The Source for Youth Ministry

Cool Conversations/Interviews

Lee Strobel Interview
December 5, 2000

I think Lee Strobel is one of the best resources for reaching the "unchurched" today. Lee grew up an atheist and came to Christ through Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. Lee quit his job at The Tribune and went on staff at Willow Creek, has written numerous books on reaching out to both the "unchurched" and skeptics of Christianity. His book "Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary" is a MUST READ for anyone who wants to be a light in their community. His book "The Case for Christ" and his new book "The Case for Faith" are incredible tools for answering, and equipping us to answer tough questions about our faith. Now Lee ministers with Rick Warren at Saddleback church in Southern California as he continues his writing. I was excited to get the chance to sit and talk with Lee in Chicago- I wanted to share it with all of you.

JONATHAN: Lee. You worked with Bill Hybels at Willow Creek for years. Now you work with Rick Warren at Saddleback. From one of the biggest churches in America to another. What's that like- from Bill to Rick?

LEE: Well there are differences in style, differences in personality, but not in substance. Not in terms of their heartbeat for evangelism, for the local church and their giftedness as leaders, teachers and evangelists. So I think there's more similarities than differences in terms of substance; in terms of style they're just two different individuals and I enjoy them both. I mean, both are fun people. I had great times with Bill and have great times with Rick.

JONATHAN: Now what was it that led you to change? I mean wasn't it hard to leave Willow Creek?

LEE: Yeah, sure. After, you know, 12 years here. But we felt clearly God's call. The environment at Saddleback allows me to do more books which I really enjoy.


LEE: And so I'm freed up a little more in terms of book writing.

JONATHAN: Good. Good. I'm glad you brought up your books. I love " ... Unchurched Harry and Mary," I pump that all the time in my training sessions. Now was that your first book?

LEE: That was my first Christian book. I wrote another book before I was a Christian.

JONATHAN: Okay- cool. In that book one of your points was that "people are morally adrift but secretly want an anchor." An encouraging point to those of us sharing our faith- because of the ramifications- "people want something more than the empty life they're leading- whether they admit it or not!" Yesterday you shared a similar point, revealing that, as an atheist, you felt like something was missing, but because you didn't want to feel guilty about your behavior, you used to use your atheism as an excuse for your actions ...?

LEE: Well I think that atheists ... in my experience, have some intellectual, and sometimes considerable intellectual issues involved with Christianity. But often those are used to mask underlying moral or emotional issues that, I think, were both true in my case. I think the questions I had intellectually were legitimate, but at the same time I used them, not as a platform to pursue truth, but a defense mechanism to keep Christianity away. So it didn't infringe upon my morals or cause me to deal with emotional issues that kept me from away from God.

JONATHAN: Absolutely. So when you wrote that point about "secretly wanting an anchor," was that strictly from your life or did you observe people having this up front shell, but underneath feeling empty ... ?

LEE:Well, my friends in the newspaper business who lived very raucous, wild lives- as a person- I think really deep down inside, they were coming to the realization that this is not the path to happiness. That it was not leading them where they want to go. And yet they knew nothing else but to continue to pursue it. And I think down inside they were looking for some framework for their lives- some anchor for their lives. And, um ... some have found it and many of them haven't.

JONATHAN: Now since this interview is for the benefit of youth workers: how do you think that principle relates to teens out there? Do you think it's true for teens as well?

LEE: Yeah, I think, you know, people think, "Gosh if there were no rules, life would be great!" And then you think about that and you realize, if there were no rules, life would be paralyzed. I mean, you couldn't drive in traffic if there were no rules. There are rules called traffic signs to help us achieve freedom on the roads. I can drive from here to St. Louis because there are rules. There are traffic signs which help regulate us in such a way that we can get to a destination. If there were no rules, if there were no traffic signs, we couldn't get anything done. There'd be just a series of collisions and life would be at a stalemate.

So, I think down inside people realize that even though something in them wants there to be no rules because they think that's where the fun would be. I think most of them realize down inside that this is not bringing them the satisfaction, the fulfillment, or the happiness that they thought that it would. And they're confused by that. And the more they pursue sex, the more they pursue drugs, the more they pursue alcohol, the more they pursue material things, they begin to realize that "these are not satisfying the ache that is deep within my soul!"

