The annual Southern Baptist Convention is always preceded by the Pastors’ Conference on Sunday night and Monday. This year’s Pastors’ Conference was very helpful for pastors on many different levels. Several different types of messages were preached that addressed struggles in ministry, doctrinal issues, and Great Commission efforts.
Overall, the Pastors’ Conference was profitable, but there was one sermon that distinctly stands out from the others. The sermon on Monday night by Andy Stanley was not exactly what the pastors at the Convention needed to hear. While there may be a place for leadership models and corporate business plans – it certainly isn’t from the pulpit that is addressing thousands of SBC pastors. Andy Stanley was given the pulpit after a tribute to his father, Charles Stanley, the pastor of FBC Atlanta. Although Andy Stanley is a gifted speaker and has good oratory manners, his message lacked sufficient meat from God’s Word. It was like he was the chef at a large steak house standing there serving up cotton candy and lemonade to men who desperately needed a thick juicy steak. Many men were seated in the Convention hall listening to Stanley speak who desired to hear a message from God’s Word, but they didn’t receive it. They instead received a message full of leadership quotes, business plans, and stories from corporate America.
One of the most troubling parts of Andy Stanley’s message was his main objective that was quoted multiple times throughout his sermon. He continuously stated, “If you make your church better, they (the unchurched) will come and make it bigger.” In other words, Stanley was emphasizing numbers, growth, and catering to the unchurched in the local community. He stated that one of the main reasons that the unchurched do not come to our church is due to the fact that we have made it uncomfortable and unattractive to them. As he made these statements that were sandwiched between stories from corporate America, his points were lacking biblical evidence. He was given a great opportunity to minister to thousands of pastors, and he served up stories from the business world rather than preaching a text of Scripture and allowing the Holy Spirit to minister to the people’s lives from God’s Word.
After considering the implications of Andy Stanley’s message for one week, I would like to address his main points from Scripture.
1. The unchurched should be extremely uncomfortable in a gospel preaching church.
The term, church, in the New Testament is the Greek word, “ekklesia” (ἐκκλησία) which means literally, a called out assembly. Therefore, from the beginning, we should note that the church is a term that always means a group of born again Christians. These individuals who have been called out of darkness into the marvelous light of life by the sovereign hand of God are transformed into a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). They have different views regarding life and a worldview that is gospel centered. Therefore, any person who comes into that context and is surrounded by a group of gospel saturated people while hearing a gospel centered message will naturally be uncomfortable. In fact, they should be miserable in their sinful condition. However, Andy Stanley continued to press the point that we as pastors need to strive to make our church “better” so that we can become more attractive to the unchurched who will in return come and make it “bigger.” That idea does not seem to square with the truth of what the church is according to the Scriptures.
2. The “better to get bigger” model does not make sense in the context of the New Testament church. It may work in corporate America, but God’s Word does not instruct us to get “better” in order to get “bigger.”
Our central efforts in ministry should not be to grow our “church” but to evangelize the lost in order to see perishing sinners rescued by the Grace of God. According to Romans 3:10-11 and 2 Cor. 4:4, lost people do not desire to come to God apart from a sovereign work of Grace in their hearts by the gospel of Jesus Christ. If we design our church to be “better” in the sense of attracting “seekers” to come and make our church “bigger” we have missed the point of missions. The Great Commission is not about making our church “bigger.” The Great Commission is about fulfilling the calling of God upon our lives in order to see guilty sinners reconciled to a Holy God, worshiping, praising, and serving Him until He calls us all home. We must not design our church after business models or movie slogans such as, “If you build it, they will come.” That model may attract a crowd, but many of the people in that crowd may be unregenerate.
3. God’s Word is sufficient and is what the men in the Convention hall needed to hear.
The primary objective for any man who stands in the pulpit is to preach the Word of God. Andy Stanley did not do that at the Pastors’ Convention. The only time he used Scripture was once or twice during his message when he used the Word of God as a proof text to back up his points. The preacher’s job is to stand before people and tell them what God said. Anytime a man stands up before people and elevates any literature, plan, program, or book above God’s Word, he has undermined the very authority and sufficiency of Holy Scripture.
Sprinkled out through the Convention hall were pastors who were hurting from troubles in their ministry. Some were struggling with depression. Others were experiencing the weight of a failing marriage due to the demands of ministry life. Undoubtedly, some pastors were sitting in that hall listening to Andy Stanley who were ready to quit the ministry. Today, many of them have already submitted their letters of resignation. Andy Stanley had an opportunity to proclaim the truth of Holy Scripture and allow the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit to minister to the people, but instead he spoke about Chick-fil-A and Intel.
During the era known today as the “Conservative Resurgence” of the 80’s and 90’s, the SBC fought a battle over the inerrancy of Scripture, and by God’s Grace won the battle. Today, the SBC (and the evangelical church at large) is facing the challenges regarding the sufficiency of Scripture. Andy Stanley did not help the cause by modeling a non-Bible based delivery method before the thousands of pastors who were in attendance on Monday night. Rather than elevating the Word of God as the sufficient and powerful single tool for a minister of God – he led men toward a corporate America solution that will ultimately fail.
What the church needs today is a return to solid expository preaching that elevates to the people a strong understanding of the inerrancy and sufficiency of Holy Scripture. The models and methods that Andy Stanley delivered to the Southern Baptist Convention’s preachers will not work. Sure, we have the liberty to add new methods and ministry options to our churches, but we must not forget what the church is along the journey. We must also remember that lost people should be uncomfortable within our church – until the gospel of Christ transforms their lives. We must also remember that evangelism and gospel missions is the answer to reaching the lost rather than making our church appealing to the unchurched.
May God lead the SBC to greater things than corporate America can provide – all for His glory and praise!
Pastor Josh Buice