You don't know what you're missing

Rev! magazine interview with Bill Hybels

19 March 2008

You Don't Know What You're Missing

November/December 2006 Make Your Message Stick
Rev! magazine
A Rev! Interview With Bill Hybels

Bill Hybels is senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in Barrington, Illinois, and one of the founders of the seeker-friendly movement. He talked to Rev! recently about his latest book, Just Walk Across the Room (Zondervan), and reflected on the way his views on evangelism have changed in the 10 years since he co-authored the bestseller Becoming a Contagious Christian.

Rev!: Why did you decide to write a new book about evangelism?

Hybels: The last time I wrote on evangelism was over a decade ago, but a lot has changed in the world over that decade; a lot has changed in the way I think believers need to talk to people outside the family of faith. I have probably put more emphasis in my own private Christian life into the area of personal evangelism than at any other time in my life. So I did a rethink in how the world’s changed and how we need to engage people in matters of faith now as opposed to a decade ago.

Rev!: Getting involved with personal evangelism seems like a huge investment in time. Pastors are inundated with church activities—what time do they have left over for personal evangelism?

If you look at the model of Jesus and how he engaged people who were not yet believers, and if you gauge what happens in your own heart when your whole life is around the already convinced, you begin to see that it’s a very necessary thing for Christian leaders to be building friendships with people far from God—it makes us pray differently, it makes us prepare messages differently; it makes us think about our church programs differently because it forces the relevancy issue right in our face on an ongoing basis.

Rev!: What happened in your own personal life to catalyze this desire?

Hybels: It was the formation of a sailboat racing team—eight guys who were fantastic sailboat racers but just had no relationship with God or with any church. It was the formation and racing with
that same team over a 12- or 13-year period of time that has influenced my thinking so heavily. It’s been one of the greatest gifts—several of them have committed their lives to Christ now, and some are close to doing that. Some I haven’t made a dent in. But watching God melt a hardened heart, and watching people respond to Christian community, and just watching the work of the Holy Spirit in a group of people far from God has been exhilarating.

Rev!: How has evangelism changed in the last five or 10 years in terms of how churches approach it?


Hybels: Well, I have a growing concern there—I see fewer churches talking about evangelism than I did a decade ago. When we started the Willow Creek Association and got serious about training pastors, I think a lot of pastors were willing to consider reaching lost people because their churches were in decline and they didn’t know what else to do to keep from having to close their doors. So they took some risks with evangelism and outreach services and more creative ministry forms. What I’ve seen happen in the last five years in particular is churches are learning how to grow without necessarily having to get their hands dirty with personal evangelism. Part of the reason I wrote this book is because I want to try to reawaken—before it’s too late—a sense in churches that we’re called by Christ to relate to the nonchurched people in our communities.

Rev!: What’s the uniqueness of this program or this book?

Hybels: I think the uniqueness of it is that it’s not a program. The awakening or the new discovery for me, which has taken me a decade to come to understand, is that the greatest single value in personal evangelism is not memorizing a formula or words to say or having the right booklet to give somebody. The single highest value in personal evangelism is being attentive to and cooperative with the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the moment. It’s much more difficult to train someone to be attentive to and cooperate with the promptings of the Spirit than it is to just give them something to do, a tract to hand out, a memorized formula to repeat. Training someone how to evoke the telling of the lost person’s story wasn’t even a part of the deal—all we were trying to do was gain an opening to tell our story. I think these are critical mistakes that the Christian community has been making over the last 20, 30, 40 years, and there are new ways that we have to be thinking and training Christians about how to relate to a lost world.

Rev!: How do you define outreach, and does it differ from evangelism?

Hybels: Well, I’ve never used the word outreach that much. Around Willow, we call it trying to lead people to a faith in Christ. That’s what pastors feel frustrated about being able to do themselves. That’s what frustrates them about their work with congregations—they can’t seem to either fire up or train people in their congregations to get about the challenge of personal evangelism. Or if they do, it only lasts for a short burst of time; it’s programmatic, the program ends, and everyone reverts back to cocoon living. What I’m trying to do with this book and the training materials associated with it is say, “Look, listening to the Spirit and learning how to have conversations with people far from God need to become as natural as breathing.” This isn’t a program; this is a lifelong engagement. We know how to fellowship with other Christians. Christians have taught each other how to be in a small group with each other and share. They didn’t use to do that very well, but in most churches today there are small groups, and people know how to open up their lives and share their needs with each other and pray for each other. But Christians have still not mastered the ability to have meaningful conversations with nonchurch people.

Rev!: The natural evolution of churches seems to turn inward. How do you resist that?

Hybels: To be honest, with every value in a church, there’s sort of an ebbing and flowing. In other words, when you teach people about caring for the poor, when you’re emphasizing it, preaching it, practicing it, that value gains strength in a congregation. When you stop practicing it, preaching about it, holding it up, and challenging people about it, then that value cools off a little bit—the same thing with evangelism. This is something that a pastor has to keep bringing to the consciousness of a congregation. You can’t preach on it for a week every two or three years and think that the value of evangelism is going to turn white hot. I think a pastor needs to talk from his own real-life experience as he or she relates to people far from God. They need to be talking about it naturally in their sermons so that people realize it is natural to have relationships with people outside the circle of faith. Another component of keeping it hot is, when someone has an opening at work, let’s say a colleague comes into some pain in their life, and they turn to the Christian and say, “Can you help me? I’m interested in God.” A Christian who’s just getting interested in evangelism has to have some resources to be able to pull from.

Rev!: Any last thing you’d like to tell pastors—from your heart or from the book—that would be helpful?

Hybels: Whenever I can be in a smaller setting with senior pastors and no tape recorders are running and no video cameras are going, I just look them in the eye and say, “Men and women, you don’t know what you’re missing if you’re not watching God slowly melt a hardened heart right before your eyes. We think the only miracle that happens in evangelism is when a lost person gets saved. That’s not true at all. There’s a series of miracles that happen in the evangelistic endeavor. There’s the miracle of the person who asks for prayer the first time. They’re not even Christian yet, but they had something go wrong, and they know you’re a Christian because you’ve talked about your faith, and the person says, “Can we pray?” for the first time. You never forget that. As you see spiritual interest come alive in somebody, and you have the late-night conversations where they’re getting ready to receive Christ, but they’ve got two or three obstacles that they just have to get resolved. Then you watch those obstacles get resolved. The actual prayer to receive Christ, to me, is only one of the faith-building episodes in a long movie. I love every part of that drama. I keep telling pastors that if you’re not involved in half a dozen of these kinds of relationships in your life, you just don’t know what you’re missing. This is the real deal with the only thing God calls treasures here on earth—people. There is nothing we’re taking with us over to the other side except the influence we’ve had on people. We’re not taking any stuff. We’re not taking any trophies; we’re not taking any big buildings. It’s only people. That’s the first thing I really emphasize with pastors—there’s a work that God can only do in you if you’re engaged with lost people.

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