LGBT Christians ask megachurch Willow Creek to include their families.
Willow Creek Community Church isn’t like the austere places of worship that many of us attended in our youth. Families don’t huddle together in pews on a hot Sunday morning while a robed man of faith reads from the good book. On the contrary, Willow Creek, located in suburban South Barrington, is big and boisterous. Its 20,000-plus members fill the stadium seats even on a Saturday night. Sermons are witty and engaging and pale only in comparison to the theatrical elements of the evening—productions so lavish and well executed that they make some of Chicago’s theater performances look like cheap dime-store theatrics. Most noticeably, there’s not a cross in sight. In short, it’s a fun place to worship God.
But at Willow Creek and other megachurches across the country, homosexuality is still a sin and LGBT families still find themselves left out of the fold. According to Pastor Kevin L. Downer, who leads the year-old AChurch4Me at the Center on Halsted (a ministry of the gay-founded Metropolitan Community Church), Willow Creek still practices religious-based homophobia. “I know that they have what we would term an ex-gay ministry,” he says. “We do know of a number of LGBT people…who are challenged by the theology which basically says if you want to become a member of this church, if you want to have a leadership position, then you need to leave the lifestyle.”
But Downer aims to make that part of the past. This weekend he and 10 LGBT families will take part in American Family Outing, a historic dialogue between the gay community and Christian leaders that has been taking place nationwide since Mother’s Day and includes megachurches like Saddleback in Lake Forest, California, and Lakewood in Houston. The project is a joint effort between the MCC; the National Black Justice Coalition; Soulforce, which advocates religious and political freedom for gays through nonviolent action; and Collage, which represents children in LGBT families.
The event at Willow Creek will include a Sunday-morning worship service followed by a discussion with some of its congregants and senior pastor and founder Bill Hybels. Downer says he’s excited for a chance to bridge differences. “I believe too long we within our culture, our society and quite frankly our church have been talking against each other, about each other, over each other and at each other,” he says. “It’s about time we actually sat down and talked with one another.”
Assisting him and the families will be an unlikely ally, Jay Bakker. Bakker leads the New York–based Revolution Church and happens to be the offspring of televangelist Jim Bakker and the late Tammy Faye Messner. Bakker is straight, but Downer points to common threads. “He relates to the oppression that many LGBT people feel from the Christian church,” Downer says. “It goes back to when he was a youth and the revelations came out about his parents and how quickly those people who were their close friends turned their back on him and his family.”
Bakker was able to snag a Mother’s Day meeting with Lakewood’s pastor, Joel Osteen; afterward, Soulforce’s website quoted Bakker as saying the church is not ready for an open dialogue with LGBT families. Willow Creek, however, is. “Everybody is welcome to a service regardless of who they are,” says media relations manager Susan DeLay. “We will probably find some areas of commonality and some areas where we disagree.”
Downer intends to point out that relationships condemned in the Bible aren’t reflective of the same-sex pairings of today and that Scriptures are actually supportive of nontraditional families. But he admits, God’s love may not be the real hindrance. “The question about justice for LGBT families is being held back on ‘theological grounds,’ ” he says. “The reality is it’s more about politics. LGBT people for the foreseeable future will from time to time be convenient scapegoats to achieve whatever people want.”
But the aim for this mission, Downer says, is simple: “Our primary goal is to just engage in dialogue and let God lead where God leads.”
For more information visit soulforce.org.