In 1995, Andy Stanley (son of Charles Stanley, pastor of Atlanta’s First Baptist Church) met with a group of believers to cast a vision for a new church, “a safe environment where the unchurched can come and hear the life-changing truth that Jesus Christ cares for them and died for their sin.” For three years the group met in rented facilities every other Sunday night. By 1998 they had moved into their new home on an 83-acre site in suburban Atlanta. Today North Point Community Church draws more than 10,000 people each Sunday, including 3,700 members. Preaching editor Michael Duduit recently visited with Andy Stanley to talk about leadership, preaching, and innovation.
Preaching: In your book The Next Generation Leader, you talk about some of the key characteristics that young leaders need to understand. What led you to write that book?
Stanley: The Next Generation Leader was the result of monthly leadership lessons I do here with our staff. And our staff is young. Once a month — I got this idea from John Maxwell — instead of our normal staff meeting, I do training — we do outlines, fill in the blanks, the whole deal. I spend a lot of time developing these talks for our leaders; we’ve got about 180 full time staff. That’s where this book came from.
I was essentially answering the question: if there were just a few things I could tell young leaders, what would they be? These are things I think leaders generally figure out anyway along the way — they’re not original — but I thought these are things I wish I’d known earlier. I would have saved so much time and energy if somebody had said up front, “OK, you may not believe this but just trust me, this is true. Go ahead and apply this stuff and later on you’ll look back and be glad you did.” So it’s basically a few things I wish every young leader — especially in Christian leadership — would go ahead and embrace because it makes the learning curve so much easier.
The first one is the whole idea of doing less to accomplish more — find your core competence and play to your strength, delegating your weakness. Determine to do that even before you can do that — of course when you start up an organization or a church, as you know, you have to do everything. But we know we’re not good at everything and young leaders often make the mistake of trying to shore up their weaknesses and wing it on their strengths. I did that for too many years. I finally figured out I just need to do what I’m good at and let the other stuff go undone, then eventually somebody else comes along and does it. It’s amazing.
We talk about clarity and how even in the midst of uncertainty leaders have to learn to be clear. Uncertainty is permanent — it never goes away. I am pastor of this big church with all these wonderful things going on and there’s more uncertainty right now in my ministry than ever before.
This morning I met with one of our elders talking about the vision of our church. Here I’m the guy that wrote a book on vision! Essentially we are everything we ever envisioned to become, so now the question is: Now what? What’s next? And I don’t know. I’ve got lots of ideas but uncertainty is permanent and learning how to lead and be clear with lots of uncertainty is huge. Young leaders think once I am a good leader I won’t have any uncertainty and it’s a myth. I say to young leaders: learn to navigate through the uncertainty. It’s permanent; it doesn’t go away. It’s not a reflection of your poor leadership.
In the book I talk about courage and the significance of the fact that many times it’s our acts of courage that establish us as leaders in the minds of other people. God has gifted us but nobody knows. God’s called us, nobody knows. How do we become leaders? Often it’s the person that steps out first. That act of courage establishes people as leaders in the minds of others.
I say to young leaders eventually there is going to be a defining moment and everybody will be looking off the cliff and you’ll realize, “If I jump first they’ll follow me.” And you’ll jump and you’ll become the leader. You’d already been called. You’d already been gifted but suddenly in that moment is when people say, “That’s somebody worth following,” so be on the look out for that moment.
Another key is coaching and finding leadership coaches. I love to talk about this because it’s difficult — it seems on the surface difficult — to enlist people to coach us as leaders. Unlike athletes, leaders think, “I don’t need coaching — I’m the leader! If I needed coaching I wouldn’t be the leader.” Well nothing could be further from the truth. Among the greatest benefits of my life have been the people who have coached me in my leadership — people who, if you met them you’d be tempted to say, “Andy, they’re not even good leaders so how could they coach you? You seem to be a better leader than they are.”
That is the myth about coaching. You know athletes have coaches and the athletes are far better performers than the coaches but they are still coachable and benefit from coaching. So leaders at every level — especially young leaders — need people speaking into those areas of our lives. I talk about how to find those people and enlist them and not scare them off.
The last thing we talk about in the book is character. Obviously that’s not a new principle but the thing I say to young leaders all the time is: you can be successful in leadership and have no integrity. Integrity is not essential to leadership but it is essential if you want to be a leader worth following. If you want to be the leader that, at the end of the day, people will say, “Not only am I thrilled about what we accomplished, I enjoyed the journey. The journey was just great.” Not just the goals and accomplishments but the process, and in order to have that kind of experience with the people you lead you have to be a person of integrity. We just don’t enjoy the journey with people we can’t trust.
There is so much more to say about leadership. I feel like if the leader can begin to just embrace those five things — set those up as mile markers and boundaries in their leadership — they’re just going to further faster.
