Willow Creek Community Church's formal relationship with Exodus International has ended.
While the decision to part ways dates back to 2009, news that the South Barrington megachurch had cut ties with Exodus, the world's largest ministry addressing homosexuality, did not surface until late June.
Scott Vaudrey of the elder response team said in writing that Willow Creek's decision was not intended as a social or political statement, but rather an indication of "a season of reviewing and clarifying some of our affiliations with outside organizations."
Alan Chambers, president of Exodus, disagrees. "The choice to end our partnership is definitely something that shines a light on a disappointing trend within parts of the Christian community," he said, "which is that there are Christians who believe like one another who aren't willing to stand with one another, simply because they're afraid of the backlash people will direct their way if they are seen with somebody who might not be politically correct."
Chambers said he sympathizes with Christian organizations that deal with social, political, and financial backlash, but added, "Biblical truth is unpopular, and when you're supporting unpopular truth, you are unpopular too; which means, some days, getting upwards of 10,000 phone calls and emails, and it can be overwhelming."
Willow Creek had been heavily targeted by the group Soulforce, Chambers said, and he believes that the group's 2008-2009 campaign (which included a meeting with pastor Bill Hybels) led to the disassociation.
Willow Creek had affiliated with Exodus throughout the late 1980s and '90s as a church partner. Exodus referred Chicago-area people to Willow Creek's ministries, including the church's "A Safe Place" and "Someone I Love." Willow Creek, meanwhile, partnered with Exodus for "equipping events" at the church to help Willow Creek leaders and other local pastors work with those experiencing same-sex attraction. Chambers also spoke at Willow Creek events.
Susan DeLay, director of media relations at Willow Creek, said the church's decision to end its relationship with Exodus doesn't mean it has become less welcoming to people with same-sex attraction or more averse to big problems. "It's quite the contrary," she said. "Willow Creek has a whole host of ministries for people dealing with these issues, and we would never intend for them to feel sidelined. All we've changed is how we've gone about inviting them into the church, which is the primary issue here."
Mark Yarhouse, executive director of the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity at Regent University, agrees that the primary issue in the split is not abandonment of the gay community but simply a shift in tone toward gays.
"Churches are realizing that while there is a small contingent of the gay community responding to language like 'freedom from homosexuality' or 'freedom is possible,' the vast majority strongly disagree. They're angry and they believe it's impossible to change, and to hear this is so offensive that they will have nothing to do with Christians. So I think churches, in response to that vast majority who say, 'We're not interested,' have decided to look at other approaches in an attempt to connect with the gay community on at least some level. That doesn't mean that churches disagree with the language of 'freedom from homosexuality' doctrinally; they've just found that it doesn't work on a social level."
Chambers said his main regret about the split is that it was predicated on a false perception that for Exodus, "freedom from homosexuality" means changing orientation and eventually being in a heterosexual marriage. "In reality, the majority of people we minister to at Exodus are single, and marriage isn't the answer—it's just one part of our ministry."
News of Willow Creek's break from Exodus arrived just before tensions erupted between TOMS Shoes and Focus on the Family over the organizations' apparently conflicting stances on homosexuality. It is also the latest in a series of public separations from Exodus, which has 240 North American affiliates. Where Grace Abounds and Mastering Life Ministries, both Christian ministries that focus on issues of sexuality, parted ways with Exodus in 2008. New Direction, a Canadian ministry, split with Exodus in 2009 after announcing on its blog that it had "become uncomfortable with some of the messages expressed in a variety of ways through the very diverse Exodus network." Dawson McAllister, a longtime Exodus partner and personal inspiration to Chambers, also announced the separation of his organization from Exodus last year.
On a political level, government charity regulators in New Zealand recently voted to repeal Exodus' tax-exempt status because of inadequate evidence that homosexuality can be cured. The opposition New Democratic Party of Canada petitioned the nation's government to revoke the charity status of ex-gay organizations, including Exodus International, in early June.
Chambers said that these departures are unrelated and may have happened for a variety of reasons: the financial crisis, public backlash, political developments, and the maturation of Exodus as a ministry.
But he does see a thread: "I really do think decisions like this, ultimately, highlight a reticence in the church to stand up for biblical truth, and they're coming at a time when we're going to have to stand up for what we believe. I think there's a way to stand up. We have to find that way."
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See Christianity Today's special section on ex-gay ministry, including several articles on Exodus.
Additional coverage of Exodus includes:
Exodus from 'Day of Truth' | Group says event "became more about policy than people." (October 15, 2010)
Why Exodus Was Especially Upset by Advice Show's Rejection | Dawson McAllister Association dropped ex-gay group as partner under pressure from Clear Channel. (April 21, 2010)
An Older, Wiser Ex-Gay Movement | The 30-year-old ministry now offers realistic hope for homosexuals. (September 13, 2007)