Friday, May 15, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: Stinkin’ Selfish

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Megachurch pastor Andy Stanley inadvertently opened a can of worms with comments he made in a sermon earlier this month:

“When I hear adults say, ‘Well, I don’t like a big church. I like about two hundred’ or ‘I want to be able to know everybody’, I say, ‘You are so stinkin’ selfish. You care nothing about the next generation. All you care about is you and your five friends. You don’t care about your kids or anybody else’s kids.”

Now of course he quickly and abjectly apologized the moment the predictable blowback started, but Stanley’s not backtracking on his dislike of traditional-sized churches, just the ill-conceived and insulting way he expressed it.

It’s for the Kids

Stanley explains the logic behind his thinking:
“This is one reason we build big churches. People say, ‘Why do you have to make them so big?’ Let me tell you why. We want churches to be large enough so that there are enough middle schoolers and high schoolers that we don’t have one youth group with middle school and high school together.”
Tom: Well, that’s okay then, Immanuel Can: it’s “for the kids”. Alright, nobody’s buying that one. The clip from Stanley’s sermon had 48 thumbs up and 765 thumbs down last time I looked, and was subsequently removed from YouTube.

Where do you line up on this one?

Immanuel Can: Wow. I mean, wow.

Okay, I can’t fault the impulse to care about kids. Sure. But I think he’s got the equation all wrong.

Tom: You’re WAY more charitable than I am. My first thought was How far behind are they on their mortgage to be pitching the megachurch concept as the ‘moral’ alternative to traditional churches?

Numbers and Programs

IC: I’m trying to be fair, but he’s not making it easy. And judging by the comments on the video site, not a lot of people are feeling sympathetic with him either. I think we do need to think about young people … not take our lead from them or decide the shape of the local church based on their preferences, but I do think we need to attend to providing what they need in order to become genuine disciples of Christ. So I want to give him that, if that’s what he really has in mind. But based on what he actually says, I think it’s all I can give him.

Tom: I wonder if he really thinks what turns teenagers off church is the lack of sufficient numbers of fellow teenagers? To my mind, that couldn’t be more wrong. The church I attended for most of my teen years had a couple of dozen regulars between ages 13 and 23, give or take. That was more than enough. More than that, at conferences and the like, produced reflexive fear and loathing. Of course I was probably an outlier …

IC: Masses of teenagers in age-slotted groups, being provided programs, yields godliness and love of the faith … is that his formula? It can hardly be. But says anyone who questions it is “selfish”.

Nope … I just can’t get my head around his thinking. Why would he say that? Tom, help me out here.

Get Your Head Out of the Masses

Tom: Well, as I mentioned, the cynic in me says when you have literally millions on the line, you’ll say anything to perpetuate the status quo. But looking at the video, he’s either a consummate actor or else he genuinely believes in what he’s doing and saying. It really could be the latter. But if so, he’s spectacularly deluded.

Kids want reality, that’s what. Having it delivered to you by someone your own age is okay too, but that part is a bonus. It’s so far down the list of must-haves that I couldn’t even find it.

IC: True. Maybe he’s really underestimating young people. Maybe he thinks they’re so frivolous, entertainment-driven and clannish that they couldn’t possibly be impressed by sincerity, truth, kindness, the personal touch, or an opportunity to serve if those things were offered in the context of a smaller congregation (I wouldn’t say “small,” because 200 isn’t really tiny — there are plenty smaller). He’s certainly reckoning as if teenagers cannot be spiritual, truth-focused or servant-hearted — because for him, it’s just a numbers game.

And if so, I think he’s being unfair to them.

Bearing With One Another

Tom: I think so. And this whole idea that you can’t put Christian middle schoolers and high schoolers together under any circumstances seems bizarre to me. There can be tension, sure: when I was thirteen, I’m quite certain the twenty-somethings I rode with would rather have had people their own age in the back seat. But was it a bad thing that they learned to tolerate a few immature hangers-on? I don’t think so. It was a much better deal than I got five days a week going to school with kids my own age that hated or ignored me.

IC: Yes. It’s not bad for the older ones to learn that they need to have compassion for the younger ones, and it sure isn’t bad if younger ones get a look at somewhat older, more mature young Christians who are serious about their faith.

Benefit of the Doubt

The key is the atmosphere under which they are encouraged to relate. That’s a matter of the general conduct of the congregation … the sensitivity of the elders, the kindness of the parental generation, the examples of good conduct in congregational life generally that have been established in the minds of the young people, and also of their sense of the prospect of growing into those examples themselves.

Tom: Very much so. Many of the older believers were the ones that impressed me the most at that age. I was well aware that people my own age and a few years older were only works in progress. I didn’t take my spiritual cues from my peers, though I wanted to be liked by them of course.

IC: For me, the Andy Stanley view is that teenagers are just bound to be selfish and exclusionary, so they must be grouped by age. I think he’s assuming, and assuming the worst. I don’t think it’s a bit “selfish” to say so. I think it’s actually a kinder assumption than his.

