Don’t Preach Like Andy Stanley

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.

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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.

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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.

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Are you able to discern the actual line between intensity and anger?

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.

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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).

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A screenshot from the April 29 Sermon.

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.

Dear James (E)–The Walls of Wrath

Dear James,

You’ve asked a couple of questions that I’ll respond to specifically. First, am I “suggesting that all sin is a distraction from duty?” I have indeed linked many of these reflections on sin to distraction, but it doesn’t follow that the essence of sin is itself distraction. Rather, I think that distraction is a frequent byproduct of our sinfulness. Trapped in sin, we fail our duty (which further complicates sin!). So, not all sin is distraction, but in sin I am almost always distracted from my God-given duty.

Second, “To what degree can a sin be purely a matter of the body, and to what degree can we have a sin which is purely of the soul?” In the tradition, sins like Lust and Sloth were considered to be purely bodily sins, and therefore of a lesser significance that more spiritual sins, like Pride and Greed. But I am wary, first of all, of overly dividing the body and soul. Is it really possible to commit a physical sin that doesn’t in some sense impact my spirit? And is it really possible to commit a spiritual sin which doesn’t have some necessary impact on my body? As I’ve treated our sins so far, I’ve made an explicit point to try and exhibit them in both bodily and spiritual form, not dividing one from the other. This seems like good sense. Additionally, I’ve avoided ranking them, especially because I feel that the essence of sin is something that separates us from God. If a sin of the first rank can separate us from God just as effectively as the sin ranked seventh, then the rankings are clearly irrelevant.

Does this suggest that all sin is equal? In one sense, yes. In another, no. All sin is equal in its capacity to separate us from God, and in this adultery is every bit as bad as murder or theft or covetousness. But in the no sense, sins are unequal in their effects on other people. So while the consequence of Envy could potentially affect only me (ruining my capacity for joy), the consequence of Murder necessarily affects another person. My sin is not merely a sin of the inner life, nor a sin against my own body, but a sin against someone else’s body. In this sense, it seems to me that some sins are clearly worse than others.

This suggests that we can view sin in three different capacities—sin as it affects the inner life, sin as it affects the body, and sin as it affects the community around me. Consider, for example, Wrath. As a sin of the inner life, Wrath seems to involve the undue embrace of anger at another person or situation. In this, you are angry when you have no right to be. Now we have lots of reasons to be angry (and for the record I think anger is one of God’s gifts to us). But we have times to be angry, and purposes for our anger, and Godly means of exercising, discharging, and dispensing with our anger—and these are conditions which I would suggest are always filled by God’s Wrath in the Scriptures. Sinful Wrath, to me, seems to involve a failure at one of these points—angry at the wrong time, for the wrong purpose, and discharged without Godliness. Paul famously commands us to “be angry and do not sin.” Be angry. Feel what is wrong with your life. Experience this particular pain. But do not sin in it! Wrath is sinning in anger.

The bodily aspect of the sin of Wrath may seem opaque at first, but I think it clear enough upon reflection. When we prioritize our anger it has a habit of flattening out all our other emotions. The man who lives in the grip of an ongoing rage feels little else—sadness, joy, melancholy, interest, happiness, etc. Ironically, sometimes, I’ve found that people will almost subconsciously adopt Wrath as their dominating emotion simply so that they won’t have to feel anything else. Their hearts are wrapped in a Wrath of self-protection. Wrath is then a sin against the body by limiting my capacity to experience the world God has given me, in all its joys and sorrows.

With regard to community, Wrath generates what we might call a dishonest distortion. Instead of seeing a person, I see red; instead of really hearing, I hear only talking points for arguments. Wrath, having flattened my own emotional life, then flattens my perception of other persons as well. This is perhaps something of what is going on in the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus says that calling our brother “fool” and “emptyhead” leads to a murder of the heart. Instead of receiving his accusation that I’ve done wrong, I dismiss and label him. Once labeled and dismissed, in Wrath I can do away with them in my heart. It’s a kind of murder, certainly.

In this, Wrath is the sin which builds up walls around the heart. It keeps other people, and other emotions, at arm’s length. It is a self-protective sin, and it seems to me that times of quiet prayer and meditation can especially provoke those strongholds of Wrath. God, after all, pursues us in those places where we try to hide, where we are attempting to cover up. And I wonder if what is often our Wrath at God is not the manifestation of the walls we’ve erected to keep Him out? Not that we can’t be angry at God (the Psalms make that possibility clear!), but when our anger becomes a habit of life, ongoing, undischarged, and disallowing of other emotional states.

I remember counseling a man who lived in the grip of Wrath to listen to sad music. It seemed to me fairly clear that if he would open his heart to experiences other than anger, then perhaps it might jumpstart his capacity to feel other emotions on a more regular basis. How many men, I wonder, have simply forgotten how to feel any other emotions?

The church service you mention sounds marvelous. I’ve enjoyed a fair share of the “smells and bells” services in my time, and you’re absolutely right that our material worship matters for our spiritual capacities for worship. What a medieval insight!

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios