This is the first in a new series of posts from real people who will tell their story of God's grace drawing them back to the Gospel.
Confessions of a Former Member of Andy Stanley’s Church
By Janine Jensen
When I was in my 20s, I lived in Atlanta and attended Andy Stanley’s church (this would be in the early 1990's). I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was a part of the "messed up church."
Last year, Andy Stanley preached about the “Temple Model” and more recently said “you’re selfish if you don’t go to a big church.” Perhaps it would be interesting if I shared my experience of being a part of Andy’s church when it first got started.
Northpoint Church is a huge place. Services are held in three large rooms, simulcast with Andy navigating between rooms. We watch on the big multimedia screens. It’s very exciting, and keeps you on your toes. Before the service starts, there is a huge countdown clock on the screen. The clock counts down the minutes and seconds until the service starts. It creates anticipation, like watching the ball drop on New Year’s Eve in Time Square. Yes, something is about to happen that will knock our socks off.
Going to church is like “Black Friday” at the mall. There are people in front of you, next to you, and behind you. Everyone is trying to get into the sanctuary. Ushers are everywhere, directing traffic and handing out bulletins, making sure that every seat is filled, with no empty chairs. They have an overflow room for latecomers. Children go to Sunday school while the adults attend the service. With the wall-to-wall multimedia screens, even the people in the back can see what’s going on. There is a live band on stage. The lights are cut low, and there’s a spotlight on the stage. It’s more like a rock concert or Broadway show, than a worship service. When the band starts playing, the crowd quiets down and focuses on the stage. There is a euphoric feeling in the air, like we’re all in this together.
Andy Stanley appears on stage, and opens with a “shout out” or personal anecdote. It’s unclear whether he is in your room or another one. He jumps between rooms, appearing on the stage like a rock star. Yes, Andy’s a rock star that everyone adores, and Christianity is his platform.
Occasionally, the service features a drama skit. It’s a spur-of-the moment thing that catches you off-guard. You never know what will happen next. One time, there was a heckler in the back, shouting, “This is no place for a Christian! You are the anti-Christ!” I remember thinking, “You can’t fool me, and I know this is a skit!” But it turns out he was the real deal and the ushers grabbed him and escorted him out.
I don’t know if things have changed since I left Northpoint church, but back then, Sunday school was set up like a night club. The room was dimly lit, with a disco ball on the ceiling. There were flashes of neon lights, and everyone hovered around the refreshment tables. They had a dry ice machine cranked up, which made it to look like there was a cloud of smoke on the floor. That was our mingling time. There was contemporary Christian music playing in the background. Eventually, the program started. Someone jumped on the center stage, and shared the announcements. Then we’d go to Sunday school classes, usually sorted by topic.
No one dared to say it, but the atmosphere was like a bar scene. They assumed that’s what people wanted. And surely, with so many people flocking to the church, a nightclub atmosphere is what works. It draws folks in and keeps them coming back for more.
When Andy Stanley gave his “temple model” sermons, he said that all trappings of traditional church should be eliminated. He definitely practices what he preaches! He likes to play contemporary music instead of hymns, and sermons are more like stand-up comedy routines or motivational messages.
But is it necessary? Do Christian singles really need a night club atmosphere in order to feel comfortable? Do we need to follow a worldly formula, or everyone will pack up and go home?
The Sunday school topical classes were interesting, some even provided in-depth Biblical teaching. That was a breath of fresh air, because the sermons (the ones preached in the auditorium) were mostly stories, anecdotes and musings about life, with a few Bible verses thrown in for good measure. The Bible was treated like a reference book. We rarely, if ever, were given chapter by chapter, verse by verse exegesis. The preacher (be it Andy Stanley, or one of the other pastors on staff) spoke about life principles, often extracted from movies, secular songs, or TV shows.
I’m still trying to put the pieces together of what happened. Honestly, I had a really good time at Andy Stanley’s church; I met wonderful people and had a blast in Sunday School and church. I enjoyed the uplifting music, and was exposed to mostly “light” Christian theology.
At the same time, I experienced a dumbing down of the gospel. Although it was never directly said, the implication was that the Bible is cryptic and complex. It is hard to understand and no longer culturally relevant. Everything needed to be re-positioned in a cool, hip and contemporary context. The rationale: People love rock concerts and night clubs. That’s where people have a good time. Let’s make church like that. If people have a good time, they will come back for more.
Andy Stanley’s church also conditions its people to think of ministry in a secular context. You start to think that that’s the way people get saved. That is what attracts people. That is what leads them to Christ. You start to think that evangelism doesn’t work any other way. You start to think that people can’t relate to a minister wearing a suit. And gosh, a minister wearing a robe or liturgical garments? No way, no how! That type of minister is considered unapproachable, out of touch with reality, and can’t relate to young people. Yes, contemporary is the only way to go.
Andy Stanley contends that traditional church is what holds people back. It keeps them away. In reality, it is the sinful heart of man that keeps people away from church. I eventually learned by listening to “Fighting for the Faith,” that the unregenerate man hates God. That’s why he isn’t interested in church. I never heard that taught at North Point Church; I never heard verses like Romans 3: 11-12 which says: "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one."
Looking back, I wonder why I attended that church. Why did I stay there for so long? Short answer: It was fun, exciting and entertaining. It was a great way to meet people and make new friends. That’s probably the case with most people. They may realize that they’re not getting much of out the sermons. They’re not learning much at all. But they keep coming back for the good times. The thrill of the band playing contemporary music, or their favorite rock tune. That rock concert experience can be so exciting. It’s fun being with all your friends.
And there, I was, caught up in it all. I kept coming back Sunday after Sunday, month after month, year after year. And I didn’t even realize what I know now. I was spending all my time at the messed up church.
I was a part of a church that used a worldly atmosphere to draw me in, and kept me coming back for more. I now realize that hip and fun doesn’t necessarily mean orthodox and sound teaching.
After listening to “Fighting for the Faith,” my attitude changed about contemporary versus traditional church. As I became more discerning, I no longer want to be a part of a church that takes its cues from popular culture, movies, and rock music. I became weary of scripture twisting that I experienced in church, particularly when verses are taken out of context. I find myself becoming irritated when the minister focuses more on personal anecdotes rather than Scripture itself.
It’s funny how my perspective and desires have changed. I now crave a structured and historical worship service. I love in-depth preaching, standing when Scripture is read, singing hymns, responsive reading, and heartfelt prayers. I crave hearing Scripture read and preached in context. I want to understand who God is and how He operates. Yes, no more messed up church for me!
But getting back to my story: I eventually left Atlanta and North Point Church, but I still had more to learn. The worst was yet to come-this time at another hip new church; but this one was in South Carolina...
(To be continued. Janine Jensen is a pseudonym)
Steven Kozar started The Messed Up Church; he is an artist, musician, blogger and stuff.