Engaging culture from a Gospel perspective is the theme of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s (ERLC) third-annual national conference happening August 25-27 in Nashville, Tennessee. Nearly 1,000 Southern Baptists—mostly Millennial church planters, pastors, and lay leaders—are gathered for talks and training in areas ranging from politics and racial reconciliation to pastoral ministry, parenting, and the arts.
The most provocative talk from yesterday was between two very different kinds of Evangelical leaders. Pastor Andy Stanley joined Russell Moore, ERLC president, to discuss points of disagreements and some similarities in leadership, preaching, and cultural engagement.
Approach vs. Content
Stanley, who leads Atlanta’s North Point Community Church, candidly addressed his provocative approach to church and preaching, which has garnered criticism from other Evangelical leaders in the past. But Stanley says he isn’t bothered by criticism from other Believers, so long as he is reaching un-Believers.
“When we do wide, into the net preaching and services we de-church,” explained Stanley. “So on this particular Sunday there were no prayers, there was no worship music, there was no corporate singing, there was no offering… If you showed up on that Sunday, you would judge me harshly as a pastor and a preacher.”
Stanley noted right off the bat that his goal for preaching is for unchurched people to be so excited by what they hear that they want to come back and bring a friend. “If your church people are not comfortable bringing their unchurched friends to church, you just need to think about that.” Stanley drove his point home as he read a letter from an Atheist woman who relented to a friend’s request to visit one of Stanley’s satellite churches. After having a pleasant experience, she chose to return. “I am Atheist, but I belong to Browns Bridge Church,” read Stanley from her letter.
Moore tried to dig a bit deeper into Stanley’s preaching approach, noting, “We have a very clear proclamation from John the Baptist all the way through to the Apostle Paul and Peter and elsewhere. So would you say she’d sort of gradually become comfortable with the Church or instead is there a place for II Corinthians 5, I’m pleading with you as though Christ is pleading through me to reconcile to God—”
“That was a letter to the church,” interrupted Stanley.
“Yes, it’s a letter to the church, but it’s a letter to the church that’s in error,” retorted Dr. Moore. “How do you decide?”
As Stanley sees it, his job as a preacher is not to make people fall in love with Jesus but to play the part of matchmaker and “set up the dates and hoping that God does his thing.”
Eventually, Stanley says, he will get to the Bible’s text, but the priority is getting un-Believers to come back to church because “eventually it’s going to rub off on you” and the individual will, hopefully, have an encounter with God. For that to happen, Stanley’s approach hopes the individual enjoys the date. “When people who are far from God and people who don’t believe and people who don’t take the Bible seriously show up in a church environment and enjoy it, that is shocking.”
While Stanley believes style and approach are key to reaching the lost, Moore stressed it’s the content of what preachers say that is ultimately life changing. “I also think it’s important that what we’re approaching people with is an encounter with the risen Christ who speaks through His Word,” clarified Moore.
The Bible Says So?
Changing topics slightly, Moore brought up Stanley’s controversial statement in 2014 instructing pastors to stop using the phrase “the Bible says” in their sermons. “I would of course disagree with that because no one naturally perceives the authority of Scripture,” explained Moore. “The Scripture brings with it its own power and its own authority. What do you mean when you say we shouldn’t say ‘the Bible says’?”
For Stanley, using “the Bible says” comes down to whether he is dealing with someone who either doesn’t take the Bible seriously or is doubting Scripture all together. In those situations, Stanley prefers to use a “more direct route” by saying “Jesus taught,” “the Apostle Paul said,” or “James wrote.”
“I think it is an easier on-ramp for people who are distant, distancing, doubting to start with the authority of the author than to start with the Bible,” Stanley elaborated. “To have a discussion around the Resurrection is a much easier discussion than trying to defend the whole Bible. That’s my point. It’s not a lack of confidence in the Scripture, it’s an approach, again, based on culture and some cultural assumptions.”
“But don’t you think that as your preaching and teaching through the Bible, II Corinthians 4, the voice of God speaks through the Scriptures?” questioned Dr. Moore. “It seems to me that if we don’t appeal to the authority of the Scripture, what we do is appeal to the authority of ourselves.”
Stanley disagreed, pointing to his Easter sermons as evidence. “Every Easter I say Christians believe—we just want you to know—we believe Jesus Christ rose from the dead. We do not believe that because the Bible says so. It’s better than that. We believe it because Matthew, an eye-witness, and I talk about Matthew. Mark, I talk about how he got his information. Talk about Luke, who started his whole Gospel life thoroughly investigating these things, interviewed eye-witnesses…”
Stanley continued, “All I’m saying is it’s all important, it’s all inspired, it’s all valued. But in terms of approaching with secular people in a secular culture, this is just a different approach. I don’t think we lose anything.”
