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Andy Stanley: The Agile Apologetic—Part 1

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Andy Stanley, voted by Outreach readers as one of the 10 most influential living pastors in America, founded North Point Ministries in 1995. Today, North Point has six nondenominational Atlanta-area churches, plus other networked churches worldwide and substantial media and broadcast numbers for their messages.

In the 21 years since North Point’s founding, Stanley has written widely and remained at the forefront of conversations (and some controversy) about ministry methods. So it makes sense, given the church’s attention on changing cultural norms about methodology and faith, that Stanley would turn his attention to the needs and dynamics related to the growing number of religiously unaffiliated Americans.

Stanley crafted a six-part message series aimed directly at these “nones,” titled Who Needs God. The series has drawn wide attention and discussion, both for facing tough topics, including the “new atheism,” head on; and for Stanley’s controversial opinion that appealing strictly to the authority of the Bible when preaching to outsiders is a losing strategy.

Outreach contributing writer Paul J. Pastor spoke with Stanley to talk through the changing pastoral needs of our generation, and why today’s leaders need to rediscover an agile apologetic.

Who Needs God is a gutsy title for a megachurch message series. What was the vision for it?

This teaching series was designed for people who weren’t in our building. It is for the “nones,” the 25 to 30 percent of our population who may have grown up in church but have decided they’re not interested. They’re not atheists or agnostics, just unaffiliated. We decided to do a series of messages for them. While most of the people in our church aren’t in that group, everyone knows people who are—their family, friends, co-workers, neighbors.

For context, every week we have about 24,000 adults at church in person on our Atlanta area campuses, plus about 20,000 who watch online. Then, because of television (we follow Saturday Night Live (SNL), so when they have a big week, we do too), we can swing from 600,000 to 1 million people just in the post-SNL audience. Because of that, we’re thinking of all those dynamics when we create our Sunday morning environments.

It was different for us to talk to an audience who was not primarily in the building. It created a bit of understandable confusion, especially for anyone who dropped in to the middle of the series.

“Who needs God?” is a key question the nones are asking. Answering it has also been a distinctive of our ministry from the beginning, since we’ve always believed it was our mission to keep the lowest possible rungs on the ladder as people begin to explore spirituality. That has nothing to do with dumbing down sermons, picking or choosing doctrines or avoiding the whole counsel of God, as we’re sometimes accused of doing, but it has everything to do with our approach.

Today, the numbers show that there is decreasing interest in Christianity. But there is extraordinary interest in spirituality. We’re playing in that space—leaving breadcrumbs for people to follow back into authentic faith in Christ. In a very real sense, we’re hosting others in our space and making room for them. We have to assume that they have been exposed to deep criticisms and attacks on the Bible and Christianity.

Was there a particular moment when you realized you needed to address challenges to faith in order to engage those outside the church?

About eight years ago, I watched a video of new-atheist Sam Harris lecturing in a university. About half of his lecture was about Christianity, and about half of that half was about Scripture. I watched him, it seemed, dismantle the Bible. He’s so smart, so articulate, so quick on his feet. Even the above-average Christian, I thought, couldn’t sit through this without their faith being practically destroyed.

His critique came across as devastating, but it also contained all kinds of distortions and inaccuracies. But they were points we simply don’t cover in church. I thought about our own student ministry, and knew that I wasn’t preparing our high school kids to sit through a lecture like that in college and walk out with their faith intact. I was convicted.

That was a defining moment. In response, I began to change my approach, stepping back from leveraging the authority of Scripture in favor of talking about the history and the people behind the story of Scripture, particularly the event of Christ’s resurrection. It’s not about abandoning Scripture, it’s laying a foundation that’s defensible in our culture, where you may have only five minutes—at best—to defend what you believe.

That’s helpful. Unpack the deconversion process a bit more.

