As founding and senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill. (willowcreek.org), Bill Hybels leads one of the country’s largest and most influential churches. To train church leaders, Hybels and his colleagues founded the Willow Creek Association in 1991, which now includes more than 11,600 churches worldwide. During a recent phone interview, he talked with Outreach about what he believes is the single-highest value in evangelism, changing course at Willow Creek and the ritual that brings him to his knees each morning.
Outreach: What prompted you to write about personal evangelism in Just Walk Across the Room? Did you sense a real need to focus on it at the time?
Bill Hybels: Yes. Just in the last 30 years, I’ve seen an incredible surge in Christians knowing how to share with other Christians. They know how to open up their lives to each other, how to ask for help, how to pray for each other.
But in the same time period, I have not seen near the same progress in Christians feeling comfortable in conversations with people outside the circle of faith.
What have our local churches missed then? Why are we producing Christians who aren’t comfortable talking about spirituality with others who don’t share their beliefs?
BH: So much of it is awareness, vision and training. Churches left to themselves will always devolve into a kind of inward-looking dynamic. They have to be inspired to be outreach-oriented. And they have to instill a love for Jesus. People who walk across rooms have landed on the belief that the God they know is worth knowing.
Moreover, we have to teach people to engage in conversations with those who believe differently than they do or maybe don’t have any spiritual beliefs at all. Personal evangelism, or having conversations about God, with people far from God should eventually become as natural to us as breathing.
What’s the best way, based on your experience, to train leaders to instill in their congregations a passion for connecting with the unchurched?
BH: When we train pastors, the first thing we do is point them to the example of our ultimate leader, Jesus Christ. We point out dozens of passages where the scriptures inform us of how naturally Jesus had conversations with people. He invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner, even when everyone knew he was a crook. Jesus said to him, “You’re someone I would be very interested in having dinner with, and I’d be curious to know your story!” So looking at the Master Evangelist and the ease with which He had conversations with people outside the circle of faith becomes catalytic in the lives of church leaders.
From there, we explain to pastors that lost people really do matter to the Father, and if they matter to Him, they ought to matter to us. Then I try to inspire pastors from a spiritual formation standpoint, explaining that there is a unique work of God that happens in the life of someone who’s serious about spreading the message of Christ.
You’ve experienced that work of God firsthand?
BH: Yes, I’m involved in a sailing team, and we’ve become very close. I’ve watched some of them over the years head down the road to self-destruction because of substance abuse or thrill-seeking behaviors. And it’s absolutely heart-breaking to know and love someone and watch him try to handle the complexities of life without the help and guidance of a loving God. It makes me pray differently. It helps me preach differently. There is a marvelous spiritual formation thing that happens inside someone who’s serious about evangelism, but it only happens when you stick your neck out and get involved in evangelistic endeavors.