Andy Stanley’s Deep and Wide: A Review

Who is Andy Stanley?

Andy Stanley is the founder and senior pastor of North Point Ministries (NPM), which is an organization that started as a single church (North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Georgia) in the fall of 1995.[1]  The organization now boasts six Atlanta-area churches as well as numerous independent “strategic partner” churches scattered throughout the United States.[2]  Stanley is the son of former Southern Baptist Convention President Charles Stanley, who is the founder of In Touch Ministries and the long-time pastor of First Baptist Church Atlanta.  The younger Stanley served as an associate pastor at his father’s church before founding NPM.  In Deep and Wide: Creating Churches in Unchurched People Love to Attend, Andy Stanley shares the story of how he founded his organization and offers direction on how to create similar “churches which unchurched people love to attend”.  The book is broken up into five parts, each of which addresses a part of Stanley’s model.

Endorsements

The most telling part of Stanley’s book comes not from the text itself but from its endorsements page.    Deep and Wide‘s list of endorsers is a who’s who of entrepreneurial seeker-sensitive megachurch pastors.  Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Craig Groeschel, Steven Furtick, Perry Noble, and Louie Giglio all give the book high praise.  Hybels, the father of the seeker-sensitive movement, famously lamented that his own Willow Creek network of churches was “a mile wide and an inch deep“.  Hybels’ negative assessment of the fruit of seeker-sensitive movement no doubt served as an inspiration for Stanley’s title Deep and Wide.  In the book’s introduction, Andy Stanley writes, “Local Churches should be characterized by deep roots and wide reaches.  Churches should be theologically sound and culturally relevant.”[3]  Given Stanley’s attitude about church, the identities of his endorsers should come as no surprise.  Those identities should also serve as a warning to those who look to Stanley for wisdom.   To be both biblically educated and informed of the exploits of men like Furtick and Noble leads one to be wary of them and what they recommend.

Getting All Theological

Andy Stanley’s ministry model rises and falls upon the notion that churches can be attractive to unchurched people.  From a business standpoint, Stanley’s notion seems counterintuitive.  It sounds a bit like opening a burger joint for people who don’t like beef.  However, Stanley’s model has actually succeeded in growing a brand new church plant with 708 charter members into a multi-site ministry with thousands of members and international influence in the span of two decades.  When Stanley set out to form NPM, he recognized that his geographic market was already saturated with churches that churched people loved to attend.  “I grew up attending churches designed for church people,” Stanley writes, “No one said it, but the assumption was that the church was for church people.  The unspoken message to the outside world was ‘Once you start believing and behaving like us, you are welcome to join us'”.[4]  The Bible Belt resident realized that if he created one more church “for churched people” then few would be enticed to join it.  So, Stanley created a business that the Atlanta market did not have, a church for unchurched people.  Using various tactics, such as playing secular music to open services, Stanley and his co-laborers have managed to grow North Point Church into the quasi-denomination North Point MinistriesNPM grades itself on how attractive it is to its target audience, unchurched people.  Andy Stanley reveals this metric of success to readers on page 15 of Deep and Wide.  Anticipating a negative reaction Stanley writes, “Now, before you go getting all theological on me and writing us off as a dog-and-pony show, take note: We are a church.  Our goal isn’t to create an event unchurched people love to attend.  We are creating churches.”[5]  This phrase shudders the biblically-minded reader to the core.  In order to explain and defend his idea of what “church” is and how it should be, Andy Stanley warns readers not to get “theological”.  Theological is exactly what anyone seeking to lead Christ’s church should be.  As has been demonstrated by its numerical growth, Andy Stanley’s method of church management works from a business perspective.  However, it is theologically untenable and blatantly unbiblical.

Untenable Ecclesiology

Stanley’s defense of his method is a specious one.  He claims that NPM is creating “churches”, not “events”, that a certain demographic, the unchurched, loves to attend.  This claim breaks down when analyzed.  It is common parlance to ask someone, “Where do you go to church?” or “What church do you attend?” However, these questions are manners of speaking meant to determine in what church one holds membership.  Unlike events, churches are not attended.  Churches are essentially bodies of believers.   The sentence “I attend a body of believers” is incoherent.  The sentence “I attend worship services at First Baptist Church” is not.  That is because churches are bodies of believers which hold events, most frequently Sunday worship services.  It is truly the Sunday services of NPM, its events, that are geared towards unchurched people.  Churches are, by definition, composed of churched people.  Yet, Stanley creates his own definition of “unchurched”.  Rather than defining unchurched people as those who are not members of a body, Stanley defines the unchurched as those “not having attended a church for five years or longer”.[6]  Here again, Stanley’s presupposition is that church is something that is attended and not an entity in and of itself.  What Stanley’s philosophy boils down to is another absurd statement: The goal of NPM is to create churches of which unchurched people love to be a part.

