“You should come and learn from us!”
That assertion jumped out to me from Andy Stanley’s October 1 sermon, explaining to his Atlanta-area churches why he was under fire for hosting the “Unconditional Conference” for parents of children who come out as LGBT+. “You,” in his reckoning, are other evangelical churches and pastors. “Us” is North Point, Stanley’s flagship church with a host of satellites.
The line is a golden thread that runs through not only his sermon that day but also the history of North Point. It’s the philosophy that led to Stanley’s vast influence and to the place he was in that Sunday, sitting on a stool and talking nervously about sexuality.
I’m one of the “you” who have learned some things from Andy Stanley. I want to help you understand the appeal and pitfalls of his philosophy of ministry.
Stanley and I share a common burden to help people who are thinking about leaving Christianity retain their faith. Although I grew up in the South, I didn’t belong to evangelicalism but was safely ensconced in a liberal form of Protestantism. But at an evangelical high school, the freshness of what I called “the original Jesus” broke in through simple teachings of New Testament texts.
Yet I didn’t just discover the original Jesus—I also discovered a thick religious-political-social culture. It didn’t bother me at the time, because I was grateful for everything I was learning about the Christian faith. For many of my classmates, though, who had grown up inside this subculture, it was the matrix they wanted to escape.
Years later as a student at Dallas Theological Seminary, I threw myself into studying missiology and historical theology. In missiology, we learned about “disenculturation,” where missionaries differentiate essential Christianity from its host culture so it’s free to enter another culture. In church history, we learned that errors often creep into the church when someone attempts to lop off something that’s essential to the “faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). This often happens in the name of “reaching people.”
A good missionary disenculturates but doesn’t reduce the essential faith. In his Dynamics of Spiritual Life, Richard Lovelace shows how this can even lead to spiritual renewal, making space for the gospel to be heard afresh.
This is what I wanted to do as I set out in 2006 to plant a church in urban Denver. Many of my new congregants described leaving a conservative Bible Belt city and moving to Colorado. They felt hemmed in by their native culture, similar to one I encountered at my evangelical high school, and were grateful to have some distance from it. In the process, they were renegotiating their relationship with Christianity. I needed conversation partners who knew how to disenculturate the faith so the Scriptures could be heard again. This is how I discovered Andy Stanley.
Studying Andy Stanley’s Missiology
Though I’ve never heard him use the term “disenculturation,” Stanley’s life work has been clearing away clutter to help people encounter Jesus afresh. I started studying his ministry because he was a missionary to disenchanted former evangelicals.
The son of a famous Southern Baptist preacher, Stanley’s journey is many others’ writ large. He worked as the youth pastor at his father’s Atlanta First Baptist Church but felt stifled by its culture. He wanted to leave the church but didn’t want to leave ministry, so he started a new kind of church. Doing so resulted in a painful falling out with his dad—and it resulted in a multiplying megachurch.
By the time I tuned in to Stanley in 2006, North Point was three campuses of thousands (today it has eight locations). It was a purposeful teaching church, positioning itself as an advance scout for evangelicalism, going where most churches hadn’t gone to solve problems they hadn’t solved. North Point concepts were distributed to other churches and church leaders through a resource ministry and annual “Drive” conferences. “You should come and learn from us” isn’t a new line. It’s been part of North Point’s ethos from the outset.
The other part of its ethos is to “create churches that unchurched people love to attend.” A keystone passage for Stanley is the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15, especially James’s words in verse 19: “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (NIV). At North Point, “not mak[ing] it difficult” means removing obstacles that prevent people from coming to church, coming back to church, and joining a small group. The priority is on establishing and maintaining relationships, with the hope that people will move closer to God.
This is perhaps easiest to see in Stanley’s preaching method. In his book Deep and Wide, he explains, “My goal on the weekend is to present the Scriptures in a way that is so helpful and compelling that everybody in the audience is glad to have attended and drives away with every intention to return the following weekend. . . . I want them to walk away intrigued by the fact that they heard someone teach from the Bible and it was . . . helpful.”
Draw them into a relationship. Show that the Bible is helpful. That’s Stanley’s preaching in a nutshell. It differs from other seeker-sensitive methods in one significant way: Stanley’s approach is expository. Although he doesn’t preach book-long series, most of his sermons are expositions of a specific text, introduced with an insightful hook. “My approach is to entice the audience to follow me into one passage of Scripture with the promise that the text is either going to answer a question they’ve been asking, solve a mystery they’ve been puzzled over, or resolve a tension they’ve been carrying. Once we’re in the text, I do my best to let it speak for itself.”
