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Willow Creek’s Bill Hybels tells how his life was changed by a ‘whisper from God’

Bill Hybels speaks Founders’ Day JudsUniversity. | PhoCourtesy Eric Secker JudsUniversity

Bill Hybels speaks at Founders’ Day at Judson University. | Photo Courtesy Eric Secker, Judson University

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Updated: November 28, 2013 6:34AM

ELGIN — Bill Hybels, founder of one of the biggest and most influential churches in the United States, choked with emotion as he told a Judson University audience Friday how a second-grade teacher and a “whisper from God” changed his whole life.

Hybels, senior pastor of the 20,000-strong Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, spoke at the Elgin Christian college’s Founders Day convocation as Judson celebrates the 50th anniversary of it moving from Chicago to Elgin and becoming an independent college.

This also is the 100th anniversary of the college’s founding as the undergraduate arm of Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1913.

Hybels said he may not have started the suburban megachurch if his parents, who owned several businesses in Michigan, had not sent him to a private Christian elementary school and a Christian college similar to Judson.

When it was time for his second-grade teacher to send her pupils out to recess, Hybels said, she would tell a story from the Bible. “But I just wanted to be the first to get to recess.”

Then one day she retold the Old Testament story about how young Samuel heard the voice of God speaking to him in a whisper.

As the other kids went outside, Hybels said, he stayed behind and asked the teacher, “Do you think God could still speak to a young boy?” The next day that teacher gave him a poem/prayer that said, “Oh God,, give me Samuel’s ear, an open ear oh God ...”

“I think God’s hand is going to be on your life if you keep your ears open to him,” she told young Bill.

A professor’s words

A few years later, Hybels was attending what is now Trinity University when “a French-accented professor said, “Students, if only you could understand the power of a local church, if only you could see what God can do through a church like .. the one in the second chapter of Acts.”

This was the whisper of God Bill Hybels had been waiting for since second grade, he said. “I ran out to my car because I didn’t want anyone to see my emotion. I thought that ‘I can’t go to the grave without at least being part of or trying to start one of those churches ... that could change the world.”

When he told his father he would rather start a new church than work in the family business, his father said incredulously, “You’re betting the farm of your life because you think you hear a whisper?”

A few years later, he said, the fledgling Willow Creek Church was struggling with 150 members and meeting in a rented movie theater. His father flew to Chicago in his private plane and tried to persuade him to come back to the family business. Hybels said he could not.

“A couple weeks later, Dad died of a heart attack. He never lived to see what Willow would become,” Hybels said.

“That single event (in the second grade) changed the entire trajectory of my life,” Hybels said, close to tears. He said that when he later dedicated one of his books to the second-grade teacher, he asked his secretary to look her up. Incredibly, she discovered that former teacher had died the day before.

So Hybels canceled all his appointments and went back to Michigan to attend her funeral.

At the end of their lives, Hybels told the crowd, “People who listened to God’s whispers hear ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’”

Events to celebrate Judson’s “Golden Centennial” 50th and 100th birthdays included the official installation of Gene C. Crume Jr. as the university’s president on Thursday, meetings of the board of trustees, Friday morning’s convocation with Hybels, and a luncheon on Friday attended by several hundred alumni, faculty, staff and friends.

Representing the Chicago seminary at the luncheon, Blake Walter said he had found some interesting documents elated to the new college’s formation in the seminary archives. In 1963, for example, Judson paid its professors just $4,800 to $6,600 a year. As of the end of the 1962-63 fiscal year — the first one for the independent college — the college had taken in just $57,628, had spent $54,310 and had $3,317 in the bank.

Walter said a document telling how the undergraduate college would be spun off from the seminary and moved to Elgin specified that the college would be “Baptist in tradition and control, evangelical in outlook, interdenominational and international in character.”

The keynote speaker at the luncheon was Lynn Wheaton, a retired former director of advancement for Judson who recalled several “war stories” about fundraising through the years.

Early struggles

Wheaton recalled that the early years were financially difficult. When Harm Weber was hired to become Judson’s third president in 1969, Wheaton said, “He was instructed to come to Judson and close this place down.” But instead Weber pumped new life into the campus and remained as its president until 1991.

Wheaton remembered one Chicago construction-company owner who started tithing 10 percent of his income to charity after starting the business with one dump truck and one wheelbarrow, but then increased his giving by one percentage point every year for 50 years.

“Judson’s future is as bright as the promises of God,” Wheaton said, using a quotation often repeated by the university’s namesake, 19th-century missionary Adoniram Judson.

For the university’s next 50 years, Wheaton said, “God has plans that we’re not even aware of at this time.”

Golden Eagle Award

As befits the event at the close of the celebration, the Founders Day dinner ended with Crume presenting Judson’s Golden Eagle Award to the couple who chaired the committee that arranged the Golden Centennial events. Bill Boscaljon, from Judson’s Class of 1979, and his wife Sally (Ackemann) Boscaljon, also were employed at Judson for many years as dormitory house parents and in the bookstore, plant operations department, alumni office and health center.

Sally now teaches third-grade in School District U46 and Bill works as a manager in an Elgin hardware store.

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