Apparently I am a selfish parent. Actually, I’m “so stinkin selfish”. According to Andy Stanley in a sermon given last Sunday (Feb 27th, 2016) if you take your kids to a small church you are a selfish parent and all you care about are “you and your five friends.” In fact you don’t care about your kids and you need to find a “big ‘ol church” so your kids will love the local church. I’m sure that there will be many who write on this, and I’m sure that I will not be a great contributor to this discussion, but I want to offer up some thoughts for you to consider. Before you read further, I would encourage you to watch the clip located here. The statement in question begins at around the 16 minute mark.
DISCLAIMER: Just let me clear something up on the onset. I am not against mega-churches. I know of many large churches who are killing it for the gospel. In addition, I have watched the entire sermon to ensure that I am not taking Pastor Stanley out of context. That being said, I’ll offer some background to help you see where I’m coming from and then offer some thoughts on Stanley’s statement.
I have never been a member or regular attender of a mega-church. The church I currently pastor is the largest church I have been a part of, however, according to Stanley, this church would be considered small. The church that sent me to York to pastor was a church of about 90 on Sunday mornings. I served in that church teaching Middle School and High School. Parents were involved in the spiritual growth of their children. We might not have had fancy programs or lots of money, but we built relationships and talked about the gospel and about Jesus. To this day, those kids (who are now college age) keep in contact with me. What’s more, that church raised me up within the local church and ordained me to gospel ministry. They invested in me. My wife and I recently went back there to participate in the ordination of another man who was raised up in that church. This man took over for me when I left and is now serving as their pastor. When we went back, we were visiting family. Those young adults that I taught are still engaged. They actually came to an evening service to watch a pastor who had invested in them get ordained. They didn’t know we were coming and when they saw us, there was joy beyond description. They love the local church. I love the local church. I love the church that I pastor. I love the church that sent me. I love the churches I have had the opportunity to serve in Africa.
This clip hurt a lot to watch. It hurt because I have given my life to the local church. It hurt because it belittled the church I came from and the church I pastor. It hurt because of the influence that Andy Stanley has and the fact that I know there are smaller churches whose pastors are faithfully laboring for the joy of their people (2 Cor 1:24) who will lose people because of what Stanley said. It hurt because he essentially undermined the effort of some pastors and caused them to question if they are even doing any good. Most of all, it hurt because Stanley essentially said that Christ doesn’t use smaller churches and to be a good parent (and implied good Christian) you need to go to a “big ‘ol church.” As one who labors for the growth and joy of the people God has entrusted to me, this clip was hard to watch.
So… here are my thoughts on this.
1) Going to a smaller church does not make one selfish.
When Carlee and I started attending The Summit Church in Rogersville, Mo. we went for selfish reasons. We went because the Word was faithfully preached. We went because we saw a love and fellowship that was different from other churches. We went because godly men invested in me and cared about me. We had every intention of slipping out at the end of the service, but people came up and talked to us. When we came back the next week, they remembered our names. They loved and cared for us, but most of all, they were faithful to Scripture. So I guess you can say we did go to a smaller church for selfish reasons. We went (selfishly) because we knew we would be fed, cared for, and shepherded. Stanley said this about those who take their kids to attend a smaller church: “You care nothing about the next generation.” He also said “you don’t care about your kids.” With all due respect to Stanley, the reason we went to The Summit Church is precisely because we did care about our kids (though yet unborn). We wanted to attend a church where they would be taught the Word. Where they would have other godly Christians influencing them. Where they could build relationships with other trusted adults who could come alongside us. That is not to say that cannot happen in a larger church, but to make a blanket statement that it is “stinkin selfish” to attend a smaller church and claim that you don’t care about your kids for doing so is presumptuous and ignorant, not to mention wildly offensive to parents who choose a church for the right reasons. Perhaps Stanley needs to hit the books again. While the Jerusalem church in Acts was a big church… they seem to have functioned as a bunch of connected smaller gatherings. They met in homes, they didn’t erect massive buildings. The church in the 1st century (and for most of church history) has been small (according to Stanley) gatherings of believers. By extension, Stanley, without knowing it, was claiming that a majority of Christians throughout church history have been selfish and not cared about their children.
