Atlanta-area megachurch pastor Andy Stanley has come under fire for remarks he made about small churches in a recent sermon.

Stanley—whose North Point Ministries includes six campuses and over 30,000 attendees a week—referred to parents who attend churches too small to have robust student ministries as “stinking selfish” in a February 28 message titled “Saved By The Church.” Stanley addressed a hypothetical parent who refused to attend a larger church for the sake of student ministry options for their kids. The sermon circulated online, especially as small church leaders raised concerns about his approach.

Stanley said:

When I hear adults say, “Well I don’t like a big church, I like about 200, I want to be able to know everybody,” I say, “You are so stinking selfish. You care nothing about the next generation. All you care about is you and your five friends. You don’t care about your kids [or] anybody else’s kids” … If you don’t go to a church large enough where you can have enough middle schoolers and high schoolers to separate them so they can have small groups and grow up the local church, you are a selfish adult. Get over it. Find yourself a big old church where your kids can connect with a bunch of people and grow up and love the local church. Instead… you drag your kids to a church they hate, and then they grow up and hate the local church. They go to college, and you pray that there will be a church in the college town that they connect with. Guess what? All those churches are big.

Faced with the online outcry, Stanley apologized on Twitter, saying “The negative reaction to the clip from last weekend's message is entirely justified. Heck, even I was offended by what I said! I apologize.”

So why did the pastor of one of the country’s biggest megachurches preach this message, only to say he too was offended by the implications? Ruth Malhotra, a writer and publicist from Atlanta who follows Stanley’s ministry, followed up on the controversial remarks.

First of all, what were you thinking? Were your words taken out of context?

This is an example of what I meant being overshadowed, undermined, and contradicted by what I actually said. Honestly, hearing what I said within the broader context of my entire message doesn’t help. As much as I wish folks would listen to the entire message, it really doesn’t diminish the absurdity of what I said.

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So, you don’t believe what you said?

I really don’t. I can see how those on the listening end of that clip or on the reading end of this interview might have a difficult time believing me. I don’t blame people for assuming that “what Andy really thinks about small churches” slipped out in a moment of unguarded ranting. However people who know me, read me, listen to me, and have worked with me know that nothing could be further from the truth. I hope at the end of the day, my 20-plus years of actions will speak louder than these 5-plus minutes of words I so deeply regret.

You posted an apology on Twitter, but many people still want a more detailed explanation of what you were trying to say in the first place.

The Twitter response rightfully pointed out the absurdity and contradictory nature of my comments. A couple of the comments in that clip contradict my life’s work. In fact, what’s most heartbreaking to me about this situation is not what was said about me. I caused confusion and I deserved the fallout. What is most disturbing to me is that pastors, church planters, children’s directors, and student pastors took what I said as a criticism of what they do. That kept me up at night. Literally. I read numerous responses, and the reaction from pastors and church leaders was devastating. I’m not looking for sympathy here. It was devastating because my words undermined the importance, significance, and sacrifice of thousands of church planters and ministry leaders.

If you didn’t mean what you said, why did you say it?

I’m hesitant to say because answering will sound like I’m making excuses or trying to justify what I said. I’m not. This was a Sunday morning sermon, not a leadership conference or a podcast. I was talking to church attenders at my local church. My comments were not directed to pastors, church planters, student ministers, or anyone in vocational ministry. The comments in question were directed—in my mind at least—at adult church attenders who are content to attend a church that is comfortable for them in spite of what it may mean for their children and the next generation. That’s it.

So what were you trying to get across?

I do not believe adult Christians should measure the success or the health of their local church based exclusively on how well it serves the adult population of the church. At North Point Ministries we’ve been modeling that for years. You will never hear me brag about how many people attend our churches, but I am quick to talk about the size of our middle school and high school ministries. Specifically, I often point out the unusual ratio of students to adults in our churches. Those who listened to the entire message in question heard me do just that.

