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I don't know when exactly Africa became a hot destination for evangelical concern. It might have been Bruce Prayer of Jabez Wilkinson's 2002 move to Johannesburg and later Swaziland to start Dream for Africa, a ministry to orphans. Or perhaps it was Bono's December 2002 seven-states-in-seven-days Heart of America tour, when he visited venerable evangelical institutions like Willow Creek and Wheaton College, scolding them for ignoring the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Or maybe it was Rick Warren's 2005 foray into Rwanda to promote his PEACE Plan and create a purpose-driven country.

Surely a constellation of circumstances raised Africa's profile. But it didn't hurt that celebrities whom evangelicals trusted leveraged their considerable influence. Lost in the media hype that celebrities create was one "celebrity" and one famous church taking a different approach: Bill Hybels and his Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago.

In fact, Willow Creek's outreach to Africa—specifically Angola, Zambia, Malawi, and South Africa—is as extensive as it is extraordinary. And it is extensive, ironically and precisely, because it bypasses multimillion-dollar nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to work mostly with local churches. And hardly ever with other megachurches, but small, small churches. Furthermore, Willow refuses to bring to bear most of its vast expertise and technological resources. Instead, it relies on the basic resources and expertise of that small, local church.

I spent a whirlwind three weeks in South Africa last year, dipping my toe in the river of good works Willow is bolstering there. And the first thing I found, in both my pre-trip research and on-the-ground discoveries, is that I really didn't need to interview ...

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March 2009

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