I learned a lot from this approach about how to connect with people. It’s no accident that Stanley’s listeners are drawn in and feel understood. His approach engages listeners who would struggle to connect their experiences with a traditional expository sermon.
Concerns About Reductionism
But after listening to several years of North Point sermons, I noticed a curious pattern: the subject matter was much narrower than the breadth of New Testament teaching. In the New Testament, I saw the apostles—who came up with the original “we should not make it difficult” idea—teaching things that Stanley never addressed. How could I account for this discrepancy?
As Stanley presciently reminds us, “The approach a communicator chooses trumps his or her purpose every time.” His approach is to select individual texts that make it through the filter of “helpful” as an unchurched person would define it. This approach precludes preaching longer sections or entire books of the Bible. But in that approach, much depth needed to sustain Christian faith also gets filtered out.
I decided I needed a different purpose. Paul, the original missionary pastor, had a dual purpose—to not make it difficult for Gentiles to turn to God and to teach them the whole counsel of God so their faith could mature and endure. I adopted Paul’s purpose while incorporating some of Stanley’s communication insights. This leads me to preach longer sections of the biblical text.
To be fair to Stanley, not everything the church teaches necessarily comes from the pulpit. “Circles are better than rows” is another famous Andyism. This phrase reminds North Pointers that life change happens in small groups, so I can assume some subjects get covered in groups and other ministry environments. But the pulpit sets the tone for a church—especially a large church with a magnetic communicator. If key New Testament teachings don’t make it into the pulpit, would the church begin to have a reductionist form of Christianity?
In the New Testament, I saw the apostles—who came up with the original ‘we should not make it difficult’ idea—teaching things that Stanley never addressed.
My hunch only grew stronger after Stanley’s 2018 sermon “Not Difficult.” He was back on familiar ground in Acts 15. But this time, the obstacle he was aiming to remove was the Old Testament. On one hand, he seemed to be trying to make a true and simple point: Christians are under the new covenant, not the old covenant. But then “old covenant” got conflated with “Old Testament” and he was arguing for unhitching our faith from the Old Testament Scriptures.
I was confused, but I could see the logic at work: Stanley wanted to make it possible for those who objected to the Old Testament to have faith anyway. A problem with this approach is that New Testament ethics are often grounded in creation order (this is directly applicable to its teaching on sexuality). Jesus taught his disciples a hermeneutic where the kingdom of God restores creation to its original purpose. The Old Testament law—though not a binding covenant for Christians—is still an expression of that creation order, so there’s congruence between New Testament ethics and Old Testament law.
Wouldn’t teaching this be the answer to someone struggling with the Old Testament? Rather than getting rid of the Old Testament, shouldn’t a pastor show how to read it in a new covenant way?
Crossing the Rubicon?
The “unhitch” controversy left me wondering, Is Stanley crossing the Rubicon from mission to reduction?
That was the question running through my mind when I sat down to watch his October 1 sermon. The crux of my concern was this: The Unconditional Conference purported to equip Christian parents, presumably within a Christian framework. At the same time, it featured two men in same-sex marriages and an academic who argues against the historic Christian teaching on same-sex relationships. How could it help Christian parents while featuring speakers with un-Christian views and practices? Or does he not believe those views and practices are integral to original Christianity?
Stanley began by framing his message as a response to Albert Mohler’s September 18 World column, “The Train Is Leaving the Station,” critiquing the conference. Stanley said,
The author is actually accusing me of departing from his version of biblical Christianity. So I want to go on record and say: I have never subscribed to his version of biblical Christianity to begin with. So I’m not leaving anything. . . . In my opinion, his version of biblical Christianity is the problem. . . . His version of biblical Christianity is why people are leaving Christianity unnecessarily. It’s the version that causes people to resist the Christian faith because they can’t find Jesus in the midst of all the other stuff and all the other theology and all the other complexity that gets globbed on to the message. Bottom line: that version of Christianity draws lines. And Jesus drew circles. He drew circles so large and included so many people in his circle that it consistently made religious leaders nervous. And his circle was big enough to include sinners like me.
Much has been made of Stanley’s “circles and lines” analogy, but few have traced his rationale. It’s been his longtime concern to remove obstacles and declutter the message. To use missionary-speak, he thinks Mohler is teaching an enculturated form of Christianity (“his version of biblical Christianity”) that creates obstacles to people discovering Jesus. He wants to draw people into relationship (“circles”) who might not otherwise darken the door of an evangelical church.
