Can Megachurches Bridge the Racial Divide?

Sunday morning remains the most segregated time in America. How some Evangelicals are bridging the divide

  • Share
  • Read Later
Matthew Gilson for TIME

At Willow Creek, people of different ethnicities worship together

(2 of 5)

Call it the desegregation of the megachurches — and consider it a possible pivotal moment in the nation's faith. Such rapid change in such big institutions "blows my mind," says Emerson. Some of the country's largest churches are involved: the very biggest, Joel Osteen's Lakewood Community Church in Houston (43,500 members), is split evenly among blacks, Hispanics and a category containing whites and Asians. Hybels' Willow Creek is at 20% minority. Megachurches serve only 7% of American churchgoers, but they are extraordinarily influential: Willow Creek, for instance, networks another 12,000 smaller congregations through its Willow Creek Association. David Campbell, a political scientist at Notre Dame studying the trend, says that "if tens of millions of Americans start sharing faith across racial boundaries, it could be one of the final steps transcending race as our great divider" — and it could help smooth America's transition into a truly rainbow nation.

Hybels and his Willow Creek church are already headed down that path. Though Willow is not the most advanced example of multiracial church, it makes an excellent window into the new desegregation because of its size, its influence and the ferocious purposefulness with which Hybels has deconstructed his all-white institution. Willow may also be emblematic in that Hybels appears to have stopped short of creating a fully color-blind church. His efforts illustrate both the possibilities and the challenges that smaller churches may face as they attempt to move beyond black and white.

The Making of a (White) Megachurch
Willow Creek Community Church's main complex, in South Barrington, does not tower so much as sprawl: eight low-slung buildings, landscaped on a swampy and thus underdeveloped grassland amid Chicago's bustling, affluent northwest suburbs. As the church has grown — especially with the 2004 completion of a new sanctuary building with an escalator and interior waterfall — it has become more self-consciously handsome. But like Hybels himself, it abandons pious overstatement for corporate efficiency: church as conceived by Jack Welch.

Willow Creek is a paradigmatic religious success story. In 1974, Hybels was a youth pastor whose meetings outdrew the church he worked for by a factor of three. In '75, he and several friends founded Willow, aiming at people with little Christian affiliation, informally dubbed "unchurched Harry and Mary." The congregation boomed — the word megachurch was reputedly coined to describe it — and Hybels became the poster boy for the new movement of exurban big-box churches.

Yet Harry and Mary were white: Willow attracted almost nobody of color. The gurus of the megachurch explosion were church-growth consultants, who endorsed the "homogeneous unit principle": people like to worship with people who are similar to them — in age, wealth and race. Hybels, while denying intentional exclusivity, says that "in the early days, we were all young, white, affluent, college-educated suburbanites, and we all understood each other. When we reached out to our friends, it became self-reinforcing."

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5