Posts Tagged ‘Andy Stanley’

“For it is by works that you have succeeded, not by gifts”

September 11, 2014

There is nothing wrong with acknowledging our giftedness.

Last night I began a new Bible study on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It was a lively discussion, with much laughter. After it was over, a parishioner asked me, “How do you know all that stuff?” After pausing for a moment, I said, “It’s a gift, I guess.”

Just saying those words, “It’s a gift,” didn’t feel right, and we both laughed it off. But I would be a hypocrite to answer any other way.

Why? Because I had made reference, just the night before at church council, to this brilliant new Christianity Today column from my favorite young theologian (and pastor), Andrew Wilson. He writes:

Imagine asking two successful people how they managed to accomplish what they have. The first says, “I’m just very gifted.” The second says, “I’ve just worked very hard.” Who sounds more smug?

Our meritocracy—in which people are valued based on ability alone—has conditioned us to consider it arrogant to attribute our accomplishments to God’s gracious gift. For some reason, gift talk sounds elitist. Conversely, we think we’re being humble when we say we worked hard for our success. The gospel polarity of grace versus works, though correctly understood in theory, is capsized in practice: “You succeeded? You must have worked harder than others,” we think. “You didn’t succeed? Try again.”

For it is by works you have succeeded, not by gifts, so that no one can boast. Logical as it may seem, it’s far from the gospel.

Why does believing that we’re gifted seem conceited when, technically, it’s exactly opposite of conceited? When we say we possess a gift, we acknowledge that credit doesn’t belong to us: it belongs to the Gift-Giver. And it’s not like we did anything to earn it because, again, it’s a gift.

I suspect one reason we’re reluctant to say that we’re gifted is because we don’t want to be misunderstood: to say we’re gifted is not to say that we’re more gifted than someone else. When I was ministering in Alpharetta, I would think twice about saying (or even believing) that I’m a gifted preacher because, after all, I’m no Andy Stanley.

But that isn’t the point: to whatever extent we possess a gift, we do so because of God. On this point, Wilson’s words resonate with me. I know what it’s like to play that potentially deadly game of comparing my success to other people’s success—and worrying that I don’t measure up.

I’m preaching to myself here. For years I’ve struggled with envying a friend who is more gifted than I am. He’s a better leader, a more prolific writer, a superior linguist, and a more effective preacher. When I think like a meritocrat, I feel dispirited: He’s a better Christian. He deserves success. When I think like a charismatic, I experience freedom: He’s been given a different gift and doesn’t deserve it any more than I do. Grace—gloriously—brings liberty. What do you have that you did not receive?

I’m anticipating an objection: “Sure, our talents, to some extent, come from God, but don’t we have to do something to develop them?”

When I think of Jesus’ parable of the talents, for instance, I can’t help but answer yes. But mostly what we do is to allow God to do through us. God offers us grace. We receive it. God offers us grace. We receive it. Et cetera.

Regardless, our role in the process, when compared to God’s role, is very small—which is why we acknowledge that it’s a gift.

“If the church has changed its view of divorce…”

March 27, 2014

I’ve blogged at least a few times about the analogy that Adam Hamilton and others have tried to draw between slavery and the ordination of women on the one hand and church’s traditional stance toward homosexual conduct on the other. If the church disregarded or reinterpreted scripture in the former cases, why can’t they do the same in the case of homosexual conduct?

The difference, as I’ve said, is that the Bible itself offers a trajectory away from slavery and female subordination. If every slaveholder in the first century treated their slaves as fully equal brothers in Christ, the way Paul urges Philemon to treat his runaway slave Onesimus, the institution of slavery would be undermined. (If you don’t believe me, read Paul’s crafty letter to Philemon. It’s a short book.) As for women, the Bible is replete with positive examples of women in leadership. We have, for example, Mary Magdalene serving as (literally) the first apostle, commissioned by the resurrected Lord to bring news of the resurrection to the other, male disciples. We have Paul’s praise of female coworkers, including the identification of Junia, in Romans 16:7, as an “apostle.”

