What’s Growing In The Soil Of This Town?

The first building in this 13-second video, The Cotillion banquet hall, used to be Willow Creek movie theater in Palatine, IL. It was also the first site of Willow Creek Community Church, which met here from 1975-1981 before moving to their own building in nearby South Barrington. The last building in this video, a hulking gray warehouse just beyond the abandoned gas station and on the far side of the Metra commuter rail tracks, is the first building owned by Harvest Bible Chapel. After renting in a local high school after its launch in 1988, Harvest moved into the old Wickes furniture warehouse in 1995. Though a few hundred feet away, the road and tracks are a boundary line. Harvest’s zip code lies in Rolling Meadows, IL.

Within the last year, the founding pastors of both of these highly visible and influential churches have been the subjects of dramatic exposes of long histories of abuses of power that have included sexual improprieties (Bill Hybels at Willow) and bullying and gross financial mismanagement (James MacDonald at Harvest) resulting in very public downfalls. Bill Hybels of Willow “retired early” as a result. James MacDonald of Harvest is on an “indefinite sabbatical” as the story of the mess at the church continues to unfold. 

I grew up in this area. Before I had kids, I worked for a while in an office building that overlooked both sites. I’ve lived in this area for the last 7 years. And every time I drive by these buildings, I ponder what the significance might be that both of these churches grew – literally – in the same soil. What is it about the spiritual climate and culture of this area that was such excellent fertilizer for two congregations that in their heydays attracted tens of thousands of seekers and worshippers each week? 

My Charismatic friends would say that the rise and fall of two megachurch pastors that had congregations at one time across the street from one another (though not at the same time) is connected to spiritual warfare; specifically, territorial spirits that control a certain geographic area. For those who’ve never heard the term, Wikipedia offers a succinct summary:

“Territorial spirits are national angels, or demons, who rule over certain geographical areas in the world, a concept accepted within the Charismatic movementPentecostal traditions, and Kingdom Now theology. This belief has been popularized by the novel, This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti, as well as by the ministry of Peter Wagner. The existence of territorial spirits is viewed as significant in spiritual warfare within these Christian groups.”

I’ve known people who are all-in spiritual warriors, focused entirely on identifying and praying against the demon army they are certain is holding their zip code hostage and keeping the area from revival. I don’t affirm the emphasis or much of the theology behind this thinking, but neither can I dismiss it entirely. We can see throughout the Old Testament prophetic books particular words given to specific cities and nations, naming both sin and promises, and in the New Testament the spiritual personalities of the churches in particular regions reflected their local culture’s values. History, economy, generational sin and power structures all combine to create a local culture that attracts and celebrates some kinds of sinful activities more than it does others. These folks would say that God was doing Big Things through these Big Churches, and that the problem lay in the fact that the enemy wanted to take them down.

My non-Charismatic friends would agree that the devil was at work, but only on an individual basis. Bill Hybels, James MacDonald (and each person in their circle of enablers) succumbed to personal temptation. Sadly, I can report that both men’s were whispered about for years among churchgoers living in this area. For me, the only real surprise about either man’s story was that they were finally exposed after being shielded by their fame and coddled by their inner circle for years. I assumed they were the Evangelical equivalents of business leaders helming institutions deemed too big to fail by their constituents. I believe that there was plenty of individual sin which occurred in the lives of individuals. I also believe that there is a spiritual history and personality in this area that served to nourish the hubris-fueled growth of both megachurches.

And it is the effect of both individual and corporate sin that will continue to shape the way the Gospel is proclaimed here. Unchurched and de-churched people reading the news-grabbing headlines in the local press and are watching the fallout in the lives of their Willow and Harvest friends. The incense of toxic religion perfumes the atmosphere in this area like a giant mound of burning tires. Abuse of power, coverup, and hypocrisy are a noxious black cloud that can obscure a clear view for a not-yet-believer of a Good Shepherd who is walking the streets of the northwest suburbs of Chicago in search of his lost sheep.

Even if we never attended either church, all of us who are followers of Jesus are connected to these congregations whether we like it or not. We in the Church are in a time of exposure of sin and right-sizing of our triumphalist ways. We must accept this discipline as a gift of the One who is in search of a pure, holy Bride for the Son.

As well as seeking the spotlight of the Holy Spirit to reveal sin in our personal lives, I believe it’s a necessary exercise among those guiding churches and ministries to do some periodic, prayerful  reflection around the local culture in which they’ve been planted: 

  • What is the history of your area? Who settled the area? Were there battles that took place in your town? Were there people uprooted from the land to make way for settlers? Where did the settlers come from – and why?
  • What is the spiritual history of your area? What churches were planted? What churches have died? Divided? Was there ever a time when your town experienced spiritual renewal?
  • What is the demographic of your area? Where do people work? Do people move a lot or stay put?
  • What are the biggest social challenges people are facing in your area – for example, is opioid addiction a major issue in your town?

If we are called to resist the devil, we do it individually and we do it together – eyes open, alert to both our own personal temptations and the story of the place and time in which we live as an expression of the body of Christ: “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.” (1 Peter 5:8-9)

What do you think? Is sin both individual and corporate? How does your church assess and respond to not only the present needs of the place in which it is planted (say, through a food pantry outreach), but does ministry in light of your area’s history and culture? 


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