My hope is they begin to question "doing more of the same thing" is not going to change the results! Someone defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and over and expecting different results. And if we continue to pursue fulfillment through other means and continue to get a result that is more ache and not less, more frustration and not less, more directionlessness and not less, hopefully people will get to the point where they say, "Maybe I need to be looking for God! Maybe down inside I really secretly realize that there is a god who has my best interest at heart. And how he wants me to live is the very best way to live is the best way to live because he designed us and that real fulfillment is going to come NOT from externals but it's going to come from internals. It's going to come from knowing God in a personal way. And the bi-product of that is going to be the fulfillment and the satisfaction that we can't find anywhere else."

JONATHAN: Absolutely. Absolutely. Awesome! Now, question about your book "What Jesus Would Say to: Rush Limbaugh, Madonna, Bill Clinton..." and all these different people ... Excellent book! Loved it ...

LEE: Thank you.

JONATHAN: ...very compassionate book, too. I think a lot of people would look at the cover and think, "Oh my gosh! He's going to bash all these people!" or "Cool! He's going to bash all these people!" But reading it- it was a very accurate look at the compassion that Jesus has, and what he might say. Now I'm curious. Did you ever hear from any of them about that.

LEE: No ... I ...

JONATHAN: ... or did you pursue that, by chance?

LEE: I did try to send copies of the message to everybody who I wrote about. Most of those in the book were originally sermons at Willow Creek. I tried to get them to everybody involved. The only person I got a reaction from is the person who is not in the book- and that's Rob Sherman who is the atheist in Chicago- former spokesman for the American Atheists Incorporated. He's a guy that I know and we have had a lot of interaction over the sermon I did concerning what Jesus would say to Rob Sherman. In the book I changed it to "What would Jesus say to Madalyn Murray O'hair" because no one had ever heard of Rob Sherman, and Madalyn Murray O'hair was a well known atheist at the time. But other than that I never heard from anyone else.

I especially pursued Greg Louganis, the Olympic Athlete who now has Aids. As I read about his life, my heart really went out to him. And I sent him a letter and said, "Where ever you are, if you ever want to have a conversation, or you want someone to talk to about God or about life, I'll come to where you are and I'll make myself available." It came back unopened and RETURN TO SENDER. And I wondered at the time "could it be because my return address on the envelope was a church?" And maybe he had been so hurt by churches that he wouldn't even open the envelope.

And I think that's sad when churches have alienated people who are most hurting, and alienating people who are in most need of knowing about Jesus.

JONATHAN: Wow. You know, when I was reading, for example, the chapter on Madonna- I was just thinking, "you know if she could just hear this." It's probably not something she would expect to hear from a Christian. You just wonder because you hear her emptiness in her interviews and her actions- and you can't help but to think this is what she's searching for.

LEE: I wanted everybody to see themselves in Madonna. I wanted everybody to see that God can be compassionate towards Madonna, a woman who is driven, I believe, into a lifestyle, partially at least, because of the fact that her mother died when she was very young and nobody ever processed it in a healthy way with her. And she had all these questions like "why would her religious mother die at a young age?" "why would God do that?" "She didn't deserve to die!" and all these questions that a five year old would go through when her mother died. And yet not having an opportunity to have solid Christians, apparently, really help her process her grief, it's not too surprising that she would pursue a lifestyle as she has. THAT DOESN'T excuse her lifestyle, but it helps us understand it a bit.

And a lot of people listening to that message and reading that chapter, to see themselves and see the way that their life has been driven by various emotional hurts in their past or tragedys or whatever. And to push them into an area, in areas where they're not finding fulfillment, they're finding frustration, anger and pain still! I want them to know that God can meet them in the midst of that- that God WANTS to meet them in the midst of that, that God wants to adopt Madonna. You know she's had her whole life, you know, looking for the mother who she lost. And God's saying ... as a matter of fact the Bible says that God wants to be a father to the orphans.
So I want people to say, "I walked into that church service ..." or "I picked up this book thinking I knew Madonna and seeing a stereotype of her life. And now I understand she's as human as I am and she has pains and hurts like I do and she needs Jesus Christ ... but you know, I DO TOO!"

