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Andy Stanley: Creating a Church of Grace and Truth

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Excerpted from “Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend” (Zondervan)

I grew up attending churches designed for church people. No one said it, but the assumption was that church was for church people. The unspoken message to the outside world was, “Once you start believing and behaving like us, you are welcome to join us.”

The corollary of being a church for churched people was that we had a tendency to be against everything unchurched people were for. We were against just about everything at one time or another. We were against certain genres of music, alcohol, the lottery, the equal rights amendment, gay people, and Democrats. Seemed like we were always looking for something or someone to boycott. As strange as all that sounds now, it didn’t seem strange at all back then. Funny how time does that. But our dilemma then is a dilemma the church has struggled with throughout its history. Who is the church for? Who gets to be part of the Jesus gathering? While it’s easy to shake our heads in disgust at the narrow-mindedness of a previous generation, this is an issue every generation is forced to wrestle with at some level and often around some unexpected issue. This generation is no exception.

My first major encounter with both the importance and complexity of this question took place in 1987 while I was working for my dad at our downtown location. For some reason that nobody can remember, our church got crossways with the gay community in Atlanta. This was back when nobody really talked about that kind of thing in church. So I’m not sure what created all the hoopla. But for whatever reason, the organizers of the Gay Pride Day march, which always took place on a Sunday, decided to adjust their schedule so the parade would be passing in front of our church around noon—the approximate time we would be dismissing our congregation from our eleven o’clock worship service.

Well, when our church leaders got word of this, they went on the defensive. They decided to let church out early and send everybody out the back so that by the time the parade was in front of our church, all us good church people would be on our way back to the ’burbs! What happened instead was that they let us out in time to line the streets to watch the parade. After all, the best way to ensure that people look at something is to tell them not to look. So there we were, gawking at the show as it slowly made its way down Peachtree Street.

Two circumstances associated with this event made it a defining moment for me. The first thing was what took place directly across the street from our church. St. Mark United Methodist Church had their members standing along the street handing out cups of water to parade participants. While some handed out water, others held up posters that read, Everybody Welcomed! Come Worship with Us! God Is Love! The contrast could not have been more pronounced. It was embarrassing.

The other thing that impacted me about that weekend was our Sunday evening service. I was scheduled to preach the evening service before we knew anything about the parade. When I found out about the controversy, I asked my dad if he was planning to address the subject of homosexuality in his morning sermon. He was not. So I asked him if it would be alright if I did. I still remember the concerned look on his face. “What are you going to say?” he asked. I said, “I don’t know, but since it is going to be on everyone’s mind, it seems like somebody should say something!” He agreed.

And he agreed it should be me.

So there I was, a whopping twenty-eight years old, putting together the first sermon I had ever heard, much less preached, on the most controversial topic of our generation.

On the morning of the parade, my dad announced to the church that I would be preaching the evening service on the topic of homosexuality. In our church you never heard sermons on any kind of sexuality. So you can imagine the response.

The evening service started at 6:30. By 5:45 the sanctuary was full. We had a lot of “guests.”

As I prepared my outline, the issue I found myself wrestling with was not, “What does the Bible have to say about homosexuality?” That’s easy. The same thing it says about greedy people, people who drink too much, and “wrongdoers.” Wrongdoers? Hmmm. The real issue was the same issue Christians have wrestled with since the beginning. Who is the church for? Who gets to participate? How good do you have to be? Which sins, if any, disqualify a person? Can the church welcome sinners? What about unrepentant sinners? How much baggage does a person have to leave at the door before being admitted? Can someone participate in church if he or she is still working things out? Should we sneak out the back or serve water and hold up posters?

Ironically, the answers to those questions were contained in the pages of my Broadman Hymnal. More specifically, in the lyrics of the song we sang at the close of just about every worship service: “Just As I Am.” We loved the first, second, and fifth verses. I don’t remember singing verses three and four. Or as our music director would say, “The third and fourth stanzas.”

Just as I am, though tossed about
with many a conflict, many a doubt,
fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
sight, riches, healing of the mind,
yea, all I need in thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Sounds more like come worship with us than sneak out the back, doesn’t it?

Grace and Truth

As I mentioned earlier, the tension around who is the church for is not new. The first-century church wrestled with this question as well. There’s a lot to learn from the way they managed that tension. Perhaps the most important lesson is to acknowledge that this is in fact a tension to manage and not a problem to solve or really even a question to answer. When you slow down long enough in your reading of Paul’s epistles to consider the kinds of issues the early church wrestled with, you begin to realize just how messy the whole thing really was. When we choose to engage with culture at the level the apostle Paul was forced to engage, it gets messy for us as well. It’s the messy middle ground that makes some of us uncomfortable. Actually, I think it makes all of us uncomfortable to some extent. There is something in us that would like a definitive answer on every nuance of every issue. But based on my experience, I would argue that when we attempt to eliminate all the gray, all the messy middle ground, we end up with a poor caricature of what Christ originally intended when he announced his ekklesia. Actually, we end up with multiple caricatures. And then we argue with each other over whose caricature is the true church. We stand on opposite sides of the street responding in completely opposite ways to the same group of people.

