In the early seventies I had an experience so powerful that it divided my life into before and after. I was a college student taking a required course in New Testament Studies to complete my major. To my way of thinking this class was guaranteed to be brain-numbingly boring. A required Bible class? It had “flat liner” written all over it. I was sure that the only challenge this class would offer me would be the challenge of trying to stay awake.
As I staked out my usual claim to a back row seat and assumed a comfortable slouch — legs extended, arms folded — I had no idea that a spiritual ambush awaited me. Toward the end of the lecture, just when I thought it was time to pack it up and leave, the professor, Dr. Gilbert Bilezikian, decided he wasn’t quite finished for the day. Closing his notes, he stepped out from behind the lectern. Then he bared his soul to a room full of unsuspecting twenty-year-olds.
“Students,” he said, “there was once a community of believers who were so totally devoted to God that their life together was charged with the Spirit’s power.
“In that band of Christ-followers, believers loved each other with a radical kind of love. They took off their masks and shared their lives with one another. They laughed and cried and prayed and sang and served together in authentic Christian fellowship.
“Those who had more shared freely with those who had less until socioeconomic barriers melted away. People related together in ways that bridged gender and racial chasms, and celebrated cultural differences.
“Acts 2 tells us that this community of believers, this church, offered unbelievers a vision of life that was so beautiful it took their breath away. It was so bold, so creative, so dynamic that they couldn’t resist it. Verse 47 tells us that ‘the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.’ “
Dr. Bilezikian’s unscripted words were as much a lament as they were a dream, a sad longing for the restoration of the first century church. I had never imagined a more compelling vision. In fact, that day I didn’t just see the vision; I was seized by it.
Suddenly, there were tears in my eyes and a responsive chord rising up in my soul.
Where, I wondered, had that beauty gone?
Why was that power not evident in the contemporary church?
Would the Christian community ever see that potential realized again?
Since that day, I have been held hostage to the powerful picture of the Acts 2 dream painted in that college classroom. In the weeks and months after that first lecture, I was haunted by questions. What if a true community of God could be established in the twentieth century? What if what happened in Jerusalem could happen in Chicago? Such a movement of God would transform this world and usher people into the next.
I was a goner, utterly captured by a single vision of the potential beauty of the local church. In 1975 that vision led me and a handful of colleagues to start Willow Creek Community Church. Now, almost thirty years later, that vision still rivets my attention, sparks my passion, and calls forth the best effort I can give.
Hybels, B. (2009). Courageous leadership. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.