“I do,” said Moore. “We’re not simply talking about a list of witnesses, we’re talking about witnesses who have behind them the Spirit of God in such a way, as Paul says to the church in Thessalonica when he’s commending them, we received what we are saying—”
Stanley interrupted, “I just think dropping back into the historical realities behind our inspired Scripture is a different, I say better approach. It removes obstacles and ultimately people who follow Jesus and people who take the New Testament and the Scripture seriously, the more they read it, the more seriously they take it.”
“So you would not feel uncomfortable saying to an unchurched person, ‘this is what God says, thus sayeth the Lord’?” asked Moore clearly taking issue with Stanley’s seeker sensitive approach.
“If I’m trying to win them to Christ, I wouldn’t start there,” answered Stanley honestly.
“But would you ever get there?” questioned Moore.
“Well, yeah. Once they have taken steps toward understanding what those words even mean.” Stanley clarified, “We accommodate people’s capacity. We all do that. That’s all I’m saying based on the prejudices and the misinformation about the Bible.”
The important difference, Moore stressed, is that all of fallen humanity is trying to hide from the voice of God. “So the shrinking back from the open proclamation of the truth ‘this is what the Scriptures say, we believe in the authority of Scripture, you may not but consider the claims being made—What I’m saying to you, this is what God says.’ I think that’s where our difference is.”
Confronting the Tough Cultural Topics
Stanley supports teaching youth there are topics not up for discussion “not because you don’t have an answer, because of who is in the audience.” As an example, he turned to Matthew 21 when Jesus refused to answer the Pharisees’ insincere question about the source of His authority.
“There are things we know for certain, but because our goal is not to simply be right, our goal isn’t simply to make a point, our goal is to invite people to take a step towards surrendering their lives to Jesus Christ,” Stanley said. “There are certain topics that when you talk with one of these on in rows with people you don’t know in the audience you are probably going to make the people who already agree with you happy. But you may have put another brick in the wall between the people you are trying to reach.”
Abortion is one of those topics Stanley thinks is not up for discussion from the pulpit, though he affirmed his pro-life conviction. Instead, he encourages small groups to address tough topics like the sanctity of life. “That’s a topic I don’t blink on, but when I have a room full of people that I do not know, that’s a topic that I would rather move women or boyfriends into an environment they can talk about it.”
Moore pressed into Stanley’s reasoning, asking if in 19th century Georgia among slaveholders should pastors have relegated topics of injustices to closed circles or preach against slavery from the pulpit.
Stanley reiterated it depends if pastors are talking to church insiders or outsiders. “I think as Christians we leverage our New Testament ethic, our moral ethic. As [citizens] talking to non-Christians, we still step into that realm and address social evils.” He continued, “I think we have the opportunity to do it from a different platform and when it’s appropriate say, ‘You know the thing that fuels my energy against this social issue is my Christianity.’”
Moore told the audience the major reason why he chooses to address abortion from the pulpit “is because we have so many people coming into our churches who have participated in abortion” and the culture they live in justifies their harmful choices.
“When I preach about abortion, what I’m wanting to say is, ‘What you fear about this is true, and yet Romans 23, God is both just and justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus,’” Moore explained.
“I think there’s a liberating power to saying I’m speaking directly to you and I’m not apologizing for what the Scripture would say to you about the injustice of this,” he continued. “But what I’m doing is speaking directly to you that there is mercy and reconciliation, even for you woman who had the abortion, or man who paid for the abortion, or grandparent who drove that granddaughter to get an abortion.’
To this, Stanley agreed.
The Pope of Evangelicalism
In closing, Moore asked an intriguing question: If Stanley was the Pope of Evangelicalism, what changes would he make?
Stanley gave four equally intriguing answers:
(1) He would have all the churches that are dying sell their properties and give the money to church planters.
(2) Ask preachers and student pastors in their communication to “get the spotlight off the Bible and back on the Resurrection” and “leverage the authority we have in the Resurrection as opposed to Scripture—not because I don’t believe Scripture is inspired—in terms of reaching this culture.”
(3) Possibly republish all the Bibles and rename the Old Testament “God’s covenant with ancient Israel” and rename the New Testament “God’s covenant with the world.”
(4) Ban Christians from judging outsiders and require them to ask, “What does love require of me?”
With that, Stanley turned the question to Moore who smartly answered:
(1) Seek a consistent confidence in the Bible as the Word of God among church leaders as they speak both to the congregation and to the world.
(2) Encourage the American church to have a sense of broken-heartedness for secular society, as Stanley noted.
(3) Ensure that our churches are representing what it means to be repentant and reconciled people in our lifestyles.
By far, this gracious but direct discussion between Stanley and Moore on their differences over cultural engagement was one of the most engaging, thought-provoking conversations I’ve heard in a while.
What are your thoughts as you think through engaging secular culture and remaining faithful to the Gospel? Should our focus be on approach or content?Google+