I grew up around people who believed the church was for saved people who acted like saved people. I’m all too familiar with that church brand. The catch was that they were the ones who decided what act like a saved person meant. They got to determine which sins saved people could commit and which ones were evidence of being unsaved. Oddly enough, the lists changed every few years. Worse, the lists never coincided with any of the sin lists in the New Testament.

For a long time, divorce was on the list. But that one began mysteriously disappearing in the 1970s. Interracial marriage was on there for a while as well. Greed was never included. Nor was slander or gossip. So those who were actually “tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt, fightings and fears within, without” didn’t feel free to talk about their fightings and fears in those churches. Instead, they covered everything up. Which, of course, made everything worse. Covering up may keep a person in the good graces of the church, but it only fuels the power of whatever sin one is covering up. Churches designed for saved people are full of hypocrites. You pretty much have to be a hypocrite to participate. Transparency and honesty are dangerous in a church created for church people. Consequently, the casualty in a church for church people is grace. It’s hard to extend grace to people who don’t seem to need it. And it’s hard to admit you need it when you aren’t sure you will receive it.

On the other end of the church spectrum are those who declare that the church is for everyone, regardless of belief or behavior. These are the churches that value openness, tolerance, and acceptance above what more conservative churches would consider orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Growing up, we called these liberal churches. The problem with this approach is similar to the problem with the more conservative view. You have to pick and choose which parts of the New Testament to embrace. The casualty in liberal churches is truth. Truth has such an absolute tone about it. Our culture has grown increasingly uneasy with the idea of absolute truth. If there is a right way of doing things, then there’s a wrong way as well. Nobody wants to be wrong. So along with truth, sin becomes a casualty as well. But the New Testament is clear. We are not mistakers in need of correction. We are sinners in need of a Savior. We need more than a second chance. We need a second birth.

Not surprisingly, Jesus modeled the way forward. He left us with a remarkable approach for navigating the aforementioned tension. As an eyewitness of all Jesus said and did, the apostle John summarized Jesus’ approach this way:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14, emphasis added)

Three verses later he repeats this same idea.

For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (John 1:17, emphasis added)

I love that. “Full of grace and truth.” Not the balance between, but the full embodiment of. Jesus did not come to strike a balance between grace and truth. He brought the full measure of both. John had seen this firsthand. He had watched Jesus apply the full measure of grace and truth to each individual they encountered. He was in the crowd when Jesus said to a woman caught in adultery, “I don’t condemn you, now leave your life of sin.” Translated: “You’re a sinner. What you did is a sin. It was wrong. But I don’t condemn you. I’m not going to give you what you deserve. I’m extending to you exactly what you don’t deserve: grace.” Jesus didn’t try to balance grace and truth. He didn’t water down the law. He didn’t put a condition on grace. He gave her a full dose of both.

In Jesus, we get as clear and as close a look as we will ever get of what grace and truth look like in an otherwise graceless world that has turned its back on truth. In Jesus, there was no conflict between grace and truth. It’s that artificial conflict that sends churches toward unhealthy as well as unhelpful extremes. It is our misunderstanding of the grace Jesus modeled and taught that leaves us feeling as if grace allows people to “get by” with things. It is often our misapplication of truth that leaves people feeling condemned and isolated. But in Jesus, we discover that it doesn’t have to be that way. Grace doesn’t dumb down sin to make it more palatable. Grace doesn’t have to. The purpose of truth isn’t to isolate people from God or from his people. As we follow Jesus through the Gospels, we find him acknowledging the full implications of sin and yet not condemning sinners. The only group he consistently condemned were graceless religious people—those who misused truth to control through guilt, fear, and condemnation.

It’s easy to create an all-truth church model. It may be even easier to create an all-grace model. But Jesus didn’t leave either option on the table.

If his gathering was to reflect his approach to ministry, it would be characterized by a full dose of truth along with a full dose of grace. This is challenging for us. There is tension with law and grace, justice and grace, truth and grace.

Where they meet, it gets messy. Real messy. But to let go of either, to attempt to build a church model around either, is to abandon what Jesus had in mind when he announced the formation of his gathering. Policies and white papers don’t work well in a church that commits to embrace the mess created by grace and truth. It’s virtually impossible to be consistent or fair when grace and truth become driving forces in a local congregation.