2) His perspective is without Biblical support
There was absolutely zero biblical support for his claim. None. Nada. Zip. One can appeal to the church at Jerusalem in the beginning chapters of acts to support the existence of “mega-churches”, but you cannot claim from any text in Scripture that you are selfish or don’t care about your kids by attending a smaller church. Not one scripture was quoted during his rant. To make a claim like that, I would assume that a pastor would show his people where in Scripture he drew that claim from. That leads to my next observation.
3) His statements are uniquely American
Stanley said “I love the local church because of what it did for me at that age.” He seemed to be referring to relationships, however, that statement shows the absolute consumeristic mentality of the American church. What it did for me. So many people choose churches based on what that church can do for them, rather than how they can use the gifts given them by the Holy Spirit to serve others. Now, I’m sure that there are many who serve in the church Stanley pastors. I’m not implying that, but many people choose churches based on a consumeristic mentality rather than on Biblical marks of a church. And sadly, this is not unique to larger churches. Small churches struggle with this as well. The point is he didn’t say he loved the local church because Christ does. He didn’t say he loved the local church because it is a foretaste of heaven. It’s because of what he got out of it, in this case, relationships. The church isn’t a social club. It’s the body of Christ. That includes smaller churches.
4) The implication is that programs make people love the local church
What is the local church? Stanley said outright “don’t attend a church that teaches your children to hate church.” In other words, don’t attend a church your children don’t like. Wait a minute… So my decision for what church I take my family to should be driven by my children’s desires? Let’s walk this dog for a second. First, who is the parent here? This reflects our cultural idolatry of youth. If your (unregenerate) kid doesn’t like going to a church, well then you parents should pick up and go to a church of their choosing. Here is what Stanley was getting at… Programs make people love the church. It’s all about what the church can offer me. Never mind if the gospel is preached. Never mind if the elders shepherd the people. Never mind if the focus is on the Word of God… kids (and adults) need to be entertained and catered to. Let’s think back on 2,000 years of church history. This youth-centered culture is totally new… and what’s worse, it shows a lack of understanding of what causes someone to love the church. We have become entertainment driven and that has led to a seeker sensitive approach to ministry. Our theology drives our methodology. Children are born as depraved God-haters. They are selfish little sinners that need the gospel. I’ve coined a phrase referring to unbelieving children- “cute little bundles of sin”. We were all born that way. What we need is Christ. What we need is the gospel. So… I would argue that the churches that preach the gospel and point people to Christ are the churches we should look to attend… no matter what the size. In other words, your kids can love church for the wrong reasons. They can love church because they are catered to and entertained, all the while, not being taught about the gospel or Jesus. So your kids “loving” church is not necessarily a good gauge of whether or not that church is a good church. Conversely… believers will love the local church because it is the bride of Christ. If you love Christ, you love the bride. So… regeneration, the new birth, knowing Christ, is what causes people to genuinely love the local church. The church is not a program or a building. The church is the people of God gathering to exult Christ and be instructed in His word while encouraging and helping one another grow. That can happen in a small church or a large church. The simple fact is your children might not like going to a church where there is a biblical emphasis on the Word and on Christ because no one who has not been born again likes that. Programs don’t make believers love the local church. Size doesn’t make a believer love the local church. Loving Christ makes believers love the local church.
5) Double speak
After Stanley’s rant on small churches, he said “I love smaller churches”. Wait a minute… If you go to a smaller church you are selfish and don’t care about your kids or the next generation… but I love smaller churches. From what I gathered from the context, Stanley loves smaller churches insofar as they are 1) part of a larger church and/or 2) grow numerically to become bigger. After all, thats the goal. “Build em big”. I had a hard time telling which statement was true. There are many smaller churches that, for a number of reasons, cannot grow numerically beyond a certain point. That does not mean that they cannot be faithful churches that grow godly Christians.
6) God gives growth
Paul said that both he and Apollos were nothing. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave growth” (1 Cor 3:6). We see this again in Acts 2:47. God is the one who gives growth. A pastor once asked Charles Spurgeon, a mega-church pastor in England, why he didn’t have more people in his church. This man had been faithfully preaching the Word and loved the Lord. Spurgeon replied (and I’m paraphrasing) “perhaps you have the number that God knows you can give an account for.” God is the one who grows the local church. To presume that because a church is smaller that they are ineffective or lacking God’s blessing is foolish and unbiblical.
7) Numerical vs Spiritual
That leads to the issue of growth. I’ve posted on Healthy Church Growth before, but it is possible to end up with a large church that is a mile wide and an inch deep. That is not a healthy church. We often evaluate the effectiveness of a local church by mere numerical growth. Sure, the Bible shows us that people are being saved and the church is growing numerically (See point number 6 above), but what is the purpose of the elders? To equip the saints for the work of ministry for the building of the body of Christ until we attain maturity (Eph 4:11-13). Sure, that might include numerical growth, but where does the emphasis lie in that text? It is on the spiritual growth of the body. Numerical growth without spiritual growth actually makes the church less healthy. Sure, it might look good in the eyes of the world where success is measured by numbers of people attending, but that isn’t everything and God sees things differently. Given his endorsement of a book written by Stephen Furitk (a pastor who told his church if you want to grow doctrinally go to another church), I’m not surprised that the emphasis is on numerical growth and having a “big ‘ol church” over having a healthy church.
8) A twitter “Apology”
Stanley, apparently sensing the backlash about his comments, took to twitter to apologize. Let me ask you this… as a parent, would you take this as genuine coming from your kid?
If he genuinely is apologizing, I would recommend doing it from the pulpit, removing that sermon, and posting something on the church website.
9) A lack of regard for inter-generational relationships
Another thing that Stanley’s comments ignore is the importance of intergenerational relationships. This again comes down to the youth-centered culture of the American church. We cater programs to entertain kids and don’t teach them to be a part of the body of Christ. We don’t teach them how important relationships with other older members of the body are. As a result (in many cases) kids are entertained and catered to. Then when they leave for college, they have no idea how to fit into the body of Christ. After all, in many cases, they have had a “church” experience catered to their desires. So they leave the church because they have been entertained rather than discipled. Why does Paul admonish older men and women to teach and train younger men and women? It seems that what Stanley is advocating is the primary relationships of importance in a young person’s life should be other young people. Parents- how often have you said “man, middle schoolers are the best influence on my kid”? Children need more than just a entertaining youth ministry. They need to know other parents and older saints. They need to be in relationships with them.
10) Parents are the primary disciple-makers of their children… not the church.
Parents bear the responsibility from God to teach and train their children… not the church. The church is to come alongside parents… not replace them. When parents take their responsibilities seriously, then the church functions as a helper to the parents, re-enforcing what they are teaching. Much of the youth-culture in the church has caused parents to pawn off their God-given spiritual responsibilities on the church.
11) All college town churches are not big
I pastor a church in a college town (granted, it is a small college). We aren’t big according to Stanley’s standards. None of the churches in our town are. The same is true of the town I went to college in. Sure there may be some large churches in college towns, but there are also smaller ones. Those smaller ones are striving for the faith of the gospel (Philippians 1:27) too. To assume that there are large churches in every college town is to not have a good grasp of reality.
12) The importance of expository preaching
Lastly, I think this highlights the importance of expository preaching. Stanley has been a vocal critic of expository preaching saying that “Guys that preach verse-by-verse through books of the Bible– that is just cheating. It’s cheating because that would be easy, first of all. That isn’t how you grow people. No one in the Scripture modeled that. There’s not one example of that.” He went on to say “All Scripture is equally inspired, but not all Scripture is equally applicable or relevant to every stage of life. My challenge is to read culture and to read an audience and ask: What is the felt need? Or perhaps what is more important, what is an unfelt need they need to feel that I can address? Because if they don’t feel it, then they won’t address it.” Felt needs… the mantra of the seeker sensitive pastor. The book of Hebrews is an example of a sermon and it is very expository never mind Nehemiah 8:8. Expository preaching teathers the preacher to the meaning of the text, thereby preventing unbiblical, opinion saturated rants in the sermon. The text drives the preaching. I guess I’m just lazy (along with men like Charles Spurgeon, George Whitfield, Jonathan Edwards, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John Piper, John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul… eh… maybe I’ll just take it as a complement). If Stanley had a commitment to expository preaching, this unbiblical rant would have been prevented, OR, people would have seen that the text doesn’t allow it. Either way, everyone would have been better off.
© 2016, Jon Hawkins. All rights reserved.