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Andy Stanley: The Agile Apologetic—Part 2

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Don’t miss Part 1 of the interview, in which Andy Stanley discusses the controversy surrounding his provocative sermon series, Who Needs God.

What are you hearing from new believers as to why they are becoming Christians?

Those reasons never change, although trends may shift a bit. One of the things we do when we baptize new believers is show a video of each of them to the church detailing their story of faith. It’s a requirement—we won’t baptize you unless you’re willing to make that public statement in that way. Honestly, it keeps our numbers low, but it makes our baptism impact very high. It becomes an extraordinary celebration. We baptize one to three people per service at all of our campuses every other Sunday. We put baptisteries in our middle school and high school environments so younger believers are telling their stories to their peers as they are getting baptized. We take baptism as a public declaration super seriously, and we want them to go public in front of their public.

Based on thousands of those baptism videos—and I’m thinking of college students and older here—there are the old, consistent stories. Pain. Brokenness. The dead ends of skepticism. Recovering from bad church experiences. Dealing with loss. Divorce. Business fallout. Losing children. I hear all the typical stories of the Prodigal Son, who had everything he ever wanted until suddenly he woke up and realized that he was missing what he needed most: a connection to his Father.

The church that has the low rungs on the ladder and is the most welcoming, that has the best reputation in the community, those are the ones that will be doing the most evangelism. Brokenness leads to repentance. Sorrow causes everybody to look up. That’s an on-ramp to faith. We need to capitalize on that in terms of how we talk about things, how we respond to people. One of our pastors here said years ago that we need to “walk toward the messes” in people’s lives. That’s right on. That’s what Jesus did.

One of the digs that people make about megachurches like ours is that we “don’t make it about the people.” That is so not true, and it’s an insult to everybody who attends a megachurch. It’s like saying they’re all just sheep, who’ll do anything the guy on the stage says. When I read those kinds of things, I want to invite people to our elder’s meetings, our stewardship meetings. These are doctors, lawyers, CEOs. People who are new Christians or have been Christians forever. These are not stupid people. These are not the kind of people to do whatever the guy with the microphone is saying. We care so much about our community. We see opportunities everywhere for connection.

How do leaders prepare (or re-prepare) for ministry in our changing culture?

They need to examine the barriers—often through assumptions like I mentioned earlier—that stand in the way of people coming or returning to faith.

What I want to know as a lead pastor is what makes it difficult or easy for you to invite your unchurched friends—regardless of race, belief or background—to our church. James said in Acts 15:19, a verse that hangs in all our buildings: “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (NIV).

Think about this, from James the brother of Jesus to the apostles: “We should not make it difficult …” This is in relation to the Gentiles—who to those early Jewish Christians were the foreigner, the immigrant, the ones of different color and religion. That context is so timely for us today. We can see them as the “demographic challenge.” That means that we should take down all the barriers we can.

That’s the life verse for our churches. We’re not removing the barrier of the gospel—that’s offensive in itself—but we are working to keep the offense limited to the gospel, not how the parking lot works, not how we check kids in, not the fact that everybody on the stage is white and so on. What can we do to reduce the barriers? A church staff can’t fully know that. But the people can. We need to know how to survey them and get core people in a room from time to time and ask the questions that no leader wants to hear the answer to, because we’d like to think that we’re doing everything perfectly already.

Let’s make sure that we aren’t making it difficult for those who are turning to God.

How does apologetics relate to not making it difficult to believe?

We pastors (I think it’s the way we’re trained) have a knack for devaluing what unchurched people value. That’s a terrible mistake. It makes me cringe. We should never devalue or make fun of people’s life assumptions. It’s like raising kids. You can correct your kids constantly and be right every time. And if you do the right thing the wrong way, your kid won’t come home as soon as they’re old enough to get out of the house. You will have made your point. And lost your influence.

You increase your influence by valuing what people value, and slowly, over time, helping them see that there’s another way to think. You can do that without being critical. Look at Jesus. The only times he was overtly critical was with religious leaders, when he was confronting their hypocrisy and theology. But the tax gatherers and sinners? He started where they were. With stories, with meals, with spending time in their homes and allowing them to join his friends. That resulted in their emotional connection with Jesus, which is so instructive for us.

Can you give a practical example of that principle? How would it look in a message?

When I talk about sex, dating or other relationship stuff, it often makes sense to talk about the issue of believers marrying a nonbeliever. The traditional approach to that in a preaching setting is to say to the believers listening something like, “Ladies, if you’re a Christian, you shouldn’t date a non-Christian guy. Gentlemen, the same principle applies to non-Christian women.” Well, if you assume that nonbelievers are in the room, you’ve just offended all of them, whether you’ve meant it or not, because what they just heard is, “We’re better than you.”

