Willow Creek, Homosexuality, and the Future of Evangelical Response

Last month, it was reported that Willow Creek Church ended its decade-long relationship with Exodus International. Christianity Today reported:

Willow Creek Community Church's formal relationship with Exodus International has ended.

While the decision to part ways dates back to 2009, news that the South Barrington megachurch had cut ties with Exodus, the world's largest ministry addressing homosexuality, did not surface until late June.

Scott Vaudrey of the elder response team said in writing that Willow Creek's decision was not intended as a social or political statement, but rather an indication of "a season of reviewing and clarifying some of our affiliations with outside organizations."

Alan Chambers, president of Exodus, disagrees. "The choice to end our partnership is definitely something that shines a light on a disappointing trend within parts of the Christian community," he said, "which is that there are Christians who believe like one another who aren't willing to stand with one another, simply because they're afraid of the backlash people will direct their way if they are seen with somebody who might not be politically correct."

Yet, such a "split" does not seem to placate some.

This week, Willow Creek is hosting its well-attended Leadership Summit. Bill Hybels has a history of inviting diverse speakers from within and from outside of the Christian community. In this case, one of those invited has withdrawn from the venue-- and it is all over the news.

The issue started with an online petition was posted to demand that Starbucks Chairman and CEO, Howard Schultz withdraw from speaking at the Willow Creek Leadership Summit due to the church's "history [of] anti-gay persecution." The petition stated:

The church that is sponsoring the event on August 11th and 12th has a long history anti-gay persecution. For decades the church was a member of Exodus International, the organization that seeks to cure homosexuality through dangerous conversion therapy. The church split ways with the group, but in doing so stated that it wasn't a change in belief but a change in focus. The church also has their own "outreach" programs to the LGBT community to spread their anti-lgbt message.

The Chicago Tribune reports the connection to Starbuck's CEO Schultz:

This week, the founder of the coffee company on virtually every corner backed out of an appearance at Willow Creek Community Church, an evangelical mega-church in South Barrington. Starbucks isn't saying why, but... speculation points to an online petition urging Schultz to denounce the church's views on homosexuality before he spoke.

Bill Hybels ended that speculation and mentioned the connection in his comments, and was (as he always is) very gracious. You may want to watch his comments here.

Moments like this elevate the issue and create important discussions. The issue of homosexuality will need to be increasingly addressed-- and addressed graciously-- in the Christian community.

Andrew Marin tweeted that he was attending the Willow Creek as a "special guest of Willow Creek re: Starbucks CEO cancellation." Andrew's book, Love is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community, seeks to help Christians engage in grace-filled conversations. I believe it has won awards because so many are asking how best to engage in a conversation when so many have failed in the past.

Much could be said here, but let me briefly suggest five principles to consider about the issue of homosexuality and evangelical churches:
1.The issue is not going away and you cannot ignore it or seek to downplay your views.
2.The culture sees this as a "justice" issue-- Christians discriminating on the basis of immutable characteristics.
3.Though it is easy to make the case (in the church) that homosexual practice is incompatible with scripture, it will be exceedingly difficult case to make in today's culture.
4.Building bridges and showing grace and love is needed, lacking, and essential when dealing with people with different views and values.
5.At the end of the day, all evangelicals (including centrist evangelicals like those at Willow Creek) will still have to deal with an issue that the world perceives as narrow and bigoted.

Pray for Willow as they are in the media this week-- that they will make much of Jesus, will continue to stay true to the scriptures, and will show grace in the process.

How do you deal with this issue?

Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is President of LifeWay Research and LifeWay’s Missiologist in Residence. Adapted from Ed Stetzer's weblog at

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