Preaching: One of the topics I particularly appreciated was the discussion of finding your core competencies and focusing there. Lots of us think we have to have our finger in everything. It’s a good reminder to me to work at finding your groove. How did that take place in your ministry and how has it influenced your leadership?
Stanley: I learned all of this the hard way, even though I look back and wonder what took me so long. I am only good at a couple things in terms of skill set. I’m a good public speaker and I’m good in a meeting where everybody’s in the process of trying to get all the information on the table — I’m good at looking at all the information and moving us in a direction. I don’t always make the right decisions. But I’ve learned I’m good at recognizing a bad decision quick. It frustrates my staff but we’ve all agreed this is how I am. My temptation is to run down a road and about the time everybody figures out where I’m going I’m coming back saying: that is not where we’re going. And they just laugh and they know that’s how I make decisions. That’s how I make them personally. That’s how we make them corporally sometimes. Once I figured that out I realized the arenas where I need to focus are public communication, vision casting, and decision making at the highest level in the organization.
I’m not a good event planner. I’m not a good organizer. I’m not a good team builder as far as going out and putting together a team. I’m not an extrovert — I don’t even like extroverts a lot of times! I finally figured out there are certain people I don’t click with and that’s who it is. Part of this is a maturing thing, but looking at all of it through the grid of, “God, what have you designed me to do?”
I think where it’s impacted us in ministry is very early on I just stuck with the few things that I did well. As I say in the book, when you do less you accomplish more and when you do less you allow other people to accomplish more. I think that if you talk to our leadership team — there are seven of us that are sort of the ‘they’ of North Pointe staff — they would tell you, “Andy lets us do what he’s hired us to do.” I just trust them and I know that I’m not as good as them.
I tell our staff all the time I’m not the best leader. The reason I get to lead is because I’m the best speaker, and in the church world if you’re the best speaker they let you lead whether you’re any good or not. I don’t claim to be the best leader but I’ve created the space for the good leaders around me to lead. I see that with my dad. That’s how my dad has always led. And I should have learned this earlier because he modeled it. He’s the guy who just stays in his groove and enabled other people to fill up the vacuums.
I’m surrounded by the most creative, wonderful, confident people I could imagine. One of them — probably one of my sharpest guys — told me if I didn’t work for you I would go be a senior pastor because I don’t think I could stand to work for anybody else. It’s his way of saying you give me so much space to operate I don’t feel the need to go to some other church so I can be the number one guy because I can’t imagine having more opportunity or freedom. And I said, “Yeah, plus you don’t have to take up the offerings so you’ve got it made. I fund all the fun that you’re having over there on your side of the aisle!”
I say to young leaders all the time, “Don’t look at me and say, ‘You’ve got it made.’ You have to look at your own situation and ask, ‘How do I apply this principle, because the principle is the same whether you’re starting alone or with two or three people. Figure out what you’re good at, and do the best you can to stay there.”
When I do this talk publicly I juggle, and I talk abut how I can juggle three balls but I can’t juggle five. So I juggle my three and I say, “Now if I try to juggle five guess how many I’ll drop?” I’ll drop all of them but one. If you watch me juggle five balls you would conclude Andy can’t juggle but that’s not true. I can juggle. So I’m going to juggle three and let two lay on the floor and somebody who sees me juggle three says, “You know, I can pick up the one.” And somebody else says, “I can pick up the other,” and before long all five are held. That visually says you just have to do what you are good at because good people love to work for good people. If people can’t see what you’re good at because you’re trying to do everything, they won’t join your team. It’s just an extremely important principle and I think there is application at every level in leadership, whether it’s a young leader or somebody who’s been in leadership a long time.
Preaching: You talk about the place of courage in leadership and thinking about how that relates to not leadership in general but specifically pastors and the challenges they face.
Stanley: It’s huge. Speaking from my limited view I feel like so much of the problem with pastors is they are just scared to death. They’re scared of their people, they’re scared of deacons, they’re scared, they’re scared, they’re scared. You know if you’re scared of someone you can’t lead them; you can hardly even influence them. Here’s the pastor who’s been hired — I tell our business guys all the time, “You’d never go to work for an organization where the customers can hire and fire the president of the company they bought products from.” But that’s the church world. The people hire the leader and say, “We’ll follow you unless we don’t like the way you’re leading us, then we’ll get us another leader.” What other organization can the clients and the customers hire and fire the leader? So the church is set up upside-down. It’s an environment that is not conducive to leadership in some ways. Consequently to lead a church you just have to have a lot of courage because the group to which you’re saying “follow me” can get together after you leave and fire you. Well, that’s just the way it is. That’s not going to change but it requires a lot of courage — otherwise we start bending toward the people that hired us and we’re in trouble.