And for both slavery and women, we have Paul’s liberating words in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

I hope that even my fellow Christians who disagree with the United Methodist Church on female ordination can at least agree that we are making a biblical case. That’s what good Protestants ought to do: the Bible is our primary authority guiding Christian doctrine and practice. The UMC, along with most of the universal Church, doesn’t believe that such a case can be made for acceptance of homosexual behavior.

But what about divorce? Hasn’t the church jettisoned the New Testament’s clear teaching that divorce is wrong? Yet don’t we permit divorce and remarriage all the time?

Even yesterday, in the wake of World Vision’s reversal of its policy on same-sex marriage, many critics complained that the organization hires Christians who are divorced and remarried. Isn’t that hypocritical? In February, Andy Stanley made the same point about Christian cake bakers who refuse to bake cakes for gay weddings. “Jesus taught that if a person is divorced and gets remarried, it’s adultery. So if (Christians) don’t have a problem doing business with people getting remarried, why refuse to do business with gays and lesbians?”

Are Andy Stanley and these other critics right?

My first response is, it doesn’t matter. If they are right, it only proves that many people who believe that homosexual conduct is a sin are hypocrites, not that homosexual conduct isn’t also a sin.

Regardless, Robert Gagnon, New Testament professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, tackles the question head-on in his book The Bible and Homosexual Practice. I find this very helpful.

(Gagnonwriting mostly for his fellow mainline Protestants, accepts the scholarly consensus that Matthew himself added Jesus’ divorce exception for “sexual immorality.” Since it’s in the Bible either way, it hardly matters.)

For example, on the question of divorce, there are New Testament authors that moderate Jesus’ stance. Jesus’ words were so radical that both Matthew and Paul found ways to qualify them. Matthew allowed for the exception of “sexual immorality” (Matt 5:32; 19:9; agreeing with the school of Shammai), while Paul permitted divorce for believers married to unbelievers who wanted to leave (1 Cor 7:12-16). Of course, one could also point to the availability of the option in the Old Testament (Deut 24:1-4). These kinds of qualification at least provide a basis for further exploration of the issue. Some divorce is permissible for some biblical texts so that one cannot say that the Bible has achieved a unanimous position on the subject. Alternatively, one could argue that the church has become too lenient on the issue in recent years and needs to do what Jesus did: stand against rather than with the culture.

There are other factors that make divorce a very different issue than that of homosexual intercourse. First, few in the church today would argue that divorce is to be “celebrated” as a positive good. The most that can be said for divorce is that in certain cases it may be the lesser of two evils. Second, unlike the kind of same-sex intercourse attracting the church’s attention divorce is not normally a recurring or repetitive action. For the situation to be comparable to a self-affirming, practicing homosexual a person would have to be engaged in self-avowed serial divorce actions. Third, some people are divorced against their will or initiate divorce for justifiable cause against a philandering or violent spouse. Such people should be distinguished from those who divorce a spouse in order to have love affairs with others or to achieve “self-fulfillment.”[†]

Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Nashville: Abingdon, 2000), 442-3.

Learning to ask, “What is God up to?”

September 18, 2013
Everybody loves Andy Stanley!

Everybody loves Andy Stanley!

I shared the following devotional at last night’s church council meeting.

Romans 8:28: And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

A few years ago, my birth mother, Linda, who lives in North Carolina, was excited to tell me that she had seen a preacher on TV who was so good. In fact, she said, he was probably the best preacher she had ever heard.

Now, I was confused by this because, after all, I’m not on TV, so who could she possibly be referring to? Then she said that he even pastored a church near me, in Alpharetta, and maybe I’d heard of him: his name is Andy Stanley.

Great! So even my own mother likes Andy Stanley better than me![†]

I have to laugh because you can’t be a pastor in Alpharetta, Georgia, and not feel like you’re in the shadow of Andy Stanley and his megachurch, Northpoint Community Church. Everybody loves Andy Stanley.

