Try as I might, I can’t resist Andy Stanley’s new book Deep & Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend. I love his candor and self-deprecation. He’s disarming. Andy says up front that he’s well aware of the advantages he was given in ministry by virtue of his being a PK to one of Atlanta’s most successful pastors. He says he knows he stands on other people’s shoulders, and that Northpoint has often succeeded in spite of him, not because of him.
In case you’re not from around here, my ministry context takes place in the imposing shadow of Northpoint Community Church, which is a few miles from my church. I know I’m not competing with him. As if! But you can’t do a contemporary worship service—or whatever Vinebranch is—in this community and not be compared, favorably or not, with what’s going on at Northpoint. So you’ll understand my slight defensiveness about Andy Stanley and Northpoint—why it is he needs to “disarm” me before I can really hear what he has to say. It’s not as if he doesn’t throw down the gauntlet himself in the pages of his book. If we traditional churches aren’t going to create a church that unchurched people love to attend, he says, don’t worry: a Northpoint satellite church will be opening soon near us.
I said in my sermon that the book caused me to do some soul-searching, and I wasn’t kidding. I’m tempted to feel guilty that I haven’t worked harder to reach unchurched people. But in fairness, very little in my seminary education, my training as a pastor, the ordination process of the United Methodist Church, and my pastoral experience has equipped me to create the kind of church that Andy is talking about here—one that is obsessed with reaching the lost.
Speaking of being “obsessed,” Andy writes the following in the conclusion of his book:
Churches for churched people obsess over the most frivolous, inconsequential things. It’s why you dread your board meetings, your elder meetings, and your committee meetings. You rarely talk about anything important. You’re managing found people. I know you care about un-found people in your heart. But do you care in your schedule, your programming, your preaching style, or your budget? Do you know how much difference the care you feel in your heart makes in the life of someone far from God? None. No difference. Your dad loved you in his heart. But it was the love in his schedule that made the difference, wasn’t it? Do you really want to spend the rest of your ministry years feeling something you don’t do anything about?
The answer is “no,” of course. But one obstacle people like me face is believing that we can do something about it. We’ve been taught in seminary and elsewhere that the long, slow, steady decline of churches in the face of secularization is a reality that we’re going to have to accept. So here comes Andy Stanley saying that we don’t have to to just accept it. Do you suppose he’s right?
In my soul-searching, the most important thing I take away from the book is this:
People are really lost apart from Jesus Christ.
Duh. I’m supposed to know this already. Andy writes the book as if I already do. But he doesn’t know much at all about mainline Protestant clergy. We rarely, if ever, talk about the doctrine of hell. When we do, we speak as if we’re embarrassed about it: surely, we think, a loving and merciful God wouldn’t send someone to hell. As I said in my sermon, not believing in hell would certainly help us sleep better at night. I understand the appeal: in the end, everyone is going to be saved anyway, so why sweat evangelism now? Unfortunately, this kind of universalism goes against the words of Jesus and the New Testament and 2,000 years of Christian thinking on the subject. Our belief in hell ought to inspire a sense of urgency about our mission to reach the lost.
I can already hear the pushback: But salvation is about so much more than salvation from hell! The eternal and abundant life that Jesus talked about in John 10:10, for example, is something that starts now; it isn’t something that we simply wait for on the other side of heaven or resurrection. We need to be saved, not merely from the consequences of sin on the other side of judgment, but from the consequences of sin right now. A life apart from God right now isn’t nearly as rich and full as a life with God.
And I agree, but I also believe strongly believe that, divorced from the doctrine of hell, salvation starts to sound like something that Oprah might talk about, versus what the Bible and classic Christianity teach. In my experience at a mainline seminary (which I mostly loved, at which I learned a great deal, and for which I am very grateful), the general neglect of the doctrine of hell manifested itself in an obsession with liberation theology, which is very this-worldly in its outlook. My biggest objection to liberation theology is that even if we could create a world in which the scales of justice were balanced such that every country were as egalitarian as—I don’t know—Sweden, let’s say, wouldn’t we all still need Jesus? I don’t think the Swedes are oppressing anyone in particular, but don’t they still need Jesus?
Regardless, in his book defending the doctrine of hell, Jerry Walls, a Methodist scholar, writes:
[I]f hell is not perceived to be a serious threat, it is hard to see how salvation can have the same meaning it used to. Not surprisingly, salvation is less and less conceived as a matter of eternal life, and more and more as a matter of of personal fulfillment in this life. Thus, salvation comes to sound increasingly like a means of dealing with psychological problems, gaining in positive self-image, developing a better outlook on life, liberation from oppression, and so on.
Let’s be honest, my fellow mainline Protestant clergy: tell me this hasn’t already happened!
Another takeaway from the book for me is this: while I am obsessed with numbers—I’m embarrassed at how how personally I take it when people either do or don’t show up to worship—I don’t much care about who comprises those numbers, if you know what I mean. Give me a full sanctuary, give me record-breaking worship attendance, give me numbers that make me look good to my clergy peers, my district superintendent, my bishop. I’ll surely have a few unchurched people in there somewhere, right?
Needless to say, this isn’t Andy’s approach at all. To his credit, he’s well aware of the seductive power of numbers and big-ness—how they foster complacency.
[O]ur ongoing challenge is to make sure we stay in the unchurched people market. That’s not easy. Now that we’re so big, it’s not even necessary. Who would know? Who would care? Truth is, only our core would know. But we would all quit if we thought that staying meant spending the rest of our productive lives running a big church rather than making a big difference.
I’m not saying this book is perfect, or that I buy into everything he writes. Like the good Baptist that he is, for example, Andy has a binary view of salvation: you’re either in or out. This seems overly simplistic. Churched people continue to need Jesus every bit as much as unchurched people. Finishing the race once you start it is harder than Andy lets on. While I agree that churches shouldn’t be obsessed with churched people, we need to have a healthy pastoral concern for the ongoing spiritual development of people who are already Christians. And that’s a challenge, too. I don’t think pastors can outsource that part of church life as easily as Northpoint seems to do.
Also, I really wanted Andy to say more about his dad, Charles, and his success. He describes a man who spends more time on his knees in prayer than anyone I know. Assuming Andy is an accurate reporter, Charles doesn’t make decisions about running his church without praying about it first and trying to discern God’s will. Andy said that this habit annoyed or angered some powerful people at First Baptist, at least early on. I want to hear more about this! Because I know my tendency. I tend to make decisions first and then pray about them after the fact. I doubt I’m alone in this. What if I resolved to be as diligent in prayer as someone like Charles Stanley? Wouldn’t I be more successful in ministry? I’m sure!
Andy is probably like his father in this regard, too, but he doesn’t say much about his prayer life, or the role that it’s played in his life and ministry. That’s a shame. Instead, he gives a lot of detail about what he calls the “secret sauce” of Northpoint’s success: Here’s the model. Here’s the strategy. Here’s the plan. Follow these steps, and maybe you’ll be successful, too. This is the least compelling part of the book.
Contrary to what Andy says, the secret sauce of Northpoint’s success isn’t a plan, a model, a strategy, or a program: it’s the Holy Spirit, and faithful people like Andy Stanley and others answering the call of our Lord every step of the way. This is the winsome picture of Andy that emerges from this book: someone who was constantly responding to new and providential circumstances—learning, growing, repenting, and growing some more. I hope he writes more about that some day. Because that kind of faithfulness will serve us pastors better than any specific model, plan, or program.
1. Andy Stanley, Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 315.
2. Jerry Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame, IN: The University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 7.
3. Stanley, 13.