But oil and water don’t mix.  The church of Jesus Christ is a particular group of people.  This is what the Apostle Peter reminds the early church in his first epistle:

“Therefore, prepare your minds for action, keep sober in spirit, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance,  but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.'” 1 Peter 1:13-16

In the scripture above, Peter quotes a command of God to the nation of Israel recorded in the book of Leviticus – “Be holy”.  This demonstrates that the New Testament Church is an extension of Old Testament Israel.  The latter served as a witness that the Messiah was coming, the former serves as a witness that the Messiah has come and is soon to come again in judgment.  In any age, the Israel of God serves as a witness to the world while maintaining a separation from the world.  In order to serve as a witness, the church must maintain a unique and separate identity.  This is what it means to be holy.  The Greek term ἅγιος used by Peter and translated as “holy” in the scripture above indicates that the church is to be set apart from everything and everyone that is not the church.  The church is to be different from the world.  Thus, it is completely reasonable for a church to expect that people who want to be a part of it first change the way they believe and behave.  This expectation is in line with the Christian doctrines of regeneration and sanctification.  Once a sinner gets saved, to use commonly understood evangelical terminology for regeneration, he is indwelt by the Holy Spirit.  Thus starts the process of sanctification.  At this point the believer starts to look like the church and, as Peter puts it, should no longer be conformed to his former lusts.  A true believer isn’t merely attracted to the church, he is the church.  A church that insists that its membership be holy is merely a matter of salt being salty. Yet, this is off-putting to Andy Stanley.  It is also apparently off-putting to thousands of other Atlanta-area residents who were raised in the same church culture as Stanley.  These off-put consumers are drawn to NPM and the philosophies of its leader, Andy Stanley.  Stanley boldly declares that he “leverages their consumer instincts”[7] and claims that Jesus did the same.

Stanley puts his own spin on what the church is in the second section of his book.  This is the section in which Stanley attempts to give the biblical justification for his approach to church.[8]  In Chapter Three, Stanley gives a very short and lightly footnoted summary of church history in which he literally anticipates the question “how long is this chapter in anyway?”[9]  Once again, Stanley is flippant about theology.  Deep and Wide’s chapters which give biblical justification for Stanley’s model of church should arguably be thorough, should arguably be deep.  However, Stanley’s pattern is to trade on brief, specious arguments shrouded in humor, pithiness, or some personal account.  His writing style is not unlike his preaching style; both lack depth and operate on a surface level.  His argument in Chapter 3 is dependent on his treatment of the Greek term ἐκκλησία[10] which is translated as “church” in almost every English Bible. Stanley asserts that the word “church” is not a translation of ἐκκλησία but rather a bad substitution for it.[11] According to Stanley, the institutionalization of the movement, or “church”, that Jesus started led to the ἐκκλησία being associated with a building or a location controlled by an institutional authority.  He associates the perversion of the Greek term with the machinations of the Roman Catholic Church and cites the Reformers as those who would be sympathetic to his view.  This does not, of course, play out in church history.  The seeker-sensitive movement of Warren, Hybels, Stanley, and their ilk began hundreds of years after Martin Luther and other reformers began the task of breaking free from Roman Catholic error and subjugation.   The seeker-sensitive movement is firmly planted inside of modern American entrepreneurial pragmatism and is nowhere to be found in first 400 years after the Reformation began.

Stanley is at least partially correct in his treatment of the term ἐκκλησία, however.  In Greek culture, the term often referred to a gathering of people, not necessarily Christian or religious.  Stanley writes, “An ekklesia was simply a gathering or an assembly of people called out for a specific purpose.  Ekklesia never referred to a specific place, only a specific gathering.”[12]  This statement is true.  At the same time, it is a straw man.  That Christ’s church is not a specific location is not the argument of those churches who would insist that church members believe and behave in a certain way.  It is a straw man created by Andy Stanley to further his narrative that church is a movement.  It’s not.  It’s a people.  It’s a people sanctified (set apart) to God and for God.  No one needs a dedicated building to be Holy but it’s certainly okay to have one.  Andy Stanley’s organization has several.

