Pastor-author Andy Stanley is, if anything, a deeply passionate Christian leader about church growth and reaching the unchurched in the youngest generation. I am not a huge fan, thus I do not read him often. But I am not a huge fan of a lot of this kind of writing and teaching. But I profoundly respect Andy Stanley and believe that he contributes to the overall well-being of the church. Stanley, the son of the famous Charles Stanley, preaches to an estimated 33,000 people every Sunday at five different North Point Ministries metro-Atlanta campuses. Like his father, who still reaches older viewers, Stanley also has a television program, Your Move. This program is estimated to reach an audience of nearly one million per week.
On Tuesday (June 10), Stanley tweeted,
•”Instead of praying for revival leaders of the SBC should go spend three weeks with @perrynoble Why pray for one when you can go watch one.”
•”Praying for revival equates to blaming God for the condition of your local church.”
•”Why not call the Church to pray for the things Jesus & New Testament writers prayed for? Why add Revival to the list?”
•”Churches that need reviving most are the very churches that resist it most.”
Stanley conceded that the conversation resulting from this Tweet spiraled beyond what he had intended it to become after he and others began diverging on the subject of what they meant by “revival.”
There would have been a time when this post would have irritated me, if it did not (in point of fact) bring about a negative public response from me. This was surely true back in the 1970s. Not any longer. And certainly not when I read what Andy Stanley said once he was criticized and sought to clarify his response through further comments.
When asked to define the term “revival,” Stanley acknowledged he was speaking in terms of local (organized) revival meetings. He explained that he wanted to draw attention to the revival-like growth and atmosphere he had seen at South Carolina’s New Spring Church, pastored by his friend Perry Noble.
Stanley added: ”I realized about half way into what became an almost four hour discussion that many, maybe most, of the response was coming from people who were thinking more in terms of an awakening like America has experienced in the past. I can understand the confusion and I definitely contributed to it.”
Stanley further responded by saying that much of the frustration evident in his Tweets stemmed from growing up in Southern Baptist churches listening to church leaders pray for “revival” while being unwilling to make the organizational changes necessary to reach people.
He said, ”I love the local church. And I’ll admit I get a bit stirred up when I hear church leaders talk about the need to reach more people while refusing to make the changes necessary to actually get the job done.”
While Andy Stanley and I see the local church quite differently (I am a minister in the Reformed Church in America, a mainline church) I share his deep commitment to mission. “Mission,” said the late Dutch theologian Hendrikus Berkhof, “is far more than a minor practical instrument in the world of salvation. It is directly linked up . . . with the [church’s] great future” (The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, Richmond, Virginia, 1964, 34). I think Stanley understands this and practically seeks to make sure that mission is central to the Spirit’s work in the world. He is not content, at least as I read him, to simply go about “Bible belt” ecclesial actions and call this the Spirit’s work.
Stanley noted, in his response to the criticism of his quotes, that he often hears the word “revival [as] basically . . . an excuse not to make changes.”
So when a church says, “We want to see our church do something. We want to baptize more people. We want to reach our city,” and then church consultants or smart people go in and say “You need to fire these people, you need to quit spending this money, you need to do this and that” and the church goes that, “We can’t do any of that,” well my reaction to the whole revival terminology, is that, you know what, instead of praying for that whole revival, there are some very practical things churches could do to reach their communities.
Later in the same interview, Stanley adds, “There are a bunch of great Southern Baptist churches doing a phenomenal job reaching people in their community. But when you look closely at those churches you discover several things they have in common. They are led well. They are organized around systems that free people to use their gifts. They are vision centered. And the preaching is practical and gospel centered.”
This response sounds a bit more “Southern Baptist” (at least to me) than Andy Stanley lets on. He noted that while he has been criticized on occasion for suggesting that a church’s success could be built on the shoulders of “man” and leaving little room for the assistance of the divine he rejects that criticism. I have not leveled such a criticism at Andy Stanley because I do not think it to be true but I can understand why it has been said. When you see how his church functions, and how they do the work of evangelism, you do see a lot of the typical mega-church marketing style at work. But having said this I know far too many unchurched, and formerly churched, folks who have found a good spiritual home at North Point. My friends in Atlanta are almost all respectful of Stanley’s high-profile work.
