Friday, March 25, 2016

How the Church Saved Stanley

A few weeks ago, North Point Community Church pastor Andy Stanley created a firestorm with remarks that he made during a sermon at his church. His statements have been reported as follows:

When I hear adults say, ‘I don’t like a big church. I like about 200. I want to be able to know everybody.’ I say you are so stinking selfish. You care nothing about the next generation. All you care about is you and your five friends. You don’t care about your kids, anybody else’s kids. If you don’t go to a church large enough, where you can have enough middle-schoolers and high-schoolers so they can have small groups and grow up the local church, you are a selfish adult. Get over it. Find yourself a big old church where your kids can connect with a bunch of people, and grow up and love the local church.
For one of the more measured responses to these comments, see Presbyterian pastor Todd Pruitt's blog post.

While this is not the first time that Pastor Stanley has said things that rubbed other evangelicals the wrong way, the blow back in this instance was severe enough that he issued an apology on his Twitter account and followed that up with a friendly interview with Christianity Today in which he lamented his remarks as "absurd." In that same interview, while acknowledging that what he said could not be justified, he also regretted that people were focusing on a brief clip (by the way, the clip has been removed as the result of a copyright claim by North Point). He wished that people would listen to the whole sermon.

I decided to take him up on that. In part I did so because I thought the request was reasonable. After all, almost anyone who has preached frequently, including myself back in the day, has said ill considered things that he wished that he could take back. In addition, I was curious: what biblical text could possibly elicit an application involving a rant against taking children to small and medium sized churches. In addition, why on earth would he feel a need to say these things to his congregation? Did he fear that his congregants would return from conversations with family at Easter determined to find a small church to invest themselves in for sake of Christian nurture? Alternatively, is he dismayed that Pastor Naboth still has people to preach to in his little vineyard? Why would he consider this something worthy of attention? The softball interview with CT indicated that such motivations were not in view, but I thought it couldn't hurt to listen to the sermon.

The sermon in which the remarks were made is entitled "Saved by the Church." Questions regarding the specific context of the controversial part will have to remain unclear, as the offending section has been removed from the recording of the sermon posted on the church's website. However, the question regarding scripture text does have an answer: there is none -- and I seem to recall a few years ago that he said to a public gathering that he didn't believe that a minister has any obligation to base his sermon on an exposition of Scripture. Regardless, in this instance he did not. Actually, the sermon contains no Scripture references at all until the final minutes, when the pastor jokes that a sermon is required to make reference to a Bible verse and then talks about the passage in Matthew 16 where Jesus says that he will build his church.

Rather than base his remarks on Scripture, the sermon, which is designed to explain a commitment to planting other congregations, is largely autobiographical, with the pastor spending the majority of the message outlining five ways that the church saved his life. Those ways are as follows:

1. Informed my conscience.
2. Instilled a sense of purpose.
3. Provided the context for life long friendships.
4. Served as a window of God's activity all over the world.
5. Taught me to be generous.

Based on these things he concluded that "following Jesus will make your life better and will make you better at life." In saying that, he mentions as part of a single sentence that this means getting to go to heaven while elaborating on the benefits for life in the here and now.

After exegeting his own life to explain the value of the church, Pastor Stanley then proceeds to apply this to his listeners, with two primary emphases explaining the value of the church and providing the reason for a commitment to planting more of them. One emphasis, which served earlier as his introduction and is brought up again at this point in the sermon, is that the lessons he learned are needed by the next generation, and planting churches represents his commitment to children. The other emphasis is that the church is needed to provide principles that inform the conscience of the nation.

Listening to the sermon left me with a few thoughts, though they are perhaps not what Pastor Stanley had in mind when he urged people to listen to the whole thing. Even without the reckless comments about small churches, the message was disturbing in a number of ways.

Of primary importance, one might think that a sermon on the ways that the church saved one's life might have some focus on how the church proclaimed the Gospel, thus providing the message that saved him from sin and death. That message is entirely absent from this sermon. The death of Christ is only mentioned twice in passing. While making the point that the church provided a window for seeing God's activity across the whole world, the pastor mentioned that Christ died for the world, but he did not elaborate on the thought. Near the end, when talking about Jesus' statements that he would build his church, he argues that the prophecy was astounding because Jesus was about to be crucified and his disciples scattered. The pastor does use the word "gospel" in the context of reading some quotes by evangelical author Phillip Yancey, but what the pastor means by "gospel" is unclear, as his point primarily has to do with the passing down of moral values.

Absent any real gospel emphasis, in the sense of seeing the church as proclaiming the message of Christ's death, burial and resurrection as the hope of sinners, including sinners that are also Christians, there is really nothing to the sermon other than moralism. In recent years, many Christian jeremiads have featured references to the work of Catholic sociologist Christian Smith, whose research suggests that, wittingly or unwittingly, evangelical (and other) churches have largely raised their children to embrace moralistic, therapeutic deism, as opposed to any form of biblical Christianity. That accusation seems to be openly embraced at least in this sermon, which can only argue for the value of the church based on its helping us with things like making life long friends and not lusting after girls. No doubt there is value in those things, but it is hardly the same as teaching me that by the life and death of Christ that I can have forgiveness of sins and an eternal hope that compels me toward my chief aim of glorifying God and enjoying him forever.

Of course, it is not only large modern churches that make the mistake that Pastor Stanley has made in this sermon, but it does point to a reason that if I lived in Atlanta (or one of the other cities where his church has a campus) I would not want to take my family to his church. My pastor, at a church with an attendance of around 200, faithfully, week by week, expounds Scripture (not his personal life), teaching me and my family law and gospel, warning us of sin and pointing to Christ as the Savior of sinners. Whether large or small, that is a church worth joining.

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