Such buildings are where the church formally gathers for its most frequent event, Lord’s Day worship.  It is here where Andy Stanley’s model of church runs into another very serious problem –  the world doesn’t honor God.  The Bible makes it clear in several places that the world, those not a part of the church and therefore not currently set apart to and for God, are at enmity with both God and His people.  The Apostle James wrote:

“You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures. You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you think that the Scripture speaks to no purpose: ‘He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell in us’?” James 4:3-5

When God’s people gather on the Lord’s Day to praise God they should not expect that unbelievers will want to take part in that worship.  Thus, to gear church services to appeal to a demographic (whether it is called “lost” or “unchurched”) is to change the focus of the worship event.  The event ceases to be about appealing to God.  Instead, it appeals to man.  Not only that, it appeals to the unregenerate man.  The Apostle Paul wrote:

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, e kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” 1 Corinthians 6:9-11

How can unsanctified people find appeal in a Christ-honoring, church-edifying worship service?  The same way a goose hatches out of a chicken egg…it doesn’t.  It’s another absurdity.  Stanley’s method of church is to essentially water down the message of scripture while having the people of God cater to “unchurched” people who have no interesting in serving or worshipping Him in spirit and truth.  Stanley turns what should be praise songs and preaching into a concert followed by a motivational speech.  It draws numbers, but not holy ones.  Stanley’s method not only confuses the nature of the church but perverts its primary weekly event, the worship service, to a form of worldly entertainment.  Unchurched people simply don’t love Christ’s church.  Unchurched people simply don’t love the worship of God.  Thus, a church that unchurched people love to attend is not a church at all.  It’s akin to hamburger joint that puts tofu patties between buns, calls them hamburgers, and serves them to people who don’t like beef.  It does good business and happily makes thousands of sales…but it doesn’t sell hamburgers.

A Didactic Problem

Much of the “biblical” justification Stanley gives for his model is subtlety deceptive.  Among Christians, there is universal agreement that the church belongs to Christ.  Stanley uses the exploits of Christ, as chronicled in the Bible, in various places in his book to support his own assertions.  When he does so, he engages in more specious error.  Almost never does Stanley appeal to the teaching of the Apostles (as has been done above to critique his methodology).  This is significant.  It is essential to understand the biblical context in order to understand Stanley’s erroneous method of teaching.  The fours gospels often descriptively portray Jesus as taking some action to teach the reader about whom Jesus is and what he is doing while the epistles of the Apostles prescriptively instruct the church. Stanley relies on the former to support his ecclesiological assumptions where the former are not addressing church operations.

Stanley rightly points out that “If you want to know what Jesus meant but Jesus said, pay attention to what Jesus did.”[13]  One thing that Jesus did was to appoint Apostles such as Paul to oversee the early church.  We find the writings of Peter, Paul, James, John, and Jude in their numerous epistles, many of which predate the authoring of the four gospels.  These epistles are written by Apostles, in many cases to specific churches, in order to instruct the churches on how they should operate.  In other words, the epistles of the New Testament instruct churches on how to be churches.  In Deep and Wide Stanley cites the epistle of James thrice (James 1:17, 2:20, and 2:26), the epistles to the Corinthians thrice (1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and 10:26), the epistle to the Romans twice (Romans 8:28 and Romans 12:2), and the second epistle to Timothy once (2 Timothy 3:16).  Through none of these citations does Stanley make a substantial argument about the church should operate or behave.  Instead, Stanley relies on descriptive stories from the gospels.  Indeed, Jesus reached out to the outcasts of society and challenged the religious authority of his day.  However, the brotherly love and evangelism demonstrated by Jesus and his disciples in the gospels do not translate into a church model where worship services center around appealing to the unchurched and finding places of service for them.  If readers aren’t careful, they can get so excited about the praiseworthy exploits of the Lord Jesus and not notice that Stanley is not applying them in the proper context.

Stanley is adamant that “every church should be a church irreligious people love to attend.”[14]  This premise can be restated as follows: “every gathering of God’s people to exercise religious devotion should be a gathering of God’s people where the religious devotion being exercised is loved by those who are indifferent or hostile to religion“.  To defend this absurdity Stanley invokes Jesus.  He writes, “The church is the local expression of the presence of Jesus.  We are His body.  And since people who were nothing like Jesus liked Jesus, people who are nothing like Jesus should like us as well.[15]  This statement does not play out in scripture.

“…Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.'” Mark 1:14-15

“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.” Romans 8:28-30

Jesus’ most vociferous critics, scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and teachers of the law, were not like him.  Yes, they were the same ethnically but spiritually their hearts were far from Him.  Those who accepted Jesus accepted his offer of forgiveness and were called on to turn (or repent) from their sins.  In doing so, they could become like him.  Andy Stanley not only advocates that the church appeal to the world, he argues that Jesus did so.  Jesus, as history shows, had no friendship with the world.  Andy Stanley does.  In a jab at his critics, Stanley writes, “All of my critics are religious people (It may be the only thing I have in common with Jesus).”[16]  The churches being critiqued and rebuked by Paul in his many epistles could have made the same, haughty quip.  In reality, Stanley misapplies the exploits of Jesus to justify his brand of pragmatic religious consumerism.  Misapplying Jesus is nothing new.

