Good, Bad, and Ugly – Andy Stanley on Preaching

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.

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10 thoughts on “Good, Bad, and Ugly – Andy Stanley on Preaching

  1. Owen Daniels says:

    Hi, John

    Great blog! Sometimes our faddish brothers run ahead of themselves and do not apply their critiques or observations to themselves. Andy Stanley needs a little retroflection time…

    Best!
    Owen

  2. Jon McGinnis says:

    John, Great assessment. I appreciate a lot of what Andy Stanley has to offer the Christian community, but I feel he’s dead wrong on this one. I am all for being current, relevant and at the cutting edge, but I’m just as passionate about expository preaching. It is only God’s Word that will impact people for eternity and bring about real life change.

    Thanks for the post!

  3. Aaron says:

    Hi John – thanks for posting this. I’ve actually heard my own pastor make the same remarks as Andy Stanley re: expository preaching.

    The cynic in me wants to think that those who make those remarks are actually incapable of doing it, but I also know that it’s not particularly charitable to do so.

    I think the danger of trying to work based on “felt need” is that you can easily forget people’s greatest need: They need to hear the Bible preached. They need to hear the gospel. Because that’s the only thing that really matters.

  4. John says:

    Hi brothers, great to hear from both of you. I feel like we should be discussing Romans and Galatians! Hope you’re doing well. Thanks for commenting.

    Blessings,
    John

  5. John says:

    Hi Aaron, thanks for stopping by and offering a comment. I believe you’re thinking in the right direction. Blessings!

  6. Patrick says:

    With respect for both you and Rev. Stanley, I guess I just get depressed by preachers who can’t resist pointing out what’s “wrong” with other preachers. (I grew up in a Bob Jones University-staffed church that believed its personal Great Commission was to decry the “godless apostacy” in the SBC and other churches, so I was traumatized early)

    Andy tries to connect as many folks as possible with Christ through relevant connection points to their daily problems. So, he thinks you’re making a mistake preaching verse-by-verse, because he feels that style of preaching doesn’t speak to unchurched or growing Christians fairly new in faith.

    You, naturally, feel the need to defend your style, so ergo, he’s “wrong.” He was likely “wrong” to give his opinion in a way that left you feeling disrespected … but he’s continually asked to opine. Why? Because other congregations are trying to learn from his successes in church planting and ministry.

    I hold no patent on truth here, but I personally think you’re both “wrong” – and right. Andy’s ministry focuses on relevance, because doing so has produced big success in bringing people in and connecting them with Scripture in simple, applicable ways that lead them to Christ, and then on to the deeper things of faith. He’s not trying to do it all in the worship service – he advocates deeper Bible study in the small or community group environment. He’s casting a wide net.

    You want a congregation that gets deeply rooted teaching in full context, and deep full knowledge of the Bible, and you think verse-by-verse sermons in the primary worship service do the job best. I’m sure you’re good at what you do – but I’m not sure that spiritual seekers or growing-in-faith believers could easily connect a message on Jesus’ geneology to the struggles or issues of their own lives, no matter how skillfully delivered. That doesn’t make you wrong – it just means I like Stanley’s approach better for the “wide net” approach. It’s the whole “outside looking in” versus “inside looking out” argument. Is Sunday morning at church a time to disciple an already-committed body of believers, or reinforce regular attendance to both the faithful, the seeking and the doubting, to drum in the message, “Hey, God’s Word DOES apply to my life – perhaps faith in Jesus is the answer to life’s problems” … and “seduce” them into small groups to explore more difficult Scripture down the road in Bible study?

    Both styles of preaching have distinct limitations.
    Preaching verse-by-verse through Deuteronomy or Leviticus is fascinating, and yes, necessary, to firmly rooted Christians seeking a more thorough understanding of God’s holiness. It could probably permanently turn off an unsaved visitor or Christian struggling with faith, or doubting the mercy and goodness of God – someone feeling rejected and abandoned by God.

    And it’s quite possible that Andy Stanley’s approach doesn’t work as well for a long-time Christian raised in verse-by-verse churches, who has large passages of Scripture committed to memory, but who feels deeply uncomfortable or personally violated by spiritual intimacy in groups. Attending his services without attending such groups is like trying to survive on beef broth – it’s tasty, warm and nourishing enough for survival, but you risk eventually feeling famished for meatier fare. Stanley knows this – which is why he fervently and repeatedly pushes small group participation. He tells his congregations that Sunday sermons just aren’t enough.

    I’ve been in ministry at both types of churches over the years and am currently attending North Point and quite content, though it’s not a 100% fit. But I’m far along enough in my faith that I no longer expect my church to “fit me” – it’s not there for me, I’m there for it! For me, the obvious answer – and my secret wish – is that NP, Buckhead and Brown’s Bridge Churches would add Sunday School classes to the Sunday worship services. At the same time, I clearly understand their reluctance to do so. Such an approach would double the length of time commitment a visitor must expend on Sunday, and reduce the number of services; neither is compatible with the “easy access” wide net approach that’s the bedrock of their strategy.