But woven into this concern are several confusions. Mohler uses the term “biblical Christianity” to describe what he sees as essential things in Scripture, not cultural stuff “globbed on.” Mohler would surely recognize the validity of different cultural forms, ministry models, and even theological traditions. He’s not accusing Stanley of departing his preferred system. He’s concerned with something more essential. Thus, the Mohler-Stanley debate (and disparate use of terms) frames up the issue at hand: Is Stanley practicing a missional form of original Christianity? Or is he reducing the faith?
Affirmations and Denials
After sparring with Mohler and giving background on the Unconditional Conference, Stanley addressed sexuality itself. He affirmed that North Point teaches “a New Testament sexual ethic,” adding, “If you’re going to follow Jesus, here’s what it looks like sexually to follow Jesus.” He summarized it in three points: (1) honor God with your body; (2) don’t be mastered by anything—porn, sexual addiction, another person, lust; and (3) don’t sexualize a relationship outside of marriage. He continued, “We affirm all three of the apostle Paul’s statements on the topic of same-sex sex: Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, 1 Timothy 1. . . . What the apostle Paul called sin was sin then, and it’s sin now.” Finally, he concluded biblical marriage is between a man and a woman.
I was grateful for these clear affirmations. Yet other statements pulled in a different direction. After outlining the New Testament sexual ethic, Stanley explained that some people choose same-sex marriage because they find chastity “not sustainable.” “It’s their decision,” he said. “Our decision is to decide how we respond to their decision . . . and we decided 28 years ago: we draw circles; we don’t draw lines.” In other words, this isn’t a decision the church would challenge.
Earlier in the sermon, he explained why two married gay men spoke at Unconditional: “Their stories and their journeys of growing up in church and maintaining their faith in Christ and their commitment to follow Christ all through their high school, and college and singles and all up to the time they were married—their story is so powerful for parents of gay kids, that it’s the story parents with gay kids need to hear.”
However, if how Stanley described a New Testament sex ethic is true, then these men have now decided not to follow Christ. They have sexualized a relationship outside of biblical marriage, have been mastered by their same-sex attraction, and aren’t honoring God with their bodies. If that had been made clear for the parents at Unconditional, would it still be a powerful story?
The New Testament doesn’t just outline a sexual ethic. It brings all the graces of the gospel to bear on the process of sanctification. And it lays out the implications of following or not following it. For example, 1 Corinthians 6:9–11 has been carelessly called a “clobber passage.” But it’s actually both a comfort and a warning. Paul names those who practice sexual immorality and homosexuality among those who “will not inherit the kingdom of God.” This is a clear and loving warning. But it’s evident Paul has taught this church how the riches of Christ’s grace sustain a life of obedience—we’re washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit.
Stanley’s reductionism on the struggle of same-sex attraction is that he hasn’t taught the comfort or the warning. Calling chastity “not sustainable” for a person who has received the gifts Paul mentions downplays the riches of Christ’s sacrifice and the work of the Holy Spirit. How does justification matter when you fall short? How does the indwelling Spirit give hope for endurance? How does our finished washing in baptism bring out our true self in Christ?
And what about the warning? If a church doesn’t teach all this, then sexuality is reduced to a secondary disagreement, not a matter of necessary and possible sanctification.
Stanley’s reductionism on the struggle of same-sex attraction is that he hasn’t taught the comfort or the warning.
We must seriously weigh some questions: Is the biblical sex ethic a boundary marker for the faith once and for all delivered to us? Can someone reject it and still inherit the kingdom of God? If she says she’s following Jesus but doesn’t follow this sexual ethic, how should we respond to her decision? Should we teach and counsel repentance? Warn about the eternal consequences of unrepentance? Are the manifold graces of God sufficient to sustain a life of obedience? The New Testament answers these questions with piercing clarity.
I suspect that if Stanley were to work out the answers to these questions and teach them, he might feel like he was drawing lines. But he’d also draw a circle in which the grace of God can abound more fully.
Unfortunately, he’s stuck between his ministry philosophy, which calls for less, and the Scriptures, which call for more. Something has to give. I’m praying it’s the ministry philosophy. I’m praying he becomes a student again and learns from some “you’s” who are doing the hard work of both welcoming sinners and teaching the whole counsel of God.