In my experience, consistency and fairness virtually vanish from the discussion once a church determines to embrace grace and truth. Read the Gospels and you will have a difficult time finding even one example of Jesus being fair. He chose twelve apostles from among hundreds of disciples. He gave preferential treatment to three of the twelve. He didn’t heal everyone. He didn’t feed every hungry crowd. He stopped in the middle of a virtual parade and invited himself over to Zacchaeus’ house. Why him? He ensured that strangers would live and allowed Lazarus to die. And what about the incident at the pool of Bethesda? John tells us that Jesus singled out one man among “a great number of disabled people … the blind, the lame, the paralyzed.” I don’t mean to be crass, but you can’t help but imagine him tiptoeing through the crowd saying, “Pardon me, excuse me, pardon me, excuse me.” Then he finally reaches the one lucky guy. I say lucky. He had been there for thirty-eight years. Jesus leans down and whispers, “Do you want to get well?” Whenever I read this, my mind goes back to my all-time favorite book in high school, Mad magazine’s Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions. Does he want to get well? Seriously? This must have actually happened. No one would fabricate that question and put it in Jesus’ mouth. The man assures Jesus that he does. Jesus heals him. And only him. Then tiptoes back through the crowds of sick people, followed by the healed man carrying his mat. Can you imagine? Talk about unfair. How about this one: He tells the fellow known as the rich young ruler that in order to gain eternal life, he has to sell everything and join his entourage. Then, a few months later he whispers to the criminal crucified next to him that on that very day they will meet in paradise! Seriously? One guy has to dedicate the rest of his life to Jesus; the other guy gets in with a minute left on the clock? I could go on and on. Jesus’ seeming inconsistency drove religious leaders crazy. When you read the New Testament, it may drive you crazy as well. At times, it must have driven the apostle John crazy. It’s John who describes Jesus’ healing of a blind stranger and then two chapters later tells us that he intentionally allowed Lazarus to die. With the advantage of hindsight and a few years of maturity under his belt, he chalked it all up to Jesus’ uncompromising commitment to grace and truth. I get the feeling that somewhere in the midst of Jesus’ seeming lack of fairness and consistency is a clue for how the local church was meant to operate.

I’ve worked in churches that tried to be fair. Eventually, fairness became an excuse for nonengagement. The quest for consistency became an excuse not to help. Before long, church leaders were hiding behind, “If we do it for one, we will have to do it for everyone.” To which I can hear Jesus shouting, “No you don’t! I didn’t!” If we’re not careful, we will end up doing for none because we can’t do for everyone. The better approach is to do for one what you wish you could do for everyone, knowing that everyone is not going to be treated the same way. I’ve seen churches attempt to be consistent. But I’ve seen a commitment to consistency get in the way of ministry. I’ve seen people with financial needs turned away, not because there wasn’t enough money to help, but because a line item had been depleted. That’s a tough one, isn’t it?

The Glorious Mess

Churches that are heavy on truth and light on grace face challenges unique to that approach. Truth-lite churches have their own set of problems to contend with.

Churches committed to embodying grace and truth will be forced to navigate yet a third sea of complexity. But speaking from personal experience, I’ll choose door number three every time. The grace-and-truth approach is messy. It’s gloriously messy. We have decided to be fine with that. One of our pastors, John Hambrick, has a saying that we’ve adopted organization-wide. He says, “We walk toward the messes.” In other words, we don’t feel compelled to sort everything or everyone out ahead of time. We are not going to spend countless hours creating policies for every eventuality.

Instead we’ve chosen to wade in hip-deep and sort things out one relationship, one conversation, at a time.

Our decision to cling to both grace and truth impacts the way we do just about everything. And that is important for you to keep in mind as you study our model. Do we get it right every time? No. You can’t get it right every time regardless of your model. And that’s not an excuse. That’s the reality of ministry.

I bet you knew that.

We are inconsistent and at times unfair. Not on purpose. We just find that clinging to grace and truth creates tension. Tension we believe that should not be resolved, but managed. Do we have guidelines for benevolence and things of that nature? Of course. But they are guidelines. Not hard-and-fast rules. We have virtually no policies and lots and lots of conversations. There are several questions we decided ahead of time not to answer via email. But these are questions someone from our staff is always happy to sit down and discuss in person. There are a couple of questions we refuse to answer at all. We learned that from Jesus.

Other examples of our attempt to be a grace-and-truth church: We put people into leadership roles too early, on purpose. We operate under the assumption that adults learn on a need-to-know basis. The sooner they discover what they don’t know, the sooner they will be interested in learning what they need to know. We have virtually no formal leadership training. We have new believers attempting to lead beyond their maturity. We think that’s a good thing. At times, it creates problems. We like those kinds of problems. We encourage our teenagers to lead small groups with kids just two or three years younger than they are. We encourage nonbelievers to sign up for short-term mission trips. But we don’t let ’em lead. They don’t always understand that. We don’t always explain it to their satisfaction. It would be easier not to let ’em go at all. Once again, we opt for messy over easy.

