Megachurch Ups Evangelical Compassion to Unprecedented Levels

God is calling Christians to unprecedented levels of compassion for the broken world at one of the nation's largest megachurches.

Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., has been actively living out the Good Samaritan story in recent years, flooding aid to hurricane victims along the Gulf Coast, to HIV/AIDS affected areas in Africa, and to impoverished neighborhoods in Chicago. For the next four years, the megachurch is taking compassion up a higher notch.

"I think one of the emerging strengths of Willow is compassion," Mike Breaux, teaching pastor at Willow, told congregants on Sunday. "I see the heart of Willow expanding toward the poor, the marginalized, and social injustice. And people are loving neighbors; people are actually getting to know their neighbors; people are expanding their view of who their neighbor is.

"The generosity of this church is starting to flow like a river."

Churches like Willow Creek are paving the way toward increased activism around such humanitarian causes as HIV/AIDS, poverty and Darfur. Bill Hybels, founder and senior pastor of Willow Creek, never thought he'd see the level of activism and engagement with the needs of society that he's recently been seeing in the churches, he said in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times the year Katrina made landfall (2005). And churches would have been asleep to these issues over a decade ago, he added. He predicted then, in an interview with Newsweek in 2005, that community engagement will rise to a higher level than it has in the past.

Today, the evangelical Christian movement sees a new generation of leaders such as Hybels and megapastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Community Church in Lake Forest, Calif., shifting the focus and influence of the church from more conservative issues like abortion to causes like AIDS, social injustice and climate change.

The shift was highlighted by the recent death of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, one of the nation's pre-eminent leaders in the Christian right who actively spoke out against abortion and same-sex "marriage."

While abortion will continue to be a "unifying factor among evangelicals," the Rev. Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, told The New York Times, a significant number of evangelical churches will be stepping up their Good Samaritan action.

Willow Creek recently announced a churchwide vision to unleash "unprecedented levels of compassion" to the world, strengthening an area that has already become one of the driving forces of the Chicago-area church.

"We dream about what could happen if compassion for our broken world were not just one of the many things we do at Willow, but if it were one of the top three things we did," said Lead Pastor Gene Appel.

Willow currently has 45 suburban partners across the Chicagoland area and partner churches around the world, including Latin America. The upped effort – part of the threefold Vision 2010 – will develop over the next four years throughout Chicago and around the world as they preach "go and be" moreso than "come and see" at Willow.

"We feel like God is saying 'Go,'" said Breaux.

"If you would just get outwardly focused ... love those people I (God) love ... that's when your level of intimacy is going to rise with me in a way that it never has before. That's true religion," he said.

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