Can Megachurches Bridge the Racial Divide?

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

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Matthew Gilson for TIME

At Willow Creek, people of different ethnicities worship together

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In 1999, however, that changed. Hybels was leaving on vacation when Willow's only African-American pastor, Alvin Bibbs, passed him a book titled Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, by a then obscure academic named Michael Emerson. The book's polls showed that Evangelicals tended to "believe that their faith ought to be a powerful impetus for bringing people together across race." Yet they had fewer minority acquaintances than non-Evangelicals. Most regarded racial inequality as either illusory or the wages of personal sin, rather than as a societal flaw. This and other buried assumptions created church climates that unofficially discouraged minority participation. Far from reconciling the races, Emerson concluded, Evangelicalism acted to "drive them apart [and] contribute to the racial fragmentation of American society."

Hybels, a former chaplain for the Chicago Bears with many black friends, says, "I thought I was gonna faint." He was stunned to realize that racism is "not just an individual issue but a justice issue" with "structural and [systemic] aspects" violating dozens of biblical admonitions. "I went from thinking 'I don't have a race problem' to 'There is a huge problem in our world that I need to be part of resolving.'"

The catch was that "I hadn't [preached] about it in 24 years." So he promised his congregation, "I'm not going to overwhelm you." Yet he persisted, sermonizing repeatedly about America's racial history and continuing inequities. He pledged to open Willow to every ethnicity. In 2003, he recalls, he threw down the gauntlet, telling his flock that the church's racial outreach was "part of who we are, and if it can't be part of who you are, you probably need to find a church that doesn't talk about this issue."

How Willow Got Religion
Larry Butler first visited Willow Creek in the 1970s and left fast. "I liked the teaching, but I didn't see anybody like me," says Butler, 57, a solidly built, hazel-eyed African-American pharmacist from Oklahoma. "I didn't have any problem with the people, but I didn't know if they had a problem with me. So I thought, 'I'll go elsewhere.' " Other minorities who sampled the church felt similarly uncomfortable. Yet Butler returned to Willow in the early '80s, later inviting his wife Renetta and, as he says, "hoping things would change."

And they did, as Hybels and Bibbs re-engineered the church to match its preaching. They built "Bridging the Racial Divide" gatherings into Willow's massive grid of laity-led "small groups." The meetings were essential, says Renetta, who ended up running five: they were a ground-level "safe haven" where congregants could express and dispel received stereotypes. At the very first, in 2001, a well-meaning white woman kept using the phrase "you people." "Do you people want to be called blacks?" she asked. "Or African Americans? I never know what to call you people." Eventually it became too much, and Larry, along with Renetta and his brother Garnett, explained to the woman and eight other white congregants in the room that "every time you say 'you people,' you're holding us back — it's like we're not included," Renetta said. The woman burst into tears and asked, "Well, what do you like to be called?" Renetta quipped in response, "I personally like to be a brownie with nuts." She says, "It broke the ice."

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