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Andy Stanley Trashes Expository Preaching; Calls it “Easy” and “Cheating”

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Ed Stetzer, whose employer – Lifeway “Christian” Resources – sells more than a few Andy Stanley books, interviewed the Georgia pastor on the topic of preaching related to his book, Communicating for a Change. The second of such interviews on this topic, Stetzer posts the Q&A on his blog, hosted by Christianity Today. What follows is nothing short of a shocking (but refreshingly honest and explicit) rejection of expository preaching, and although is not new, is making its way around social media as of late.

The question posed to Stanley was this…

What do you think about preaching verse-by-verse messages through books of the Bible?

Stanley’s answer…

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.

It’s “cheating.” Do you hear that, you exegetes? You small church pastors, sweating away in your study on Friday and Saturday nights to finish up before Sunday…you expositors checking the Greek and Hebrew and grasping the etymology of key words and phrases, putting it within Scriptural context, cross-referencing all the important verses, studying the commentaries of all the great scholars to unwrap the oracles of God verse by verse at a time. People don’t grow that way.

I think I speak for a lot of people – and I mean a lotta people – who when we think of spiritual growth and discipleship – don’t exactly think North Point Church. I’m not trying to be mean (really, I’m not). I’m just sayin’. I don’t think “discipleship” would be the perceived strong-suit of the congregation. I’m willing to bet the still-married to women but happily gay couple at North Point probably don’t think of discipleship, either. They certainly don’t think about sanctification and holiness, which is, essentially, the same thing as spiritual growth. This leads me to believe that Stanley must mean…

“That isn’t how you [numerically] grow people.” 

That would make more sense. And, if that’s what Stanley means, he might be right. There is that sweet-spot in the life of the church when it’s years or decades into its existence and the maturity level has risen from internal spiritual growth to an evangelistic zeal that’s as much truth as spirit and the wind of the Holy Spirit is at the church’s back and there are amazing, incredible times of revival and refreshing. We all live for those moments when we see the Third Person of the Trinity reap lost souls and see genuine converts flood the gates (let’s call that “new growth”). There’s also those times when a church develops a reputation for solid exposition, sincere worship and real discipleship and actual Christians come from miles around to take part in the life of that body – primarily because they are sheep starved for green pastures and are tired of being ripped apart by doctrinal wolves and ridiculed or ignored by hireling shepherds (we’ll call that “old growth”). The former is primarily a move of God and the latter can be savvy communication or advertising to spread the word that this church actually cares about their Scriptural purpose (although God is certainly involved in old growth, too). And sometimes, there’s a healthy combination of both new and old growth.

The two kinds of legitimate numerical growth of actual believers in the church’s assembly are acts of God, facilitated by the Spirit using His inspired Scriptures.

There is, however, a kind of numerical growth that is not a legitimate increase in the Church’s assembly of believers. It is the type of growth that can be seen as pervasive in many growing “churches” today, of which John MacArthur says

There’s a serious defect in a so-called minister content to be proud of assembling non-believers and calling them a church. Something deeply wrong there. Modern evangelicalism seems to exhaust every imaginable and unimaginable means to attract and collect non-Christians into a building and then call it a church and call it church growth. Maybe there’s a better way to identify these places, let’s just call them non-churches.

If what Stanley means here is “That isn’t how you [spiritually] grow people” then, essentially, we’re left to believe that Stanley’s understanding of growth is that it’s done by the person, the pastor, the “communicator” and not by God through the Scriptures. Notice the phrasing, “That’s not how you grow people.”

You’re right, Stanley. That’s not how we grow people. It’s how God grows people, through his Spirit, via the Holy Scriptures. Stanley continues (from the above)…

No one in the Scripture modeled that. There’s not one example of that.

Well, that’s true. It’s hard to find a didactic and authoritative model of preaching  Scripture in Scripture. That would be like finding characters in a movie rewinding or fast-forwarding itself to provide commentary, which as far as I know, has only been done in one scene of Space Balls. There is not a chapter of the Sacred Text describing expository, topical, thematic or narrative preaching. We do, however, see how Scripture is handled in Scripture, even if there aren’t books entitled 1st and 2nd Homiletics. Chiefly, the Scripture is saturated with the Scripture. The Psalms, the Prophets, the Epistles are all wrapped up in one another and soaked in Inspiration.

