Calling out Andy Stanley and Rick Warren: Keep Churches Open

I don’t challenge mega-church pastors in public very often, but today we need to talk.

Earlier this month in an interview, Andy Stanley, who is the pastor of North Point Community Church in Atlanta, made the statement that he is, “Embarrassed by churches that engaged in spitting matches with state and local governments over COVID 19 lockdown restrictions.” He went on to say that “too many churches abandoned the mission for the sake of the model.” In fact, he said, “The thing that’s been concerning to me about the local church is how quickly so many local churches felt like – we’ve got to get back in our buildings shoulder to shoulder doing what we’ve always done.” He calls that “the exact wrong approach.” He says, “We have the opportunity of a lifetime to do new things, try new things, experiment with new things because we couldn’t do the old things. And instead of focusing on what we can’t do, we should have been 100% focused on what we can do.”

Well, let me speak about this because Andy Stanley has a lot of influence. His words carry a lot weight and they need to be answered. He says that “It sounds like bragging,” but his church that hasn’t met for nine months, he says, “has done more to advance the cause of Christ during this pandemic than those churches that have been opened.” When pressed for an example of how his church has advanced the cause, he points to the fact that “his church hosted the largest Red Cross blood drive in Atlanta history.”

Now don’t get me wrong. I’ll all for blood drives and I think the Red Cross is good important organization. But if that’s what Andy Stanley thinks is a substitute for the people of God meeting together and following the commands of our Lord then he and I are on very different pages.

Along those same lines, Rick Warren, who pastors Saddleback Church in southern California, said that COVID 19 has revealed what he called a “fundamental weakness in the church.” He said, “Most churches see worship as their sole purpose. So, if you take worship away, you’ve got nothing.” He says, “They’re in a hurry to get back to worship because that’s all they’ve got.”

His 20,000-member church, Saddleback Church, he tells us is not built on one purpose but on five. You take one circle out we’ve still got four circles. We’ve got ministry going on. We’ve got mission going. We’ve got fellowship going on. We’ve got discipleship going on. Those all stand on their own.

Well, let me tell you, Rick Warren is being a little disingenuous. Because I’ve read his book, The Purpose Driven Church. He does talk about the five purposes of the church. In fact, he has a nifty little diagram in the shape of a diamond with each of those four purposes. And right in the middle is the purpose of worship. And he argues in his book that everything else the church does is driven, motivated, compelled forward, energized, strengthened, empowered by worship. Only now, because he’s in Los Angeles County, he’s able to say, well it’s really not that important. We’ll just do all the other things that we do.

You know, there was a pastor in Alberta, Canada by the name of James Coats. He spent 35 days in jail. He’s just been released pending a trial in May. He was fined $1,500 and 35 days in jail. And his crime, his crime was opening the doors of his church so his people could meet together. And the government said, “You can’t do that.” In fact, when he was released the judge took some shots at him verbally. Noting that the pastor referred to himself as a shepherd, the judge said, “The shepherd ought to protect his flock.” As though some judge has any idea what that means.

The judge went on to say that “the spread of COVID 19 was a serious concern. And services at the church could have been super spreader events.” Wow! They weren’t. There was no spike in illness. But he’s arrested and put in jail because what he did could have been bad. The provincial regulations in Alberta, Canada limit in-person attendance at churches to 15% of capacity.

Folks, this pandemic doesn’t even make the top 10 list of Most Lethal Disease outbreaks in history. Forced lockdowns, mandatory business closures and church attendance restrictions are fundamentally flawed as an approach to disease spread. The government loves its new found power. And it assumes that individual citizens are incapable of making smart decisions for self-protection.

Now in our church we have many people who are still at home with a cautious approach to going out because they have compromised immune systems or they have accompanying health issues. I’m all for that. They should be allowed to make those decisions. And I am so pleased when I see people in my church being careful, who should be careful. I don’t have a problem with people choosing to limit their exposure to other human beings because of their own health situation. What I’m speaking about is excessive government restrictions on healthy people, telling them that we don’t know how to protect ourselves or each other.

