This week, Atlanta pastor Andy Stanley preached at President Obama's pre-inaugural worship service at St. John's Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. In the course of his remarks, Stanley, pastor of North Point Community Church, called the President "Pastor in Chief." This caused a whirlwind of comments and criticisms, to which Stanley wanted to reply. I talked with him by phone, and asked him about the context of this remark, as well as the content of his sermon and the Christian's public responsibility toward Presidents with whom we disagree on crucial issues. —Mark Galli, editor.
How did this recent invitation to preach at the pre-inauguration service come about?
Joshua DuBois, who works for the President, called me a couple of weeks before the event and asked me if I would do the 12-minute sermon at the pre-inaugural service. They've done this for many years. It was pretty much an Episcopal service, very high church, hymns, readings. Mostly Christians were there, except for two rabbis who read portions of Scripture—I believe they were rabbis. I was very honored and surprised to be asked.
Who attends this sort of thing?
The President's family, the vice-president's family, and the cabinet and their families. I think some invited members of Congress. And then there were a lot of church members. The place was full. I would guess five hundred people.
How did you settle on a theme to preach on?
When Joshua invited me I knew immediately what I wanted to talk about, and it's something I talk a lot about at leadership conferences—the idea that people with power are called upon to leverage their power for people who don't have power. And I knew immediately that's what I wanted to talk about. Actually the easiest part of this was knowing what I wanted to talk about.
The other thing was, I wanted to teach out of the New Testament. There's the temptation in an environment like this to go Old Testament, be broad, stay away from Jesus. But they did not tell me what to talk about. They did not ask for my notes ahead of time. Everything else was scripted.
What was the hardest part about preaching?
Making sure I could actually get to the church on time! So many streets are blocked off, and there are checkpoints. Four years ago, I participated in the national prayer service the day after the inauguration at the National Cathedral, and getting there was so stressful. So my wife, Sandra, and I got a hotel room four blocks from the church, and the night before, we walked to the area where the church is to make sure we knew how to get there, where the checkpoints were going to be. To me that was the most stressful part. To make matters worse, my alarm didn't go off, and room service didn't come—we literally woke up 30 minutes before we needed to be walking out of the hotel!
So what did you say in the sermon?
John 13:3 says, "Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power." So I read the verse and asked, "So what do you do when it dawns on you that you're the most powerful person in the room? You're the most powerful person, in this case, in the world?" And I just let that question hang. I'm looking at a very powerful group of people, as powerful as you can imagine.