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When I preached this sermon, we were coming off a weekend called “Walking Wisely” where over 4,600 6th, 7th, and 8th graders from six of our churches spent the weekend at church and in homes discussing the labels culture brands them with. As pictures poured in via social media, I was overwhelmed with gratitude. My thought was, “Imagine if every middle school kid in America had an opportunity to experience this kind of content, accountability and love.”

I am very aware that churches all over America, large and small, create similar environments for students. But I’m also aware that many—perhaps most—churches give little thought and designate very few resources to student ministry. Especially middle school ministry. The reality is student ministry isn’t a priority for many churches, and that breaks my heart.

With your message streaming online, you have people from the outsidewho are not part of your congregationlistening in. This sermon ended up being heard, and criticized, by so many people outside of North Point.

Yes, exactly. And just like me, they listen through their filter. If I were discussing this issue with church leaders, I wouldn’t have said anything about the size of a local church. When it comes to passion for the next generation, size really doesn’t matter. I can understand how pastors and volunteers in small churches felt like I was gunning for them. Based on what I said, how could they not?

Church leaders who are leading and building Great Commission-centered churches want their churches to grow. There’s nothing wrong with a small church… and by “small” I don’t mean anything less than “mega,” which is apparently what some folks took me to be saying. But I’ve never met a student pastor who wouldn’t be thrilled with the challenge of having to divide middle school kids from high school kids because she or he had so many kids coming to church. Student leaders who know their stuff know it’s best to create separate environments for middle school and high school kids. However it takes time to grow a student ministry, and depending upon the size and location of the community, there may never be enough students to pull that off.

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My gripe is with the grown ups who are anti-growth because they like their church just the way it is. Truth be known, most pastors—regardless of their church size—are not fans of adult attendees who are resistant to change and growth.

You told parents they should leave small churches and put their kids in large or larger churches—and you chastised them for caring “nothing about the next generation” if they stay in their small churches.

While that may be true for some parents, it was extraordinarily irresponsible for me to suggest that this is the responsible thing for every parent to do. It’s not. How could I possibly know what every parent should do? My comment was way out of bounds.

No one should force their kids to attend a church they hate simply because mom and/or dad like it. What many folks heard me say, that I don’t believe, is that all parents who attend a small church should take their kids out of their small church and put them in a large church.

The bottom line is that parents who prioritize their church experience over their children’s experience should reconsider, and to do otherwise is selfish. But that’s not exactly what I said.

As the leader of a megachurch, what is your relationship with small churches?

I think one of the reasons people who know me were so surprised by my remarks is that they know how involved I am with church leaders and pastors all over the world. At North Point we coach, fund, and give away resources to churches of all sizes. I am aware of the extraordinary challenges pastors in other parts of the world face, especially church planters. There is no opportunity to create large churches, the way we define large, in many parts of the world.

So were your comments directed at church attendees in North America?

Actually, my comments were directed at church attendees in north Atlanta! I was thinking specifically about the many exchanges I’ve had through the years with the parents of my kids’ friends who would complain to my wife Sandra and me about how difficult it was to get their kids to go to church, and yet they wouldn’t put their kids in our programs because they didn’t want to attend a large church.

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Last thing. As senior pastor of one of the largest churches in America today, what have you learned from small churches—or from pastors of small churches—over your career?

Most of what I know about pastoring I’ve learned from pastors who have pastored or who are pastoring small churches, my dad for instance. His first church was on the small end of small. Our entire team continues to learn from churches of all sizes. Churches that share a similar mission and vision often share the same approach to ministry regardless of size. One specific example, our approach to baptism is something we copied from a small rural church in north Georgia. On the flip side of the equation, because we stream our messages for free, I teach a lot of adult Sunday School classes in small churches all over the country. I also fill in for a lot of senior pastors for free as well when they are out on vacation. And I’m both humbled and amazed every time I hear a story about either.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

I am sincerely sorry for what I said and how I said it. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to explain—but not excuse—myself. And I’m grateful to anyone who took the time to read this exchange.