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Andy Stanley: Assume People Are Biblically Illiterate (But Not Dumb)
Image: Courtesy North Point Ministries

Andy Stanley's many books and preaching style demonstrate his passion for reaching unchurched people. The founder and senior pastor of North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Georgia, aims not only to effectively and engagingly communicate the gospel to an audience with wide-ranging beliefs and backgrounds (31,000 people attend North Point's five campuses any given Sunday) but also to help other preachers do the same. Stanley talked with CT assistant online editor Kevin P. Emmert about the best ways preachers can communicate the gospel to unchurched and biblically-illiterate people in their congregations.

Is it fair to assume unchurched people are biblically illiterate?

Obviously, there is a continuum, but I think it is safe to assume biblical illiteracy. At the same time, however, preachers need to be careful not to talk down to people. And there's a way to do that. Most pastors I listen to start halfway up the ladder and then go up from there. But there's a happy medium where we assume a certain social and cultural sophistication, but not a biblical sophistication.

Whenever pastors assume people in their congregation know certain things, they miss opportunities to teach. If a pastor makes assumptions year after year, then a whole generation has never heard [that truth] for the first time. If we assume too much, we communicate too little. Starting from the bottom rungs of the ladder every time we open the Scripture is really important. We often need to reinforce basic things we assume people may know. In my experience, just because people have heard something once or twice doesn't mean they understand it.

In your book Deep & Wide, you suggest preachers should use more specific citations like "Jesus says" or "Paul says" rather than "The Bible says." What's at stake in using the phrase "the Bible says"?

I believe this is an important discussion, but I'm also misunderstood here sometimes. It's easy to make this both a theological and a methodological conversation all at once. But this entire conversation, from my perspective, is one of method. It has nothing to do with my view of Scripture but is an attempt to keep people who are skeptical of the Bible's authority engaged in the sermon.

What I have learned, having done this for many years now, is this strategy has helped the Christians in our congregation have a greater appreciation for the historicity of the New Testament, that these were actual people who said these things.

In using phrases like "the Bible says," we assume a person is a Christian, because only a Christian takes the Old Testament and the New Testament as authoritative. So if I'm going to preach to people who aren't Christians, I have to leverage a different point of authority if I'm going to expect them to track along with me. Thankfully, most people in the United States are interested in what Jesus says. You'll find very few people who say, "I don't care about what Jesus says, because I don't care about Jesus."

To get a person to the point where they believe the Bible is authoritative, they first have to believe that Jesus is the Son of God. The reason Christians take the Old Testament seriously is because Jesus did. We don't think of it that way, because [most of us] didn't become a Christian by becoming Jewish first and then a Christian. But any Gentile who takes the Old Testament seriously does so because Jesus did.

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