The better way is to consider that my authority isn’t with the unchurched people in the room, it’s with Christians. So, what do I say instead? “Hey, if you’re here today and you’re not really a religious person, I advise you not to date a Christian. Here’s why. Christians are going to do a bait and switch on you. They’re going to try to change you. If you marry a Christian, they’re going to want you to raise your kids in church, and …”

You see where I’m going. My point is that there is a way to talk about anything with the unchurched people in the room in mind, that is apologetic in nature, as long as we’re careful about unearthing assumptions that at times cause us to talk about “them” and “they” in terms that would be unnecessarily offensive. A simple rephrase can get your point across without devaluing them.

Another example—justice. Everyone, believer or not, longs for justice to be done. So what if we turned to the unbelievers in the room and said—“Hey, whether you believe or not, you should want Christianity to be true! Why? Because if what Jesus said about the end is true, perfect justice wins.” It’s a different angle, but a productive one.

Let’s go deeper on the justice point, which is the theme of one of your messages in Who Needs God. How do we address justice honestly, when Christianity’s history is seen as (and is) tarnished on that point?

Sam Harris’ book Letter to a Christian Nation is a little 90-page book. Pastors should read it for two reasons. First, if you can keep your own faith after reading it, good for you [laughs], but second, if you want to have some assumptions dispelled as you relate to a post-Christian culture, this book will help, especially on any of our assumptions related to the authority of Scripture in nonbelievers’ lives. He goes for the jugular regarding the assumptions Christians make in a world where, he argues, our faith has created pain and suffering.

The simple answer (but it’s not very satisfying) is that the truth that empties into the bucket is different than the bucket. We’re the bucket. The truth is truth. We are not perfect buckets. Christians have the best answer in the world for why there is pain and suffering and evil.

But with that said, there is no justification for our own injustices of history. We must own that, especially since so many current voices are so quick to point out our faith’s historical failings. But back to the apologetic question—which worldview does not have the same kind of stuff in their history? None that I know of. Welcome to the real world.

Our promise is that someday God will make all right. That’s the promise of Christianity as punctuated by a resurrected Savior.

You encourage those outside the faith that “you belong at church before you believe.” Tell us more.

This goes back to Jesus’ invitation to follow. When I say that with Christian leaders or folks looking for “gotcha” moments, they immediately spin into, “Oh, but what is the church? A fellowship of believers. And now you’re saying that people belong to the church without being Christians,” and so on.

No. That’s jumping way ahead. I’m not talking about joining the church necessarily. I’m not talking about everybody playing every role in the local church. This is a front-line message to people who have shown up nervous, and are wondering if these people are their people or not. Will they like me? Can I bring my kids? Can I try a small group? There are multiple circles in every church for a person to belong before they believe. So let’s state that clearly.

It’s our conviction to even let nonbelievers serve in many capacities. One of my favorite stories out of the Who Needs God series was of a woman who wrote me a letter after her second week there. She’s an atheist in the medical profession. She told me about how she responded to the content. I met with her, and a couple months later she signed up to go on a medical missions trip with our church. She’s still an atheist. But she’s going to go with our group to China, to an orphanage outside of Beijing to give the nationals working there a break because they’re there 24/7 with disabled kids. Get this—she’s going to spend 10 days with a group of wonderful Christians serving in an orphanage. She already feels like she belongs. Even though she does not yet believe.

There are concentric circles of inclusion and involvement. We’ve worked hard to find excuses to say “yes” to getting people engaged and involved, and in the community. “Where two or more are gathered, there I am in the midst of them,” Jesus said, and I think we see that in our worship and gatherings. When people see the “one anothers” being lived out, the obstacles come down, amazing things happen and they meet Jesus.

Are you hopeful for the future of the church in our culture?

Absolutely. The challenges are real, but we don’t have to freak out at the demographic research or any other points that might discourage. We do have to change our approach to ministry, though. There are huge signs of hope across the globe for Christianity, but even here where the nones are on the rise, there is hope. People get methodology and theology confused all the time, and then get upset when you start changing methodology. They’re two different things. Theology should inform ministry, but if it limits whom you minster to, then you have the wrong theology. Just ask Jesus.

The good news is that there are other approaches that will create traction and reduce tension with culture, but our current evangelical approach is becoming less relevant because it makes too many assumptions that we don’t even need to make. The only thing that is discouraging to me is not what’s happening in the broader culture, but seeing so many Christian leaders who are so dug in to a version of faith, methodology and apologetics that they feel that they’re losing something essential. Consequently, they’re going to lose influence.

There are so many cool things happening with church planting, so many young entrepreneurial leaders who are wanting to make a difference and give up what is nonessential to make an impact on their community. The next 10 to 15 years are going to be exciting. But a lot will change. A lot must change. But there is so much hope for the future of our faith.

Honestly? I’m so excited about it. I wish I were 35 again.

Paul J. Pastor is an Outreach magazine contributing writer and the author of The Face of the Deep: Exploring the Mysterious Person of the Holy Spirit (David C Cook, 2016).