Last Thursday and Friday, along with tens of thousands of Christian leaders at satellite sites across the country (the rest of the world gets to participate in the coming months), I attended the Willow Creek Association Global Leadership Summit. This was the second time that I’ve had the opportunity to attend the event, and once again I’ve come back to my office refreshed, challenged, and inspired to lead more effectively in the work and ministry to which God has called me.
I wanted to provide a few brief reflections on the content of the Global Leadership Summit, especially as they relate to immigration, the topic of this blog. It’s hard to condense 24 pages of single-spaced, 11-font notes into a single blog entry, but I’ll do my best to hit the highlights.
Bill Hybels began the Summit with five strategic leadership questions. One was whether, as leaders, we were naming, facing, and addressing the problems that exist in our church, business, or organization. It’s much easier—especially when an issue is sure to be messy and uncomfortable—to pretend that it’s not there, but good leadership requires that we name and respond to the challenges that we face.
Bill and other leaders at Willow Creek Community Church recognized a few years ago that their local church had a problem in that they did not know how to appropriately respond to the issues raised by the many undocumented immigrants who were part of their Spanish-language service, Casa de Luz, and who were being served by their Care Center. Evangelical churches all across the U.S. are facing these questions because, while they are thrilled to see so many immigrants coming to Christ, they’re unsure of how to engage with the questions of law and public policy that persistently arise when interacting with immigrants. While the average church—overwhelmed by the complexity of the issue and fearful of how the congregation might react to addressing something that many inherently see through a partisan lens—simply avoids it, Willow Creek has very systematically engaged. That process included:
- Allowing their leadership to study the issue intensively and from multiple perspectives (humbly recognizing, as Summit speaker John Dickson noted, that being an expert in the Bible does not make you an expert in immigration laws, and visa versa),
- Providing training for their entire staff, with Bill and the senior leadership casting a vision for how the church could engage the issue and providing the opportunity for staff to ask questions and voice concerns,
- Adjusting their ministries to more effectively and sensitively serve immigrants and to better integrate the Spanish-speaking and English-speaking members of the church,
- Inviting in guest speakers to educate their congregation (including Danny Carroll, author of Christians at the Border, and my colleague Jenny Yang and me), and
- Speaking out to elected officials on the importance of fixing a system that both sides of the partisan divide believe is woefully broken.
On this and other issues, Bill has modeled well a commitment to address, rather than ignore, problems—and it’s what’s made the church he leads a model for so many others around the world.
Engaging immigration, though, can be a tough assignment. In Willow Creek’s case, their careful but decisive engagement with the issue of immigration did upset a few individuals amongst the tens of thousands who attend Willow Creek on a given weekend, but the vast majority of “Creekers” are grateful for the church leadership’s courage in addressing the issue from a distinctively Christian perspective—and the Spanish-language service has flourished. When I spoke there last summer, the approximately 3,000 folks in the audience gave us a standing ovation at the end of Bill’s interview with me, and the evaluations from a separate midweek class series on immigration that we led were more than 95% positive. But even if, as some church leaders fear, teaching what the Bible says about immigration might upset a lot of people and result in a reduction in tithing or even people leaving the church, it might be a tough assignment to which God calls us as Christian leaders.
Bill spent one session highlighting these “tough calls,” calls like he gave to the prophet Jeremiah, who was told to go and rebuke the people of Israel and command that they cease their oppression of “the foreigner, the fatherless, [and] the widow,” their shedding of innocent blood, and their worship of idols (Jeremiah 7:6). Jeremiah’s charge did not come with the promise that the people would respond enthusiastically, repent, and that all would then be well—and indeed they didn’t listen, and things did not go well. Jeremiah suffered immensely for his faithfulness, as have some others who have accepted God’s tough calls, like “Mama” Maggie Gobran, the “Mother Teresa of Cairo” who shared her own story at the Summit of accepting God’s call from a life as one of Egyptian’s wealthy elite to give up everything to serve the poor in Christ’s name in the garbage dumps of Cairo. But these leaders, Bill says, never regret saying yes to God’s tough call—and it is their and our willingness to say yes to tough calls that will fix the great problems we face in our churches, our communities, and our world.
For a church leader—particularly the leader of a primarily Caucasian church in a region of the United States where the average opinion amongst Caucasian evangelicals seems to be that “those people” need to just go home—it can be very frightening to talk about immigration in a way consistent with the biblical witness. Wary of expected pushback, some try to ignore the topic, waiting for God to solve the problem through other leaders’ courage. As speaker Patrick Lencioni noted, we’re prone to shy away from action because we fear rejection. Sometimes, though, if we want to see God work the miracles that only He can do—and, given the current political climate, changes in immigration policy in the short term might fall in to that category—we need to act. We need, as speaker Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark (and a supporter of the DREAM Act), said, to “do ‘sumthin,’” even when we don’t seem to have the power to fix the problem and can’t foresee how our “sumthin’” will solve the problem.
Pastor Steven Furtick highlighted the story of Elisha commanding the kings of Judah and Israel, who were unable to prevail militarily because they had inadequate water, to dig ditches—and to trust that God would provide the rain (2 Kings 3:1-20). Only God can make it rain and only God can change the hearts of the people within our local churches and, eventually, of politicians, but we can take action in faith, challenging our churches to respond to immigrants in our communities in ways consistent with the biblical witness and, as speaker Brenda Salter McNiel said, to “see the world not with the eyes of fear, but the eyes of faith.”
Finally, education reform advocate (and DREAM Act advocate) Michelle Rhee challenged us to take seriously the biblical mandate to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves” (Proverbs 31:8). Kids—who don’t get a vote—fit into that category, and Rhee’s focus is on giving them a voice in our policy discussions about education. Another group, though, who cannot vote and thus whose voices are not heard in the political debate is immigrants. As the Church, we need to get to work to provide this voice. That starts with engaging our own congregations, even when it’s tough and we fear their response. If we start to fill the land with ditches, though, I believe that God will provide the rain.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist atWorld Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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