People don’t simply leave faith; they leave a version of faith. We all know that there are multiple versions of the Christian faith. When you hear a deconversion story—someone who went off to school, or met somebody, or read a book, or moved away, or whatever—they are nearly always walking away from a version of Christianity. Consequently, they have a skewed version or vision of God that they are leaving.

I started listening to the Life After God podcast a while back, a show for atheists and agnostics, and have recently been texting back and forth with Ryan Bell. At the time this article goes live, I’ll have been a guest on the podcast. One section, called the “Ex-Files,” focuses on deconversion stories. As a pastor, it’s so clear listening to it that these stories of deconversion are people leaving versions of Christianity that most Christians would completely be against, as well. When I hear some of these stories, I think, Heck. I would have left that too!

We all think our version of Christianity is the right one. But we can’t all be correct. So to address people who have left the faith or are considering doing so, it’s important to understand what specifically about the faith they’re leaving. Who Needs God focuses on this. My big point at the front end of the series is to point out that it’s possible that a person has left faith for the wrong reason.

Often, I might say to a person that what they left needed to be left, because it wasn’t really Christianity to begin with. I want to help people differentiate between what is worth leaving the faith over, and what are not fundamentals or essentials of faith. When the nonessentials get equated with the essentials, we give people excuses to leave unnecessarily. I’d like to ferret out those distinctions up front.

Talk about balancing the needs of those seeking and those who believe in relation to apologetics.

Great question. That’s one of the reasons behind the title of my book Deep and Wide. We often assume that people either have a verse-by-verse “deep” church or a “wide” giant megachurch. But when we read the Gospels, we see that Jesus is both deep and wide in his ministry. Crowds were a constant feature of his ministry. So I don’t think of this in terms of a balance. We are out to create churches that unchurched people love to attend, but we’re not a church for unchurched people.

Paul, who planted so many churches, taught us that “one another” is at the center of church life. The activity of the church is centered on community—forgive, accept, care for, encourage, bear with, restore, carry one another’s burdens. Everybody I’ve ever met wants to be in that kind of community.

Imagine a world where people were skeptical of what we believed, but envious of how well we treated one another, and shocked at how well we treated them! That’s what the church is about. We can maintain our identity while looking for opportunities to include everyone in our sense of community. But we need to understand how to host outsiders well in our environments.

Let’s focus on that idea of “hosting” for a moment. As our culture dechurches, will we be hosting those outside of Christianity more? If so, how do we grow in our skills to host?

Absolutely! We will be hosting more, in many different contexts. Pastors, if you want outsiders to be in your audience, they need to know that you know that they’re there.

Welcoming non-Christians has been a distinctive of our ministry for many years. I’ve talked about the progression of “foyer → living room → kitchen” for some time. Think of hosting in your church like you host in your house: Guests come into the foyer, which is designed to welcome. Then, into the living room, which is for more formal conversation and socializing. But the kitchen? That is where life really happens.

When you host people in your home, you don’t abandon your values or what you believe, but you also don’t ignore them. You don’t make them do all the work of finding their way around your house. You spend extra energy on them. You don’t abandon them. I think every church has to embrace hosting others to some extent—the question is, “Who are you hosting?” Today’s reality is that we are hosting unbelievers, skeptics and post-Christian people all the time. We can’t change our beliefs or convictions, but we can certainly work to host them well in our environments.

What’s the first step to doing that well?

Examine our assumptions. We all know that assumptions are tricky things. They inform our decisions, but we often don’t realize how, because we don’t take the time to think through them. Church leaders need to give up three assumptions when it comes to preaching to or engaging with the dechurched.

First, we still preach like we assume that people view Scripture as authoritative. They do not. Now, whenever I say that, I get in trouble. People hear me saying that Scripture isn’t authoritative. I’m not saying that!

I’m simply acknowledging a fact: Many people still respect the Bible but no longer consider it authoritative. Assuming it’s an authority for their life will be a nonstarter. But once we dispense with that assumption, we can step back to see that there are plenty of places to get traction in minds and hearts. In the old days, people really only heard about the Bible in church. But now, because we have so much access to information, it’s foolish to assume that a preacher’s statements about the Bible are going to be the only thing shaping someone’s understanding of it.

