July 22nd, 2011
Last month, David Roberts at Ex-Gay Watched happened to notice that the influential Chicago-area megachurch Willow Creek was no longer listed on Exodus International’s affiliate listing as they had been in the past. Roberts obtained a response from a Willow Creek spokesperson confirming that “After a recent review of our affiliations we determined that, moving into the future, we no longer intend to be affiliated with Exodus International.”
Willow Creek is a very large interdenominational Evangelical church with satellite campuses across the country, and has been called the “most influential church in America.” Christianity Today picked up on the story and spoke with the same Willow Creek spokesperson, Scott Vaudrey, who said that Willow Creek’s decision was not intended as a social or political statement, but resulted from “a season of reviewing and clarifying some of our affiliations with outside organizations.”
Exodus International president Alan Chambers answered Vaudrey’s innocuous framing of their decision with his own combative interpretation of Willow Creek’s decision:
“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.”
Chambers said he sympathizes with Christian organizations that deal with social, political, and financial backlash, but added, “Biblical truth is unpopular, and when you’re supporting unpopular truth, you are unpopular too; which means, some days, getting upwards of 10,000 phone calls and emails, and it can be overwhelming.”
He later added:
“I really do think decisions like this, ultimately, highlight a reticence in the church to stand up for biblical truth, and they’re coming at a time when we’re going to have to stand up for what we believe. I think there’s a way to stand up. We have to find that way.”
Willow Creek however denies that their theological position on homosexuality has changed. Christianity Today’s article cites Susan DeLay, Willow Creek’s director of media relations, in saying that the church hasn’t not “become less welcoming to people with same-sex attractions or more averse to big problems.” It should be noted that “less welcoming to people with same-sex attractions” is not the same as “less welcoming to gay people.” The former phrasing refers to those who would be part of an ex-gay ministry, rather than openly gay individuals or families headed by gay couples. DeLay goes on:
“It’s quite the contrary,” she said. “Willow Creek has a whole host of ministries for people dealing with these issues, and we would never intend for them to feel sidelined. All we’ve changed is how we’ve gone about inviting them into the church, which is the primary issue here.”
It remains unclear how Willow Creek would respond if a group of LGBT parishioners wanted to form a study group or start a PFLAG sponsorship. DeLay’s referencing those who are “dealing with these isssues,” does not suggest that an acceptable way of dealing would be to embrace one’s God-given gifts.
What actually appears to be happening is that Willow Creek may be trying to “thread the needle.” On the one hand, they want to be clear that they are still an ex-gay-welcoming church and they aren’t about to define themselves as a gay-welcoming church. But they don’t want the to erect obvious barriers to gay people walking through its doors. Mark Yarhouse, whose own studies have demonstrated the ineffectiveness of ex-gay ministries in changing sexual orientation, believes that churches like Willow Creek are beginning to notice that Exodus International and the ex-gay movement has become a significant and growing barrier:
Churches are realizing that while there is a small contingent of the gay community responding to language like ‘freedom from homosexuality’ or ‘freedom is possible,’ the vast majority strongly disagree. They’re angry and they believe it’s impossible to change, and to hear this is so offensive that they will have nothing to do with Christians. So I think churches, in response to that vast majority who say, ‘We’re not interested,’ have decided to look at other approaches in an attempt to connect with the gay community on at least some level. That doesn’t mean that churches disagree with the language of ‘freedom from homosexuality’ doctrinally; they’ve just found that it doesn’t work on a social level.”
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