Andy Stanley’s Deep and Wide has been on my to-read list for longer than I care to admit. The book’s concept, captured by its subtitle—Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend—is so enticing. Yet, I was vaguely familiar with criticisms against Stanley’s ministry and theological views. The book thus languished in the recesses of my interests.
But every time I went to grab a new title, I saw Deep and Wide on the list, and eventually I could no longer suppress the urge to dive in. If you are a church leader or a highly-committed church member, I think you can relate to the instinctive attraction I had for this book. Don’t we all want a church that “unchurched” people find appealing?
Andy Stanley certainly has a track record for leading that kind of church. His ministry history—which he recounts in sections one and two of the book—attests to his success. So, I set aside, momentarily, some of the criticisms I’ve heard of Stanley’s theology and philosophy of ministry and sought to find anything helpful in Deep & Wide. The result of my search was a mix of appreciation, hesitation, and concern.
I benefited from much of Stanley’s wisdom on ministry matters.
His disposition toward those outside of the church is an attitude we should all want. Stanley has a very helpful principle for addressing unbelievers. He sets up a dichotomy between wanting something from unbelievers and wanting something for unbelievers. This seems a wise way to communicate with unbelievers. We can assure them we are not trying to dupe them or merely to add them to our number. Instead, we want them to experience grace.
Aspects of Stanley’s preaching are worthy of ministers’ consideration. He has a readily apparent audience-responsiveness in his preaching. By considering visitors, especially those who are unfamiliar with church culture, he is able to incorporate tersely effective evangelistic appeals into his message.
He has an interesting approach to choosing sermon texts. He notes that preaching every passage of scripture is practically impossible: in his estimation, it would take 99 years to preach the Bible chapter-by-chapter. Thus, everyone, even those who preach through whole books of the Bible a passage at a time, has to pick and choose what they will preach. He writes,
“Here’s my point: since we have to pick and choose anyway, why not pick and choose the passages and principles that are most appropriate for specific audiences? Let’s not simply avoid the awkward and inappropriate. Let’s be intentional about what we teach, where we teach it, and to whom we teach it. Like Jesus.”
Deep and Wide is one of the more inspiring and motivational books on ministry I have read. Stanley challenges his readers to pursue God-honoring risk. For those serving in stagnant and complacent churches, he offers this advice:
You want to see change? Ask God to start with you. Ask him to burden you with something worth risking your career for. And no, that’s not hyperbole. That’s the nature of a God-ordained vision.
He writes movingly of his decision to leave a respectable position at his home church (working for Charles Stanley, his dad) to start a new church. When he and his wife see fruit in their ministry, they are amazed and reflect, “What if we had never left?” I think of my ministry dream—which is digging in where I am—and I hope for a future where my wife and I wonder at God’s goodness and say, “What if we had left?”
Even as I was appreciating those aspects of Deep and Wide, from the very beginning I was distracted by a question, one that relates to what interested me in the book. Is it even possible to create churches that the unchurched will love?
That subtitle—though it is quite appealing to Christians, who love their unbelieving friends and family—is fraught with tension. These “Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend” sound wonderful, but I have reservations that they can exist.
I hope my hesitation is not theologically pedantic. I just can’t shake the suspicion that when the unchurched love a church, either love or the church is compromised. A person cannot love the church, the gathering of God’s people, until that person has experienced the love that the gathers God’s people. The writings of the Apostle John gives us the right order of these experiences. No New Testament writer emphasizes love for God’s people more than John. In five chapters of 1 John, we see roughly fifteen direct references to loving God’s people. Yet, John knew that this love of God’s people has its roots in God’s love for us: “We love because God first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
I fear that if we labor to build churches the unchurched will love, we will labor in vain. That objective is, to borrow from undergrad philosophy, a pseudo-task, a non-doable thing, like trying to draw a square circle.
But wait, the subtitle doesn’t emphasize loving the church, perse; right? Stanley is promoting the kind of church that the unchurched love to attend. Loving the church and loving attending the church are two different things. That distinction turned my hesitation into concern.
I admire the concept of backwards design. A decision-maker envisions a goal and plans in reverse order the incremental steps that accomplish that goal (e.g., goal, step 3, step 2, step 1). A risk, however, in this method is that a poorly chosen goal leads to ill-advised means. I’m concerned that Stanley’s vision for a church the unchurched enjoy attending suffers this fate.
At several decision-points, Stanley’s criteria have led to ministry approaches that are at odds with scripture.
For instance, Stanley considers some service roles appropriate for unbelievers. I can see why he would take this view. After all, stepping in and serving would increase the engagement factor for the unchurched. Unbelievers could feel some ownership. Yet, this idea is in stark contrast to how the church operated in the New Testament. To “serve tables” in the apostolic church, you had to be “full of the Spirit” (Acts 6:2-3).
A similar mistake is made in Stanley’s discussion of corporate singing in the worship gathering. He notes that many people in our culture do not like to sing. Since we want the unchurched to love attending our church, we have to be careful how we approach corporate singing. Stanley writes,
It’s important for song leaders to remember that there is a segment of our population that doesn’t like to sing ever. They don’t sing in their cars or in their showers, and they aren’t going to sing at church. I remind our song leaders from time to time that they aren’t doing anything wrong. Some people just don’t like to sing and that’s okay. And please don’t guilt people into singing. An individual’s willingness or unwillingness to participate in corporate singing is not a reflection of his or her commitment to Christ or spiritual maturity.
Unfortunately, Stanley’s advice fails to account for the importance of congregational singing in the New Testament’s depiction of the church. The Apostle Paul, for example, commands singing and describes it as a means for mutual edification. Should we eschew the commands of scripture to make the unchurched enjoy our worship gatherings? You could create a mad-lib of that paragraph with any number of Christian disciplines.
A Concluding Question
Early in Deep and Wide, Stanley asks a thought-provoking question: “Who is the church for?” The answer demanded by Stanley’s vision is that the church is for the unchurched. If you answer the question in this way, then you ought to follow many of Stanley’s suggested practices. Most of the energy, resources, and time of the church would be invested in outreach and evangelism.
Another potential answer is that the church is for believers. If we answered the question in this way, our churches would take on some isolationist tendencies. Most of the energy, resources, and time of the church would be invested into discipleship. The preaching, for example, would probably be most accessible to the most biblically literate.
I think both answers have merit, but need a more accurate theological setting. Since everything is “to him” (Romans 11:36) and ”for him” (Col 1:16), we can say with confidence that the church is for God.
The church exists to say something about God: “. . . through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be make known. . .” (Ephesians 3:10). The unchurched benefit from this aspect of the God-directed church.
The church exists for God’s pleasure. One of the clearest depictions is the marriage supper of the lamb (Revelation 19:6-8). God’s people are a bride, who has beautified herself for her husband Christ. Part of this bride’s beauty is her clothing, “fine linen,” which represents “the righteous deeds of the saints” (v. 8). The church flourishes and becomes beautiful because of Christ’s work in her (Ephesians 5:26).
We all need a reorientation of our view of church. Evangelicals tend to emphasize an aspect of the church’s purpose to the exclusion of others. In his acquisition of a people for his pleasure, God has purposes for believers and unbelievers. Local churches can go “deep and wide,” but not merely by intensive discipleship and not exclusively through far-reaching evangelism. The church grows stronger and broader, only as she directs her gaze upward, or more accurately, Godward.