The irony is we stand up and talk about Daniel in the lion’s den but then we won’t even confront elders. All of these bible heroes — David and Goliath — and we love to preach those sermons and draw these parallels and then we’re scared to confront people. I think that dynamic alone is a big part of why the church is where it is. The leadership — or lack of leadership — is just so much fear of people. I don’t know where that comes from.
I grew up with a dad who at a defining moment in my life I saw him slugged. When I was in the eight grade this guy was at the pulpit one Wednesday night and he used profanity and my dad walked up beside him and said we’re not going to have that kind of language. The guy said, “You better watch out or you just might get hit,” and my dad stood there and he hit my dad in the jaw. I can remember where I was standing; I remember the whole thing. Well you know that kind of marked me as a preacher’s kid and as a pastor that you do the right thing and then you deal with the consequences, but you don’t fear the consequences and do the wrong thing. I think it’s been easy for me to embrace that because of what I saw in my father and what I experienced, maybe partly because of my personality.
When I see pastors who are scared I want to tell them, “Just lead. If they fire you and you don’t think God will take care of you, then you have no message for your people anyway, because we get up every Sunday and say God’s grace is sufficient. He’s going to take care of you, He’ll meet your every needs and you’ll never see the righteous go hungry.” It’s what we preach but if our lack of faith in those practical things causes us to not to be able to lead then what’s our message anyway?
It’s easy for me to say that sitting here but when I started this church it was not easy for me to say because I had to face that whole issue of leaving my dad’s church to do something on my own. There were no guarantees, there were no promises. You walk through that wall of fire a couple of times and you realize it’s not so bad. God’s grace is sufficient. He does show up. Those are the times we look back to and say I know there is a God because you know during those circumstances. I just wish pastors would get over their fear. We should be the most fearless leaders. What do we have to fear? We’re the ones that say if God is for me who can be against me? Well, the deacons. Good grief.
Preaching: That connects with one of the other things you talk about: living in the shadow of uncertainty.
Stanley: Exactly. That whole example I used in the book of Joshua, saying we’re crossing the Jordan river — we’ve never been there, I don’t know what its like, I’ve never led an army and I don’t know what were going to do but we’re crossing. I want to be certain, be clear, we’re crossing. I’m uncertain of what we’ll face. And that’s leadership — I’ve never been there before but here we go.
Preaching: The coaching issue may sound odd to some pastors. What do you see as the importance of coaching for a leader and how does the pastor use that? How do they find a good coach?
Stanley: I say to pastors: every time you preach, your sermon is evaluated by as many people as there are in your congregation. You are being evaluated. You will either learn and take advantage of those evaluations or you will not. But you’re already being evaluated. Your leadership is being evaluated. Every person that sits in your leader staff meetings, your deacons meetings, your Sunday school directors meetings, every time you lead a meeting your leadership is being evaluated. So the question isn’t “Should I get evaluations?” The question is, “How can I grow from these evaluations?” The evaluation is already happening, so engaging somebody to give us input — whether positive or negative or critical or whatever — should be a no-brainer because all the evaluators are already in place taking mental and sometime not just mental notes. And they are talking about how we’re performing to each other. The question is: do we have the security to take advantage of that? Since the evaluations happen anyway it’s wise to take advantage of that.
The last thing you want to do is ask somebody to be your leadership coach. Everyone will say no. They don’t feel competent. They don’t know what that is. What you do is you simply ask for people’s input. Everybody loves to give input. In our culture here at the church there’s some built-in critique for things that happen every week for every part of our service including the sermon. There are people that in my meetings I’ve asked strategically — I give them permission to tell me after a meeting where I’ve not been clear, where I’ve been too dogmatic, where I’ve been abrasive. I want to know that because I won’t know it otherwise. I’m giving you the freedom to give me that feedback.
When you’re leading a meeting you don’t know how you are doing. You don’t. You think you do but you’re not sitting there watching and listening. So often it’s just giving people permission or asking for their feedback. Get people that you respect. People that you know have done this before in their own realms, and there is really no realm of leadership that I know of that you can’t get coaching on.
A big area for me is in personnel — hiring and the few times we’ve had to let people go. In a case years ago I almost let someone go and it would have been a terrible mistake. There’s a guy in our church that is really intuitive about personnel issues — actually two guys. I never make a personnel decision with out talking to them first: “Here are all the issues, here are the details. What do you think?” I’ve never said to them, “Would you coach me in my leadership? But what I’ve said is, “Would you give me input in this area of leadership,” and they are more than happy to. Consequently they feel the freedom to interject at will. I feel very dependent upon that handful of people that I’ve brought into that circle and I get all the benefit.
People say, “You’re such a good leader,” and I’m going, “Yeah, but I’m propped up. I’m propped up in every direction.” I just can’t imagine a pastor not finding a way within their own context, according to their own personality, to figure out how to get that input. They’re already being evaluated. They’ll either benefit from it or they won’t.
