Willow Creek Community Church is asking Christ followers to make some new Christmas traditions this year.
Beyond gift exchanges, family portraits and Christmas carols, the South Barrington, Ill., megachurch proposes serving the impoverished, visiting the lonely, and caring for the stranger to make it a more "just" Christmas.
"Just Christmas" is the title of the prominent church's latest sermon series. The more than 22,000 attendees are being asked to look at their city and see how things can be made right so the love of Christ shines through.
Among the initiatives led by the church this season is a coat drive. Thousands of new coats are being collected to help children in Chicago stay warm this winter. Coats are being distributed through Willow Creek's care center and partners to families struggling with poverty.
"Christ followers have always had sensitivities to people who live in the valleys of lack and need and not enough resources," said senior pastor Bill Hybels. "If you're a Christ follower, you have the heart of Christ whose heart broke for people who spend their lives in the valleys of disappointment, lack ... [and] loneliness."
In addition to helping the needy, Willow Creek will for the first time hold a Christmas service entirely in Spanish to reach out to immigrants.
In the Old Testament, Hybels explained, God would say never forget the fatherless or the widows. But God didn't stop there, he said. "I want you to care for the strangers within your gates."
"Don't ask them how they got here. Just take care of them like you do the fatherless [and] the widows," Hybels told Willow Creekers. "You love them all and you do your best to take care of them."
The Spanish service, on Dec. 22, is one of 11 Christmas services being held at the megachurch.
"I think valley people are going to be lifted up and receive some hope this Christmas," he said.
Preaching from a passage in the Gospel of Luke, Hybels also relayed a message from John the Baptist to the "mountain and hill" people, or the affluent and comfortable.
"God can bring mountain people low," he said, to see the ugliness of self sufficiency and pride.
"Humble yourself," the senior pastor preached. Then maybe they'll be able to hear the cries of the people in the valley, he added.
Willow Creek's Compassionate and Justice Christmas initiative includes a Year End fund, which supports the fight against global poverty and AIDS, provides resources for the church's care center, and makes leadership training available to pastors in nearly 60 countries around the world.
"I know that it has been a tough economic year for most of us, but what better time to show the depth of our love and commitment to Christ and others than when we have to dig a little deeper to do it," Hybels said in an e-mail blast.
Willow Creek's Christmas services began Friday and will continue through Thursday, Christmas Eve.