JONATHAN: Lee. You know, that's what I like about the book. Every time it's not pointing the finger saying, for example, "Look at Bill Clinton!" or "Look at Madonna- what pagans they are!" but it's more like, "Wow, I can relate to that because I do the same thing!"

LEE: Yep, yep. You know, I wanted to use that as a format to communicate some basic things about grace, and servanthood, and prayer, and different topics in a way that non-believers would be more receptive. Because- you know, you could do a message in your church about prayer and maybe some seekers would be interested, but if you do it on what Jesus would say to Bart Simpson and it's really about prayer, "how Bart Simpson prayed," then I was hoping perhaps we could expose more non-believers to some Biblical truth about prayer.

JONATHAN: Exactly. And you know, you touched on it well- that was a great chapter. And now you have a new book, "Case for Faith."

LEE: Right.

JONATHAN: "Case for Christ" was a huge success and you mentioned that there was an overwhelming amount of 16 to 21 year olds ...

LEE: 16 to 24 and this is all anecdotal, but, of the people who've come to Christ through the book, I've noticed a lot of them are in the 16 to 24 age group ...

JONATHAN: And do you think that "The Case for Faith" is going to have the same ...

LEE: Yeah, I think so. "The Case for Christ" is the historical case for Christianity. "The Case for Faith" is the answers to the 8 biggest objections to Christianity, like "why is there pain and suffering in the world?" "How can a loving God send people to Hell?" "How can Jesus be the only way to God?" and so forth. But we are coming out in May of 2001 with the student addition of the case for Christ and it's designed for people in high school.


LEE: And, from the letters I've received, some 16, 17 and 18 year old's don't have a problem reading "A Case for Christ," but it may be a stretch for some. And so we wanted to do a new format for younger people, maybe 12 through 16 kind of format. And it's completely redone. I worked with an expert on youth ministry to produce a book that is not just a "dumb down" version of "The Case for Christ" but a whole knew book that has the same information in it but completely presented in a different way to try to reach the younger people. And we'll probably be doing that with "The Case for Faith" as well.

JONATHAN: That'd be great.

LEE: You know I think "The Case for Faith" is going to be more useful for these people because it deals with the real questions that young people are asking. A lot are not asking the historical stuff (such as in "The Case for Christ") I think it helps them to see the historical basis and it strengthens their faith. But they're asking "Why is there pain and suffering, why are their parents getting divorced?

JONATHAN: Or their friends are asking them that ...

LEE: Exactly, exactly. That's right. So if we can equip them on the . . . what we call the big eight objections, then I think that will be a useful thing.

JONATHAN: So "The Case for Christ youth edition" will be a tool that youth ministers can use to hand to their kids to strengthen their faith.

LEE: Exactly. I mean I'd love it if, for instance, when kids go in to high school ... you know, some churches, when kids graduate from the 8th grade and are going into high school, they give kids a Bible or whatever- you give them a copy of "The Case for Christ" so that they can anchor their faith or to help them be exposed to the evidence that gives them confidence that their faith is well placed. So where hoping that God will open up more doors among young people. I did get a letter- an email from a 16 year old girl from Oxford England the other day- she had just become a Christian through the book, and so it's really neat to see young people responding to the book the way it is- which is shocking. It was not written for young people necessarily. I mean, I wrote it for me. I mean I wrote it for people who are just investigating and checking out. I didn't have an age in mind. And I've been thrilled to have younger people respond. I mean, that's exciting.

JONATHAN: That's awesome. Well Lee- let me ask you some personal questions. What to you do to relax? What do you do with family and friends?

LEE: I've been married 28 years, we have a wonderful marriage and I just love spending time with my wife. My kids are now 24 and 22, both are involved in ministry and now both are living in Southern California. So we're living fairly close to each other. I like spending time with my wife. We like to go on trips together. I like to go fast, so I got this Mustang convertable and the engine's suped up to about 300 horse power ...

