Andy Stanley: Catalyst for Growth

“You do the right thing, and you trust God with the consequences. Period. It’s just that simple.”

How about the area we were talking about in your own life: pivotal circumstances. How do you help people recognize the hand of God through the experiences they’re going through?

When people tell their story of spiritual growth, they always talk about something that happened to them—I was divorced, I got a raise, I got moved, I got a scholarship, I lost a friend or a child. Pivotal circumstances always impact a person’s faith. Always. Either for better or worse. What makes the difference in most cases is not the circumstance, it’s the way we interpret or process or frame the circumstance.

The person who’s surrounded by people of faith who are able to help them frame or interpret a circumstance correctly, for them, pivotal circumstances can more easily impact faith in a positive way. For the person who doesn’t have that network of friends or relationships it can be devastating. So what we say is, “This is not something we can manufacture—you can’t program this—but hopefully we can help people be connected to the point that when pivotal circumstances happen, somebody’s there to walk alongside them.”

As your vision for the church began to take shape, you probably had a growing awareness of things that were traditionally associated with church that you wanted to change. Did things come to your mind consciously like that—here’s the perception of the church, we’re not going to do that?

Yeah. In fact, my wife is so wonderful—I really do have the most amazing wife. She’s been so great all these years to sort of head me off at the pass. Again, I think it’s the preacher’s kid part of me—the part that can be a little bit too critical, too cynical, trying a bit too much to make a point—which is always a mistake.

And we have elders, and they’re great. Most of them are older than me. I just think there are some great people around me that from time to time have said, “Now Andy, I don’t think we’re ready for that.” Or, “That’s going to create more hassle than good ministry.” I think I have some good voices that keep from taking that too far.

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Here’s a good example of that. I really did not want to put our baptistery in our buildings because I grew up in a tradition where baptism was not meaningful. It just sort of got shoved into different parts of the services. So I wanted to put a baptistery outside like Willow and other churches have done, to create our own baptism environment somewhere else. I’ll never forget that meeting. I presented why we shouldn’t put the baptistery in the building, and they outvoted me nine to one.

As it turns out, the way we do baptisms is probably the best thing we do. We do baptisms right in the middle of our services, and people do a two- or three-minute video before we baptize them. We cheer and throw confetti and bring posters and make a big, big deal out of it. Our baptisms are probably the best vision-casting event in the life of our church because it’s a story that says, “Here’s what we came here to do: We came here to lead people into relationship with Jesus Christ, and you just saw it. That’s what it looks like.” And I almost caused us to miss that opportunity by not putting a baptistery in our primary worship centers.

Help us understand how you go about imparting vision, articulating it.

I love talking about our church. And I love casting vision. We work hard to build it into the rhythm of our organization—times when we come back to it over and over.

The things that an organization celebrates—as we do with baptism—are what the organization values. I tell leaders all the time, “You want to internalize your values in the organization? Just start celebrating what you value.” People will value what you celebrate, and they will celebrate what you value. So the fact that we have turned baptism into such a central celebration every other Sunday in all of our churches says to people this is what we’re here to do. We’re here to see life change happen.

It’s one thing to do a vision-casting talk. It’s another thing to build a celebration around those points of vision that an organization thinks are most important. We’ve been very, very consistent about that.

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It’s been your passion to create a church the unchurched love to attend. Culture’s constantly changing, and the church that tomorrow’s unchurched people love to attend may not look like today’s church. As you look ahead, what’s next?

One of my favorite quotes that sits on my shelf in my office is from Al Ries in a marketing book called Focus. He says, “The next-generation product never comes from the previous generation.” His point is, whatever’s next is going to be created by the next generation.

I’m 54. I’ve got two other key staff members that are my age; the others are about four years younger. I told them, “Look, we’re done in terms of innovative, next-generation stuff, and we’re crazy to think we’re not done.” So our goal and our job now is to continue to invest in the 30-something men and women who are the age we were when we started. We need to keep our ear to the ground, and we need to look at who’s messing with the rules around the edges, and invest in them, because we are not going to figure it out. We may, but we should not create a model or a vision or an approach to ministry on the assumption that because we figured it out in the late ‘80s, we’re going to figure it out in the 2000s. So we’re done. We’re here to facilitate the success of this next generation.

I don’t know what’s next. I’m trying to build a bunch of churches that are staffed with people who will recognize it, and with a culture that will give the permission to pursue it as it becomes evident.