Preaching: Years ago in an interview with Bill Hybels, he told me about using an informal group to provide sermon evaluations during the services. He always tries to have a nonbeliever in that group . . .
Stanley: To see how they’re processing all this. Absolutely. Again I think it can be for a pastor as easy as — and I do this all the time, when I know someone’s brought someone to the service — last night in our community group a couple brought a family, so I said, “What did they think?” It gives the person who brought them an opportunity to respond, because I’m not saying what did you think — I’m saying what did they think. You know, we’ve got to have that information. We used to actually do a form — we would ask people in different parts of the building to evaluate everything from lights to sound to sermon to clothing to everything. We haven’t done that for a long time but I think that those are very helpful tools. Again, it’s already being evaluated — we might as well benefit from it.
Preaching: Tell me about how your own interest in leadership has impacted both your pastoral work and your preaching specifically.
Stanley: I think people’s gifts in leadership communicate through that gift as well as their teaching gift. I feel like when I hear a preacher or teacher I can tell if they’re leaders. There’s just a “follow me” thing about every message. Not “follow me” because I’ve got it together but “follow me” because I’m trying to get it together. I hear somebody open the Bible and preach and handle a passage and I think I want to follow that guy. Other people I may think are good communicators, don’t know that I’d want to be on a team with him necessarily. So I think leaders communicate through their leadership gift as well as their preaching and teaching gift.
Preaching: Do you try to lead through your preaching?
Stanley: Definitely. In January we do two or three weeks on the vision of the church — what’s coming up this year, here we go, here’s what you need to get on board. Then in June we do a big strategic service Sunday where we sign up all of our new volunteers for the fall. We do it in June and train them through the summer and put them in ministry in the fall. Those are huge vision casting times for us. It’s very much from the standpoint of leadership. But those are strategic; that’s not every week.
Guys who aren’t gifted in leadership struggle with those sermons. I talk to guys who never cast vision. Well, no wonder nobody knows where you’re going. But as a leader it’s natural for me — in almost any message, if there is a place to talk about the vision and mission of the church I just naturally go there because it’s what I think about a lot.
Preaching: Tell me about your approach to preaching.
Stanley: The guys on our staff that want to become better communicators are constantly asking me to coach them in communication and when guys fill in for me I do that. I did that earlier today. The guy that is preaching Sunday for me — one of our staff guys — I just meticulously go through the message and outline. I want to help them all become better.
But often people will say, “Andy, can I shadow you one day while you’re preparing?” I say no. I can’t imagine somebody watching me prepare sermons. You wouldn’t understand — most of the time I just walk around the building!
I took four of our communicators and we spent half a day with a big flannel board with pens and cards and stuff and we outlined my message development process. I just said, “Everybody keeps asking me about this and I don’t know how to talk about it, so you ask me questions and dig it out of me and let’s come up with something I can talk about and we can communicate with communicators.” It’s very different than what I was trained to do in seminary. It’s very different than the people I hear preach but I need to learn how to talk about it and not just do it. I’m real excited about it; I feel like I’m about to have a tool where I can say: here’s how I do this. Eventually I think I’ll have a tool that will make all that clearer.
On Sunday morning I feel like I have to start with the funnel as wide as possible. I’ve got believers, unbelievers, used-to-be-believers, they think — I say that a lot. It drives the Christians crazy. I don’t think you can be a “used-to-be a believer” but there are people that would say that. They would say ‘I used to be a Christian’ so that’s who I’m talking to. So I think you start off as wide as possible. You create attention. You say, “Guess what, the Bible talks about this tension.” You look at the Bible, resolve the tension, summarize it and the principle and then apply it, illustrate it, and then land the plane and go home. So I don’t have points. I usually have one text.
I want to come up with a statement that’s either a statement we do throughout a series or a statement that’s part of a message. That’s the take-away. My hope and dream is to think that someone could come back to that same passage of scripture later and go, “Oh, I know what that means, I know what that’s about, I know what the point of that story is.” That’s why I don’t like to say, “Paul said” and “John said that” again and “Jesus said that again” and “over in Psalms David…” I hate sermons like that. When I listen to them I just turn them off. I think just one passage that says it is all we need. Just help me understand the one passage — please don’t proof text every point with a verse. I think that’s lazy preaching. It would be easy to develop sermons like that.
I feel like preaching is a journey and I’m responsible for taking however many people that show up for the journey. And that’s teenagers, the lost people — the ones who say, “I’m here, I’m going to give this one shot.” You have all these people and at the end I want us all to work our way together, resolve this tension. Whether you accept it or not, here’s what the scripture teaches and lets all end up together. So it’s a journey.
Transitions are extremely important. In fact the only part of my sermons that I manuscript are my transitions because a transition is: “we’ve been here together; now I’m about to go here and I don’t want to lose you.” And if you don’t know where we’re going related to where we’ve bee, I’ve lost you. I’m listening to a sermon here going, “Why we talking about this?” We started here and I’m sure on your outline where we are relates to where we started but I lost track — so transitions are huge.