For example, Bart Ehrman, the agnostic biblical scholar, has become a familiar cultural face. He’s been on late-night TV with Stephen Colbert—primetime, millennial viewing—to talk about his book Jesus Before the Gospels. Here’s a conversation about the Bible and Jesus, and of course his whole pitch is that the Gospels can’t be trusted as historical documents. In the old days there were never those kinds of questions in the broader culture.

We also have to quit assuming that “they” are “out there.” “Assume they’re in the room” has become my mantra. I was at a funeral recently at a large church. As we drove out, there were signs that said, “You are now entering the mission field.” That’s completely false, and has been for a long time—because “they” are present at and watching our church gatherings constantly. They are in your church, with you, with their questions, their doubts, their conflicts between the Bible and science, all of it. They are visiting, curious, listening to your podcast, checking you out online. Assuming that we’re the team “in here” getting ready to go “out there” and do ministry isn’t in touch with today’s reality. Assume they are in the room.

The third assumption is that a person has to believe before they follow. Nothing could be clearer in the New Testament, particularly in the Gospels. Jesus invited people to follow before they believed. In our messaging, are we inviting people who are outsiders to follow?

Everybody can take a step to follow Jesus. I’m not offended when I have people tell me that I’m a great motivational speaker and that they just “filter out the Jesus stuff.” I can’t make people fall in love with Jesus, but if they keep coming, I’ll keep setting up the dates. We’ll keep the rungs low on the ladder and encourage them to take the baby steps of following him. Follow precedes believe.

Let’s return to the point you’ve recently taken flak on—how we use the Bible in our preaching. What is the faithful path forward for preachers who are speaking to listeners who doubt the Bible’s authority?

Not to change what we believe, but how we communicate. Once upon a time, there was a version of our faith that was rooted in an event, not the record of the event. The record of the resurrection followed the event of the resurrection by years. Christianity grew like crazy before the Bible, as we know it, existed. Historically, what launched our movement was an event. I’m in no way discounting the Bible by saying that.

For more on Andy Stanley’s approach to the Bible, read his article, “Why ‘The Bible Says So’ Is Not Enough Anymore.”

In the old days, when pretty much everyone in culture respected the Bible and saw it as authoritative, this discussion wasn’t that important. But in the Information Age, when we can’t count on scriptural authority being accepted by our culture, we need to return to what we did during the first, second and third centuries—an apologetic that pointed back to the event. Think of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. He says that if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen, and our preaching—which means our religion, our faith, this whole thing—is in vain. It’s all pointless without the event of the resurrection.

The resurrection as a real event is everything. It’s where we get traction today. I believe it’s the most defensible event associated with Christianity. And coincidentally, it’s the most important event. I think we need to stop fighting about so many other things and simply stand upon the resurrection. Why? Because in that event, our faith stands.

When I talk about this with non-Christians or people reconsidering faith, this makes sense to them. When I talk about it with educated Christians, for some reason it makes many of them nervous. While I own my own ambiguity on this point in the past, and don’t claim to be great at talking about it, I’m still so convinced that this is a vital point for us to recover for our outreach.

Once you have traction, it’s not necessarily that complicated to move forward. I highlight that following Jesus has made my life better and has made me better at life. I’m convinced that’s true for anyone. That’s the introduction—come and follow. Forgive, and your life will be better because of it. Let go of bitterness and submit to others—your life will be better. We can go on and on.

Imagine if everyone in the U.S. decided to put others ahead of themselves. Our culture would change. Following Jesus makes lives, nations, the world better. That in itself can’t convince someone that Jesus is the Son of God, but it does get their attention. Where to go from there? Back to our belief in the power and historical reality of the resurrection. “Come and follow.”

Read Part 2 of the interview »