And who can blame them? He’s great. His church does better at reaching the unchurched than anyone else. And he recently wrote a memoir about his life—growing up as the son of a prominent Baptist pastor, Charles Stanley, and the experiences that led to his starting Northpoint. And the book inspired me in a number of ways. But what inspired me most about the book was something that Andy probably didn’t even think about when he wrote it.

What inspired me most was the fact that Andy’s success seems almost accidental. Seriously!

The way he describes it, he stumbled into ministry. First, he planned on getting a Ph.D. and teaching at a university. But he couldn’t get into the grad school he wanted to get into. So his plans fell through, and he needed money. The youth ministry position at his dad’s church, First Baptist Atlanta, opened up, and he took it—but only on a short-term basis. He wasn’t “called” into ministry. This wasn’t something he would do for very long. But he was good at ministry, and soon he started filling the pulpit for his dad on occasion. And he was good at preaching.

This wasn’t what anyone planned.

Then his dad’s church bought some warehouse property on the north side of town, intending to move there as soon as they sold their midtown Atlanta property. Except the housing market crashed and they couldn’t sell it. So they were stuck with these two properties. So the leaders of the church asked Andy if he wouldn’t mind holding a service in the warehouse up north. It wouldn’t be ideal, they said. It wouldn’t be like a traditional church at all—no choir, no piano, no organ. “Do you think you can make it work—at least until the ‘big church’ moves up there?”

This wasn’t what anyone planned.

Andy was very successful running this satellite campus. Thousands of unchurched people flocked to this warehouse church. The north campus grew so large so quickly that some people in the midtown church suspected that Andy was going force a hostile takeover of the church and kick his dad to the curb. Instead of making a bad situation worse, Andy made the painful decision to resign.

This wasn’t what anyone planned.

So, through a series of personal and professional false starts, and setbacks, and curveballs, and disappointments, Andy started Northpoint—a church that would became a model for reaching unchurched people.

And my point is, it wouldn’t have happened at all, except that nothing seemed to go as planned in Andy’s life!

Isn’t life often like that? Often the best things in life don’t go according to to plan—or at least our plans. Maybe the best things in life happen according to God’s plan, not ours.

A while back I was going through a tough time in my life, and I was complaining to a friend, who happens to be a Jew, as well as a Bible scholar. I asked angrily: “Why is this happening to me?” And my friend, who’s sort of like an honorary rabbi to me, said, “Don’t ask, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ Instead ask, ‘Why is this happening to me now?’” In other words, he wanted me to imagine that God was using this disappointment—this setback, this bad situation—in order to teach me something that I needed to learn.

And I’m like, “Of course! You’re exactly right!” God’s always doing stuff like that, isn’t he?

What if, whenever we face a disruption in our plans, a setback in our careers, or a crisis of some kind in our lives, we asked ourselves, not “Why is this happening?” but “I wonder what God is up to?”

Because you better believe he’s up to something good! Amen?

I’m exaggerating. I don’t really think she likes Andy Stanley more than me. 🙂

Andy Stanley and the authority of scripture

June 3, 2013

Scot McKnight, whose blog I read daily, highlights a dispute between Andy Stanley and a Southern Baptist professor named Denny Burk (about whom I know nothing, but that’s not Burk’s fault). Recently, Stanley preached about the authority of scripture and said,

The foundation of our faith is not the Scripture. The foundation of our faith is not the infallibility of the Bible. The foundation of our faith is something that happened in history. And the issue is always – Who is Jesus? That’s always the issue. The Scripture is simply a collection of ancient documents that tells us that story…

Stanley went on to say that he believes Adam and Eve were a literal couple, not because the “Bible says so” but because Jesus does. As Stanley said, “[A]nybody that can predict their own death and resurrection and pull it off – I just believe anything they say.” (Unless I’m mistaken, Stanley makes this same point in Deep & Wide.)

