Thursday, December 15, 2005

Gatekeepers Pastors Share Christmas Pulpit

By CATHLEEN FALSANI, Chiacgo Sun-Times Religion Reporter

Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington may be closed on Dec. 25, but the megachurch's pastor has decided to preach on Christmas morning anyway.

Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek, the largest predominantly white church in the Chicago area, will share preaching duties with the Rev. James Meeks in the pulpit of his Salem Baptist Church, the area's largest predominantly black congregation.

Late last week, at a meeting with a small group of other leading Chicago area ministers, Meeks invited Hybels to spend Christmas at Salem after Hybels talked about the controversy that has arisen (mostly in the media) over the decision by Willow and a number of other megachurches across the country not to hold services on Christmas Day, which this year falls on a Sunday.

"We were all making announcements and Bill said how Willow will be closed on Christmas Day. Then it was my turn to make an announcement and I said, 'Bill Hybels will be speaking at Salem on Christmas Day,' and everybody laughed," Meeks said by phone from an airport in Washington, D.C., where he was waiting for a flight back to Chicago. "Later I said, 'Bill, I'm really serious.'"

On Friday afternoon, Hybels, who was at O'Hare Airport waiting for a flight bound for Zambia in Africa, where he will spend this week at an AIDS clinic filming a pre-holiday sermon that will be beamed back to Willow next weekend -- they call it "Christmas on Location" -- e-mailed Meeks at the airport in Washington to say he'd be at Salem Christmas morning, with bells on, as it were.

"I talked with my wife and children about the idea and they loved it!" Hybels wrote in an e-mail to the Sun-Times a few minutes before his flight to Zambia departed. "So, this will be a very memorable season for our family!"

Hybels and Willow's other leaders believe it is better to focus the church's massive staff and volunteer resources on services the week before Christmas, rather than Christmas morning, when many families would rather be at home. It's a matter of being relevant and responsive to society, they say.

Their critics accuse the church of pandering to popular culture and cowing to the secular demands of the holiday.

"They're saying we canceled Christmas," said Cally Parkinson, spokeswoman for Willow, which will hold eight services in the week leading up to Dec. 25 -- including three on Christmas Eve. In all, they are expecting more than 50,000 people to attend, she said.

The last time Christmas fell on a Sunday, in 1994, Willow did have a service, but only 1,500 people came -- less than 10 percent of its normal attendance, she said.

Normal weekly attendance at the megachurch Hybels helped found 30 years ago is about 20,000. Salem draws more than 7,500 worshippers to its sanctuary in Chicago's Roseland neighborhood each week, according to Meeks.

For several years now, Meeks and Hybels have been getting to know each other as colleagues and friends. But they would like their congregations to know one another better as well, to build a bridge between the often segregated white and black evangelical Christian communities. Toward that end, in June, 50 church members -- half from Willow, half from Salem -- spent a week riding a bus through the Deep South visiting historical civil rights-era sites. They called it a "Justice Journey."
====>Click headline to read a report on the Justice Journey

This Christmas morning, as Meeks and Hybels share a pulpit for the first time, will be another step on that journey toward racial reconciliation in the evangelical church, Meeks said.

"To see us come together," Meeks said, "I think it speaks volumes."

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