We see New Testament writers (via the Holy Spirit) preach their oratories and saturate their divinely-inspired epistles from the verses of the Old Testament, roughly 850 times. We see Jesus discussing doctrine from the Old Testament with the scholars in the temple from age 12 onward. We see Him resisting Satan by a recitation of the Scriptures. We see Jesus daily contending with the Pharisees over the Scriptures. And we see that the most famous sermon in the history of mankind was an exegetical outline of the Old Testament Law and Ten Commandments (what was provided in Matthew was not a word-for-word account of Jesus’ Sermon preached upon a mountain top, but an outline, and from which you can see how He was working his way through Mosaic Law). The same is said for Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 and Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7. Unless you believe these are word-for-word transcripts of 4-minute long orations, these are clearly exegetical outlines that were ambitious in the amounts of Scripture being cited and covered.

Stanley and other seeker-friendly “creative” preachers improve upon the Text by incessant story-telling and personal anecdotes. That’s the “engaging” part of his shtick. I’ll remind you, beloved, that Jesus taught in parables not to reveal engaging and compelling truths from Scripture, but to conceal truth from those who didn’t need it at the time (Matthew 13:11-17). I’m convinced the non-exegetical approach of modern-day story tellers and dreamers is for the same, but non-divine, purpose – to conceal truth and not to reveal it. Cloak scripture in stories and endless illustrations like riddles, the oracles of God that have now been made clear to us; the choir will get it and the lost won’t see anything offensive and stumble on no Cornerstone. Stanley continues…

All Scripture is equally inspired, but not all Scripture is equally applicable or relevant to every stage of life. 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? 

We see here what Stanley is busy reading – and it’s not the Scripture. After all, the Scripture isn’t equally applicable or relevant to every “stage of life” (which is why the typical seeker-friendly church preaches from only a dozen different scripture texts – David and Goliath, Jonah and the whale, Joshua and the Sun, etc – repackaged over and over and over again in an endless sea of regurgitated life advice in a camouflage of changing phraseology). No, Stanley is reading culture. He’s reading the audience. He’s not a preacher – he’s contemporary anthropologist. His job is basically the same as Ed Stetzer’s – except applied as ecclesiastical methodology instead of as helpful missiological data – Stanley studies culture and provides to the consumer what is is asking for. Stanley’s king is not Christ.  The consumer, in Stanely’s ministry, is king.

Stanley then gives an example for why expository preaching is over-rated and it’s the icing, and not the cake, that makes the difference…

I believe the true defining moment of my life as a communicator took place when I was in seminary. I was asked to do a chapel for the high school academy at First Baptist Church, Dallas. So I got the message all ready to go, and I was going to preach on the story of Naaman. And God told him to dip in the water seven times and he would be healed. I had all this great stuff. And I was sitting in my one-room efficiency apartment and I was thinking, “These kids have heard everything. They go to church all the time. They are not going to remember this. This is just another chapel. What can I do so that they can remember this? I am just going to come up with one phrase and I am going to say it so many times that they can’t possibility forget it.”

So I came up with this phrase: “To understand why, submit and apply.” That was over 30 years ago and I still remember it. So I told the whole story. And I said the bottom line was: “To understand why, submit and apply. ” And I said that God is going to ask you to do some things that you might not understand why, but you must submit and apply. I had them say it over and over.

Three years go by, and I am working in the college department in the same church and a freshman walks in and says, “I remember you. To understand why, submit and apply.” He didn’t remember my name. He wasn’t even sure where he had seen me before. But it stuck in his head. And I’ll never forget thinking, “That is what I want to do for the rest of my life.

I think the story says it all. It’s not a catechism of Scripture that the next generation needs or wants. No, we need to catechize ourselves in Stanley and other wordsmiths who take the sharp-as-any-two-edged-sword Word of God that divides souls and spirits, that regenerates hearts and makes us born again through its incorruptible seed and create pithy little, theologically shallow slogans that end up on bumper-stickers and tshirts and eventually are debunked by discernment blogs for being so doctrinally anemic and usually preposterously and biblically incorrect until even the originators of those slogans grit their teeth in an awkward smile, throw up their hands in a defensive posture and walk backward slowly from their messed up semantic children. That’s how you grow people.

I want to take all this stuff in the Bible, and I want to say it so simply that it gets so lodged in people’s hearts that in the moment of transition or temptation or whatever it might be, they think: What is that statement? What is that phrase?”

Not from the Bible, but from Stanley. Not from the collection of 66 Books of Inspired Writ, but from this book sold at Lifeway. Yes. That’s the ticket.

[Contributed by JD Hall]


For resources on expository preaching, check out these videos featuring John MacArthur and Steve Lawson, provided for free by the Master’s Seminary.