Five years ago, immigration was a subject to which I’d only given minimal thought. As a pastor, I was certainly not looking for a controversial issue to engage. Gradually, though, it became evident that immigration is more than a political and economic issue: It’s a reality that impacts the local church in too many ways to ignore.

Several years ago at Willow Creek, we launched a Spanish language worship service in response to the rapidly growing Hispanic community that lived within the 30-minute footprint of our main campus in South Barrington, Ill. That service, Casa de Luz (House of Light), quickly grew to about 1,000 people each weekend. Many of the individuals at Casa de Luz were immigrants living unlawfully in the United States, and we began to hear more and more stories of families within Casa de Luz — people who were members of our church — in which a father or mother was facing deportation, often after being stopped for a minor traffic violation.

At our Care Center, we noticed that many who were receiving food assistance and other services were undocumented, and we also learned that their lack of legal status kept them from reporting abusive labor practices or even violent crimes committed against them. We launched a legal aid ministry, but soon realized that without legislative changes, there was little our lawyers could do to rectify the situations undocumented members of our church and community faced.

We knew we had to address the issue, so we turned to Scripture for guidance. As I studied what the Bible says about immigrants, I was astonished: In verse after verse, God instructs his people to show love to — and seek justice for — immigrants. How had I never noticed these passages before? While we would not allow our church to become politicized or partisan over an issue, we knew we could not bury our heads in the sand.

Willow Creek’s elders and I determined that we would be guided by two key biblical principles as we engaged this tough issue. First, we would take seriously Jesus’ words in Matthew 25: By welcoming a stranger, we welcome him, and by shunning a stranger, we reject him. We would not turn our backs on our immigrant neighbors. Second, we would be guided by respect for the rule of law, which Romans 13 makes clear is a Christ-follower’s responsibility. In consulting with legal experts, we found we could minister effectively to our undocumented neighbors — proclaiming the gospel, meeting tangible needs and advocating for more compassionate, sensible immigration policies — and still be fully within the bounds of the law.

I’ve become an outspoken advocate for sensible and just reforms to our immigration laws. I’ve met with lawmakers, written a newspaper op-ed and challenged those in our church to speak up for justice. I pray for the immigrants in our community and for our elected officials, who need divine wisdom as they craft reforms.

As we’ve ministered to immigrants, many have come to know Jesus. Immigration presents an opportunity to “make disciples of all nations” right in our own neighborhoods! The immigrants in our church — some of whom brought a vibrant faith with them to the United States and others of whom met Jesus here for the first time — have blessed us in a myriad of ways and become powerful agents of God’s mission. My hope and prayer is not only that many of the undocumented immigrants in our country would eventually be allowed to become U.S. citizens, but — more importantly — that many more would embrace the God who invites them to be citizens of his eternal kingdom.

This article originally appeared in the NAE Insight.

Bill Hybels
Bill Hybels is the founding and senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, and the chairman of the board for Willow Creek Association. Hybels is a best-selling author of more than 20 books. He received a bachelor's degree in biblical studies and an honorary doctorate of divinity from Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois.