Willow Creek Threads the Needle Between Ex-Gay Movement And Pro-Gay Acceptance

Jim Burroway

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.”

Ben In Oakland

July 22nd, 2011

Maybe I’m just being cynical, but does “follow the money”, followed by “don’t make waves if you want to follow the money” ring a bell?

It probably wouldn’t do to wonder that they might be re-thinking a blatantly stupid postion, or that shame could do what irony can’t.

Priya Lynn

July 22nd, 2011

To me its just more of the standard dishonest christian ploy – hide the unsavoury part of your beliefs, coax them in the door, befriend them and then gradually push the anti-gay stuff on them after you’ve got them hooked on your ‘love’.

Jonathan Justice

July 22nd, 2011

While we are at it, let’s not let Yarhouse walk away with the nonsense of pretending that churches and denominations that do welcome the gift of LGBT-positive faith are somehow beyond the Pale.

There is also more than a little to the consideration that Exodus has developed something of a reputation for lying in public, as opposed to lying in private. If one wishes to do the latter, there is something of a need to avoid association with those who do the former. One might understand Willow Creek’s stance, as it works to build up its Non-Denomination/brand, in that light.


July 22nd, 2011

“…they’ve just found that it doesn’t work on a social level.”

Sorry if I sound cynical, but maybe that should read “it doesn’t work on a PR level.”

I suspect that cultural warfare has not only lost its luster, but the tacky parts are showing and people and organizations more sensitive to their public image across a wider spectrum of the populace are less willing to be allied with those on the fringes.

At least, openly.


July 22nd, 2011

The real shame and the real offense here isn’t Willow Creeks position on gay people but rather the fact that gay people will flock to this church NO MATTER WHAT they’re position on gay people is. Rabidly gay churches across the country have pews packed with gay people, and not just gay people looking to be “ex-gay”, but supposedly out and proud gay people.

I can’t think of another oppressed minority in the world who, to such a great extent, promotes, defends, finances, props up and pacifies their mortal enemies, and willingly and passionately participates in their own persecution, the way gay people do.

I’m really surprised that any church is in the slightest concerned with how anti-gay it looks. There will always be a gay in the pew willing to do PR for them.


July 22nd, 2011

A lifelong friend (like since we were in grade school) is a member of WC church. Their theology remains very conservative, so I would not read too much into this. Ex-gays have aligned themselves too closely with the hard-core anti-gay movement for WC’s comfort. It’s just a way of APPEARING less intolerant.

As an aside, another friend lives about 1/4 of a mile from WC’s main campus. Her 82 year old mother refers to it as “Disneychurch.”

Regan DuCasse

July 22nd, 2011

“Biblical truth is unpopular, and when you’re supporting unpopular truth, you’re unpopular too.”

Is it just me, or is this amazingly whiny and weak?

Being hypocritical is unpopular. Passing off abuse, stereotypes and unfair treatment as love or necessary is unpopular. And so is being selective in how you apply those ‘Biblical truths’ and forcing others to live by them.
THAT is what’s unpopular and should be.
The Bible itself is hardly unpopular. But in the hands of assholes, that can certainly be turned around.

Feel me?

Timothy Kincaid

July 22nd, 2011

My perspective:

I believe that those who teach that homosexuality, in and of itself, is sinful are in error as well as those who teach that homosexual behavior in all instances and contexts is incompatible with Christian faith.

And I believe that teaching that homosexual people are sinning can do emotional harm to gays and can influence culture in negative ways. And I believe that protestations of “love for the homosexual” need to be evidenced by I Corinthians 13.

HOWEVER – It is much much (much) better than preaching that gay people are minions of Satan who seek to destroy Western Society out of the degenerate perversity and that 1) the removal from the DSM was political correctness, 2) Lawrence v. Texas was a slap in the face of God, and 3) it is a Christian’s duty to oppose anything that makes a gay person’s life in any way better and support anything and everything that harms gay people and the Kingdom of Satan that they represent (unless they become heterosexual through the healing power of Jesus Christ, which anyone can do if they really want to).

So when a church says, “Ya know, we don’t want to have anything to do with the nastiness and hatefulness and impossible goals and crazy political vengeance anymore so we’re dropping anyone who is seen as representing that approach”, we can say:

1. Well that’s progress, or
2. But you still think I’m a sinner

Both are true. But there may be some advantage to differentiating between those who think I’m a sinner and those who spew lies about dying 20 years younger. And perhaps responding to positive change with encouragement will lead to more positive change.

I’m always happy when someone stops treating me badly, even if they still think I’m a sinner. In fact, sometimes just getting them to stop annoying me is enough and I don’t have to care what they think.


July 22nd, 2011

Tim, it’s a marketplace of ideas – and tithes. Some churches are more in tune to that fact than others. This one happens to be very in tune to it, but they try to serve two masters: their theology and their marketability to their mainstream, which in this case is a fairly well educated suburban crowd in a pretty liberal metropolitan area, who don’t want to be involved in “culture wars” and who like to put in their “Jesus time” on Sundays and go home to a family barbecue or a trip to Target. I don’t have any stats to back it up, but my guess is that the length of membership averages less than 10 years.

White megachurches here in the Chicago area are a rarity and have little history. WC is unique in that respect, but it’s influence is minimal, as its members tend not to be political – again because it would negatively impact the church’s ability to gather tithes.

Paul J. Stein

July 23rd, 2011

Wouldn’t it seen to reason that a “mega-church” by virtue of sheer size of congregation would have a lot more members who have family members,friends,acquaintances, co-workers who are LGBT ? And telling them that their extended family and friends are less than acceptable would reflect on their personal ability to choose well and be good “CHRISTIANS”. That will impact the cohesiveness of the congregation and the cash flow.

Timothy Kincaid

July 23rd, 2011


I’m seeing what you are seeing but through a different lens.

It isn’t often that money drives theology (outside of televangelism). Generally a successful pastor thinks he’s on the right track.

But your comments about not being political are probable quite relevant. Willow Creek’s decision to dump Exodus is probably consistent with their overall goal of leaving the divisive stuff to the politicians and focus on the commonly shared beliefs. And, as gay people have now become part of the social atmosphere even for theologically conservative Christians, reorientation may have finally become something that is divisive.

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