Nurturing/ Teaching Courses
Bill Hybels on Preaching
The Accompanying Presence
His voice is still small, but you'll preach better if you hear first from the Holy Spirit.
An Interview with Bill Hybels
Pastors talk about preaching in the power of the Holy Spirit. Bill Hybels, who preaches to about 20,000 people most weekends, says he senses the Lord's presence when he's in the pulpit, but even more so in the study (or on the boat) when he's preparing the message. Do you recall a time when you felt you preached in the power of the Spirit?
Bill Hybels: For me, being moved by the Holy Spirit in preaching is often more dramatic when I'm preparing a sermon than when I'm in the pulpit delivering it. When I'm in the flow of the Spirit, I have an awareness of the Spirit saying, "You're doing it just right, Bill." I can think of a time recently when I was anchored out on a boat and I had been praying and studying a text, and the ideas began to flow. I grabbed pen and paper, and I wrote as fast as my hand would allow me to write for probably an hour and a half. In one setting I put an entire message together, got down on my knees on the deck of the boat, and said, The greatest miracle of this sermon has already taken place. This was a gift I didn't deserve—the spiritual gift of preaching and teaching deposited in my life—and the Holy Spirit energized that gift that afternoon. That it worked as mysteriously and supernaturally as it did still overwhelms me.
What suggests to you that you are preaching in the power of the Spirit?
Thoughts come into my mind that I know were deposited there by a power other than my own. Sometimes I'll be reading a text, and I'll be prompted by the Holy Spirit: Hang with this text, Bill. Read it again. Read it slower. And while I'm ruminating on it, reading and rereading it, it's like something comes off the page or drops from heaven and intersects in my mind. A thought comes that I quickly try to put on paper, and then that leads to a next thought and a next. When additional thoughts begin to flow, I know that's not just the work of the flesh. I'm not that good. That's a supernatural thing. One way to know you have the preaching and teaching gift is that this supernatural dynamic occurs, and you learn how to go with the flow. You learn how to prepare your heart for that flow to occur and to capture it when it does.
What have you had to unlearn about preaching and the power of the Spirit?
A lot of men and women can read a text, formulate a few thoughts, and speak sort of off the top of their heads, but in 30 years I've never been able to do that. Certainly I've had to unlearn the idea that preparation is always going to be easy, as though you're going to sit down and God's going to appear and it's always going to flow and be mysterious.
Like your experience on the boat.
Yes. Probably the reason that came to mind as vividly as it did is because of how unusual that is. Usually I have to invest a lot more in research and preparation of my spirit. I make progress in 30-minute increments. My administrative assistant would assure you that my study sounds more like a dentist's office than some great artistic revelation happening.
This is a factory not the symphony center.
Most certainly. My average weekly preparation is taxing and requires more discipline than I thought was going to be required when I started many decades ago. Once you get accustomed to that, you settle into the routine. That becomes the norm, and you thank God like crazy when it goes easier or flows more dynamically than that.
Regarding the Holy Spirit, do the terms presence or manifest presence describe what you experience when you preach?
I refer to an accompanying presence. When I'm in the flow of the Spirit as best I can yield myself to be so, it's as though I have an awareness of the accompanying presence of the Spirit saying, You're doing it just right, Bill. You're saying it just the way I gave it to you. You're being true to yourself, true to the Word, true to my promptings. Just keep going. Way to go. And when I feel that, it's like time stands still, and you go, This is a great thing to be doing right now. Of course, there are other times when, for whatever reasons, I don't feel that accompanying presence as strongly. I've laid awake nights wondering about that. It's greatly appreciated when it's there.
Would you describe that sense of God's accompanying presence as rare, or frequent?
I would say it's frequent. Again, if you're living a yielded life, and if you have the preaching and teaching gift, and you're yielding that to God on a continual basis, that's one of the signs that you're in the right place doing the right thing for the right reasons. If you're doing something in the kingdom, and you rarely feel that, that's a red flag. Something needs to be looked at. Are you using the right gift? Are you using it in the right way? For the right reasons? At the right time? In the right context? If I didn't feel it consistently, that would be quite troubling to me.
Scripture portrays two sides to our experience of the Spirit. Ephesians says, "Be filled with the Spirit" and "Pray in the Spirit," suggesting there are things we can do that put us in a place where God's Spirit can be manifest in us. Then again, Jesus says, "The wind blows wherever it pleases." Which is your experience?
Every great communicator I know could tell you how they "get in the zone." Michael Jordan had a strict regimen before every big game to get himself in a prepared state to do his best. I've been fascinated by this. When I'm with other speakers, I ask them, "What do you do to get in the preparation zone? How do you pray? When do you prepare? Do you prepare in the same place? Do you listen to music? How do you prepare yourself just before you deliver your message?" Great communicators can say precisely how they up the probability that the Spirit will be strong in their life. Having done all of that, then, the wind blows where it will. Sometimes it blows stronger than others. I can only do the part that depends on me. I can fast and pray and kneel before God and invite others to pray with me. Sometimes the messages get lifted to fifteen thousand feet. Sometimes they get lifted to twenty thousand, sometimes to twenty-five thousand. Why there are those altitude differences, I don't know.
What have you learned from Scripture about preaching in the power of the Spirit?
It has a lot to do with courage. Look at the great messages delivered in Scripture. Joshua stands before the people and says, "Choose this day what you're going to do. Here's what I'm going to do." Peter stands up in and says, "Here's what you did to the One who was sent from God." Preaching involves an inordinate amount of courage. You have to be willing to take heat and backlash if you're going to say the words God gave you to say in the spirit he gave you to deliver it. In my own experience, the messages that turned certain corners at Willow and the messages that were greatly used in conference settings were ones that I walked toward the lectern with knees knocking, thinking, There is no way I'm going to be able to say these words to these people. God says, Here we go, and you say them. You feel alone in the moment, and you have to die to audience response, realizing they are probably not going to carry your picture in their wallet anymore. But you know, This is precisely what God wants me to say. That's a refining, character-building, intensely spiritual process.
Paul speaks in about the power of Christ resting on him when he was weak. How have you experienced that?
Some of the best preaching I've done came out of times when I was desperately needy. One message I've probably given five hundred times around the world came to me in the slums outside of Soweto in South Africa when I was supposed to speak to several thousand illiterate people about the nature of the Church of Jesus Christ. I realized this was an impossible task. How could I communicate such theology to people who have probably never seen what I'm trying to describe? I woke up at four o'clock in the morning and prayed, "God, I'm going to stay humbly in this kneeling position until you give me a way to talk about your church in a fashion that these folks can understand." I put together a unique message in which I brought people up on the stage and posed them in certain stances to give listeners pictures of the church. When I delivered the message that day, I knew I had that Accompanying Presence. People got it. It changed their understanding of what a church could be. That message came out of a desperate situation where unless God had moved, I was done for.
Bill Hybels is pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. Copyright © 2004 by the author or Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal
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