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Bill Hybels: Hearing God's Voice

Does God still speak to His followers today? Bill Hybels, the lead pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, says, “Yes.” In this interview, we talk to one of the most influential church leaders in America and ask him about his new book The Power of a Whisper, why he believes God still speaks today, and the four filters for discerning His voice.

ChurchLeaders:  You’ve said that it took 35 years to write The Power of a Whisper. Explain a little bit about how the book was cultivated—when you originally had the idea and how it came to fruition.

Bill Hybels:  The book is really about one of the central themes of the activity of God in my life since I was a young child.  All of these major events in my life were the result of whispers.  I’ve talked about this with the Willow congregation for decades, but I would do a single message here or part of a message there, and I realized as the 35th anniversary was approaching that I had never done a complete apologetic of the whole concept of “Does God still speak today?” I had never just built a case for it and developed the whole thought process from A to Z.  How does it get abused?  What are the filters you put promptings through?  How does it affect leadership?  How does it affect parenting?  How does it affect social justice issues?  So the book was my attempt to take 35 years of my life and then 35 years of ministry and to build an irrefutable case for the fact that God still speaks.

CL:  Why do you think the fact that God still talks today is so controversial for churches and ministry leaders?

BH:  Well, because it can be so easily abused.  All you have to do in a Christian leadership meeting is say, “We’re going to go this direction because God told me we should…”  Well, how do you trump that?  Those are conversation enders. There are some whole circles in evangelicalism where that’s called a foul ball—like that’s out of play.  And then the other extreme is, you know, “God told me to wear this shirt,” and “God told me to tell you that you shouldn’t be on the team,” and this thing covers the full spectrum from ignoring it to craziness about it.  So because it is so easily misunderstood and easily abused, most pastors want to stay away from the conversation.  If they fire up the conversation, they have to live with the consequences, and it’s probably easier if you just keep that part of Christianity out of the equation.  No one pulls the trump card out, and it just makes things a little tidier. 

But I can’t deny how often God has spoken to me.  I can’t deny how many times God has spoken to other Willow leaders in ways that, if they hadn’t reported it to me, everything would have been different with the unfolding history of our church.  So I just decided I’m going to talk about it intelligently.  I’m going to talk about it with the right caveats and qualifiers, and I’ll deal with some of the messiness that comes when people don’t understand it and get a little carried away.

CL:  There are numerous examples of God talking to people—audibly—in Scripture.  Why do you think it’s such a difficult concept to believe God still speaks to us today?

BH:  Fear.  Just fear.  If you open up that Pandora’s Box, all kinds of stuff is going to come flying out of it.  Next thing you know, some Bible study group leader is going to say, “God told me to, you know, do this or that…” and then a staff member is going to say, “God told me this…” and then you’re going to have people saying, “God told me to sell my house and turn the proceeds into lottery tickets…” When you’re running an organization, the last thing you want is a whole bunch of people running around saying, “God told me this or that…” because it does get messy. 

I should probably add that, just so that I’m not disingenuous here, some people actually believe theologically that God no longer speaks.  You know, that once the Scriptures were completed—that’s it.  I believe that’s a difficult position to hold theologically, but some people do believe it, and so they shut down this conversation based on their theology.  But the greater number of people, I think, shut down the conversation because of fear.

CL:  Often when God speaks to His followers in the Bible, there’s a high cost involved.  Does it often work the same way today?

BH:  Yes.  We should never convey to leaders or teammates that when God does speak to you, the direction He’s urging you to go is going to be successful and low-cost. 

I was talking to Chuck Colson some time ago about this subject matter.  He mentioned that he likes the book, and he said, “I started Prison Fellowship from a prompting, from a whisper.”  It was after Watergate, and he wanted to go back into business.  He was in debt.  He wanted to generate some income.  In the middle of the night, he gets an unmistakable sense from God that he’s to start a ministry to prisoners.  He didn’t want to do it.  He knew what that would entail, but it was unmistakable.  And it’s been costly for him, but he did it.

We have to be careful that we don’t romanticize the idea of promptings, because many promptings are calls or challenges by God to do extremely difficult things—it leads you to sacrifice and hardship and invisibility, and the reward comes in the next reality, not in this one.

CL:  Sometimes, I think we want to hear God’s voice so badly that we can manufacture it.  What are some of the filters that we can use to make sure we’re hearing the voice of God?  

BH:  I go to considerable lengths to help people discern if something is from God.  Is this prompting from God?  1) Does it align with His attributes?  Is it consistent with His character?  2) Is it Scriptural?  If you ever get an impression in your head to do something that controverts Scripture, it’s not from God.  Game, set, match: It’s not from God.  He doesn’t speak with a double voice.  His promptings match His revealed Word.  Sometimes, we get impressions about things, saying things or doing things that are not specifically addressed in Scripture—starting a new ministry or shutting one down or moving from one locale to another, what school to put your kid in, or something like that.  3) Is it wise?  Would Jesus support such a decision?  Jesus said be wise as serpents, gentle as doves.  Is what you’re planning or thinking—this idea coming from God—is it wise?  4) Is it in tune with your own character and wiring pattern and giftedness? 5) Do other trusted people who love God and love you affirm it?  Do they counsel caution?  Do they say, “I think you’re off your rocker?” 

CL:  Do you think most leaders are in tune with listening to God’s promptings and God’s whispers, or do you feel like something is lacking?

BH:  You know, I think what’s lacking is the language around the subject matter.  What’s lacking is a Biblical framework to think it through with.  What’s lacking are the filters.

I’m with pastors a lot.  It’s a major part of what I do, and often when I’m talking on the subject matter, I’ll say to them, “Were any of you headed a different way in your life, but wound up in ministry because of some sense that God wanted you to be a pastor?”  Well, everybody goes, “Yeah, I wouldn’t be a pastor unless I felt God wanted me to be.”  I say, “All right, well, let’s go around the room and talk about your experiences.  How did you know God wanted you to be a pastor?”  When you start having that conversation, then people say, “Well, it was an impression, and then I talked to my friends about it, and then they affirmed, and it was consistent with my giftings and…”  It winds up being the five filters. So when I lead them through this process, I say, “Now, gang, every single Christ-follower in your congregation has a vocation, has a gift, is making decisions about family and finances and their future every day.  You have to arm your people with language to discuss this idea, the theological framework, and the filters, and as you do, you’ll empower your congregation to be more confident in hearing from God.  You’ll empower them to have the guts to respond.” 


3 bonus questions with Bill Hybels:

CL: Could you give me the most recent book that you’ve read?

BH:  The Truth About Leadership by James Kouzes and Barry Posner.

CL:  If we picked up your iPod or MP3 player, what would we hear if we pushed Play?

BH:  This may be an embarrassment. I had my son-in-law load my little iPod with new stuff that ranges from worship music to country and U2.  Kind of boring, really.

CL:  Hey, that’s cool—Bill Hybels listens to country music, you know.  That could be the headline.

BH:  No, please.  Spare me.

CL:  What’s the last leadership lesson that God has taught you, in a few short words?

BH:  That building a great culture really matters or is directly tied to the effectiveness of an organization.  It’s hard to achieve a mission without the slow and deliberate process of building a culture of high-performing, serving-oriented, God-honoring people. 

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Brian is a writer and editor from Ohio. He works with creative and innovative people to discover the top stories, resources and trends to equip and inspire the Church.