    Obviously you prefer not only your preaching style, but a small congregation, as you question Stanley’s ability to meet the needs of 20,000 people. His answer to you would probably be to agree – he CAN’T meet all their needs, and doesn’t try. He produces content that addresses common needs, like marriage problems, money problems, fear, crisis in our lives, etc, while funneling folks into small groups for up-close-and-personal spiritual support. What you think a church should do, Rev. Stanley believes a small group should do, while the church grows rapidly to leverage opportunities to reach more and more people.

    Clearly, you and Rev. Stanley both desire to give the best you can to your congregations, so I commend you both. I’m not sure there’s a clear cut and dried choice that’s correct here.

  7. Pat says:

    One more thing John – I loved your comment (zero sarcasm here, I’m serious) – linking North Point to the mega-churches you argue are “filled with weak or non-Christians.”
    Precisely! See the strategy?
    (Think “harlots and prostitutes” listening to Jesus just “tell a story.”)

    In fact, Stanley and the senior pastoral staff would probably prefer long-time Christian members spent more time volunteering in the children’s, teen and Starting Point (new Christians and “seekers”)ministries than with our behinds comfortably ensconced in the seats week after week. OK, forget “probably” – he says so on a regular basis! Sure, we get a bit offended at first, then, the light gradually dawns … “OK, NOW I get it!”
    And we run out to find more “weak and non-Christians” to put in our seats!
    God bless you. I appreciate your heart for Scripture, and pray God blesses your church.

  8. John says:

    Patrick,
    Thanks for your comments. You are exactly right that it’s our different understanding of the church’s primary worship service that drives our methodology. And yes, there are positives and negatives to both.

    However, I think there are two false assumptions that need to be pointed out. First, we make a mistake when we hold up one church as a model because it assumes that because there are large crowds showing up that they are doing something right. Think about with Lakewood (Joel Osteen’s) Church. Osteen has many people but clearing isn’t preaching anything close to a gospel message found in the New Testament. I think Stanley is a far cry from Osteen, so please do not misunderstand what I’m trying to say here. My point is simply this – large crowds does not equal faithful ministry or even correct methodology.

    This is why it’s important to look to the New Testament church as our model. Yes, we can gain insights from other churches on how to apply that model into a 21st century context. But we also have to compare the modern churches with the “original.” And here is where I think Stanley and Hybels and so many other ‘seeker churches’ get it wrong. Their pattern of ministry simply isn’t found in the NT.

    The pattern of the NT church for the primary worship service is edification and building up of the saints. I don’t think anyone can dispute that. Does it mean that lost people were not present? No, I don’t think so. But Paul doesn’t say do everything on the lowest possible level to draw them in. Instead he says do things in an orderly way so they can understand what’s going on (1 Cor 14). The NT model is primarily one of sending, not inviting. God’s people went out from the gathering of the church to bear witness to Christ. Lost people came to have faith by their proclamation of the gospel and then they were brought into the fellowship of the church. We want to reverse that today. We want to make our missional method ‘come to us’, instead of ‘let’s go to them.’

    This is why I disagree with someone like Stanley’s methods. Do I think that God is using him and others who “do church” like him? Yes. Do I think he has good intentions and motivations? Yes, insofar as I can tell. Nevertheless, without malice or pride (I hope), I think his model is not as helpful for growing disciples as it is for evangelizing lost people. But a NT church has to do both (Matt 28). I also think his model lends itself to easily becoming a gospel-less pulpit, which is a far ore serious problem. Jesus becomes a help to make your life better instead of a Savior whom you follow as Lord. Only someone like you who regular attends North point can tell me if that is the kind of preaching Stanly does. But from my experience with others, I can tell you that that kind of long-term, life-issue, topical diet of Sunday sermons very often descends into it quickly.

    Here is the second false assumption: “deep preaching” doesn’t have meaning to lost people. That just isn’t true. It might be true if someone just slipped in anonymously in the back of a multi-thousand person service with no connection to anyone there and no patience to listen to someone advance an argument with passion, logic, stories, and application over 30-40 minutes. But from personal experience (and doctrinal conviction) I believe the Word of God has power to change lives not clever speaking. And yes even when you preach a message on Jesus’ lineage, you see people grow closer to God. It doesn’t matter if a person preaches topically or through a book, a good preacher will start with the text and ask himself why did God put this here? What is he saying about himself and how we should respond? How I do apply this to myself and those who will hear me? It takes prayer and hard work, but God will bless it and change lives.

    You are right that endless ‘decrying’ of other Christians gets tiresome and hinders more than helps the Church. So understand my real beef is not with Stanley but those who openly compromise the gospel (see my post on Ron Luce). In this post, I was simply trying to answer Stanly’s critique of my methodology. Do I think I’m right? Of course! Or else I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. But disagreeing with him on this doesn’t mean I think he’s a heretic or any other nasty word. I just think there’s a better way.

    Blessings

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