Recently, Ed Stetzer has been running a series of posts where Andy Stanley gives his take on effective communication and preaching. Part 2 of that interview was especially provocative, sparking over 70 comments.
Stanley is the pastor of one of the biggest churches in the country, North Point Community Church. It’s not just big, but it’s one of the “Willow Creeks” of the day, existing as a trend-setter for many other churches in the country. I’m not in that kind of church. I pastor a small church, working hard by God’s grace at slowly turning the ship around to a more vibrant, biblical ministry. Yet, I disagree with as much as I agree with in the interview. That would seem wrong if I wouldn’t find myself agreeing with other faithful pastors of large churches who have been used by God to grow healthy churches.
So what’s wrong with what he said? What’s right with what he said? With apologies to Clint Eastwood, here’s what I found to be the good, the bad, and the ugly of the interview.
The good of the interview is that Stanley clearly desires to communicate to God’s people to see them changed. The preaching event is not merely earning money or doing business as usual week in and week out. That’s something I can appreciate. If a preacher does not spend the week in the Bible, does not prepare his message, and does not ascend to the pulpit prayerfully desiring to apply God’s truth to people so that they can change, then it’s not preaching; it’s not God-honoring ministry. Stanley seems to agree with this even by the title of his book Communicating for a Change.
Stanley is also helpful is calling communicators/preachers to continued growth. He says,
People who are trying to figure out communication in preaching need to figure out where do I need propping up? I may have all this great insight and truth, but if I am not engaging, then somebody needs to help me be more engaging. . . . It may be good to start off by saying, “I am not a very good communicator.” That helps. I want you to know what you are about to discover–“I am not really that good but I have some helpful information.” Now I am engaged. And as guys evaluate their preaching, those are two huge things. Is it helpful? Am I engaging?”
I agree that as one whose life is bound up with communicating to people, I want to be constantly refining the way I communicate. I want to be asking others about how I can improve and be listening to how others communicate to gain insight from them.
But this is where we hit the bad and I began to disagree with our brother. If we assume the validity of the old definition that “preaching is truth poured through personality” and the poured through personality part is the communicating, we are still in need of truth to be communicated. There has to be more to work on than just our ability to communicate. My fear is that Stanley doesn’t take this seriously enough. I fear that because I have heard many “preachers” communicate well to people but with very little Truth in what they say.
Case in point – Recently five of the men from my church (myself included) attended a men’s retreat. One of the speakers went on for almost 40 minutes, telling stories and making some points. But there was hardly any of God’s truth in it. And what was there was so mixed with untruth that it was hard to take anything away positive from his talk. Yet, he is the pastor in one of the biggest SBC church’s in this state. What’s the people’s regular diet like? Was he an engaging speaker? Yes! But he didn’t really have anything to say despite the fact that he quoted some verses from the Bible.
Stanley says “If you are engaging but not helpful, after awhile they will grow weary.” I just don’t think that’s true. Too many churches have great communicators on the platform, but few preachers in pulpits. The result is large churches full of weak or non-Christians. I think this is a real problem that needs to be addressed today.
The “ugly” (for me) came at the very beginning with this statement by Stanley –
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.
Now, Stetzer says he thinks Stanley was just being “intentionally provocative.” Maybe that’s true. But in saying this he alienated about half or more of the people who would have been listening to him as he’s just said their preaching ministries aren’t growing people. More than that, much of what he says here is misleading, unsubstantiated, or completely wrong. Strike one with a-swing-and-a-miss for someone known for effective communication.
First, how is verse-by-verse preaching cheating and easy? I assume he means that it doesn’t take much skill because he thinks it doesn’t require a reading of the culture. It’s true that verse-by-verse preaching can be bad. (But then again, non verse-by-verse preaching can be bad as well, and often is from what I’ve seen!). But this is a false conclusions based on bad assumptions. One only needs to listen to, say, Mark Dever’s sermon introductions to see one who preaches expositionally yet is clearing reading the culture and creating the realization that those listening need to hear what God’s word says from that text.
If one is preaching well, he is not only doing the hard work of first listening to what God is saying in the text, he is also doing the hard task of thinking through applying that truth in a real, practical, faith-building way. Frankly, in my opinion, the person who doesn’t preach verse-by-verse is the one who has it easy. He never has to deal with difficult passages or think through situations and biblical teachings he might not have otherwise thought about. He can – and often does – coast through the same themes from different texts, packaged a slightly different way over and over again.
Stanley also wrongly assumes that because there is no example of verse-by-verse preaching in the Bible, we shouldn’t do it. Why is there no example of verse-by-verse preaching in the Bible? Because we have no examples of a weekly preaching ministry in the Bible! We mainly have sermons given in an evangelistic/apologetic situation. So arguing it’s not important because there’s no example of it is kind of like saying people who only see me on Sunday mornings should assume I always dress up. It just doesn’t work.
The reality is, we emphasize verse-by-verse because of what we believe about God’s word. It is God’s word and every verse deserves to be taught. (One of the best sermons I gave was on Jesus’ genealogy.) Pulling verses together from all over the place would be okay if that’s how the Bible was written. But it wasn’t. God gave verses that were part of paragraphs that were part of books. Paul wrote Ephesians so why not preach Ephesians? What’s wrong with preaching God’s word the way he gave it?
I’m not saying one can ONLY preach verse-by-verse. But I think that’s the best way to preach over the long haul. In fact, I think this points out a massive flaw is Andy’s approach. He says
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?
So here’s the question, how do you read the needs of 20,000 adults? According to his church’s website, that’s how many attend services every week. And Stanley builds his approach to preaching on the belief that he needs to bring a message based on the needs of his people, or perceiving a needs they need to feel and creating the feeling for it. But, practically speaking, how can you do that with 20,000 people? As far as I know, you can’t. And this is where the beauty of verse-by-verse, expositional preaching comes in; you don’t need to! If you preach straight through a book of the Bible, there will be such a diverse array of issues dealt with, that all kinds of felt needs will be met, and unfelt needs will be realized and met. Will there be times when something hits everyone in the church? Yes, and in those times I think it’s appropriate to say something. But as a whole, I think if that’s all you do, you will malnourish God’s people.
I don’t doubt that Stanley is an effective communicator, but that doesn’t mean he’s a good preacher. Being able to communicate well, and being able to open up God’s word with power by his Spirit resulting in changed lives are not the same. I’m not prepared to make a judgment on whether or not Stanley’s a good preacher because I’ve never listened to one of his sermons. But I could easily see someone walking away from his book thinking “if I just plug and chug the instructions in the book I will be a great preacher” without taking into consideration what Stanley may (hopefully!) be assuming.
And at the end of the day, I am all for engaging communication. I want people to feel the need of knowing and applying God’s truth to their lives because I want people to experience change. I want to be clear and effective in my speaking. I want to be continually growing in my abilities and approach to communicating. But this is not something I can only learn about from Andy Stanley. In fact, most good preaching books that deal just as much with getting at the truth of the text also deal with communicating well. And it seems to me those book often have in spades what is lacking in Stanley’s work. Namely, a clear call to treat the Bible as God’s Word, patiently mining it’s treasure, and teaching your people to do the same. Therefore, I will heed again the call to be effective in engaging people, but will probably not embrace the system Stanley embraces for his communicating. I will stay with largely preaching verse-by-verse through the Bible because, despite what Stanley says, that is how people can grow.
Recommended preaching books: