Responding to Andy Stanley on Small Churches
Recently the popular megachurch Pastor Andy Stanley made some rather controversial comments about small churches and adults who prefer small churches to bigger ones (like his own). He went so far as to scathingly accuse adults who prefer small churches of being “so stinking selfish” and of not caring anything about the next generation. His comments seemed to suggest that adult believers have a moral obligation to find a large church with great youth programs so that their children won’t learn to “hate church.” As would be expected, his acerbic comments created quite a stir and also drew quite a bit of criticism.
You can listen to his comments on this link: http://issuesetc.org/podcast/sbotwstanley03-11-16.mp3
In all fairness to Pastor Stanley, it is my understanding that he did offer some kind of an apology for his offensive statements and tried to assure his listeners that he is not against small churches. Since we have all said intemperate and unkind things at times, as the pastor of a small church I don’t wish to hold his comments against him. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that his apology was genuine, and would encourage readers to do the same. At the same time I do think it would be helpful to address some of the basic assumptions that undergird his original anti-small-church comments, for I think they help to illustrate some of the things that are wrong and unbiblical in our contemporary context of modern American pop Christianity.
First of all, I believe Stanley’s critical comments were based on a flawed and superficial view of human sin.
Stanley’s critical comments seemed to assume that if we just give young people enough entertainments and cool youth programs, they will naturally learn to decide for Christ and love the church. But this assumption is based upon the notion that people are basically good (or at least morally neutral), and therefore all they need is the right external stimuli (like cool youth programs and entertainment-focused, rockin-out worship) to move them to love righteous things (like Christ and his church).
The problem with this very common assumption in modern American pop Christianity is that it ignores the fact that the Bible teaches that people are spiritually dead in their trespasses and sins due to the original sin they inherit from Adam (Eph. 2:1-3; Rom. 3:9-18; 5:12-21; etc.). Contrary to the pragmatic Pelagianism* of much of contemporary pop Christianity, the Scriptures teach that only the supernatural regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, not the shallow, emotionally-manipulative, market-based methods of the contemporary market-driven American church, can cause any person (old or young) to love Christ and to love his church. After all, Jesus did not tell Nicodemus that he needed a cooler youth program or to experience a more “relevant” kind of worship to connect him to God. Instead he told Nicodemus that he (and, indeed, anyone) who would see and enter the kingdom of God must be “born again” by the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit (see John 3:1-21). Not new entertainments, not a newer, cooler youth program, but only the new birth will cause any sinner to fall in love with Christ and his church.
Secondly, Stanley’s comments manifested a low view of the God-ordained means of grace, a view which tends to replace these biblical channels of grace with revivalistic, hyped-up “new measures” (like cool youth programs**).
If we read the Book of Acts carefully we discover that the gospel took off like wild fire in the world of the Roman Empire. What did the apostles and early believers do that made their evangelistic efforts so successful? Did they use drama (which was very popular in those days) to attract “seekers”? Did they utilize the ancient equivalent of jazzed-up worship which uses pyrotechnics and light shows and Spielberg-like special effects to dazzle their hearers? Did they seek to create “relevant” youth programs to attract the kids and thereby draw their parents in?
The answer to the above questions is positively, emphatically “No!” Instead, they preached the Word, baptized new converts and their households, established new churches, and trained and appointed elders to lead those churches. And what did the believers do? “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42, ESV) In other words, they basically attended upon the preaching and teaching of God’s Word, observed the sacraments, prayed together, and maintained “fellowship” together. Word-and-sacrament ministry, plain and simple. Not much hype. Not much showmanship. They just fed upon the Word, communed with Christ, and supported one another in their needs. These are the biblical means that God uses to grant genuine biblical growth to his church, not the revivalistic, hyped-up methods of the big-box, Walmart style contemporary churches, which tend to attract shallow converts and stony-ground hearers of the Word who fall away in the end (Mark 5:16-17).
Finally, Stanley’s comments manifested the common American assumption that “bigger is always better.”
Over at the Lutheran radio show “Issues Etc.” Rev. Hans Fiene, a confessional Lutheran Pastor in the Lutheran Church Missouri-Synod, offers a helpful response to Pastor Stanley’s critical comments on small churches.
Here’s the link: http://issuesetc.org/2016/03/10/1-mega-church-pastor-andy-stanleys-statement-about-small-churches-pr-hans-fiene-31016/
*Pelagianism is a heresy named after a monk in the early church named Pelagius, who denied original sin and taught that man had a free will untained by sin, and therefore that man could basically earn salvation by good works. In Pelagianism grace is viewed as helpful, but not essential, for salvation. Pelagians of all stripes basically rely upon moral exhortation and external stimuli to move the human will to love the right and make correct choices, since it sees man’s basic problem to be bad choices, rather than a bad heart. Saint Augustine staunchly opposed Pelagius and defended the absolute necessity of Divine grace for human salvation. Reformers such as Luther and Calvin followed Augustine in opposing all forms of Pelagianism.
**Let the reader understand that I am not condemning any and all youth programs. I am all for solid, biblically-based youth programs that serve as extensions of the church’s ministry of the Word and help to integrate young people into the life and worship of the local church.