Righting America

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Sitting in the Dark at Willow Creek | Righting America

by Susan Trollinger

The #MeToo movement is beginning to have an impact on American evangelicalism. The most recent example is at the megachurch of megachurches, Willow Creek Community Church, where founder and senior pastor Bill Hybels has been forced to retire early in the wake of allegations by seven women that Hybels has taken advantage of his position to engage in inappropriate behavior.

While Willow Creek now includes eight “regional congregations” in the Chicago area, the original Willow Creek church was founded in 1975, holding services in the Willow Creek Theater in Palatine. Sue was there in the early years of Willow Creek. This is her story.

I was not yet officially a high school student. But in the summer of 1978, I was given special permission to participate in Sun City—the youth ministry run by Willow Creek Church in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. I was so excited. Living in the suburbs (we were really in the exurbs) was tough—especially if you did not yet have your driver’s license. I didn’t. Living in the exurbs without a driver’s license meant spending altogether more time at home with mom and dad than even mom and dad wanted. So, every Thursday night, I very happily went off to Sun City. We’d meet at the Palatine YMCA in the evening, but while the sun was still up. If the weather was good, we’d engage in some competitive outdoor game against another Sun City youth team. We were the Navy team (the teams were identified by colors). And we meant to win. What we were supposed to win, I don’t recall. When the outdoor games were done, we’d all head into the gym at the YMCA. We were all pumped from our outdoor activities. We’d find our seats among the rows and rows of folding chairs with our team and start clapping to the music offered up by the praise band. After a skit, an on-screen cartoon (depicting some valuable biblical lesson), and some more music, we’d settle in for the “message” for the night.

Over the course of the next few years, I became heavily involved in Sun City. I joined the “Core” group of my team, attended weekly Bible studies (in which we memorized Bible verses—for more team points), and enjoyed fellowship with that small group of committed young Christians. Along the way, I became smitten with a young fellow who regularly attended. It was all very good.

Then one fall evening I was taken a bit aback. What unfolded that evening was not what I was used to. I should say that for the folks at Willow Creek, I was considered among the “unchurched.” That is, prior to coming to Willow Creek, I had very little experience within organized religion.  I had been to church now and again when I was small, but by the time I was in first grade, my family had stopped going to church. So, my knowledge of church was quite limited. That’s important because on the night I am describing I experienced something I did not have a word for.

We did the usual—we competed in some game outside and then came into the gym and took our seats. We clapped to the music, sang along with the lyrics projected on the overhead screens, contemplated the cartoon (also projected on the screens), reflected on the drama performed on the elevated stage, and then settled into our folding chairs for the youth pastor’s wisdom.

I no longer recall what the youth pastor said that night. What I do remember is that he brought his message to a close in a most dramatic way. He directed the lighting technicians to turn off the stage lights. So, we were sitting in the dark. And then he asked us all to close our eyes. And then he gave us a task.

We were to look into our hearts and ask ourselves if Jesus had come into our hearts. Had Jesus come to us, he asked? And were we ready to commit ourselves to following him? If Jesus had come and if we were ready to follow him then we were to leave the gymnasium and head out through the doors to a hallway where already-committed Christians were ready to receive us. They would pray with us as we dedicated our lives to Jesus. Until we had that clarity, we were to remain in the gymnasium. In the dark.

I took this challenge very seriously. Not having grown up going to church regularly, I really didn’t have a good idea of what it meant to look into my heart to see if Jesus had come into it. That just didn’t make a lot of sense to me. But the question about whether Jesus had come to me—that made sense. Had Jesus come to me? I thought and I thought and I thought. And as much as I really wanted to say that he had, I couldn’t. I was pretty darn sure that if Jesus had come to me, I’d know it. I’d for sure remember it. He hadn’t. I knew that. So, I sat there for a while longer. In the dark. And then, finally, I got up out of that folding chair, walked through the door, walked past all those earnest Christians who obviously had been touched by Jesus and left the building. I never returned.

Surely, if Jesus had wanted to touch me he had had ample opportunity in those years as I attended Sun City every Thursday night and memorized Bible verses among the members of our core team. Obviously, Jesus was not interested in me. I had not passed the test. And so years passed before I crossed the threshold of a church again.