I preach one-point messages. I just have a point then I’m going to make you wonder what it is, take you there, apply the one, hopefully restate it in such a way that you remember it at least till you get to the car, maybe forever. Most sermons I hear are sermon series. I think, “Gosh that would have been a great series. You have four great points. You wasted all that effort. You could have preached that for a month instead of one week!” People aren’t going to digest that.
And the other thing I do that people say is unique — I don’t know if it is or not — is often in a message when I get to a part that I think non-Christians may think “that’s just too strange” or “who can believe that,” I often stop and say: “You know, this next thing is really unusual. In fact, this may be the reason you’re not a Christian, or this may make you glad you’re not a Christian, or this may give you a reason to never become a Christian.” I just feel like if I can state their resistance they will follow me on this journey to the end whether they agree or not. But if they think I don’t know what they’re objecting to, in their minds they’re arguing with me throughout. I know that I do the same thing when people speak. But if I get to a place where I think they may check out, then I know if I say what they’re thinking they will at least follow me mentally to the end of the message. I’ve heard that said so many, many times. And when you can say what a person’s thinking — they know you know that he’s aware this is strange, he’s aware that this is hard to believe, he’s not assuming that just because the Bible says it we should all believe it.
I preached a message not too long ago on the significance of things that are unexplainable versus things that are undeniable and how often the unexplainable causes us to doubt God but there are some things that are undeniable. I talked up front about how much I doubt. Then I listed some of the reasons I doubt scriptures, sometimes I doubt God. I went on and on because it’s true. At times I can become the biggest skeptic and cynic and then I went on and preached the message. The response was overwhelming because I gave people permission to doubt, because we all doubt. But everybody thinks the preacher never doubts.
The next night in my small group a couple of the ladies said, “Andy, you don’t know how much it helped me to know that you doubt,” because everybody assumes I don’t doubt. “But if you can doubt and still believe that helps me.” So I think anytime I can express — I don’t mean make it up but sincerely say, “Boy I struggle with this too.” Whenever I mention hell or eternal separation from God I almost always say, “You know, if God would give me five minutes and He’d turn His back I would erase all this part out of the Bible” I say, “If we all get to heaven and we find out that there’s a loop hole and everybody gets to go to heaven, I’ll be so happy. But the reason I believe that is because Jesus taught it. I am as uncomfortable with it as anybody in this room.” Well then, they think, “OK, he understands, he’s not so dogmatic.” And it’s true. I’m not making it up. I wish it wasn’t there. I hope universalism is true. I don’t think it is. But I have to believe it because of what Jesus talks about. I think that’s huge.
I think its one reason we are able to communicate to the unbeliever and believer. People don’t come here and get surface sermons because it’s a seeker church. I’ve preached on everything. My view on divorce and remarriage is so narrow I might be all alone, but one Sunday I preached on it. I told them, “Here’s what I believe the scripture teaches. You know this is the minority view and I hope I’m wrong and if you’ve got something I need to read send it to me but here’s what Jesus said.” So I think if we can be authentic, we can let scripture be the authority and we’re simply the mouth piece — we’d just have all kinds of unbelievers that come week after week after week and say we don’t believe it yet but we’ll be back next week. Yet we have mature believers who flock to this church because they say that the teaching is so rich.
I don’t think we have to go one way or the other. Preaching to unbelievers in a seeker church and the Bible church — I just think that dichotomy does not have to be there. If Jesus modeled anything — so many people of faith flocked to hear Him teach because He spoke with authority but Matthew and Zaccheus came too. How do you do that? He just took truth and made it clear and it was like “Wow.” I think that the best thing I can do for the skeptical unbeliever is for them to go, “I didn’t know that was in there,” because the reason they don’t believe it is because they think it’s irrelevant. If for one moment there is a relevant thought that comes out of this book, that gives us credibility. What I enjoy about preaching, I think, is that “ah-ha” moment for people who either have been away for so long or it’s gotten old or stale, or they just don’t think its relevant.
Preaching: Some preachers say they can’t just preach scripture as they would have previously because people don’t come with an acceptance of the text’s authority. A generation ago people walked in the church and there was a level of knowledge about scripture that doesn’t exist.
Stanley: Well, they can’t preach verse-by-verse and assume interest but I think that preaching verse-by-verse through books of the Bible is not a good idea anyway as far as every week, week after week. We have a conceptual preaching calendar that we follow every year, and after Christmas every year I do preach through a book of the Bible — we did Romans 6, 7, and 8 one time. Even when we did James we picked the key parts of James. We didn’t do verse-by-verse: “we’ll pick up at verse four next week.” I don’t know where that came from. Jesus didn’t model it. Nobody modeled it. I don’t think it’s terrible. I think there is a place for Bible study and learning the themes of scripture, and I’m so grateful for seminary, but in terms of building people I just don’t think it’s a good model at all. And I went to Dallas Seminary — that’s kind of what we were taught to do! To be honest it would be easy to do if all I had to do was study and get up and say we are going to cover the next six verses and we’ll pick up next week; the way I’m wired that would be fun because I love digging out all the stuff. But I don’t think you leave people with a sense of, “I’m going to take this home and make use of it.” It’s harder to do that but that’s just my opinion.