JONATHAN: And now that you're in Southern Cal, what's your favorite place to go? Do you shoot up to Monterey?

LEE: I go to the Mohave desert and open up my car ...

JONATHAN: There you go.

LEE: ...see how fast it will go. It's a thing we enjoy doing- just driving around, holding hands as we drive, talking ...

JONATHAN: Avoiding local law enforcement ...

LEE: ... yeah ... No, just enjoying the scenery, stopping in little towns and meeting people, talking to people about Jesus as opportunities arise- we just enjoy that kind of lifestyle.

JONATHAN: That is fun.

LEE:It is.

JONATHAN: I ask everyone this- I gotta ask you: What is your favorite movie?

LEE: Favorite mov ... well my favorite movie of all time is "It's a Wonderful Life." It's an old fashioned movie but ... I was in a resort called "La Quinta" in Palm Springs (CA) recently and that's where "It's a Wonderful Life" was written. And they actually have the room there, the little cottage where Frank Capra wrote it's a wonderful life. So that's cool. I'm thinking of seeing if they still rent that room out. And maybe for my next book, uh ...

JONATHAN: write it in that room...

LEE: Yeah, spend time in there writing my next book ...

JONATHAN: Yeah, get in that room and you never know ...

LEE: Yeah, that's right!

JONATHAN: Now, I wanted to ask you about the web too. You on the web much? And is there a certain web site you find yourself on all the time?

LEE: I'm on the web all the time. I use it for research all the time. My daughter's much more in-depth at it than I am and uses it a lot for research. I go to a lot of different sites. I use the search engines a lot, mainly for research. I'll go check things out around ... I'll go into chat rooms every once in a while and get to know people. I enjoy the Internet a lot. I think it's a hugely important tool for evangelism. There's this conference coming up in November in Orlando (last month) on Internet evangelism...

JONATHAN: Oh cool!

LEE: ... and I think that's a whole new horizon for the church.

JONATHAN: Wonderful.

LEE: I'm very excited about how that can be used to reach others for Christ.

JONATHAN: Wonderful, wonderful. Final question: if you could say one thing to youth ministers today and you know they would ACTUALLY listen, what would you say?

LEE: First of all I wouldn't presume that I would have anything to say, or that they would be interested either. But, you know, I would say, as a person who came to faith later in life- I was 28 when I started searching, probably 30 when I came to faith- and I had lived a life that had hurt a lot of people and done a lot of damage to people and had been leading a very sinful and hurtful life before that.

I look at people who come to Christ early in life through student ministries as incredibly blessed. You know my children who both came to Christ at young ages because of a lot of factors, one of which was the ministry here at Willow Creek among the youth leaders and children's ministers, you know, they're not going to go down the road that I went down. They're going to be saved the heart ache and the heart break that I caused myself and so many other people because of the way I lived. And so I would just encourage them and say, you know, your mission of helping reach young people for Christ- you know there's verse in James that says when you lead someone to Christ you cover a multitude of sins- I mean, you're not just leading them to heaven, you're covering a multitude of sins and part of that means that all of the sin that they would have got involved with ... they're not going to get involved with because they came to Christ earlier in life. To save people that heartbreak and that pain and that alienation and hurt and to save others that is an incredibly valuable contribution to the world.

And I would just say for youth leaders, you know, to look in the eyes of the non-believers among them, among the students- and to think about, not just their future in heaven but to think about their future in this world and the regret they're going to go through and the pain and the hurt unless they get on the right path. I just think that's very noble and important contribution that youth ministers make to changing eternities, but also changing lives so that in this world people will be spared the kind of heartbreak that I've gone through.

JONATHAN: Youth workers today have the potential to be used by God to save a lot of heart ache out there.

LEE: Absolutely.

JONATHAN: Lee... this has been a privilege. Thank you for your time.

LEE: Sure, no problem. Glad to help.

You can pick up Lee's books at your local Christian book store,, or even

B O O K S   B Y   L E E   S T R O B E L :
    "Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary"
    "What Jesus Would Say"
    "God's Outrageous Claims"
    "The Case for Christ"
    "The Case for Faith"