Burk objects that “our only knowledge of what Jesus says comes to us from the Bible. There can be no bifurcation between ‘what the Bible says’ and ‘what Jesus says.’ The former gives us the latter.”

Burk isn’t completely wrong. Stanley’s argument is weak. We can’t know, based on “something that happened in history,” that Jesus said what the Bible says he said about Adam and Eve. As N.T. Wright and others (including me), have argued, history (by which I mean, history alone, apart from scripture and faith) can tell us that Jesus was very likely raised from the dead. The resurrection, based on historical evidence alone, is at least as likely as many other historical events that we take for granted as fact. The reason many historians don’t say the resurrection happened is not because they’ve scrupulously followed the evidence and have reached this conclusion; rather, they say the resurrection didn’t happen because of course resurrections don’t happen.

Nevertheless, if history alone can tell us that the resurrection probably happened, then history tells us a lot. Moreover, to Stanley’s point, if the resurrection didn’t happen, no one would know or care what Jesus had to say about Adam and Eve or anything else for that matter.

But even if the resurrection happened (which of course I believe strongly that it did), who’s to say that Jesus predicted it? Many Bible scholars, even some who believe in the resurrection, argue that the historical Jesus didn’t predict it, that his death caught him by surprise—that the apostles or their followers wrote the gospels in light of Easter, and Easter transformed how they viewed the historical events leading up to it. Jesus’ predictions, in other words, were a post-Easter innovation.

Ugh! Even as I describe this argument, it strikes me as ridiculous. But I’m not wrong: this is the kind of stuff you read and hear about in mainline Protestant seminaries. And it is a counterargument to what Stanley says.

My point is, the resurrection doesn’t prove that Jesus said and did the things attributed to him in the gospels. But we may rightly ask, “Since we believe on good historical evidence outside the Bible that Jesus was resurrected, is it also reasonable to believe that the gospels paint an accurate picture of what Jesus said and did?”

Maybe this is what Stanley meant, but he didn’t say it clearly enough.

Another problem with Stanley’s argument is this: If Jesus had never spoken about Adam and Eve in the gospels, we would still have to reach some conclusion about the historicity of the first couple, right? Is everything in the Old Testament that Jesus didn’t speak about up for grabs?

Some of my fellow United Methodists who disagree with our church’s traditional teaching on homosexuality make that argument: “Jesus didn’t say anything about homosexuality, therefore who’s to say that homosexual behavior is sinful?” Aren’t they following Stanley’s logic? Do the red-letter words of Jesus carry more weight, theologically, than Paul’s letters or the rest of the New Testament? I don’t think so.

The missing ingredient in Stanley’s and Burk’s arguments is the Holy Spirit. Why do we have the Bible we have? Why do we believe that it’s a trustworthy revelation from God? It’s because of the Holy Spirit. We have the Bible we have today because God wants us to have it. God is the ultimate authority behind the authority of scripture. This authority can’t be proven from historical events or the extent to which the Bible accurately reflects history; it takes faith, which is itself a gift of the Spirit.

I disagree with Stanley when he says, “The Scripture is simply a collection of ancient documents that tells us that story.” Beware of someone using the word “simply”: it’s rarely that simple. The Bible isn’t simply anything: It is the Holy Spirit’s actively speaking to us through the words on paper. When we read scripture through the eyes of faith, something supernatural happens: We are in conversation with the Spirit of Jesus Christ himself. It isn’t only that God spoke a long time ago through the writers of scripture and we have their words to guide our lives; it’s also that God continues to speak to us through these words today. I think my belief accurately reflects our Wesleyan understanding of scripture—it at least passed muster with the Board of Ordained Ministry! 😉

I think Scot McKnight would agree with me, too. He describes a doctrine of scripture based on Jesus as the Word of God. I recommend the whole post to you, but I’ll leave you with this:

So any articulation of our faith that is not first God in his authority before Scripture’s authority makes a fundamental mistake.

