Atlanta preacher Andy Stanley has crossed my news feed several times of late. Most recently, he was publicly criticized for a sermon where he troublingly interpreted Acts 15 by saying that Christians should “unhitch” their faith from the Old Testament. Numerous articles emerged (one of the best in First Things) to discuss Andy’s dangerous theological direction.
And yet, not long ago ,Andy was also in the Christian news circuit, listed among a set of the most influential Evangelical preachers. Stanley, the son of megachurch and radio preacher Charles Stanley, has piloted NorthPoint Community Church for years, an Atlanta megachurch with some 39,000 people in attendance weekly at its six campuses. He is an author, a traveling public speaker, and used to publish podcasts on leadership to which I would listen, in another life.
In response to the recent furore over Andy’s April 29th comments about the Old Testament, I watched the YouTube video of the sermon. While indeed it was the case that I found the content of his sermon troubling, even more than that I found the sermon itself—his delivery, style, and manner, to be alarming. Since Stanley is so highly regarded as a preacher, and since I spend a lot of time thinking about preaching, I thought I’d suggest some reasons why we ought not to preach like Andy Stanley. I’ve got three such suggestions today.
#1) Are you Controlling?
Throughout his sermon Stanley repeated two phrases so many times that I lost count. He would assert “Now this is important,” and he would command the audience to “Look up here.” Now, if Stanley had digressed from his main point, and then used phrases like these to gather the congregation back to the main point again, I can see why they might be useful. But that wasn’t the case. Instead, these were deployed in what I can only guess was an attempt to try to keep the congregation’s focus razor sharp on what Stanley was doing at a given moment. They exhibited, to me, what appeared to be a desire for control over the congregation—control over their attention, their minds, their focus for the duration of the service. I think this kind of (attempted) control is really dangerous for preachers.
It is dangerous, among other things, because it creates a climate of distrust and of performance. When a preacher continuously labours to keep your attention, it is because, at heart, he doesn’t believe you’re really listening, because he doesn’t trust you. This opens the door for phrases like Stanley’s, for gimmicks, and for any number of “creative” means for keeping congregations interested (movie clips, song lyrics, images, etc.). It also creates a culture of performance—after all, the really faithful Christians are the ones who hang on every word, who take extensive notes, and who can repeat the points of the sermon easily at lunch after the service. Those who can’t are, by implication, lesser Christians.
I was once at a Youth event with a guest preacher who was a short, muscular, African-American man. As is often the case at weekend Youth events, the youths stay up late fellowshipping, playing, and eating cup noodles (you can pick your own snack, but I was with Asians and cup noodles after midnight are a must-have). After one (or maybe two) such nights, one of my members fell asleep in the back row of the hall where we were meeting. This was unsurprising—not only had he been up late, but he was a generally tired guy. Well, the speaker noted this from the front, and then suddenly left the front, marched to the back, and sat on my member’s lap! He then whispered in his ear (I found this out later), “Do you think you can stay awake now?” From that point on, everybody stayed awake, but when I asked them about it later they told me it was because they were terrified that the muscular speaker might do something to them! He had won his point, but lost his audience in the process.
When I was a beginning preacher I had an idea of the perfect sermon that looked a lot like what I think is going on in Stanley’s sermon. I thought that the ideal message would keep a congregation spellbound for the duration of the sermon—locked in attention, immobile, perfectly hanging on every word. Toward that end, I used to refuse to give out notes for sermons because I felt that if I were doing my job properly, they wouldn’t need any notes. Then, one Sunday morning, a young woman came up to me after the service and told me that she was seeking God, and enjoyed coming to church, but that sometimes she just couldn’t follow along with the sermons. In that moment I heard God speak to me with impressive clarity. He said, “Jeremy, will you keep this young woman from learning about Me because you have some stupid idea of what a sermon should be like?” I was immediately chastised, and from that time on I always printed and handed out notes for sermons. I also changed my philosophy of preaching. Instead of aiming for the pied-piper spellbound model of sermon, I realized that the very best sermons are when people stop listening to you completely because God is doing something in them. You’ve said something, and they begin to think about their lives, about what it means, about how the Word impacts them. I realized that losing people in this way was way more important than keeping them focused on me. And that meant, last of all, that the best sermons are the ones that provide easy ways for people to get back on board. “On ramps,” we used to call them in Seminary—phrases like, “Back to John 14,” or “Returning to our main point, that Jesus heals today…”—these phrases bring a congregation back to the text, and show how a preacher can guide without being controlling.
#2) Are you Angry?
Another thing stood out to me prominently during the 40-odd minutes of Stanley’s sermon—there wasn’t a lot of joy. There was intensity, focus, and drive—there were moments of elevated energy and a few jokes, but on the whole there was something monochromatic. The more I thought about it, the more I felt that the emotion which dominated Stanley’s sermon was actually anger. Now, anger is a perfectly suitable emotion for a sermon when it is directed at a just cause, or framed by a situation that calls for anger, but throughout this sermon it felt more like anger was the passive, baseline emotion which drove everything along. Not only did I find this really interesting, I realized that it might explain a common preaching phenomenon.
I found this interesting for a number of reasons, not least of them because I’ve been someone who has had to discern and diagnose my own anger, which had become the passive emotional baseline in my own life. When my own anger was undiagnosed, it leaked out through my energy, my creativity, and my relationships. Anger that is unprocessed doesn’t go away—it stays and festers, shaping, distorting, and limiting all other emotions. It took time for me to recognize this pattern and begin to reframe it accordingly.
As I thought about this angry sermon, I had a sudden realization. Preachers often talk about “really feeling it,” or “really preaching.” They may use other words, but it describes the emotional state of being totally engaged in the sermon, of really feeling like you are preaching. Often, preachers will diagnose this experience as a work of the Spirit, moving the preacher to this excited emotional level—furthermore, they often take it as a sign of God’s favour with what they are preaching. But what, I wondered, if many preachers have simply misdiagnosed their anger? What if this heightened emotional state isn’t the rush God’s Spirit, but rather the rush of my own anger? The symptoms would be the same—a sense of energy, of elevation, potentially an adrenaline rush, followed by a subsequent emotional crash. Side effects would be frustration at distractions—a baby crying, a person getting up to use the restroom, or mishaps with sound equipment. Preachers who feel they are “really preaching” are often, to my knowledge, also really keyed up.
The more I’ve thought about this, the more I think it is true. I’ve listened to some of my friends preach, and their sense of ‘feeling it’ is outwardly indistinguishable from anger. Not long ago I listened to Russell Moore’s Erasmus Lecture (for First Things). In it he was affable, brilliant, and prophetic. I decided then to listen to his MLK50 sermon, in which he was, well, angry. If the difference between the first talk and the second was that the second was a sermon, then this seems to confirm my thesis even further.
There are lots of reasons for pastors to feel angry—their own personal pain, undiagnosed wounds, a sense of the burden of ministry, frustration at members, and so forth. And the truth of the matter is not that pastors ought never to feel angry, but that we’ve got to examine, diagnose, and process it so that it doesn’t leak out into our ministries. Unless anger is specifically called for, I would suggest that the dominant baseline emotions for a preacher ought to be either peace, joy, or a combination of the two.
#3) Are you Preaching Bad Theology?
I think this final question requires the least amount of reflection. As I said earlier, I’ve listened to Stanley’s sermon in full, and I feel that it is deeply theologically troubling. Even a charitable read, which focuses on Stanley’s intentions, leaves much to be desired with regard to Acts 15, the Gentile inclusion in the Church, and the (ongoing!) role of the Old Testament in the moral lives of God’s Church.
The thing is, good theology isn’t Stanley’s primary goal. His primary goal—which he has executed with great effectiveness—is to build a church “where unchurched people love to attend.” As far as it goes, this is a solid goal, and it’s clear that Stanley has succeeded enormously. It is also clear from the content of his sermon that this goal is operating in the background of his theology—his desire to “unhitch” the Old Testament is rooted in the perception that the Old Testament might keep people from coming to faith. In this, he sees the story of Acts 15 and the Gentile inclusion as a kind of snapshot of his own ministry (where the Jerusalem council is also creating a church where un-churched people will love to attend).
But note—this seems to suggest that Stanley’s theology is being shaped by his vision, rather than his vision being shaped by theology. And this means we’ve got to have some discernment of values. We’ve got to be careful that our local vision for the church doesn’t war against a) the scriptures, b) the creeds, c) the church global. Theology is that funny chimera born within the midst of those three features, and while it is by no means monolithic, it does have a discernible centre. If my desire to create a church were unchurched people love to attend begins to cause me to edit and reshape some of that theological centre, then I’m stepping into enormously dangerous territory. That’s why there is a discernment of values. The Church is allowed enormous, almost astonishing, freedom of local expression, and yet she must maintain her ties to those centres of focus. When “local expressions” begin to trump the orthodox middle, it is then that we’ve got serious problems.
Andy Stanley has a powerful ministry with enormous impact. But don’t be like him. Be like you, and serve where God has planted you, and try to do it without controlling, without a spirit of anger, and in solid theological company.