fourth factor is generational change.  He does not blame the internet.  “Voting, giving, trusting, meeting, visiting and so on had all begun to decline while Bill Gates was still in grade school,” he writes. – p. 178-179

To confirm Americans’ reluctance to join groups, I don’t need to look further than my own life.  I have three young girls and a job.  I love the idea of joining groups (obviously!) … Nonetheless, I belong to very few groups … When I am invited to join a group, my first thought is to say, “Yes.”  My second thought is to ask, “When do we meet?  Between 5 and 6 in the morning?” – p. 179

What makes people happy? … Most people on the planet report that they are reasonably happy, even the very poor … What does increase people’s happiness, readers of this book will not be surprised to learn, is joining a club.  Literally: joining a group that meets once a month will increase your happiness as much as doubling your income … If you want to decrease your happiness, arrange your life so you have a long commute … There is considerable evidence that the trend toward isolation is slowing. – p. 181

In June 2006 thousands of people went to Table groups in their neighborhoods – in part because of Willow Creek’s decision to cancel the midweek service and hold the pilot on that night.  The church made it easy for people to take the first step – a key social-cure tactic … By December 8,000 people were attending Table groups. – p. 188

But the idea turned out hard to sustain.  The church started out with 700 Table groups; two years later, there were only 200.  “I’ve been doing groups for thirty years,” said one man, “and this is the first group that didn’t work for me.  There were so few people that wanted to come that we ended up merging three groups into one, and we still had only eight people at most.” – p. 188

Why?  … Not enough preparatory groundwork, explaining why the shift, why it was biblically justifiable, how it would help.  Some leaders, especially, felt undercut.  Even if dissatisfied, many group members were comfortable with the old affinity group concept.

These small groups were about as good as their leaders.  Leading a group like this takes more skill than doing formal things, like leading a curriculum-based Bible study. – p. 188-189

The biggest problem was a very American lack of time.  “We thought it was going to be a little more magical – we thought it would take off more organically than it did.  But it’s harder than we thought,” said Ryan Boldt, one Willow Creek area pastor. – p. 189

A lot of people will participate in something if they can simply fit into a predesigned structure, something they can do without too much thought.  Some people welcome the responsibility of designing it themselves, but they are the minority … Also, allowing your neighbors to get to know the real you – which is how the groups produce behavior change – makes you vulnerable, which can be intimidating and even terrifying.  – p. 191

The culture of the self-made man is a powerful reason that the social cure does not come naturally to many middle-class Americans; we are wary of projects designed to solve problems in community.  People make time for what they value.  Busy people don’t have a problem getting to their AA group.  But most people don’t think they need community. – p. 191

For those who did embrace the social cure that Willow Creek offered, the rewards have been great.  More self-awareness, a more spiritual life and for some, a closer relationship with God … Asking questions that other people wrestle with but don’t say out loud … Most of us were not looking for anything else to read.  So we thought to ask the question, “How’s your soul?”– p. 192-194

The advantage of Table groups was what happened in between meetings.  Eating together, exercising together, knocking down pieces of fence between backyards.  “If you are doing Table groups right, you don’t have to schedule meetings at all.” – p. 194-195

How does community work to create individual transformation?  One mechanism is openness: with a real community, you can’t fake it … Having a small group around you can also provide the safety necessary to face your problems … Close community also helps hold you accountable.  This last step is perhaps the most difficult to take, and takes “relational equity”, earning the right to be heard. – p. 195-196

Dozens of Table groups, although they were no longer called that, continued to meet four years after their birth.  But for too many of Willow Creek’s members, the Table groups demanded too much, and the experiment ended in 2008.  Randy Frazee moved back to Texas.  He had learned about the need for preparation.  At his new church in San Antonio, he embarked on a two-year plan for teaching the congregation about the biblical mandates for community and the ideas behind the change. – p. 200

At Willow Creek, small groups went through yet another incarnation after Frazee left.  The new model was a bit of a hybrid.  It emphasized affinity groups but also took geography into account. – p. 200

By 2008 the old hallmark of a Willow Creek weekend service – anonymity – was gone.  The speaker asked “people who need hope” to stand, and many did.  Then he asked others to put their hands on the speakers’ shoulders, “so they know they are not alone.”  Again, many did. – p. 203

In 1995 for their 20th anniversary, Willow Creek rented the United Center and held services for 20,000 people.  In 2005, they did their 30th rather differently: sponsoring hundreds of service projects all over the community … Since 2003 Hybels has aggressively sought to move his church to diversity, and today a fifth of the members are not white. – p. 203

“What matters is not what community does for me – it’s what I do for the community,” said Randy Frazee.  “I’m becoming fully devoted, gentle, and generous, for your sake.  Individual transformation is the means.  Community is the end.  The end objective is relationship.”  For Frazee, community was not a means but a value in itself, the highest value. – p. 209

“Individual change turned them outward and produced community, and that was what created more spiritual life.  What brings people closer to God is not any leap in self-understanding, mastery of scripture, or increase in virtue.  It is the conveyance of a Sunday newspaper and coffee to an old woman, the offer of a ride to Walgreens to someone struggling through a snowdrift, the dipping of a brush in blue paint and its careful application to the corner of a house. – p. 210


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