And here’s the thing about the church. Critics say, “Well, preachers just want the churches open because they want money.” Listen, are they not paying attention? We all can receive money digitally these days. People give online all the time. You don’t have to be present to give money.

Worship attendance is not about money. It’s not about celebrity adoration of pastors. It’s not that I just need a crowd so that I can be the guy in the spotlight. It’s not about a weekend hobby that’s been interrupted. It’s not that we don’t have anything better to do and so we’re bored. We want to be able to go to church. It’s none of those things that critics charge us with.

Rather, worship is a crucial element of living the Jesus life. It’s a critical moment for encouragement in a generation of fear and hostility. It is an obedience to the instruction of our Lord.

In Hebrews 10, the writer of Hebrews tells us this.

"Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, since he who promised is faithful. And let us watch out for one another to provoke love and good works, not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching."

Hebrews 10:23-25. It tells us these three things. It tells us our confession, that is, our lifestyle is to be held without waving. That is, worship together as the people of God in community, it’s a part of our confession. And it is to be held without wavering.

It’s interesting that we can’t meet in a pandemic that has, not only a 97% survival rate, but now has vaccines available. And yet the church in the Middle Ages didn’t quit meeting in the middle of some of the worst disease events in history. Our confession cannot waver.

But also, the text tells us that we’re to encourage brothers and sisters. Listen, I get it. Christianity in America has always been a little bit off from the Biblical model. Because in America we were raised to be fiercely independent. It is the defining characteristic of the American spirit. And yet, what we discover in the Word of God is that Christianity is not a solo endeavor.

I see people on Twitter that are critical of pastors who are trying to open their churches and meet together. And they say, “I can meet with God in the privacy of my own home.” Sure, you can. But you can’t obey God that way because He calls you to the Church. It’s an encouragement. It’s the community of faith. It’s how we survive. The Church produces the air that we breathe spiritually.

This passage also tells us that worship participation is critical for believers. Especially, he tells us, as history approaches its conclusion.

Well, you say, “Well, you’re a pastor, of course you want churches open.” Listen, I don’t want churches open because I’m a pastor. I want churches open because it’s the right thing. It’s the right thing for churches. It’s the right thing for believers. And honestly, it’s the right thing for our nation. Our nation right now, they need people being encouraged together by truth.

Staying at home locked in our houses watching mainstream and alternative media, all that’s done is make us fearful. It’s made us weak. It’s taken an America with a proud tradition and turned us into bunch of whimpering scared people. The Church needs to be the Church.

Christians have always stood against the opposition and overreach of government. In fact, a lot of Hebrews 11, the chapter typically referred to as the Hall of Faith. It talks about famous and honorable characters in the Old Testament who gave their lives because of their commitment to God. Many of them were persecuted and injured and damaged by their opposition to government. The end of that chapter, Hebrews 11:38, this is God’s evaluation of people who take that kind of stand. “The world was not worthy of them.”

Now listen, I understand that it’s Rick Warren’s responsibility to answer for his church. It’s Andy Stanley’s responsibility to answer for his church. But it’s also my responsibility to answer for my church. And frankly, I don’t much care if Andy Stanley is embarrassed by me.

There’s a book, probably the most famous allegory in history. It’s called Pilgrim’s Progress. It was written by a Christian pastor by the name of John Bunyan. Bunyan wrote Pilgrim’s Progress while he was in prison. Why was he in prison you say? He was arrested for preaching to more than five people outside of his own family. You see, in England there was legislation called the “Conventical Act.” It was passed in 1593 and it was updated in 1664. And the Conventical Act made it illegal to hold religious gatherings anywhere not sanctioned by the government.

Friends, churches in America should be open. I’ll follow John Bunyan over Andy Stanley any day.

This is TruthCurrents.
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