Preaching: Tell me about your sequential preaching calendar.
Stanley: We start with Easter, and Easter in our church is different than a lot of churches. Easter here is not a once a year thing because our church is so young and new. People who don’t go to church — when Easter rolls around they don’t think about North Pointe, they go to the other church that they used to go to that they go to once a year. Easter for us is when everybody that normally comes all come. So I don’t feel the need to say, “Hey, we’ve got this one shot because it’s Easter and they’re here.” I don’t feel that at all. Easter is a harvest Sunday for us. Our Easter sermon is: “You know what you’ve been thinking about it, you’ve been listening to it, you’ve been looking at it; today is your day! Why not put your faith in Christ?” Not because you’re only here one time; we’re assuming you’ve been here for six months and you’ll remember this day forever. And we have a big stand-up invitation.
So that’s kind of almost the end of a cycle for us. Depending a little bit on where spring break falls, because spring break around here is a ghost town — one year spring break was right after Easter and it was like a 7,000 person swing; we could have met in my office! It was amazing. You’ve got that huge Sunday and then . . .
So we come out of Easter with what we call the “big hook.” We do a very, very high needs-driven series. Like this last year we did a thing on parenting, did a thing on marriage, did a thing on God and the workplace. Something that’s kind of a secular bent in terms of a big hook coming out of Easter. Then after Easter and that section we get into Father’s Day/ Mother’s Day so we do a relationship series. It could be on parenting, could be on marriage. I did a series called Prescription for the Fractured Family — just healing, forgiveness and family. That takes us kind of through that May/June period.
Then we get to summer. Summer we come up with a theme but we don’t do sequential messages. They’re stand alone messages under the banner of the theme because people are gone in the summer. This summer we did a thing called “Defining Moments” and it was seven encounters with Jesus, each with a stand alone message, but the banner was this ‘ah-ha’ moment with Jesus.
Fall we always do a spiritual growth series. Kind of: “Starting over, here we go!” Last fall we did a series called “You’ve Got Style” about drawing near to God through the way He has wired you, spiritual growth. Then we did a series on what is the wise thing to do. It was called “Fool Proof” and was a very spiritual-growth oriented kind of a series. So we did two of those then we hit Christmas. I try to do a Christmas series. We close the church the Sunday after Christmas. Sunday after Christmas nothing happens here. No services. We put a big closed sign on the door and it’s wonderful. It’s just the best thing. All the leadership, all the staff, all the volunteersc-cbecause Christmas you’re doing double duty anyway — with Christmas Eve, your choir programs. So the Sunday after Christmas: nothing.
Then the first two or three Sundays in January is all very much church family oriented sermons: the vision of the church, our mission this year, financially what are we trying to accomplish. Then we do the book of the Bible or a Bible study series. And there are a couple of weeks here and there between all these things, so this isn’t back to back to back to back. And then we try to do a short series leading up to Easter. Again our thinking is we’re bringing a group of people to a point of commitment to Christ on Easter and so we kind of ramp up. We did an apologetics series last year right before Easter. We did a series on why did Jesus come, why did Jesus die, why did Jesus rise — all leading up to Easter. And then we are back to Easter.
So what my worship service planning team did for me — when we first came up with this idea they took every series I’ve ever done and put them on a big planning board. They put every series I’ve ever done in one of those categories. Sometimes they’ll come back and they’ll say, “We’re coming up on the fall. You know four years ago you did this series; I think we need to redo this.” Now as a preacher I immediately feel guilty. Well, I can’t re-preach because everything has to be new and original! And several times they’ve said to me, “No, it’s been five years Andy! I hate to burst your bubble but nobody remembers these messages!” So they’ll take an old series and we’ll repackage it with a different look, different title, different visual aides, different sketches, different visuals, whatever. What it does for me is it’s already categorized, it’s already on a place in the calendar and it’s just been extremely helpful to have a grid system through which to think.
When I come up with a series idea, instead of saying, “I need to do that next” I say, “That’s a relationship series,” so I go ahead and file that away for this season of the year. It really helps me stay ahead in my thinking and in my planning, and it allows staff to work with me in finding the right place to put different things as we think sequentially through the year. It’s been great.
Preaching: Do you preach for three morning services? And how many weeks out of the year?