We let nonbelievers serve in as many roles as possible. Sometimes too many. But we don’t let ’em serve everywhere. They accuse us of being inconsistent. We agree. We allow people to serve in the parking lot that we won’t allow to volunteer in children’s ministries. That’s confusing. We allow musicians to play on stage who we would not allow to lead worship. We allow people who are not ordained to baptize. We let women baptize. I’m not comfortable with that. I let ’em do it anyway.

We confront sin. We do church discipline. It always takes people by surprise. On occasion, we ask people not to attend a particular campus. On some occasions, we ask people not to attend any of them. They assure us there are individuals with worse sins whom we’ve not asked to leave. We agree and ask ’em to leave anyway. For a time.

I give people permission to filter out the “Jesus” parts of my messages. Consequently, Jewish attendees often bring friends. They refer to me as a good motivational speaker. I’m fine with that. A Muslim attendee tweeted that he hums through the Jesus parts of my messages. I retweeted him. I preach hard against greed and sexual sin. I tell the men in our church to erase songs from their playlists that refer to women as bitches or whores. I told ’em that on Mother’s Day. Once every few years, I preach on Jesus’ view of divorce and remarriage. It’s extreme. Nobody agrees with my interpretation of the text. Including most of our staff. I remind all the remarried people that they committed adultery when they remarried. People get upset. Then they purchase the CD to give their kids when they are old enough to get married. But we allow remarried couples to lead at every level in the organization.

We do virtually no charity work directly through our churches. Instead we find the “superstars” in our communities and support them with financial resources and volunteers. We encourage our   people to give directly to those organizations. This builds incredible goodwill in our communities. We support non-Christian charities led by non-Christians. Giving church money to non-church related charities seems strange to some people. But we’re okay with that. At the same time, we are usually in the top two or three churches in the country to support Operation Christmas Child.

Our doctrinal statement is conservative. Our approach to ministry is not. You have to allow us to video record a three-minute version of your story to be shown on Sunday morning in order to be baptized. No video, no baptism. We don’t have any verses to support that. It keeps the baptism numbers low. But baptism is central to our worship and arguably our most powerful evangelism tool.

You can join our church online without talking to a real person. We don’t have guest parking. We have reserved parking for parents with preschoolers. I don’t have a reserved parking spot. And I don’t have a bathroom attached to my office. Not sure what that has to do with grace and truth. Just thought you should know.

We save seats in the front for people who arrive late. It bugs the people who get there early when they can’t get the best seats. Doesn’t seem fair. It’s not. We are okay with that.

I try to read all the critical email and letters. I don’t learn much from people who agree with me. I call the most critical people. They are always surprised. Most of the time, I understand their concerns. Heck, a lot of the time I share their concerns! I remind ’em we are still learning. I assure them that not only are we inconsistent and unfair, but that we will continue to be, and that we would love for them to join us. They usually do.

These are just a few examples of our attempts to extend grace while carpet bombing our community with truth. We believe the church is most appealing when the message of grace is most apparent. We are equally as convinced that God’s grace is only as visible as God’s truth is clear. It is pointless to tell me I’m forgiven if I’m not sure why I need forgiveness in the first place. That’s the beauty of grace and truth. They complement. They are both necessary. They are not part of a continuum. They are not opposite ends of a pole. They are the two essential ingredients. Without massive doses of both, you won’t have a healthy gathering.

Now, if the idea of embracing the mess is uncomfortable for you, remember this: Either you were a mess, are a mess, or are one dumb decision away from becoming a mess. And when you were your messiest version of you, you weren’t looking for a policy, were you? You needed somebody to take you just as you were. That’s what Jesus did for me. That’s what Jesus did and will do for you. That being the case, it seems to me that’s what we should be about as the local church.

At this point, you may have more questions than answers. I understand that. So here’s something that should encourage you. The book of Acts, along with Paul’s epistles, reflects the real-world drama associated with local churches built on a foundation of grace and truth. If you opt for a grace-and-truth approach for your local church, the New Testament is going to open up to you in ways you never imagined. Paul’s epistles in particular reflect the challenges any local church will face when the uncompromising truth of God is presented within a community characterized by grace. Not to be outdone, Luke provides us with a ringside seat at the very first church business meeting. The reason for the meeting was an incident that took place in Antioch. Seems there had been a head-on collision between God’s grace and God’s truth. Nobody knew exactly how to handle this one. So they brought it to the experts.

Deep & WideThis excerpt is taken from Deep & Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend by Andy Stanley. Copyright © 2012 by Andy Stanley. Used by permission of Zondervan.

Order from Amazon.com: Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend

Read more from Andy Stanley in the September/October 2012 issue of Outreach magazine and online.