Call it the desegregation of the megachurches — and consider it a possible pivotal moment in the nation’s faith. Such rapid change in such big institutions “blows my mind,” says Emerson. Some of the country’s largest churches are involved: the very biggest, Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Community Church in Houston (43,500 members), is split evenly among blacks, Hispanics and a category containing whites and Asians. Hybels’ Willow Creek is at 20% minority. Megachurches serve only 7% of American churchgoers, but they are extraordinarily influential: Willow Creek, for instance, networks another 12,000 smaller congregations through its Willow Creek Association. David Campbell, a political scientist at Notre Dame studying the trend, says that “if tens of millions of Americans start sharing faith across racial boundaries, it could be one of the final steps transcending race as our great divider” — and it could help smooth America’s transition into a truly rainbow nation.
Hybels and his Willow Creek church are already headed down that path. Though Willow is not the most advanced example of multiracial church, it makes an excellent window into the new desegregation because of its size, its influence and the ferocious purposefulness with which Hybels has deconstructed his all-white institution. Willow may also be emblematic in that Hybels appears to have stopped short of creating a fully color-blind church. His efforts illustrate both the possibilities and the challenges that smaller churches may face as they attempt to move beyond black and white.