Stanley: Yes. We do six to eight-week series — usually six, sometimes they’re four — but I’ll try to take off two Sundays every eight to nine weeks. It doesn’t work out perfectly that way but ten weeks in a row for me I’m dying! I can just feel it — I’m dreading Sundays, I’m dreading studying, I’m just dying. So four times a year I’ll take a two-week break. I’ll just sit in church and coach the guys that are preaching if they are staff members, so it’s not vacation time. One week off isn’t enough.
Then of course the Sunday after Christmas nothing is going on so that’s nine Sundays. Then usually in May I’ll take a third one and I’ll do three in a row; just vacation time. So (I preach) 38 or 40 Sundays a year. But I’m going to change that. I really want us to go to using more communicators and to do series. Not just to fill in between mine but to just blow out the whole deal and do a series.
With our campus expansion I’m convinced — I’ve been convinced but I’m finally going to do something about it — I need to become less indispensable to this organization. I don’t mean that because of things other people have said; I just know, as I look at what we want to see happen, there is no other arena in our organization that is personality dependent anymore. We’ve grown past that in every arena except in preaching, and as the leader it’s my responsibility to do what I’ve asked the rest of our staff to do: to replace themselves with apprentice people into their roles. So this year at our last elders meeting I said, “Guys, I feel its time to do this. We are healthy enough as an organization if we take a hit in attendance or financially we will just grow back out of that but now’s the time.” They were a hundred percent supportive of that. So I’m not sure how that’s going to look yet but that’s the direction we’re moving in.
We are so blessed because Leo Giglio is a member here, John Maxwell is a member here. We’ve got a couple guys on staff that are good. Guys with Walk Through the Bible are here. There are all kinds of incredible communicators floating around Atlanta, so it’s just a matter of becoming more strategic and exposing our people to their ministries. As I know this is the right thing to do, it’s really going to be hard for me. I can already tell. Part of me is relieved and the other part of me feels this “Oh no! That’s my job, that’s my responsibility!” It’s just something I’ve got to do. It’s going to be harder than I think.
Preaching: Are there some things you’ve learned about preaching that you wished you known years ago?
Stanley: This is one of the things I love to talk to pastors about. In terms of how I structure messages and memorize them, what I finally figured out is that there’s basically three or four, maybe five parts to every message. What it took a few years to learn is this: if I’ll just get those in my mind and understand my transitions, I can forget the details. And I am far more free to communicate rather than try to remember something. I can watch a guy preach and tell if he is trying to remember something or trying to communicate — and the audience can too.
This is just a personal opinion but I think preaching with notes communicates something. I think it communicates: What I have to say is really important. I hope that you’ll get this in your heart. It’s not in mine, you know — I haven’t integrated it but I hope you will.” Well, nobody thinks that but . . . When you hear somebody get up and they are passionate, you absorb it at the heart level.
And so in terms of memorizing sermons, I figured out there’ areonly three or four big chunks and when I can mentally go through the big pieces, then I’m ready. It took me awhile to figure that out. This helped my memorization and my communication style tremendously. I became far more conversational. I also discovered it’s about a journey and it’s about a thing, not four things.
The other thing I that wish I’d done earlier is I involve lots of people in the series planning. Just because I’m a good talker doesn’t mean I’m the smartest person on staff I don’t have a corner on the creative ideas. So all of our series planning begins with a team of people and me just throwing things up on the board and at every level of preparation bringing people into the process and saying, “What do you think about this? Does this make sense?”
Now the average person gives me all the credit for that wonderfully delivered message but it had a lot of hands in it. I think that more and more guys are doing this, involving people in the preparation process. And the earlier on I do that, it just makes for better messages.
I’ll never forget talking to Sandra, my wife, one time. I went through this whole message with her in the car as we were driving. I finished it and she was real quiet, then she said, “So what do you have for the women?” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “That was a guy sermon.” I went, “Oh, you’re right.” Because she’s a woman she’s listening to it completely differently. I benefit from that.
I think the whole team approach to series planning is helpful. My best visual aids weren’t my ideas but when you get a group of people thinking, they all have a gift. So I wish I’d done that earlier. It takes the creative pressure off sometimes. I’ll have other people out there thinking about it while I’m in here working on the details. So those two things I think would have speeded things up for me.
Preaching: When does your planning process take place?
Stanley: Through the years it has changed and will continue to change. One of the things I have learned about myself is I just love change. Even bad change. I get so excited — it’s invigorating to me! That’s not always a good thing about a leader but it’s just true.
Once a year we sit down and talk about the whole year — sort of the big chunks, fill in some gaps. At the beginning of every series we sit down and brainstorm through the series. That’s as many times a year as there’s going to be a series, a big series. So that’s several times a year. And we work way out, because with creative elements you’ve got to be way out. One thing we do — its hard to describe — we build sets for a series because we do a lot of sitcoms where the characters will carry throughout a series. We’ll build kitchens, houses with a construction site where you take the whole stage. So to get all that ready you’ve got to be weeks out and I’ve got to give them enough specifics for them to know where to go with that sort of thing. So the series planning big picture is a couple of months out sometimes.