To be sure, we know Jesus because of the Word but we have the Word because God spoke the Word and the Word God speaks has a name, Jesus. So first the Word, the Living Word, and then the Word, the Written Word. And it is really a silly game to think we need to argue about which one is most important: both.

Sermon 05-05-13: “The Word Is Love, Part 4”

May 9, 2013
John's handwritten original lyrics for "In My Life."

John’s original handwritten lyrics for “In My Life.”

In this sermon, I talk about the importance of God’s “Plan B” for our lives: When life doesn’t go according to our plans, God always has a Plan B for us. We may not always like Plan B, but if we have the courage to follow it, we can be confident that it will be good. 

Sermon Text: Acts 20:17-27

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

After nine seasons, one of my favorite shows, The Office, is coming to an end. If you’ve been watching it this season, then you know that branch manager Andy Bernard has been asking to be fired for months. Not literally, but through his complete incompetence, his negligence, his mismanagement. Somehow he’s survived without being fired. But on last Thursday’s episode, Andy literally asked to be fired. Repeatedly. You see, the premise of the show for the past nine years has been that a film crew from the local PBS station has been filming the people in the office in order to make a documentary. They’ve now completed their task, and in a couple of weeks, they’re going to broadcast it. For some reason, Andy is convinced that the documentary will make him famous, that he’ll be a big star, that the viewers will love him. Andy is convinced that he’ll make it in show business if commits himself wholeheartedly to the task—which means hiring an agent, taking acting lessons, pounding the pavement day after day in pursuit of his dream. Read the rest of this entry »

Why the church is losing young people

February 11, 2013

Here’s a thought-provoking blog post by “Marc5Solas” called “The Top 10 Reasons Our Kids Leave Church.” He says that 70 percent of our youth drop out of church after they graduate high school, and only half of those will ever return. He doesn’t cite a source for these numbers. Are they anecdotal? Regardless, they seem reasonable to me—even a little better than I would imagine! One question I have is, Are these retention numbers worse than before so many evangelical churches adopted this Disney World approach to youth ministry?

I made this point in my mostly positive assessment of Andy Stanley’s book Deep & Wide, but it bears repeating: I worry that Stanley’s approach (and perhaps the approach of many megachurch pastors) is to overemphasize that one moment of decision to follow Christ and to be a bit cavalier about what happens next—the hard work of sanctification, which the Holy Spirit accomplishes in cooperation with us. Stanley concentrates his pastoral efforts on the first part while “outsourcing” the other part. (Yes, I’m aware that United Methodist pastors like me often err in the opposite direction.)

As I’ve said in more than a few sermons, deciding to follow Jesus is the easy part: “becoming a Christian,” however, is a lifelong process. It’s no wonder so many kids drop out!

That being said, to Solas’s point, the church shouldn’t make it so easy to do so!

The post is filled with wisdom, but here are some parts that I especially like:

We’ve taken a historic, 2,000 year old faith, dressed it in plaid and skinny jeans and tried to sell it as “cool” to our kids. It’s not cool. It’s not modern. What we’re packaging is a cheap knockoff of the world we’re called to evangelize.

Our kids meet the real world and our “look, we’re cool like you” posing is mocked. In our effort to be “like them” we’ve become less of who we actually are. The middle-aged pastor trying to look like his 20-something audience isn’t relevant. Dress him up in skinny jeans and hand him a latte, it doesn’t matter. It’s not relevant, It’s comically cliché. The minute you aim to be “authentic”, you’re no longer authentic!

