“Approach is everything,” said Andy Stanley, founder of Atlanta-area North Point Ministries, in a candid, on-stage conversation hosted by Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). The two influential leaders cordially disagreed on a range of ministry topics in an Aug. 25 session of the 2016 ERLC National Conference in Nashville, Tenn., called “Leadership, Preaching and Cultural Engagement: A Conversation with Russell Moore.”
Andy Stanley, right, and Russell Moore dialogue during the Ethics & Religious Liberty National Conference Aug. 25 in Nashville, Tenn.
Moore asked Stanley about his practice of discouraging preachers from using the phrase, “The Bible says …” in their sermons. “It’s not what the Bible says that is the issue,” said Stanley, “it’s what else the Bible says.”
“In their minds,” he said, referring to Christianity’s skeptics, “when they can discredit parts, it discredits the whole.” When preaching from a particular passage, Stanley prefers to point to the authority of the specific author of that text, who serves as a witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
“The foundation of our faith isn’t the Bible,” Stanley said. “The foundation of our faith is the resurrection.”
Moore challenged, “If we don’t appeal to the authority of the scripture, we appeal to the authority of ourselves.”
Stanley was emphatic that he does not question the inerrancy or authority of scripture. “This is just a different approach,” he added. “To have a discussion around the resurrection is a much easier discussion than trying to defend the whole Bible.”
Moore also questioned Stanley’s gradual approach to preaching. “I think of the sermon series as a three-and-a-half hour sermon,” he answered, describing how he stretches multiple elements of a sermon, like the introduction or application, into sermons of their own.
Stanley said, “If you show up at the introduction week, you might think, ‘Do they use the Bible?’ If you show up the last week, you might think, ‘Do they always have people stand up and pray to receive Christ?’”
He prefers the gradual approach because it makes non-Christians in the service feel more comfortable. “The wrong approach can cancel the content,” Stanley said.
He added, “When people who don’t believe in God … show up in a church environment and enjoy it, that is shocking.”
Moore took issue with the gradual approach, due to the potential absence of exegetical teaching in each individual sermon. He opts instead for a more distinctive message, citing numerous examples from the New Testament.
“I think it’s very important,” Moore said, “that what we’re approaching people with is an encounter with the risen Christ who speaks through His Word.”
Moore also asked Stanley how he decides which controversial topics to address or avoid from the pulpit. “There are questions you should never answer out loud,” Stanley answered. “Not because you don’t have an answer but because of who’s in the audience.”
He continued, “I’ve never preached a sermon on abortion, and I’ve never preached against abortion.”
Stanley said highly controversial topics are “better handled in a circle than a row,” pointing out his church’s reliance on small groups and one-on-one conversations.
“That’s a topic that I don’t blink on,” Stanley emphasized. “I’m so pro-life I used to picket in front of an abortion clinic … But when I have a room full of people that I don’t know, that’s a topic that I would rather move women or boyfriends into an environment where they can talk about it.”
Moore cited historically controversial topics that influential preachers publically addressed, such as the 18th century Hindu practice of burning widows on their deceased husbands funeral pyre (commonly called sati) and 19th century American chattel slavery. He asked Stanley if he would’ve spoken about those issues publically.
“I don’t know what I would do, to be honest,” Stanley replied.
Moore said so many people have directly or indirectly participated in an abortion that he feels it’s important to address not only the devastating guilt of the practice but the “liberating power” of the gospel to forgive and redeem those same people.
The conference is available to watch live online at live.erlc.com.