Tom: That’s certainly the feedback YouTube was getting in the comments. People from smaller churches were, by far and away, convinced their kids had a better deal.

The Numbers Game

IC: But maybe we could continue with the question this way: is there any reason to prefer a megachurch to a smaller congregation? If we find Stanley’s comments about the young people untenable, can we find other reasons to believe him?

Tom: He certainly seems to have a strength-in-numbers mentality that simply doesn’t hold up when we look at the early church. Sure, there was a “megachurch” in Jerusalem immediately after Pentecost. But there’s no indication that the congregations that met in the various Gentile cities that Paul or John wrote to had numbers remotely approximating these. The phrase “the church in so-and-so’s house” is very common throughout the New Testament.

What did those poor teenagers do? They had no youth group.

IC: Yeah, as I recall, that “megachurch” didn’t stay together long either.

Tom: They don’t have a great track record for longevity.

History and the Megachurch

IC: So it seems the Lord was not as concerned as Andy Stanley about keeping the ol’ numbers up. But small churches, churches of house size: we read a lot about those. So by the Lord’s grace, it seems the early church was not inhibited by numbers issues. It makes you wonder why Andy Stanley is.

Tom: One reason, I suspect, is the breakdown of the family. You notice in the New Testament, fathers got saved and the family almost invariably followed suit. Look up “household” in a concordance and you’ll see that. Today that’s not the case. Households don’t generally get saved together anymore, though I think of a couple of exceptions to that. But people are encouraged to be much more individualistic. Respect for the views of one’s parents is in the dumper. We’re all about “finding ourselves”. If the church is looking for ways to do the job that family connections used to do naturally, I’m not all that surprised. I just don’t think Stanley’s methods make any sense.

IC: That’s a good point. In fact, I would argue that as male leadership in local congregations has faltered — say in the last 30 years or so, particularly — at the same time the culture of the “super pastor” has arisen. And I suspect it’s not a coincidence. Essentially, the one man has taken over from all the failed men, functioning as the spiritual leader of the whole remaining group: a sort of surrogate spiritual father to the congregation, the one to whom all the women and children look up, and the one from whom they expect to receive the provision of their spiritual needs.

And there’s something quite creepy — not to say unscriptural and potentially dangerous as well — about that.

The Super Pastor Trend

Tom: You mentioned the super pastor trend. If you search Andy Stanley on YouTube, you find in excess of 500 sermon videos. That goes beyond the sort of content sharing we usually see from churches. That’s more like marketing a brand. There are only a few guys operating today on that scale.

IC: 2 Timothy 3:5-9 seems to have quite a bit to say about that trend: men who self-present as theologians, intellectuals, spiritual gurus to “weak women”. (Hey, those are the Lord’s words, not mine. Don’t shoot the messenger.) Guys like that are promised to show up in the church at some point, and do a whole lot of bad things.

Tom: We just maybe didn’t expect they’d be doing it primarily through technology. They’re getting into our congregations via internet video.

IC: But within a church context, they can hardly do that if the leadership is distributed and the spiritual gifts are all being equally valued. They need the classic “one-man-show” if they’re going to do what they do. And they need a payoff … big funds, a large church plant, high-profile ministry, many followers, lots of concentrated power. So now we’ve provided the conditions for it.

Tom: One danger of megachurches is they require megapersonalities. A megapersonality may be very visible, but he cannot function the way elders, shepherds or teachers functioned in the New Testament. He cannot form those sorts of deep, personal connections. Andy Stanley’s organization is number one on Outreach’s Fastest Growing Churches list. Stanley is … get this … senior pastor of North Point Community Church, Buckhead Church, Browns Bridge Church, Gwinnett Church, Woodstock City Church and Decatur City Church. Six campuses, 32,000 attendees getting together weekly to watch Andy on HD video.

The Ethics of Empire Building

You see why he can’t afford to have too many Christians floating around in Georgia who aren’t committed, financially contributing cogs in the Stanley machine. I guarantee most of those 32,000 attendees are not new converts either. He’s basically Walmart-ed the non-denominational local churches in Georgia right off the map. Of course he wants their kids.

IC: Well, I’m sure that people will say — and perhaps quite rightly — that Andy Stanley is a good man. I have no suspicion that he’s not, though of course I don’t really know. I’ve seen him on video, and there he looks stylish and scripturally sound, so far as I can tell. But of course there is a world of difference between approving of a man and approving of his methods. Even a good person may make bad decisions at times. And his decision to denigrate all small churches looks poor to me. His description of those who opt for them as uncaring about young people looks hyperbolical and rash at best, slanderous at worst.

I have no reason to think he’s an empire-builder, despite the fact he has one. Maybe it was accidental that he got it. But there’s no denying that the net effect of his pitch serves the interests of the pastor-centered megachurch, not those of ordinary believers or the average church. If his preaching discourages simple believers and ends up creating megachurch franchises for him, then it’s got to make you wonder if that isn’t a little “stinkin’ selfish”.

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