From a Noah’s Ark themed nursery, to jumbotron summer-campish kids church, to pizza parties and rock concerts, many evangelical youth have been coddled in a not-quite-church, but not-quite-world hothouse. They’ve never sat on a pew between a set of new parents with a fussy baby and a senior citizen on an oxygen tank. They don’t see the full timeline of the gospel for every season of life. Instead, we’ve dumbed down the message, pumped up the volume and act surprised when…

8. They get smart:

It’s not that our students “got smarter” when they left home, rather someone actually treated them as intelligent. Rather than dumbing down the message, the agnostics and atheists treat our youth as intelligent and challenge their intellect with “deep thoughts” of question and doubt. Many of these “doubts” have been answered, in great depth, over the centuries of our faith. However….

7. You sent them out unarmed:

Let’s just be honest, most of our churches are sending youth into the world embarrassingly ignorant of our faith. How could we not? We’ve jettisoned catechesis, sold them on “deeds not creeds” and encouraged them to start the quest to find “God’s plan for their life”. Yes, I know your church has a “What we believe” page, but is that actually being taught and reinforced from the pulpit?

You’ve tried your best to pass along the internal/subjective faith that you “feel”. You really, really, really want them to “feel” it too. But we’ve never been called to evangelize our feelings. You can’t hand down this type of subjective faith. With nothing solid to hang their faith upon, with no historic creed to tie them to centuries of history, without the physical elements of bread, wine, and water, their faith is in their subjective feelings, and when faced with other ways to “feel” uplifted at college, the church loses out to things with much greater appeal to our human nature.

Rather than an external, objective, historical faith, we’ve given our youth an internal, subjective faith. The evangelical church isn’t catechizing or teaching our kids the fundamentals of the faith, we’re simply encouraging them to “be nice” and “love Jesus”. When they leave home, they realize that they can be “spiritually fulfilled” and get the same subjective self-improvement principles (and warm-fuzzies) from the latest life-coach or from spending time with friends or volunteering at a shelter.

We’ve traded a historic, objective, faithful gospel based on God’s graciousness toward us for a modern, subjective, pragmatic gospel based upon achieving our goal by following life strategies. Rather than being faithful to the foolish simplicity of the gospel of the cross we’ve set our goal on being “successful” in growing crowds with this gospel of glory. This new gospel saves no one. Our kids can check all of these boxes with any manner of self-help, life-coach, or simply self-designed spiritualism… and they can do it more pragmatically successfully, and in more relevant community. They leave because given the choice, with the very message we’ve taught them, it’s the smarter choice.

It’s enough to preach Christ crucified

January 22, 2013

Unlike with several other episodes this season, the writers of last Saturday’s Saturday Night Live episode didn’t appear to have taken the week off. It was unusually funny, with the delightful Jennifer Lawrence as host. And the musical guest, the Lumineers, killed. The TV was still on as I was getting ready for bed—and there on my TV was none other than Andy Stanley.

I forget that he has a show on after SNL. Of course he does! How cool is that? How hip! What better way to reach the unchurched, his passion in life, than by catching them right after Saturday Night Live?

I’m trying not to be jealous.

I’ve said so many nice things about him recently—in the wake of my recent sermon inspired by his book Deep & Wide—that I forget that I’m not supposed to like him. As a United Methodist pastor, I’m supposed to complain that he “waters the gospel down,” that he compromises the message, that instead of offering the Good News, he offers the “news that you can use.” He hears this stuff from preachers like me all the time.

So there he is on TV, in front of a relatively large, young, post-SNL audience, talking about personal finance, credit cards, consumer debt… And I’m sure he’s giving good, practical advice—like he’s a regular Dave Ramsey.

Andy, you’re killing me!

First, he’s 50-something, and he looks like he’s 27. How is that possible? Second, while I fight the temptation to imagine that I have to compete with him on Sunday mornings, he constantly reminds me of how overmatched I’d be if I tried.

I don’t know jack about personal finance. Not only did I not take that class in seminary, seminary itself messed up my personal finances for years! So I would never feel qualified to preach about it.

I’m sure that Andy relates personal finance to the gospel in that clever, creative, and relevant way of his. Trust me: I’m only being a little snarky here. Andy’s approach works beautifully for him. My point is, I’m not him. I can’t be him.

I mostly only feel qualified to stick with the gospel—and the Cross. Even in the midst of last Sunday’s sermon, in which I related the prodigal son to Lance Armstrong, I had this to say about God’s grace:

Do you know why God has an infinite supply of grace? Because God—by coming into the world through Jesus Christ—has paid an infinite price for it: he’s paid for it with the gift of his own precious life! He didn’t have to, but he chose to out of love.

I’m always coming back around to the Cross. As Paul says, “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved” (1 Corinthians 1:18-19). To me, it’s the best news of all.

So preachers like me can take heart in this new article from Mark Galli in Christianity Today. He writes in response to the dust-up between Louie Giglio (an Andy Stanley friend and associate) and the political opponents who pressured him to step down from offering the benediction at yesterday’s Presidential inauguration.

Giglio got the gig in the first place because he’s mobilized so many young Americans against sex trafficking—a cause everyone can get behind. (And from the White House’s perspective, being associated with a popular, “friendly” evangelical leader is never a bad thing.) The gospel will rarely be so congruent with our culture as it is in the case of sex trafficking—which is also why Giglio ended up losing the gig: out of faithfulness to that same gospel, he preached a sermon many years ago against homosexual behavior.

David Kinnaman’s UnChristian signaled that many Christians have concluded the big problem is that the evangelical church has aligned itself on the wrong side of some social issues, or with social issues that have little or no cultural cachet—and thus they move to champion more popular social causes to win a hearing for the gospel. It would uncharitable and unfair to suggest that Giglio and his church have done this, but if other evangelicals are like me, it remains a temptation for any who have a heart to introduce Jesus to others. Sometimes it works, as Giglio’s invitation to pray suggests. But as a strategy, it will invariably backfire, no matter how much we try to hide our work on unpopular causes, as the fury against Giglio’s 20-year-old sermon illustrates. The degree to which we employ this approach merely as a tactic to gain a hearing is the degree to which we will eventually be spurned by the very people we hope to attract.

Galli says that we don’t need to gain a hearing with our culture by any means other than the Cross.

Need-driven preaching… communicates that Jesus is just another way to solve our problems. It is no wonder that the culture looks at us, pats us on the head, and says, “But we’ve found other, equally valid ways to solve our problems, thank you.” We tend to think that postmoderns have brought relativism down upon us, but it seems, we Christians have been the culprits the more we make our message about meeting people’s needs.

The most needful and difficult task of the church today is to again preach the message of the Cross, and to do so in a way that alarms, surprises, scandalizes, challenges, invigorates, and inspires a 21st century world. What that would look like exactly is hard to say; our theologians and pastors need to help us here. In the most general terms, it has to be about Christ first and last. It has to be about the Christ who came into the world not to improve generally good people, but to resurrect the dead, not to bolster our self-esteem but to forgive us, not to make people successful but to make them loving, not to win the culture but to establish a kingdom without end. Even more scandalously, the message of the Cross is about a universe saturated with grace, where nothing we have done or can do earns us the right to participate in this stunning new reality; all has been done for us. The best we can do is acknowledge the reality (faith) and begin to live as if it is reality (repent).

The current state of our preaching is driven by an admirable desire to show our age the relevance of the gospel. But our recent attempts have inadvertently turned that gospel into mere good advice—about sex, about social ethics, about how to live successfully. This either offends or bores our culture. A renewed focus on the Cross, articulated in a culturally intelligent way, is the only way forward. Some will be scandalized by it, others will call it foolishness, and yet some will cling to it as salvation. But at least everyone will be talking about that which is truly First and Last.

So my challenge as a preacher is not to look at some other preacher and wonder, “How can I do that?” Rather, I need to look at what I’m doing and wonder, “How can I do that better?”

