Bill Hybels. If you’ve never heard of him then there probably is little point reading on. If you are from an Evangelical, Pentecostal or Charismatic background then you’ve probably already heard the allegations.
‘Willow Creek elders to renew Hybels investigation after more women come forward’ [Christian Today]
‘Megachurch pastor Bill Hybels resigns from Willow Creek after women allege misconduct’ [Washington Post]
‘Pastor Bill Hybels Steps Down From Willow Creek Megachurch Following Misconduct Allegations’ [Time]
‘Two publishers suspend publication of books by megachurch pastor Hybels in wake of misconduct allegations’ [Chicago Tribune]
‘Megachurch pastor Bill Hybels resigns, calls sexual accusations “flat-out lies”’ [USA Today]
It was 1986 when I first heard of Bill Hybels’s Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. I was attending an conference with 7,000 other evangelists in Amsterdam, put on by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. A church for the unchurched was the phrased used. A church where people were not ‘sinners’ or the ‘unconverted’ they were ‘seekers’. A church devoted to the needs of the ‘seeker’; ashtrays in the foyer being just one example (it was the 80s). A church that, when the offering was taken up, an announcement was always made, ‘If you are visiting Willow Creek today please don’t give. You are our guest.’ Everything I heard was radical and aligned with my own evolving thoughts on evangelism. As an Australian itinerant evangelist I was a theorist who could only preach challenging, radical concepts but Willow Creek, founded by Bill Hybels, was making it reality.
In 1988 I went to Chicago to explore further and attended Willow Creek’s annual conference as well as spending several days with staff in the church. Thirty years later, I still remember the message Bill preached the first night of the conference. It was powerful, practical and relevant. It was about life balance/management and a concept he’d developed when he’d burnt-out in ministry. He used the analogy of three dials in life we need to monitor; our physical, spiritual and emotional gauges. Since that time I have constantly used that understanding personally and shared it with others.
Seeing that Australian churches could learn a lot from Bill and Willow Creek I organized a church study tour and took a group of ministers to the US and attended the Willow Creek annual conference in 1990. I introduced Bill’s ministry to the Assemblies of God which was very radical at that time; a non-Pentecostal telling Pentecostals how to grow their churches. Bill was planning conferences in Sydney and Brisbane the following year and had invited me to be one of the speakers. Everything was looking very promising.
Then the shit hit the fan and I had my own integrity crisis and resigned from the ministry.
I remember Bill called me from Chicago at this time to offer some caring words of support and encouragement. He was non-condemning but I couldn’t tell him that my moral fall was because I was a homosexual. I was too devastated and probably made little sense during that conversation. But he’d called and I was grateful he cared enough to reach out. So many of my pastor friends had abandoned me and never spoke to me again. Their silence and abandonment was another painful load to carry.
Two years after my autobiography was released I saw that Bill was headlined to speak at the 2006 Hillsong conference so I made contact again and hoped to have a conversation about the ’gay issue’. Just the month before Willow Creek had ceased supporting Exodus International. I smelt change in the air and wanted to see where Bill was at on that journey and if he might help Hillsong along the way. Through his PA, Bill said he’d like to meet up at the Hillsong conference after the service. Knowing it would be challenging to actually see Bill at a conference of 20,000 people and security that surrounds celebrity preachers these days I went out to the Homebush arena anyway.
Once again, I can recall the message he preached that night. It was about how he’d been away on holidays and during that time had ‘a serendipitous collision of circumstances’ that connected him with a Muslim African-American man who rejected Christianity for a period of time because of the appalling prejudice and rejection he experienced in a church – eventually leading him to become a Muslim instead. His conversation and connection had challenged so many of Bill’s preconceived beliefs and he had learnt to be non-judgmental and just show unconditional love. It was a powerful message and one I could have preached myself. It gave me hope. Had the lesson learnt with the black Muslim man now impacted his understanding of gays as well.
After the service, I went over to the hotel next to the stadium where I saw Bill in the foyer and ran over expecting to organise a time for a conversation. Standing by the lift, I reached out my hand. ‘Hi Bill, it’s Anthony Venn-Brown. It’s so good to see you again.’
The lift doors opened and he couldn’t get away quick enough.
I stood there alone and shocked at the coldness of that brief encounter. Once again rejected by my peers. Words I’d heard only minutes before were now hollow and meaningless. It was a painful experience and came flooding back as I read the headlines of his scandal this week. Headlines that triggered many memories.
I feel sad.
I feel sad for Bill’s wife, Lynne.
I feel sad for their children who will also carry the shame.
I feel sad for the congregation and the painful process that lies ahead resolving this.
I feel sad that the megachurches have created some sort of celebrityism, so far removed from the Jesus we read of in the gospels.
I feel sad for the women involved and what this scandal will do to them.
I feel sad that so many people in the church find a person’s humanity so hard to deal with.
I feel sad that a preacher can say one thing with passion and conviction, then moments later do the opposite.
I feel sad that I can’t reciprocate with a call to Bill in his moment of crisis.
I feel sad that these memories remind me that so little progress about LGBT people has been made in Evangelical and Pentecostal churches and those that have stayed are treated as second class citizens.
I feel sad that so many preachers and church leaders are scared to even have a conversation about the ‘gay issue’.
I feel sad for the preachers I know who are gay and are still lying to themselves and their wives about who they really are.
I feel sad that so many church leaders will never know the freedom of an authentic life.