CHICAGO (BP)–Shortly before he was scheduled to address thousands at the annual Willow Creek Leadership Summit, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz withdrew, prompted by a petition signed by only 700 people on the liberal website Change.org that said Willow Creek Community Church has a “long anti-gay history.”
The petition objects not to the purpose or content of the annual leadership summit, but to former associations of the host. Willow Creek Community Church once had a relationship with Exodus International, the nation’s largest Christian organization dedicated to reaching out to homosexuals. The church’s break with Exodus drew criticism from some conservative Christians.
The Change.org petition called for a Starbucks boycott, saying that by not denouncing conversion therapy, Starbucks was giving “tacit approval.”
Gay activists have targeted a growing number of corporations working with churches and ministries on various projects. The activists often call conservative Christian organizations “hate groups” and the label seems to be sticking.
However, “‘hate’ is too big a word to be thrown around with so little discretion,” said Focus on the Family President Jim Daly.
“It is a damaging and dangerous thing to hang such an emotional epithet on a person or group because they think differently about some issues than you do,” Daly said. “Believing what the Bible says about human sexuality is a personal conviction, not an act of persecution.”
Southern Baptist leader Ed Stetzer says the “issue of homosexuality will need to be increasingly addressed — and addressed graciously — in the Christian community.” Stetzer, vice president for research and ministry development at LifeWay Christian Resources, listed on his blog five principles about the controversy over churches and homosexuality:
— “The issue is not going away and you cannot ignore it or seek to downplay your views.
— “The culture sees this as a ‘justice’ issue — Christians discriminating on the basis of immutable characteristics.
— “Though it is easy to make the case (in the church) that homosexual practice is incompatible with scripture, it will be an exceedingly difficult case to make in today’s culture.
— “Building bridges and showing grace and love is needed, lacking, and essential when dealing with people with different views and values.
— “At the end of the day, all evangelicals (including centrist evangelicals like those at Willow Creek) will still have to deal with an issue that the world perceives as narrow and bigoted.”
Willow Creek senior pastor Bill Hybels said at the summit the church let Schultz out of his contract without penalty after discussing the petition with him.
“If organizers would have called us, we’d have said Willow Creek is not anti-gay. Willow Creek is not anti-anybody,” Hybels said. “It’s founded on the idea that all people matter to God. We don’t check orientation at the door.”
Noting Schultz “had to read through some tough e-mails,” Hybels encouraged conference attendees to send him something nicer — and to continue buying Starbucks coffee.
Willow Creek has received criticism from both sides of the issue. Alan Chambers, the president of Exodus, said he believes the church separated from Exodus because Willow Creek gave in to pressure from gay activists. In recent years, Soulforce targeted Willow Creek. Soulforce’s mission is to encourage Christian organizations to religious acceptance of homosexuality. Though the church made the decision in 2009, it didn’t become public until June of this year.
“Willow Creek is a strong church” but Chambers said he is nonetheless “deeply saddened to see that Willow Creek isn’t going to offer strong discipleship for people struggling with same-sex attractions.”
Chambers added, “It’s a disappointing trend within churches and Christian owned ministries.” These ministries are “feeling the pressure to distance themselves from their Christian friends and are afraid to stand in the public market and say ‘this is what we believe.’ It’s a marker of things to come,” Chambers said.
Reported by staff of World News Service and Baptist Press.