“Atheist church” is an opportunity, not a threat

January 10, 2013

I completely understand why Britain’s first “atheist church” feels threatening to many Christians there. (If it didn’t have at least a little shock value, why else would HuffPost pick up the story?) In fact, the pastor of a nearby Catholic church doesn’t like it at all:

“How can you be an atheist and worship in a church? Surely it’s a contradiction of terms. Who will they be singing to?

“It is important to debate and engage with atheists but for them to establish a church like any other religious denomination is going too far. I’m cautious about it.”

Having read Andy Stanley’s Deep & Wide, however, I’m thinking of these things in a new way: Why see the atheist church as a threat? Why not see it as an opportunity? Just think: here are all these unchurched people who obviously feel such an unmet need for love, community, and companionship that they’ve gone to the trouble of gathering here in the first place! What a mission field!

What can nearby churches do to welcome them to the neighborhood? How can they show hospitality? How can they bear witness to Christ’s love?

Maybe, for example, a real church can use its experience and resources to help the atheist church get involved in service projects to the community. I bet they could partner with them in any number of ways. Who knows?

One thing’s for sure: being angry about it—as many members of the atheist church expect Christians to be—won’t help anyone.

Andy Stanley’s “Deep and Wide”

January 1, 2013
My annotated Deep & Wide, not available in any store!

My annotated Deep & Wide, not available in any store!

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.

Message received!

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.

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In the tall shadow of the megachurch

May 7, 2012

As many of you know, I pastor a contemporary service in a large (for Methodists, anyway) traditional First Methodist church. The church is successful, in part, because it offers excellent traditional worship in an area surrounded by highly contemporary megachurches or megachurch wannabes. Our church is distinctive. Even the First Baptist church next door offers mostly contemporary worship.

For better or worse, the kind of worship we offer in Vinebranch will be compared, not to other Methodist churches nearby, but to places like Northpoint Community Church a few miles away. Honestly: We’ve asked some of our church’s young married couples, who mostly have never set foot in Vinebranch, why they don’t give us a try. They’ve told us: “If we wanted contemporary worship, we’d go to Northpoint.”

In a way, it seems so unfair! We don’t have their budget, their staff, their coffee, their volunteer manpower, and at least some of their cool technology. Besides, as United Methodists, we have some different theological imperatives and a very different church structure.

Eh… What are you gonna do?

While I only grudgingly accept the comparison to our megachurch counterparts, I still think our worship compares favorably. I’m proud of the work that we’re doing—not satisfied that we’re doing all we can, but still proud.

All that to say, I read with interest this piece by Roger Olson on the megachurch phenomenon. You might be interested in it, too. Dr. Olson, as always, lends a nice historical perspective to the subject. He doesn’t see megachurches as anything new. But he raises good questions.

I do wonder about two things. First, can a church larger than a few hundred people really function as a New Testament ecclesia? It seems to me that church discipline was a necessary part of New Testament church life. How does a megachurch do church discipline? Yes, the standard answer to all such questions is life groups or what used to be called “cell churches.” But if the cell or group functions as the real church in the New Testament sense, why have the large church? The standard answer is that the large church, gathering only on Sundays, can accomplish more good for the kingdom of God than little churches meeting in homes. In that case, then, megachurches are simply replacing denominations. Then the question becomes how well can a person really worship God in a crowd of several thousand? Do these mass worship services tend to become spectator events?

As Olson suggests, megachurches might be replacing denominations—but, I would hasten to add, with an important difference rooted in technology. Northpoint has a network of satellite campuses to which pastor Andy Stanley is beamed each Sunday. (From what I understand, Stanley appears very lifelike on a high-definition screen.) If this model grows, will Northpoint and its fellow megachurches become like McDonald’s? No matter which campus you attend, you’ll be served the exact same thing. Is this a good thing?

I’m not sure that it’s a good thing for us pastors who are not Andy Stanley! But I’ll keep plugging away and being faithful to the Lord. As I said in a recent staff devotional, Jesus didn’t call me to be Andy Stanley. He called me to be Brent White. And that’s good enough.