Chicago Evangelicals paint unconventional strokes

Hours before ballerinas danced beneath the spotlight at the Auditorium Theater Feb. 26 to give the final performance of the Joffrey Ballet’s “Winter Fire,” Pastor Bill Hybels’ dominated the stage.

Hybels’ Sunday sermon originated 34 miles away at Willow Creek’s main campus in South Barrington, Illinois, and was broadcast to Willow Creek’s six Illinois campuses on a projector.

After the Chicago service, George Evans, 57, stood in the crowded lobby in a black leather jacket. “I joined the church a year and a half ago to get my life off the streets,” he said. “I wanted to stop smoking cigarettes, stop drinking alcohol … all that stuff. Whenever I have a problem, first I talk to God and then I talk to the pastor,” the South Side resident said.

Evan’s black leather jacket stood shoulders away from a man in a green cashmere sweater, Michael Atella, a 68-year-old psychologist from Streeterville.

Atella was one of the founding members of Willow Creek Chicago. “My wife and I had a prompting to leave the suburbs and move to the city,” he said.

After Atella and his wife moved here, they talked to many other small suburban churches that were branching to Chicago.

“We weren’t alone,” he said, “There is a moving in Chicago. God had a vision in Chicago. God’s love was wanting to draw us in and move to the area.”

“It started off pretty small and got big,” he said and turned to look at the crowded lobby. He paused. “Just look at us,” his said as he continued to look at the crowd. As a smile slowly spread across his face, he said, “I think God is doing some pretty amazing things. Catholics, Protestants, non-denominational, his love is touching us all.”

Shortly before his death, Vincent Van Gogh painted “Old Church Tower at Nuenen,” which in a letter to his sister he said reflected “how perfectly simple death & burial is, as simple as falling of autumn leaves -- just some earth dug up -- a little wooden cross."

Atella told the story of the “Old Church Tower at Nuenen,” a painting Vincent Van Gogh created in his later years, and of its dark, morbid strokes that they were reminded of when planning Willow Creek, Atella said.

The painting reflected “how perfectly simple death & burial is, as simple as falling of autumn leaves — just some earth dug up — a little wooden cross,” Van Gogh wrote of the painting shortly before his death. “The fields around — they make a final line against the horizon, where the grass of the churchyard ends — like a horizon of sea. And now this ruin tells me how a creed and religion have moldered away, even though they were so well established — how, nevertheless, the life & death of the peasants is and remains the same: always sprouting and withering like the grass and the flowers that are growing in this graveyard.”

“We didn’t want the church to be anything like that,” Atella said. “We wanted a church as diverse as the community.” He looked back across the room at the crowd swarming with different races and cultures. “We really are a multicultural church. We could be better,” he admitted, “but that’s because diversity is a really hard thing to achieve.”

“This city has so many different people,” Atella said. “Chicago’s not only diverse, but we’re also a global city. People are constantly flying in and out from all over the world.”

The Chicago campus’ pastor, Jon Klinepeter, described Willow Creek’s Sunday service as “small talk” and said it is not meant to be intimate. “We have a Sunday service because of tradition,” he said.

Theaters are inexpensive and available Sunday mornings, Klinepeter said. Large, ornate, and Sunday availability are common denominators this dual-use theater shares with its European ancestors.

Spirituality is connected throughout the week with different events and meetings, Klinepeter said. “This is a church about grace and acceptance and love,” Klinepeter said. “And the pursuit of Jesus,” he added.

When speaking of Willow Creek’s diversity, both Klinepeter and Atella cited the same phrase, “The most segregated hour is Sunday.”

“A multicultural community is a constant evolution. Segregation is easier,” Klinepeter said. However, Klinepeter said this is not a problem for Willow Creek because multiculturalism is so heavily wrapped around their church.  “The people coming here value being out of their comfort zone,” he said. On any given Sunday you are going to have black gospel and white contemporary Christian music,” Klinepeter said.

“And our city is very segregated,” Klinepeter added. Knlinepeter drew on Chicago’s history of developing specific programs or services that pushed racial minorities into specific pockets of Chicago, such as redlining, which began in the 1930s after the New Deal’s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation developed green and red color-coded maps illustrating the city’s racial and economic neighborhoods to use for categorizing lending and insurance risks.

In 1959, The U.S. Civil Rights Commission declared Chicago to be the nation’s most residentially segregated city in the country. According a report released last month by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research analyzing 2010 U.S. census data, although segregation has declined, Chicago is still the nation’s most segregated city.

“The loop is the only neighborhood in Chicago that is not segregated,” he said. “That’s why we bring our sermons here, to make ourselves accessible to the city.”

“We don’t want to be a church that wants to be a multicultural church but says, ‘leave your culture behind’,” he said. “We say, bring your history.”

Klinepaper is unique to many evangelical pastors in that he is divorced. According to Klinepaper, his marriage ended after his wife had an affair. Klinepaper said he believed that despite his loyalty to his wife during the marriage, most evangelical churches would never allow him to be pastor.

When Klinepaper delivers his sermons he said he always tells people, “I promise I’m the biggest sinner in the room.”

As pastor, Klinepaper said his only job is to follow Jesus. “My job is not to represent myself as the moral authority,” the pastor said. “I’m just a follower of Jesus.”

However, Evangelicals’ interpretation of the Bible condemns homosexuality, which causes Klinepaper’s devotion to the Bible and compassion for others to tangle in a cross of confusion. According to a 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center, 63 percent of evangelical Protestants say society should discourage homosexuality.

“In many ways, the gay community has more love than the evangelical community,” he said. Many problems tied to homosexuality are because “we don’t understand heterosexual problems,” he said.

Klinepaper jerked to his feet and with a sharpie clutched in his hands, drew a line across a piece of paper with the words “heterosexual” on one end and “homosexual” on the other. “Which is more evil?” he asked and without pausing, said more evil acts take place on the heterosexual end.

“So we are taking those verses and trying to see what this means.” He paused. “We can’t just throw out those verses.”

“But we will never be a church where they won’t be welcome,” he said. To Klinepaper, the term “evangelical” has become politicized, which he says strips it of its historical meaning that calls for an eternal devotion to Jesus Christ.

When evangelical leaders say they hate homosexuals or that gays are going to hell, Klinepaper said, “I feel profound sadness and anger.”

“If any person hates another person they should not say they know Jesus,” he said.

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