This was originally published at Joel’s blog, themelios.
Hopefully the headline didn’t chase too many people off.
Last week, Andy Stanley, Lead Pastor of Northpoint Church which meets in multiple locations throughout the metro Atlanta area, said something very discouraging to many smaller church pastors. While preaching to his own congregation and praising the way the church had invested in his own life, Stanley apparently went off-script for a bit to berate anyone with children who would keep them in a small church.
The rant climaxed with this declaration by the Atlanta mega-church pastor:
If you don’t go to a church large enough where you can have enough middle schoolers and high schoolers to separate them so they can have small groups and grow up the local church, you are a selfish adult. Get over it. Find yourself a big old church where your kids can connect with a bunch of people and grow up and love the local church. Instead… you drag your kids to a church they hate, and then they grow up and hate the local church.
On this subject, there really is no room for nuance. What he said was really, really stupid. Seriously, there was just no excuse for it. It was simply boneheaded. But Andy Stanley knows this, admitted it, apologized, and has since done an interview with Christianity Today to further explain himself. It takes a big man with a lot of humility to do that, and I’m thankful for it.
I’ve learned an awful lot from Andy Stanley over the years, and there have also been things he has said that have highly discouraged me. While planting my first church, I read a book he co-wrote with Texas pastor Ed Young Jr. It was full of ideas our church just couldn’t afford–ideas that had been cooked up on a Caribbean island they had visited together that I couldn’t afford to get to. I never finished reading it.
Fast forward many, many years. I’m now serving as a professor teaching Doctoral students, and my most recent syllabus contains Stanley’s book Deep and Wide on the required list for a Contemporary Issues class. Why? Because I find that looking into Stanley’s ministry philosophy–whether or not I would approach ministry in exactly the same way–to be very helpful and challenging.
I share that piece of personal history as a way of illustrating that like many smaller church pastors who felt the unmerciful sting of Stanley’s remarks, I too have been wounded by him. But I’ve also been highly encouraged by him. And more than a few times, the people I minister to have been the beneficiaries of practical wisdom that came from one of his books.
My point is simply that at heart, Andy Stanley is very much like all the rest of us in ministry. He just happens to have the misfortune of a MUCH bigger and brighter spotlight. So when he says something that unintentionally wounds a smaller church pastor who is slugging it out in the trenches, and is then man enough to own his mistake, it might be a good idea for all of us–regardless of the size of our churches–to learn some lessons.
1. All pastors say stupid things. Only Scripture is inspired and inerrant. Pastor’s mouths are not–not by a long shot! In 24 years, there have been more than a few times I have declared with authority something I found out later the Bible gave me no authority to declare. A few times, I’ve had to stand in front of the people I pastor and apologize for misrepresenting God and His Word.
In other words, I can identify with Andy Stanley because I too have said a LOT of stupid things while preaching. I credit providence for the fact that my earlier sermons aren’t stored away in cyber-space–since my ministry began way before the day of the podcast. Today, nearly everything I publicly say or write usually ends up on the internet, but I’d like to think I’m a little wiser in my 40s.
But that doesn’t mean I won’t say something stupid this coming Sunday. (although God willing, I’ll be able to resist being an idiot). We all say things that sometimes we have to retract. That’s something pastors of churches of ALL sizes have in common.
2. Most pastors suffer from “size myopia.” Andy Stanley has never, ever ministered in a small church. That doesn’t make him a bad guy. It just means that from the standpoint of experience, he has no real reference point for what it is like to be the guy who preaches and prints the bulletins and takes out the trash and stacks the chairs. He himself will admit that he is not a “church planter” in the truest sense of that term. Northpoint’s “core group” started with 450 people. That’s more than 5 times the size of the average congregation in North America.
This myopia explains a lot. Our family spent 11 years at the same church where my wife and kids worshiped while I drove or flew all over the country and the world preaching in other places. During that time, my kids–ALL of my kids–grew in their faith at a church that was never larger than 150 people. They cried when they learned their Dad was going to be a pastor again because they loved our small church family, and didn’t want to leave it. Now they attend the church I pastor–a large one with the very kind of structure Stanley contends is necessary so they won’t “hate the church,” and they love it too! My own family is living proof that the size of the church has very little to do with whether your kids will grow in their faith.
When Stanley assumes that kids will hate church if they go to a small one, I can counter that assumption with my own kids! But I don’t expect him to understand that because again, he has no reference point for it. All he has ever known his entire life is large churches.
But if we are honest, most small church pastors have to admit that they too suffer from size myopia. If all you have ever known is a small church environment, you don’t have a reference point for Andy’s world either. I’ve repeatedly heard the stereotypical critique of the “mega church” by many small church pastors who assume that every mega church pastor is a spoiled rock star who is only concerned about his own “brand.” Problem is, I’ve met many of these guys, and with few exceptions (yes, some of them are total jerks, but so are a few small church pastors I know!) they are godly men with a vision for the Kingdom that is sorely needed in our culture.
Last week, Andy Stanley spoke out of ignorance. Given his willingness to own his mistake, let’s not respond with more ignorance. The myopia on both sides could be easily cured if we were willing to learn from each other.
3. A few pastors are big enough men to admit it. A couple of years ago I was consulting with the pastor of a large church with a budget of just over $4 million. During that conversation, he described how financially tight the church was and told me “Joel, some weeks I wonder if I will even get paid!”
A couple of hours later I was sitting with several church planters in a coaching session. One of those planters, whose church budget was around $75,000, told me “Joel, some weeks I wonder if I will even get paid.” He was shocked to learn that a large church pastor had, on the same day, told me exactly the same thing!
The thing is, when you have a $4 million budget, it’s because you also probably have $4 million in liabilities to cover, and tight financial margins feel the same no matter how large you are! (Actually, the pressure is greater in the large church, because so many more people are depending on your leadership) We don’t need more churches of one size or the other. What we need are men godly and humble enough to admit that we all struggle, we all occasionally say stupid things, and we are all limited by our own experiences and points of view.
Jesus loves the grand mega-churches of Korea that make our mega-churches look small! Jesus also loves the hidden house churches of China. He loves the large, vast auditoriums full of people growing in their faith. He loves the small building built by volunteers who worship there each week. He loves the networks of house churches led by tent-making leaders who are passionate about His truth. Anywhere He is worshiped, His Word is taught, and His people are equipped to extend His Kingdom is a place and a people He looks at and smiles.
If Andy Stanley’s recent gaffe can be the catalyst that drives us all to understand this more deeply, then I thank God for it.