Soulforce, Willow Creek, and Me – by Julie Nemecek

Evangelical Christians have to be one of the mainline groups in America who frequently show their disapproval of any lifestyle or marriage other than that of being between one man and one woman.  I happened to read an article yesterday about a group of Gay and Trans Christians who are trying to build bridges into the Evangelical Christian community.  Perhaps reaching BACK and extending the hand of love towards Christians is a good idea.  I guess you won’t know until you try.  As long as they don’t break out with the stakes and gasoline.

The following commentary was reprinted with permission by Julie Nemecek, the founder of Julie Nemecek Consulting, a full-service consulting firm specializing in diversity consulting, training, and advocacy.     You can learn more about her from her main blog at http://julienemecek.blogspot.com/ and her web site at http://julienemecek.com .

Soulforce, Willow Creek, and Me

(or why I drove 500 miles this weekend)

This weekend Joanne and I were in Chicago as part of a Soulforce action group. The American Family Outing (see http://soulforce.org/ ) was conceived as the beginnings of a movement to increase the understanding and dialogue between lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Christians and the evangelical church. Six key churches were selected for visits between Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day. Once the date for the visit was set letters and phone calls went out in an effort to get a face-to-face meeting with the Soulforce group and the senior pastor and as many staff members as possible. The church that our Soulforce group visited was Willow Creek Church near Chicago.

Willow Creek is a 38-year old mega church with an average weekly attendance of over 22,000. The784,490 square foot building is beautifully sited on a 155 acre site, including a 5-acre lake that is used for some baptisms. (Winter baptisms happen in a large, glass, hover-craft baptismal platform that floats on air as it is moved out to the platform.) The church has 350 full-time employees, 150 part-time staffers, and 12,500 regularly serving volunteers. Their weekly budget is $550,000.

On Saturday our group met at a community center in the Boystown area of Chicago (just north of Wrigley Field). Our 29 members included two sets of parents with their adult gay sons and one set of parents who lost their daughter to suicide (as told in the award-winning documentary For the Bible Tells Me So). There was a gay couple with their three kids, a lesbian couple with their son, and a lesbian couple with their service dog, Riley. There was a straight ally (the son of evangelists Jim and Tammy Baker), a number of gay or lesbian couples and us . . . the transgender couple. There were five ordained ministers in the group, 2 PhDs and a mix of ages and sexes. Two couples have June 17th weddings planned!

We reviewed the non- violent, reconciliation principles of Jesus, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King, Jr, that define Soulforce’s approach. We shared our own stories and heard from former members of Willow Creek Church. We watched a 2006 teaching session by one of Willow Creek’s pastors. The Willow Creek teaching session was filled with much misinformation and false teaching. It helped us focus on our goals for the next day.

There was a gentle, wounded, but positive spirit among this group of Christians that came from all over the country to be together for this weekend. We clearly sensed the presence of Christ in our midst as we prayed together and heard more about each others’ faith journeys. Our four hours together helped make this diverse group a people a cohesive Body of Christ.

On Sunday we arrived at Willow Creek at 10 AM for a tour (at Willow Creek’s invitation). There were some non-Willow Creek protestors near the campus entrance proclaiming their “Christian” certainty of our destination in hell. Most of the group had a white top and we all wore name tags indentifying us as part of the American Family Outing. With the white shirts; nametags; presence of our mascot, Riley; and loving couples holding hands as we walked, we turned a few heads as we toured the massive, high-tech, church village.

At 11:15 AM we were ushered to reserved seats near the center front of the mezzanine section. The rock-star like stage had a 17-member worship team that led us into a meaningful time of worship. They had a VERY adequate sound system. The speaker for the day was a guest mega church pastor from Cincinnati. He had a powerful message about the importance of serving others as a way of expressing Jesus’ love. We wondered if this including LGBT “others” as well. The guest pastor referred to Willow Creek as “the most influential church in America” in part because of their regional churches and the many churches that are part of the Willow Creek Association.

After the service we were led to a private meeting room where we ate together (wonderful boxed lunches provided by the church) and talked casually around tables arranged in one large, open-in-the-middle, rectangle. There were 29 of us allowed at that meeting and 5 people from Willow Creek including their founding (and current) pastor, Bill Hybels.

Both sides shared their issues and concerns in a very gracious dialogue. The Willow Creek staff seemed genuinely taken back that our emphasis was on committed, monogamous, loving relationships and families . . . not sex. One of our group members said, “We’re just like everyone else; too busy with our lives to have much time for sex!” Pastor Hybels also responded in disbelief on hearing that many gay and lesbian Christians are being told to marry heterosexually if they expect to be part of a church. One of team members is a survivor of “ex-gay” therapy. He went through $35,000 of therapy – including electroshock treatments – before he came to reject this hateful treatment and accept the truth at God made him as he is and the problems people had with this were their problems and not his. He now works with thousands of others who suffered ineffective – often harmful – indignations because they wanted to be welcome in unwelcoming churches.

For our part, we were surprised and pleased that Willow Creek’s own 30-year study of homosexuality has led them to conclude that: (1) Sexual orientation is unchangeable. and (2) Sexual orientation should not keep someone from being received into their church. They acknowledged that 6 of the 7 verses used to condemn homosexuality are irrelevant; really referring to other things. Unfortunately, they still felt that one Genesis text supported their position that gay and lesbian members must commit to celibacy to become members. We told them how this perspective has caused many in their congregation, because of their love for Willow Creek, to live lives of deception and secrecy in order to be accepted and still enjoy sexual expression in their committed relationships.

As we looked for action steps at the end of over 2-hour meeting, we agreed to continue the dialogue. Bill Hybels also indicated that their church will continue to study to subject and that he would begin to speak out against the misinformation that some Christian groups publish. We then, stood, held hands, and prayed together.

Please pray that God will use these visits for His glory and the healing of the Body of Christ.

Blessings,
Julie

Advertisements

One Response

  1. Dear Julie,

    As a member of an ONA team for the First Congregational Church in Battle Creek, MI, I had the honor tonight to hear your spouse, Joanne, talk about your (and her) journey in recognizing your transgender status. I was very impressed and touched by the experiences you’ve had during this difficult, yet inspiring period of time. I wish you well and pray that our ONA team can lead our congregation forward in welcoming and loving anyone who wishes to worship with us.

    Sincerely,
    Cheryl H.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: