(Every weekend, some 15,000 persons make their way to the Chicago suburb of South Barrington, Illinois, to participate in the life of Willow Creek Community Church. Characterized by a contemporary worship style and a focus on appealing to non-churched persons, the church has been led for sixteen years by Bill Hybels. Under his leadership, Willow Creek has developed a unique ministry that is now being studied and emulated by scores of churches around the United States. He was recently interviewed by Preaching editor Michael Duduit.)
Preaching: Anyone who visits Willow Creek Community Church will quickly see that the overall worship style is very different — very non-traditional. What led you to adopt the kind of preaching style that you use at Willow Creek?
Hybels: What led us to the particular format we use was the realization that it’s difficult to do evangelism and edification optimally in the same service. What we decided to do was to have a midweek edification worship service and devote our weekend services more toward outreach – Christianity 101 for seekers and new believers.
At Willow Creek we have two distinct preaching approaches. At our midweek service we would most likely teach expositionally because that’s a believers’ service filled with people who already know Christ and love Him and who simply want to be fed and challenged and instructed from God’s Word. At our weekend services there are many skeptics, cynics and investigators — people who are outside the family of God peeking over the fence to see what it’s like inside the family. So our approach would tend to be more topical and more directed at some common ground — at the needs of non-churched people, showing the relevance of Scripture to the plight of mankind. One would tend to be more topical and the other more expositional.
Preaching: Give me an idea, for example, of the kind of preaching you might be doing now in the weekend services versus what you’re doing on Wednesday night.
Hybels: Well, I just finished a six-week series on spiritual gifts at the midweek service for our believers. I’ve done weekend series such as “Telling the Truth to Each Other,” “Christianity’s Toughest Competition,” “Faith Has Its Reasons,” “Fanning the Flames of Marriage,” “Parenthood,” and “Breaking the Chains That Bind You.”
Preaching: In the weekend services — that are focused on the non-churched — you take a more topical approach. How overt are you in your use of Scripture? Is there frequent use of Scripture, or is there simply an underlying scriptural basis for the more topical approach?
Hybels: I think the latter is a fair description, but it varies widely. For instance, on Father’s Day this past year my sermon was entitled “Phantom Fathers” — how fathers fail and how their failure often breeds resentment in the lives of their children.
I spoke right out of the story of David and Absalom. If you studied the passage carefully, David failed as a father and created an enormous amount of resentment in the heart of Absalom, which created all kinds of complications later on. So I spoke from the narrative of the Old Testament on Father’s Day; whereas, when I did a series about a year ago titled “The Age of Rage,” I used the Ephesians passage, “Don’t sin in your anger” — don’t let the sun go down without trying to bring some form of resolve to it. In a series like that I tend to use Scripture as the underlying authority for what I’m saying.
Preaching: Have you found that your preaching style has changed, based on where you are now as opposed to previous settings in which you were preaching?
Hybels: Actually, Willow Creek is my first Senior Pastorate, and it’s the only church that I’ve preached in consistently for the last sixteen years, so I can’t really answer that.
Preaching: So your own preaching style has developed within this setting?
Hybels: Yes, the people have paid the price of me growing up in my preaching over the years and, quite frankly, they’re still paying the price, I think!
Preaching: How important do you think this particular approach to preaching is as a factor in Willow Creek being able to so effectively reach unchurched people?
Hybels: It’s a major factor, Mike. It’s a major factor because non-churched people are not quick to relate to traditional preaching styles where the illustrations are about Dwight L. Moody and Spurgeon and missionary stories. That’s not the world they live in — those aren’t the players that non-churched men relate to; as so many non-churched people told me before we started Willow Creek, “We dropped out of church. We don’t go to church because they’re giving answers to questions we’re not even asking.”
What we have attempted to do at Willow Creek with our weekend “seeker services” is to be very careful about addressing the whole counsel of God but addressing it in as relevant a way as possible, because we want to get the ear of that non-churched person whose attention is not easy to capture and maintain.
Preaching: During the 1980’s and into the 1990’s, we’ve had a lot of social change. The Chicago area, like most other parts of the country, has experienced a tumultuous period. Have you seen, even over the past eight or ten years, your preaching changing to adapt to some of those changes taking place?
Hybels: I’d say it’s a very insightful question that you’re asking. I have found a dramatic change in the sixteen years that Willow Creek has been in existence. In the mid-to-late 1970’s, if we led people to Christ through the preaching ministry of the church, the next challenge was to encourage people to shift over to the midweek service where they could receive expository teaching and get into small groups and become disciples.
Sixteen years later, now in the early 1990’s, we find that much of what we have to do is attempt to speak to people’s brokenness, their addictions, their wounds, their victimizations. We’re finding that instead of just discipling people we lead to Christ, we have to almost reparent them before they’re capable of being discipled because they have lived with so much trauma and have been wounded and broken so badly that most of the time some form of counseling is necessary. We put on seminars regularly sponsored by our counseling center on addictions and on forms of violation and heartbreak that you really have to address if you’re going to be relevant in today’s world.
Preaching: That’s a different idea, the idea of healing as you reach people even before you can disciple them. How would you recommend a traditional pastor approach that whole idea in the preaching ministry?
Hybels: I think it’s very tempting for traditional preaching styles to present Christ and the Word of God as the quick cure-all for whatever ailment is afflicting an individual today. I think that might be a little bit simplistic. If someone has been sexually molested, if someone grew up in the home of an alcoholic father, if someone had been beaten as a child, there are some deep psychological wounds that have to be carefully treated by trained Christian counselors before those wounded people can thoroughly appropriate the promises and the precepts of Scripture.
Ideally, discipleship, preaching and counseling should be integrated so all of that could work together in bringing a person toward fullness, but we have found that if people are just under preaching and are not being personally restored through Christian counseling or personal discipleship through a mentoring process, just traditional preaching is probably not enough to restore many people to wholeness.
Preaching: Tell me a little bit about your own approach to preaching — how you go about preparing a sermon, whether it be one for weekend or midweek. What approach do you take as you move through the preparation process?
Hybels: My approach would vary dramatically if I’m preaching to our midweek believer’s service or our weekend service. For our midweek service — if we’re preaching through a book of the Bible — I would take the rather conventional expository approach of reading the text, going through the correct hermeneutical steps to make sure I’m touching all the bases and doing the commentary work. Then I try to make that passage relate and live in the hearts of the people to whom I’m preaching.
I work very hard on application. I think the instructional part is the easier part of preaching; the points of application are exceedingly difficult to be relevant with. I strive to keep it practical, to keep it applicable, to present Scripture in a way that believers walk away saying, “I know what the main emphasis was and I even have three or four ways I can put it into effect in my life tomorrow.
I find myself asking the famous two word question all throughout my sermon preparation process, which is the phrase “So what? So what? So what?” Why is this important to the guy who just spent twelve hours in the loop of Chicago banging his head in the financial markets? He raced to the commuter train, his wife picked him up at the station, and he ate a sandwich in the car on the way out to the church. Why does he need to know what I’m saying? Of what importance is this to him? I work very hard on that so that people really drive away saying, “It was good to be in the house of the Lord and to sit under the Word because I got something I could put in my life.”
It’s a little different for the weekend crowd because I can’t take the conventional expository approach. If I say very strongly, “Thus saith the Lord” or “Thus saith the Word of God,” non-churched people say, “I don’t buy your premise so why should I listen to what you’re saying?” So when I’m speaking to seekers, I tend to spend more time building bridges so that non-churched people see the logic in the instructions behind the Word of God.
I’ve done a series on the Ten Commandments a few times at our weekend services. When the Scriptures say “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me,” you can preach that to a Christian audience and say “Thus saith the Lord,” and they’ll do it — they accept that God rejects idolatry of any kind.
In a non-churched crowd the question is, “Why? Why is God hung up on exclusivity? What’s the wisdom behind that commandment?” So, I would spend time developing the idea that if you put your faith and trust in anything other than the true God of Scripture it’s going to disappoint you in your time of need. It’s not going to touch your soul. It’s not going to meet the longings in your heart. I would have to spend more time showing the wisdom behind the particular commandment.
Preaching: Which do you find to be easier to prepare?
Hybels: Oh, the midweek services by far!
Preaching: The whole issue of application is one of the areas many pastors struggle with the most. Sometimes it’s tempting to avoid it altogether because it’s so tough. Are there particular approaches or tools, any elements that you have found to help you in developing good, authentic application?
Hybels: I think what helps in the application part of my preaching ministry is that I am in close relational contact with persons in my accountability group — couples that Lynne and I fellowship with. I am very tuned in to what most men and women in our community are wrestling with.
When I’m giving a message in my “Parenthood” series, for instance, one of my closest friends has three preschool children and he is at the end of his rope most of the time because of the frustration of knowing how to bring the proper balance between love and discipline. In preaching on that subject I kept him and his family in mind during the whole preparation process so that others who would fall into that same category would benefit from the instruction and application I was making to him and his family.
Most of the time in my preaching I’m really thinking of a few individuals that I know need instruction and application in the specific realm of information that I’m talking about that day. In the “Age of Rage” series, there are some people in my immediate world that are being consumed with anger, and I knew that when I gave the practical steps out — how do you move from anger to resolve and do it authentically and biblically? — I knew they’d be all ears. I had to do my homework carefully, I had to make sure my application was biblical and in general agrement with sound Christian psychological laws and so forth.
Preaching: Look ahead over the next several years as you see your church setting and the things that may be coming on us in the 1990’s. How do you see your preaching changing over the next several years?
Hybels: I see myself doing less of it.
Preaching: Why is that?
Hybels: At Willow Creek we have transitioned to a team-teaching format. We’re in five services a week and we’re just moving into six now. We have two midweek services, Wednesday night and Thursday night. Now this fall we’re moving to two Saturday night and two Sunday morning services. I hit the wall a couple of years ago trying to do them all, so now we have a rotation where I quarterback a team of four teachers, and try to lead the rotation to play to the strengths of the teachers yet keep the directional momentum to the preaching menu of the church.
I believe that more churches are going to move toward that as pastors find out that they will tend to either preach well or lead their church well; but if they’re trying to do both, something’s going to suffer, and sometimes everybody suffers. So maybe we’ll be a prototype for the team-teaching approach.
The advantage to the congregation is they hear the voice of God through different voice boxes. They discern the wisdom of God through different personalities and gift mixes. The other advantage is that the teachers get more preparation time so that what they bring to the congregation can be better researched, more thoroughly prayed through, and applied to their own lives. A lot of us pastors preach what we have not yet applied in our own lives because by the time we’re trying to apply truth to ourselves we’re already in preparation for the next time up. That often leads to some forms of hypocrisy — it’s unintentional but it’s almost inevitable.
I really believe that the church ought to be led by leaders and taught by teachers — plural — and administrated by administrators, etc. We’re heading in that direction, and I think that’s exciting.
Preaching: How often as the Senior Pastor do you find yourself preaching?
Hybels: Fifty percent of the time. Most churches only have a Sunday morning service so that would mean twenty-six times. In the course of the year, I’ll probably speak twenty-six weekend services, but also maybe eight or nine of our midweek services. It’s important to me to nourish and feed the core of the church at our midweek services and it’s important for me to be a consistent communicator to the non-churched community in our area.
Again, we make those decisions more by gift-mix. Two of us on the teaching team have very strong evangelism gifts with our preaching gifts, so we would tend to do more of the weekend services. The other two tend to be a little stronger toward the midweek services, so we would play to the strengths. One of the four of us is a pure communicator who can really speak in either place effectively — that’s not me, by the way!
Preaching: When you do a weekend you would take all four services?
Hybels: Correct, both Saturday night and both Sunday morning. That’s the approach we’re taking at this point. If we find out that that’s too exhausting for one of the players, then we’ll readjust and handle it differently.
Preaching: How far out do you try to plan the preaching schedule for the church?
Hybels: We have it planned out for about nine months. We do that in community. It’s very important for your readers to understand that the elders, the teaching team, a few staff members, and a few lay people will huddle together and spend multiple retreats working out what we sense of the direction of God on that matter. We spend a lot of time discerning the Spirit on the preaching menu.
Preaching: When you do that planning, you’re planning not only who’s going to speak but topics?
Hybels: What the series is about, how many weeks, which series should follow which to provide some sense of continuity. That’s closely scrutinized by a group of very godly, discerning people because if most pastors are honest, what they preached on in the last year will tend to reflect their own biases and hobby horses and strengths and so on. That’s not necessarily what would serve the congregation best.
I think the best illustration of that is this: I was at one of the sermon planning sessions, and someone encouraged me to do a series on fear. I said, “Well, that’s a good idea, do the rest of you have any other ideas?” I planned to take a pass on that idea, but one of the elders stopped me and said, “Bill, why don’t you admit that you don’t preach on fear because it’s not a big problem for you because of the family you grew up in, the temperament you have, the personality you have, the faith you have. You don’t wrestle much with fear.” And I said, “Okay, that’s true, I don’t. Why don’t you or one of the group here tell me if you do.”
Then I listened for the next forty-five minutes, and it became very apparent to me that fear was an important subject in the lives of many people. So I wound up speaking on it for three weeks, and one of those messages became the most purchased tape of any sermon I did that year! So, they were right, I was wrong, and the congregation would not have been served well, in part because of my blindness and the way I’m wired up.
Preaching: How do you go about evaluating your preaching?
Hybels: I think probably the best way for a preacher to improve his preaching is to find some very discerning people, godly people in the church, who by invitation of the teacher will lovingly, but truthfully, evaluate each and every sermon and evaluate it in written form and give a written evaluation of it shortly after the message is delivered for the purpose of stimulating that spiritual gift, challenging it to grow, developing it, and cheering it on.
I’ve done this for over ten years now, and all four teachers evaluate each other’s messages. When I’m out of town and one of the other guys brings the message, I listen to it by tape and give a written evaluation of it. Again, the primary purpose of it is encouragement and cheering each other on as the Scriptures implore us to do. We give constructive kinds of criticism that help us bump our preaching up a notch each time we do it. That’s the thinking behind it.