Then I meet every Tuesday with three other people: our worship church service planning person, our music guy, and then one of our associate pastors who’s just brilliantly creative. The four of us meet to talk through specific sermons coming up. We do an evaluation every Monday afternoon after the service of what when on.
Every once in a while, I’ll have an idea for series and I will randomly call in staff, men and women, different levels of the organization to spend two or three hours saying, “Let’s just talk about it.” Again, I come out of there with a big board full of ideas that sits in my study; I might not do the series for months but I know when I come to it I’ve got all that valuable information waiting to draw from. That’s pretty much how it works. The schedule changes a good bit but those components are always part of it.
Preaching: One of the physical innovations you’ve developed here are the back to back worship centers — which I’ve heard called the “Siamese sanctuaries.” How did you develop that concept?
Stanley: It wasn’t my idea but it’s the best thing we ever did. Our original worship center seats 2700 people, and we were filling up quick. We filled up two services. I was committed to never do three services. Ha, ha, ha! We didn’t know what to do. Do you go out and build the next big worship center? We’d only been in here a year-and-a-half and are you going to go spend thirty million dollars and how big do you build it? And is this growth curve forever? We had no idea what to do. We were doing overflow in our theater. Overflow is no new idea.
One of our elders said, “Why don’t we just build another worship center this size? It’s cheap, it’s quick, it’s easy and we’ll just put screens over there.” So we’ll build a big overflow room and we felt like that was the thing to do. In the mean time our production people got busy and came up with this incredible technology that just has paved the way for the future for us. It was all by accident or providence — it wasn’t strategic. That was to drop a big center screen that essentially makes me appear life size on the other side on a stage the way I look on the other side in the other worship center. Then they did the two image-mag screens up on the sides. It worked incredibly.
One day I came out after about three months of that and this guy walked up and he said, “You could do that anywhere.” And that’s true. So sure enough, we leased this grocery store in Buckhead, opened up at Easter with the same screens, on a one-week delay. They just take the video tape and play it there. Sunday there were 1,960 adults in worship at a grocery store watching a video a week late.
It so realistic that there are dozens of funny stories. The most recent is a lady who came up after the service in Buckhead and asked to speak to me. Well I wasn’t even there but what they’ve done with this center screen with the sides creates such a three dimensional thing that people all the time argue about “He was there, no he wasn’t, yes he was.” So that’s given us an opportunity. The two back to back worship centers that began as a solution to a problem really became part of the vision of how to grow this church.
Preaching: Do you ever physically go into the other auditorium during the service?
Stanley: Not to preach. I’ll go over there and do announcements. I’ll go over there and just walk through and talk to people but I always preach from the same side. We ask people to rotate (room selection) by alphabet, A through M, N through Z. Switch. Not everybody does that. Probably most people don’t do it but we ask them to. Some people are faithful, back and forth. But it has worked great. It’s saved us so much money because the new worship center seats about 2200 people and so that gives us capacity for right at 5000 people in two rooms that just didn’t cost that much money. They’re just big gymnasiums — flat floor. It allowed us to grow really quickly without having a giant building campaign and no debt.
The music’s live in both places. Announcements are live and then the screen comes down. It’s amazing. I sit over there sometimes when we have guest speakers and if you’re three or four rows back — because most people watch the side screens anyway, they sort of get orientated with the center screen and then they’re watching the side just like people on the live side. It’s just been a huge problem solver for us. We have bought property twenty miles north of here we’re going to put another campus there.
The other thing that’s been exciting is we do our series on DVD. There are dozens of business guys now that are showing these DVD’s at lunch and it’s given them a tool to do Bible study without having to teach. They can drop it in their laptop and put it up on their televisions screens or monitors in their conference room. And it has been so neat to just give these guys a tool.
Preaching: How many people are actually attending each weekend? (One service on Saturday, three on Sunday)
Stanley: We’re running right at about 10,500 in worship here and then just under 2,000 in the Buckhead campus. Buckhead has siphoned some people away from here, which has been great because we needed some core leadership down there. So about 12,000 adults if you count both campuses.
Preaching: And you don’t do a traditional Sunday school?
Stanley: No adult Sunday school. We have classes — we have a class called Starting Point for new believers or non-believers or trying-to-figure-it-out people. And we have about twelve classes that rotate, twelve weeks long. Those are full all the time. That’s the only adult education we do on Sunday morning. Everything else is in homes and groups except for junior high, which is here on Sunday mornings in classrooms. Senior high is Sunday night and Sunday afternoon. Preschool and children are here in classrooms.
Preaching: If you could offer one word of encouragement to fellow pastors, what would that be?
Stanley: Just don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid.