Pastor Andy Stanley of North Point Church in Atlanta, Georgia defended his decision to continue suspending in-person services in a sermon on Sunday, August 16, 2020. Stanley argued that the church’s decision was not in its best interest, but rather in the best interest of the community and that because of these reasons, the church is following the example of Jesus. They are not, as some have criticized, bowing to Caesar.
“The church always looks more Christlike when we are defending other people’s rights rather than our own,” Stanley said in a sermon titled “Not In It to Win It”.
To start with, Stanley said the church’s decision to delay meeting until next year has been with a “varying” response. The pastor said he has been on the receiving end of “cancel culture” and has gotten several messages accusing him and the church of giving into fear or an overreaching government.
Stanley said he’s seen three dynamics “that have merged” recently to “create a perfect storm of confusion” in American society. The first is that everything has become politicized and there are no neutral topics right now. The second is cancel culture. The third dynamic is what Stanley spends his sermon addressing, and what he feels has influenced the highly charged and politicized reaction against the church’s decision, namely “culture war Christianity.”
Culture war Christianity, according to Stanley, is “the version of Christianity consumed with winning.” In fact, it is more concerned with winning than it is loving. It sees itself perpetually under attack (especially by the government and secularism) and feels the need to attack back. Stanley says he grew up with this version of Christianity, and that he has “purposefully attempted to lead in such a way that we [North Point Church] avoid it at all costs.” He believes this version of Christianity is a “perversion of our faith” and sets the church up “to be a tool of politicians rather than the conscience of the nation.” Furthermore, culture war Christianity does not reflect the first-century version of Christianity, nor does it follow the example of Christ.
Churches tend to skew conservative, and this is a good thing, Stanley says. “Liberal or hyper-progressive or activist churches often—not always—but often, eventually allow an agenda to erode their commitment to the centrality of the gospel.” These churches gradually move away from a belief in a Savior who literally died and rose again. This is a problem because “once you abandon the divinity of Jesus and our need for a Savior, you actually abandon the foundation of morality, justice, and the dignity of the individual. And you know what you’re left with? You’re left with majority morality, where the majority determines what’s right and what’s moral.” This is “dangerous,” Stanley says, and the people who suffer the most as a result of it are women and children.
On the other hand, churches that hold a high view of Scripture and defend the divinity and the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus are considered conservative. While Stanley says North Point Church is considered a theologically conservative church, they have not embraced “the far right leaning approach to our faith that is in it to win it.”
The problem with hanging out on either the far right or the far left, according to Stanley, is that while you can “sell a lot of books there,” you cannot solve problems there or love people well there. Most significantly, you won’t find Jesus there, Stanley believes.
So, if we can’t hang out in the extremes, where should a church position itself? Stanley says the example of Jesus is where we should take a cue. Jesus did not play to win, but played to lose. “It’s not very American,” Stanley admitted.
It wasn’t that Jesus was against winning, it was that he was playing a completely different game. Stanley referred to Philippians 2:6-8 to explain the mindset Jesus had. Stanley believes this passage essentially tells us that since Jesus refused to “play the God card” and exercise his rights, then neither should we, the church.
In the Gospels, we see Jesus making it clear time and again to his disciples that he was not concerned with winning the world’s game. The disciples ask Jesus “how are we going to win” if you are in jail or killed? Jesus’ response was “take up your cross, not your rights.”
Furthermore, the posture of putting others’ needs before our own is what makes Christianity distinct and unique—it is a hallmark of the faith.
“Throughout history, when the church has opted for the tools and the machinery of the kingdoms of this world, the church ends up looking just like this world. And the church ultimately becomes a pawn.” When we demand our way, we lose our distinctiveness of not being in it to win it. When we push our own agendas, we become “just another organization with a self-serving agenda.”
Stanley takes a moment to qualify what he’s saying by differentiating between a person’s rights as an American citizen and the body of Christ’s rights. As a citizen, Stanley says one should vote for and stand for one’s freedoms as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States of America. But acting and speaking as the body of Christ, our actions and words must not be for our benefit but for the benefit of the people and communities we are called to serve.
Political parties, on the other hand, are all “in it to win it.” This is why Stanley believes “pastors and churches should never publicly align themselves with anything or anyone other than Jesus of Nazareth.” Additionally, “It’s always a mistake for a church to drape itself in the garb of either political party.”
Going back to the church’s decision to postpone meeting in person, Stanley says that decision “is not what’s best for us.” But regathering at this time would be a loss for the community—both because of what could happen and also because of the message it sends, Stanley believes.
While he avoided mentioning churches or leaders who disagree with this decision, Stanley did address a phrase several have been using lately (namely, John MacArthur). “We’re not bowing to Caesar,” Stanley said. “We don’t have a Caesar. The last Caesar died in the 5th century. Our government is not Caesar. A president is not Caesar. We have a we-the-people representative form of government.”
Stanley addressed fellow church leaders by encouraging them to “resist the temptation to do what’s right for your church if it jeopardizes the health and wellbeing of the people in your community.”