I think the teachers at Willow Creek would say that the evaluation of their preaching has been what has pushed their gifts to higher levels because that tends to be an area where the Christian community has taken a hands-off approach. When it comes right down to it, almost every other spiritual gift is evaluated by the congregation. If someone sings a solo and sings off pitch the whole time, they get the word that they’d better do something about improving their musical gifts or their gifts won’t be in demand anymore. But a preacher can massacre a text and bore a congregation and never touch a chord of interest in the life of a person in the church. And as he stands at the back door, 250 people file out and say “great job today.” That kind of deception just continues ineffective preaching that eventually destroys the church.
We have decided that preaching should be affirmed or corrected — rebuked or encouraged — just like all the other gifts of the church. Preaching should be subjected to that with a loving, Christ-like spirit and by invitation of the pastor with the kind of people that he can trust and knows don’t have hidden agendas. I could not take an evaluation from certain people in our church because they’re grinding an ax, and it would be too painful for me. I’d feel too emotionally vulnerable. But there are other people who I know really love God and they love me — but they love God more than they love me — and they want to help me grow in my preaching. They want the church to receive the best kind of preaching it can receive from someone like me and the other teachers. That has been a tremendous help in improving our preaching.
Preaching: In addition to your teaching team that evaluates one another, low many lay leaders would you say you pull into that group?
Hybels: About a half dozen.
Preaching: Do you give them a specific, written evaluation form?
Hybels: No, they usually do it on the front of the bulletin. I’m very clear with them saying it helps me emotionally if you write the encouraging parts first; if you’re going to make a criticism of some sort, I would appreciate it coming in the form of a recommendation. It’s easy to say, “I didn’t like point two.” What I need to know is, “How would you have changed point two for it to have been better?”
I don’t always follow each suggestion made. It’s not just because someone makes a suggestion that I change something, but if four of six evaluators say that my illustration of the boy and the dog didn’t work well, I’d better rethink the illustration of the boy and the dog to make sure that it’s doing what I hoped it would do.
Many pastors are in multiple services. We make dramatic changes between the Saturday night and Sunday services. I remember recently one of our other teachers was really struggling with a message. He gave it Saturday evening, and if it’s not sacrilegious to refer to it this way I would have given him a “C” on Saturday night. We talked for an hour and a half after the service and made some changes on his message. At 9:00 o’clock Sunday it was about a “B,” and we worked for another thirty minutes after that. And when he gave it at 11:00 o’clock, it was right up there in the “A-” to “A” level. He learned throughout the whole process, so all of those are lessons that will serve him and our church well the next time out.
That’s very important. Think about it: professional athletes have batting coaches; businessmen have consultants; government officers have advisors; so it only stands to reason that preachers need coaches. Preachers need people to get up next to them and say, “I think I saw something that could help you improve.”
One of the evaluators that I use regularly is an attorney, and he has impeccable logic; if I skip one step in the logical process, he’s on me like a shirt. That’s good for me because it challenges me when I’m putting the messages together. Another one of my evaluators is a theologian, so the attorney will watch my logic and the theologian will watch my theology. Another one is a homemaker who is a “feeler” type. She will alert me to any off-the-cuff remarks I make that might be offensive or be considered insensitive to some members of the congregation. I have a wide variety.
I even have one sort of non-church person. He’s not a Christian yet, but he is a very wise, discerning man, and I check with him and he gives me the reaction from someone outside the family of God. It sounds funny to have a non-church person evaluate your preaching. It’s much less formal because he doesn’t even come to church each week. But I’ll call him on Monday, and I’ll say, “Did that make sense to you? What could I improve? What didn’t you get?” It’s amazing what people get and what they don’t get. So all of the feedback is very important.

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About The Author

Michael Duduit is the founding publisher and editor of Preaching magazine. He is also the founding Dean of the new College of Christian Studies and Professor of Christian Ministry at Anderson University in Anderson, South Carolina. Michael is author and editor of several books, including the Handbook of Contemporary Preaching (Broadman & Holman Press), Joy in Ministry (Baker Books), Preaching With Power (Baker) and Communicate With Power (Baker). From 1996 until 2000 he served as editor of the Abingdon Preaching Annual series. His email newsletter, PreachingNow, is read each week by more than 40,000 pastors and church leaders in the U.S. and around the world. He is founder and director of the National Conference on Preaching and the International Congress on Preaching, which has been held in 1997 at Westminster Chapel in London, 2002 at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and 2007at Cambridge. He has been a pastor and associate pastor, has served a number of churches as interim pastor, and speaks regularly for churches, colleges and conferences.

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