All About Andy

The first part of the book is dedicated to telling Andy Stanley’s biographical story.  He grew up in a tense and combative church culture, one in which his own father was punched in the face during a church business meeting at First Baptist Atlanta.  It was a fight for his father to become of the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Atlanta and a young Andy and his best friend Louie Giglio witnessed it.  After Andy grew up and went to seminary, he entered the fray and accepted a position as a student minister at First Baptist Atlanta.  He served in this capacity for ten years.  Then, almost by accident, he took the first step to becoming the Senior Pastor of his own church.  First Baptist Atlanta was determined to move to a more suburban location.  It obtained access to a piece of property known as “the warehouse” and opened up a second campus there.  The intention was to move the entire church to that location; at the time, the multi-site megachurch fad had yet to become popular.  Stanley was tasked to lead the location until the move could take place.  It never did.

The real estate market did not provide First Baptist Atlanta with a feasible environment in which to move.  To make matters worse, the younger Stanley had a falling out with his father which revolved, in large part, over Charles’s Stanley’s controversial and very public divorce.  Andy Stanley would eventually resign his position at First Baptist Atlanta.  However, he retained a very large following.  He was able parlay his popularity into a new church plant, no longer operating under the authority of his father’s church but still well within its shadow.  Stanley was finally free to do things his own way.  He has.

During his tenure working with youth at First Baptist Atlanta, a twenty-six-year-old Stanley put on what the deacons of First Baptist Atlanta deemed an “irreverent and unruly”[17] youth event in the church building.  Despite a number of decisions for Christ made by attendees, the deacons were very upset at the spectacle.  Stanley, ever-pragmatic was aghast at their disgust.  After all, hadn’t it worked?  Arguably, this experienced helped shape NPM services into what they are today, seeker-sensitive concerts followed by motivational speeches that are in some way related to God.  Andy Stanley turned the youth-concert methodology rejected by the stodgy deacons at his father’s church and turned it into a church model.  He then put that church right in their back yard.  If NPM seems more like a rock and roll youth revival than a church, it’s not hard to see why.  NPM and Andy Stanley are shaped out of a rejection of conservative Southern Baptist culture.  Unfortunately, they have also come to reject the biblical expectation for churches.

That Andy Stanley devotes the entire first section of his book to his own, interesting personal history is not surprising.  Stanley is a part of the NPM brand, it’s his.  Arguably, he is the brand.  Such personal story telling is not uncommon among church entrepreneurs.  In Section One of Deep and Wide, Andy Stanley attempts to establish his authority as a church expert before making a biblical case.  By the time readers get to Andy’s “biblical” argument for the NPM model in Section 2, the reader has already subconsciously become an observer of the Andy Stanley story.  If the reader isn’t careful, he will miss how the story’s protagonist misapplies scripture to support an untenable church model.

Deep and Wide

Andy Stanley presents his “Deep and Wide” model in Sections 3 and 4 of the book.  Section 5 is about how to lead an existing church through the change processes in order adapt to Stanley’s model.  Andy lists a number of “Catalyst” principles and templates to be followed.  These items are not worthy of significant review.  Since Stanley’s model is unbiblical, its specific inner-workings should also be rejected.  To be sure, there is a lot of good common sense advice in these sections.  (For example, Stanley points out that an unkempt nursery area will leave parents too worried to focus on Sunday services.)  Just as sure, however, is the folly of following Andy Stanley down his path of pragmatism.  Deep and Wide is essentially a guide to “franchising McChruch.”  McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s have a franchise model.  So does North Point Ministries.  Unlike those fast food giants, Stanley professes that his idea for consumer appeal was given to him by God.[18]  Comparison of Stanley’s model to the word of God proves Stanley’s claim to be false.  The NPM model is not from God and is not one for shepherding sheep.  It is a model for herding goats.  Andy Stanley is a dangerous man whose pastoral ideas are dangerous to the health of Christ’s church.  Deep and Wide is a book that should be marked and avoided.

*Please note that the preceding is my personal opinion. It is not necessarily the opinion of any entity by which I am employed, any church of which I am a member, any church which I attend, or the educational institution at which I am enrolled. Any copyrighted material displayed or referenced is done under the doctrine of fair use.

[1] p. 104

[2] There are also partner churches in Costa Rica, France, Mexico, and Venezuela.

[3] P. 18

[4] p. 69

[5] p. 15

[6] P. 14

[7] P. 15

[8] p. 16

[9] p. 60

[10] In English this term is transliterated as “ekklesia”.

[11] p. 62

[12] p. 59

[13] p. 298

[14] p. 12

[15] ibid

[16] p. 15

[17] P. 278

[18] p. 48

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