The Father of Willow Creek
by Manea A. Brachear, Tribune Staff Reporter
Rev. Bill Hybels opens his eyes at dawn, rolls out of bed and lands on his knees. For 10 minutes, he says, he kneels in prayer, thanking God.
That one-on-one time came more easily three decades ago, when Hybels was an evangelist working outside the mainstream, launching an experimental ministry called Willow Creek Community Church.
Now Willow Creek is a big part of the mainstream, the South Barrington-based megachurch at the forefront of an international phenomenon counting almost 12,000 congregations.
And Hybels has become a power broker in evangelical Christianity, the CEO of a movement. This year he stepped away from Willow Creek's day-to-day operations to concentrate on expanding the ministry to the unchurched abroad and to broaden its urban, multicultural reach at home."In the early days I was the father, the mother, the uncle, the aunt, the grandmother. I was really the only teacher, the only pastor," he said. "These days ... the church's dependency on me has gone down just exactly the way we planned it."
Last week, the church made headlines in his absence by planning to move its fledgling Chicago congregation into the historic Auditorium Theatre. This week, Hybels will attend Willow's annual leadership summit, where more than 50,000 pastors and key volunteers are expected to attend or tune in via satellite.But Hybels said none of that means much if he can't find the time to cultivate his personal relationship with God, whether it is grabbing 10 minutes first thing in the morning or taking more time away from the 20,000-member church to go to his summer home in Michigan.
"I can't do a gourmet meal if I can't get the time in the kitchen," said Hybels, 54. "If I don't have mechanisms in place to lower my RPMs and help me focus, I'll just hydroplane over things I shouldn't hydroplane over. I'm an activist personality. I like high challenge, high speed, high risk."
Before he escapes for the summer, there is one rite of passage he never misses--the annual baptism in Willow Creek's pond. More than 500 teens and adults wade into the water so that Hybels or another pastor can cradle them in his arms, proclaim their conversion "in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit" and douse them.
In South Haven, Hybels has contemplated his wife's vision of expanding Willow Creek's global outreach. After a trip to Africa, she challenged her husband to respond to the AIDS crisis there by providing medical and hospice care.Hybels has also used the downtime to develop his vision of building a more multicultural church. Last year he and seven pastors from predominantly white, black, Latino and Asian evangelical churches around Chicago began meeting monthly to collaborate on a community service project. And for several summers, he and Rev. James Meeks of Salem Baptist Church in Chicago have marched with others across a bridge in Selma, Ala., to commemorate the civil rights struggle."I am one of those prototypical, white educated folks who wonder why there is still a problem. If the laws have been changed and if everyone is voting and there is equal opportunity, why is there any lingering difficulty?" Hybels admitted to a group of worshipers at the First Baptist Church in Selma.
"As the church started to grow and exposure to the world began to increase, I
began to become more aware of some of the tensions between races."
Part of his response has been the opening of the downtown Chicago branch, one of four Willow Creek satellites. The church also hired a pastor to lead a Spanish worship service.And Hybels insists on casting more minorities in the church's Broadway-style stage productions that have earned national acclaim and often bring worshipers to their feet.
While everyone in the sanctuary sways and waves their arms in praise, Hybels stands, his hands folded behind him, his eyes closed in contemplation. Even if that makes him seem a little out of place in his own church, he figures it might help somebody else in the crowd feel a little more comfortable."I'm not an arm waver and a clapper and a dancer," he said. "Music doesn't do that to me, although it stirs me inside. I think there's a contingent of people at Willow who gain some permission to stay in their true response because they know I do. They're glad I stay true to my wiring. It gives them permission to stay true to theirs."
I've just posted the very beginning and the very end of this article. You can find the rest by clicking on the link in the title.
I wasn't terribly impressed by this article. It seemed meandering to me and, for a bio piece, paints a very vague picture. Now if Cathleen Falsani of the Sun Times sat down to do this job, that would be interesting!