Andy Stanley explains why his mega church won’t collect on Sundays till 2021 The Alternate
The North Point Ministries announced that the personal service would be suspended for the rest of the year. This has made news around the world.
Ed Stetzer: Andy, tell us about your decision and how you got there.
Andy Stanley: First of all, thank you for having me with you because this is an important moment that I think for the local Church. As you know, I have a pretty strong opinion on many things, but I rarely do interviews. However, today I did local interviews in Atlanta and tomorrow I did a CNN interview. My assistant said, "You always say no to this stuff." But that's a really important topic. And I feel like I have something important to say, but I'll let you and your audience judge it.
Anyone who listens to who is in church leadership or who is part of a local church remembers a few weeks before Easter. COVID-19 starts and suddenly we as pastors have a conversation about whether we should meet next Sunday.
Shall we take a Sunday off? I have announced to our churches that we will not meet in public on the next three Sundays. Some pastors called and said, "What do you know that we don't know?" I said, "I don't know anything you don't know. I only know that clarity amid uncertainty is the way forward."
Then we took Easter off and then announced in late March or early April that we would only meet in person when school started in August. People thought we were crazy. I said, "No, I want our employees to focus on creating an online community for our entire community." Not just the 15% that would show up if we opened the doors.
Last Tuesday we met again with our pastors. We knew we would not open on August 9th because they started the school opening. It was wonderful. It was a pretty short meeting. Everyone decided: "No, there is no point in bringing out another date if not August, maybe September, maybe October, maybe November."
Here, in my opinion, the church has to think about it: As a local church, we have only limited time, limited staff and limited resources; It makes no sense to focus our employees' time and resources on creating a below-average environment for a service at nine and eleven o'clock on Sunday morning that only 20% of people can participate in.
We have decided to focus on 100% of all of our community members and their friends, as well as the rest of the world, who may appear later. To use a term I learned from you a long time ago, this is really my missionary decision. It is not based on emotions. It is part of our mission to inspire people to follow Jesus. It's a very outsider decision instead of an insider decision. As you know, the churches that opened earlier see 15 to 20, maybe 25% of their previous visitors, and they spend a lot of money and energy and still need to go online because most people are unwilling to go to church to return.
One of the other things that influenced our decision is that we first consulted our churches in April and May. We also interviewed other churches in the Atlanta area. We wanted to find out what people need to come back. Then we asked again two weeks ago. Here's the interesting thing: About 15% fewer people in the second survey said they were ready to come back. There was less inclination to come back, no more. This helped us make the decision to focus 100% of our time and energy on creating an online community. We're going to have some gatherings on campus, but they're going to be smaller. You will be focused. So the church is not closed. We're only reallocating assets to actually affect the maximum number of people in this crazy time.
Ed Stetzer: I think what you are saying is fair that it takes a lot of work to gain experience on campus. At the same time, one of the challenges that many people have is that, as you said, 20% would come. What we've also seen is that there are 20% of people who think you are a compromised coward when you don't meet and 20% of people who think you are terrible for a meeting. And there are many people who are right in the middle and are not sure. You have to navigate through multiple constituencies. How did you go through that?
Andy Stanley: I'm glad you said that. So we asked our people because we wanted to know what they think. So I'm not in my prayer room and I say, "God showed me. Let's go." I don't lead like that. I do not recommend anyone who leads in this direction. There were many discussions: We interviewed our employees and our volunteers. We have interviewed our community in general, but at the same time this is a security issue for us. I told the press in the Atlanta area that we were for our community. We don't want to accidentally do something that harms our church while bringing a lot of people together. In these circumstances, you run the risk of actually doing something negative to the community, and collecting the 20% that appears doesn't mean anything to the community.
What we can do for the community is to reallocate assets and resources, serve the community, get more involved with our nonprofits that we support year round, and raise money for organizations. This is an incredible opportunity for the Church to do good. This is important. It is not enough for the church to do good. The church must be seen doing good.
Our worldly culture is very health conscious. We will not ask people to do anything that is unsafe, and we cannot do contact tracking in a church as large as ours. The government doesn't ask for it, but it's good administration.
It is difficult for us to only track contacts with our employees, and we have had several employees test positive for COVID-19. I can't imagine taking responsibility for having kids, preschoolers, and adults walking around the building.
Communication was, we love you too much to open the doors on Sunday morning. Let's focus on doing things for the community, but at the same time, we're not just doing zoom groups. Our middle school students meet in driveways. We call them driveway groups. We encouraged people to come to campus, bring their chairs, turn, have your small group in the parking lot and in the grass. So the church is not closed. We just suspended our Sunday morning meetings.
Daniel Yang: The survey was published in April. What questions did you ask?
Andy Stanley: There were questions like: would you return now? There were multiple choice questions: would you be willing to return in A] one to three months, B] only when there is a vaccine, and so on. When would you like to bring your children with you? Do you think you will find it convenient to bring your children in one to three months, six months or whatever? It was quite wide, like measuring your comfort.
Ed Stetzer: One of the tricky questions is that we don't know if or when there will be a vaccine. It would take years to develop herd immunity. If it follows, the typical flu cycle could be two years. If the situation does not change, are you still not gathering in large groups?
Andy Stanley: I dont know. I think most of us think there will be some kind of vaccine. I think Emory has just released some information that some progress has been made on this. But that's why this is a great opportunity for Church leaders to lead, because in the midst of uncertainty, clarity is the next best thing in terms of security. And we can never be sure. And the more insecure things are, the more clarity our employees need. The uncertainty will never go away. We are all dealing with a massive dose of uncertainty. But I know that you believe that the church will survive because Jesus said, "I will build it." We just show up and take part with him.
I don't worry about the survival of the Church in the long run, but if we have to change our approach, Church leaders can find out. But I can not. I mean, I can't imagine it. When there are no more congregations in the church, it cannot be said with certainty that SEC football no longer exists and that problems in the Southeast are greater than anything you can imagine. It's not just church meetings.
One of the things that I can't address or that I haven't tried is this: There are some people in our church who feel, "Oh, you broke in to be afraid. You gave in Try in this left wing to close the church. So they will close the church in America. "I say," No, they closed the NBA. They closed the masters. " I don't believe in conspiracy theories at all. I think we have to be good neighbors and good church leaders and be the hands and feet of Jesus in difficult times.
Ed Stetzer is executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, dean at Wheaton College, and publishes church leadership resources through the Mission Group. The Exchange team contributed to this article.
Daniel Yang is the director of Send Institute, a church planting think tank at Wheaton College's Billy Graham Center.