Stanley provided a response to this criticism about his work being built on “man” by saying, ”That’s not what I believe and here’s why. The apostle Paul gives us a model for how the church is to function. He says the local church is a body and when every single member functions like they are supposed to function, it paves the way for great things to happen. Paul used the phrase, ‘Gifts of the spirit.’ When believers leverage their spiritual gifts for the sake of the gospel that is a spirit led endeavor. I have a hunch that if every believer leveraged their gifts along with the other believers in their community there would in fact be a revival of epic proportion.”
Stanley says his statement “get busy” referred to this sentiment. Fair enough. So long as mission does not become a feverish human activity that the church has to do to reach large numbers of people, thus an end to its own self-understanding and well-being, I agree. He makes it very clear where his own mind and heart are in this final statement:
It’s not either/or. The organizational side of church is absolutely key to getting things done and I don’t think that’s un-spiritual. Applying what Paul taught can look a bit corporate. But what happens as a result goes way beyond what an organization can accomplish. People’s hearts are changed. Only the Spirit of God can do that. But for reasons known only to Him, God chooses to work through us as we work together. That’s why there’s nothing like the local church. But how do you say all that in 140 characters?
Stanley underscores several worthwhile points in these comments.
- Twitter is ineffective in communicating anything of depth without the great danger of being misunderstood. The popular and highly influential Tim Keller has tweeted some comments at times (I have wondered if he wrote them actually) and has been caught in the same trap. I suggest that we show grace to people who fall into these “Twitter traps” and allow them to explain themselves before we rush to judgment.
- We very likely have differences in how we understand Stanley. These can be seen in different generations and how they have engaged in this controversy. Stanley can tweet such statements and most young people get it without a great deal of problems. People of my generation too easily jump to conclusions. But Twitter is as much a problem here as it is a positive means for speaking to a wider audience. In the world of sport Twitter has blown up more than one young athlete’s career in a moment, reminding us all to be careful what you say to the world. It is not easy to take back what you write on Twitter. Maybe I should say, “Especially on Twitter.”
- While I agree with Andy Stanley about “local church revivals” (and have agreed for fifty years actually) I have more recently come to believe that he doesn’t go far enough in his response. I think he hints at this but I would like to draw it out. Remember, I am a student of America’s awakenings and I am the product of such a movement from the 1960s. I believe in awakenings that come from God and touch large groups of people in a given locale, city, nation and time in redemptive history. I wrote a book, still available from out-of-print sources (or from me if I dig it out of a box in my basement), titled: True Revival: What Happens When God’s Spirit Moves. I believe the themes and message of that book were right. What I have come to conclude, however, is that waiting and seeking God for revival when the Spirit has already been poured out on all flesh is not a balanced and biblical perspective. While Stanley might stress methods overmuch revivalists stress waiting and praying overmuch. Really? Yes, I believe they do. I do believe in protracted prayer, seeking God together and even fasting. But I do not believe that we have to “wait” until a dramatic outpouring happens to become obedient and enter into the experience of the blessing of God upon our mission. Let us move on and get busy with clearer and better focus on the real mission. We just might find that the Father pours out the Holy Spirit as we go forward in faithfulness to his mission. Mission is the emphasis of the New Testament, not periodic revivals. As the early church did mission in the obvious power of the Spirit they lived in what I’d call a “perpetual” state of revival. Maybe we should do the same.
- Finally, Andy Stanley has entirely avoided the polemical debates within evangelicalism, or so it seems to me. He has remained squarely focused on evangelism and discipleship. He has thus avoided becoming a negative lightning rod. These days that is saying a great deal about both the man and his ministry. Bravo!