There's been a lot of talk lately about a suburban church that's closing for Christmas. Its leaders say: folks can be with God, simply by spending time with family. It's a different way to do church, and the focus of Mark's Closer Look.
For thirty years, Willow Creek has offered an alternative to traditional Sunday service. You could say pastor Bill Hybels has supersized salvation, wooing newcomers with a biblical, but purposefully practical approach. Critics from the right, say he's made religion too easy. His response? "Why not?"
Hybels: "Our vision has always been very simple. We've tried to help people who are far from God, find him."
Its Bill Hybels' pursuit of the un-churched, as they're called, that's made Willow Creek a success.
Hybels: "Every day when I drive on this campus, I say 'you've got to be kidding me.' "
The evangelical phenomenon which covers these 150 acres began in a rented movie theater, 30 years ago. One hundred parishioners turned into one thousand. Then ten thousand. Now? Twenty thousand. Every weekend.
Suppelsa: "There's a risk involved with one person being the charismatic leader of a big church."
Hybels: "You certainly can let one voice in a church become so loud that it can become dangerous. That's not happened at Willow. Right now, I'm one of about five teaching pastors."
Hybels had planned to grow up in the family business, selling produce. Instead, he's sold God.
Hybels, preaching: "Our whole broken, sorry world is asking Christian leaders: 'does it have to end like this?' "
Suppelsa: "You're a helluva recruiter and marketer. Right?"
Hybels: "We don't market Jesus Christ."
As Hybels tells it, he wanted to make religion relevant. He wanted a church he could bring his friends to. Willow creek has no stained glass windows. No crucifix. In fact, the song and dance routines seem more Broadway than Bible Belt.
Hybels: "In God's house, I think there should be excellent music, excellent drama. We want people to listen with attentiveness. But it's so that they will come into a relationship with God, through Christ, at some point up the road. So yeah, we make no apologies for putting a lot of effort into our facilities, into our organization, into what we do on the stage."
Suppelsa: "How do you convince people that you're the real deal? That you're not Jim Bakker?"
Hybels: "What I've tried to do at Willow and what we've tried to train pastors around the country and around the world to do is be open. Completely open. With the books, with your schedule, with your salaries. With everything."
Suppelsa: "Churches these days, organizations like yours, are reacting to catastrophes better than FEMA. Quicker than the government. Why is that?"
Hybels: "I am so proud of what's happened, particularly in this last year, and I think the press and some people in Washington are finally getting it. That the local church is one of the most phenomenal humanitarian organizations in the world. They were the first responders in Katrina. Nobody rolled up their sleeves faster."
In a way, Hybels is politely saying what Kanye West said so bluntly: "George Bush doesn't care about black people."
Hybels: "I go to Africa at least once or twice a year and I see a continent ravaged by AIDS. Our defense spending, our space spending, a lot of what we're spending our money on, I think, would be better invested in human lives. I'm not trying to be critical of an administration, I'm just saying that Jesus taught 'Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.' What you care about, you fund."
If you're surprised to hear an evangelical minister taking the White House to task, you don't know Bill Hybels.
Hybels, preaching: "What would happen if all of us in church leadership let go of pride and fear and the need to please and the need to control, because the cause is too important for us to mess with that garbage?"
Though staunchly pro-life, Hybels says America's faithful are spending too much time fighting over abortion and gay priests. He says people just want hope and meaning from the church.
Hybels: "Twenty-five years ago, people came in and they wanted to argue about the facts related to religion. They're like: 'You prove to me the Bible's true.' People who tend to come in our doors these days, they want to know 'How does it affect my life?' and 'What can it do for our broken world?' "
Ever the entrepreneur, Hybels makes no apologies for his tactics. Like taking surveys for sermons: literally, telling people what they want to hear. Or hiring an MBA to run the church's business. He says the Bible commands him to spread the word and he's doing it, best he can.
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