Preaching to Yourself and the Example of Bill Hybels

Do you ever wish preachers would preach to themselves? I think they often do, actually, even without knowing it. And this might be quite revealing. Allow me to explain.

Bill Hybels speaking.

I have been watching with sadness what has happened in the life of Bill Hybels. Though I try to think of people as innocent until proven guilty, the preponderance of accusations of sexual inappropriateness against Hybels leads me to believe that he did often step over the line, many lines, actually. He did and said things to his female staff members that should not have been done or said. His resignation from Willow Creek further supports the view that Hybels was way out of line in many of his relationships.

I feel sad about this because I always thought of Hybels as one of the “good guys” among America’s pastors. I do not know him personally, but his ministry of church planting, speaking, and writing has produced ample good fruit. I also feel angry because Hybels mistreated women who deserved far better from him, and because his failure is costly, not only to these women, and not only to himself, but also to his church and to the church more broadly.

Several publishers have stopped printing and selling Hybels’s books. I noticed that InterVarsity Press has stopped selling Who You Are When No One’s Looking, a highly-regarded bestseller. Seeing this title, my first thought was, “Well, there you go, Bill. Why didn’t you read your own book? You should have been preaching to yourself.” But, on further reflection, I believe Hybels was preaching to himself.

What I mean is this. For years I have observed that preachers seem to preach a lot about their own stuff. Those who struggle with materialism often preach against greed. Those who are prideful denounce pride. The lustful mention lust more often. And so forth and so on. Now, most preachers don’t say, “I’m preaching on this because I struggle with it,” though a few brave ones do. Yet, without even being conscious of what they are doing, preachers speak about their challenges, dreams, and failures. For example, I’m sure if you were to go back and listen to every sermon I preached for sixteen years as pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, you’d get a pretty good picture of my soul. You’d hear lots, for example, about trusting God because that was (and is) something I struggle with. In a similar vein, I’ll bet that Hybels preached a sermon series on “who you are when no one’s looking” partly because that’s the thing he was struggling with. Unfortunately, he didn’t heed his own sermons. We preachers often don’t.

Of course there’s another way in which many preachers preach to themselves. I think of some of the notable TV preachers who used to go on and on about grace, forgiveness, and mercy because they were doing things that need plenty of grace, forgiveness, and mercy. So do we all, of course. But the things we preachers repeat again and again tend to reveal something of our own lives, our own souls, our own particular need for God’s particular grace, forgiveness, and mercy.

If my theory about preachers preaching to themselves in anywhere near right, then this is certainly revealing. Would you like to know what your preacher is struggling with? Just pay attention to what they talk about the most. (Yikes!)

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