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July 15, 2020Interviews

Andy Stanley on Not Gathering Until 2021 and What He's Learned in the Crisis

During times of uncertainty, our voice is more important than our words.
Andy Stanley on Not Gathering Until 2021 and What He's Learned in the Crisis

Daniel Yang: What do you think the cadence of communication is going to be like for you?

Andy Stanley: This is one of the things I'm telling leaders: during times of uncertainty, our voice is more important than our words. People need to hear your voice. About every third email I send out I actually video myself reading the email to our congregation. People need to hear our voice, not just read our words, and our presence is way more important than our preparation or our presentation. We have to figure out how to be more present. We have to figure out how to help people hear our voices. Not because we're important, but because they look to us for leadership. And then the third part of that is people want clarity. One of the things I know our staff tells me they appreciate is, "Andy, thank you for not making us go week to week and wonder, because some churches in our area, they won't announce ahead of time."

They're saying, well, we're going to wait and see. Well, you can't plan. You can't be strategic. And I don't think you can be missional if it's wait and see. I told our staff, Here's the good news. You don't have to think about coming up with an opening plan between now and Christmas. We are a hundred percent going to create assets for children, preschoolers, middle school, and high schoolers. We're going to continue to focus on small groups and online preaching. We've been doing that for a long time anyway, so that clarity doesn't remove the uncertainty, but it helps people know what to do.

And that is the key. It's like Joshua at the Jordan river. The people want to know what's going to happen. Joshua says, Hey, pack your stuff, get some lunches together. In three days show up right here. At this spot we're crossing the Jordan river. So clarity in the midst of uncertainty is the name of the game. And this is a great opportunity for church leaders to provide clarity.

Ed Stetzer: With not meeting, what does that mean for North Point’s environments—your strategy of bringing people to church to share the gospel?

Andy Stanley: Ed, you and I both agree that there's not a one size fits all church. I'm really not being critical of other churches because you have to walk in a church's shoes to understand why churches do the things they do. But to the point of this question, focusing our time and resources on trying to open on Sunday morning is definitely not our plan because again, so few people are going to come and they're not going to invite their friends and neighbors to this not so great environment. It forces us to then ask, well, what can we do and what kind of resources can we create and what can we invite people to? And how do we get these resources in front of people who may normally not be interested?

The good thing about fear is it generally causes people to look up. Part of the challenge for all of us in church leadership is to figure out how to continue to be missional, how to continue to be on task of making disciples, not just biding our time, not just treading water, not just waiting for things to get back to normal. One of the things I've told our church from the very beginning is we are going to be better for this. There are things that we're going to learn that we're going to take forward. In fact, there are already things we've learned that we're taking forward, but we are going to be better for this. But the only way to be better for this is to embrace this as the new normal. Otherwise, we're just going to sit on our hands and wait for things to get back to normal. A pandemic is a terrible thing to waste. All tragedy is a terrible thing to waste. So we want to be better for it. And I think a lot of churches are going to be better for it because we're forced to try innovative things.

Ed Stetzer: What advice do you have for pastors who have to make the same difficult decisions?

Andy Stanley: One of the things I'm about to do Thursday night is I'm going to do a zoom call with all of our volunteers at North Point Community Church. All of our lead pastors either have already done this or are about to do this. I sent an email to all of our volunteers to say we're going to be shut down for the rest of the year. Then I did the public video that you referenced. I announced it to everybody, but of course there are a lot of questions that come up and there are a lot of things I didn't address because I didn't want to do a 30-minute announcement.

One of the things every pastor can do is make sure your people hear your voice. Our voice is more important than our words, and our presence is more important than our preparation. So, Thursday night I'll do a zoom call with all of our volunteers. I've asked them to send their questions in ahead of time. I want them to hear me field their questions, because I want them to understand this as much as it can be understood and to be on board with this. It's not enough simply to announce it. If there are ways to create dialogue around these tough decisions, that's the way to do it. That's what's on the menu next in terms of just communicating internally for us.

Daniel Yang: What are some of the things that you're taking forward from this? What are lessons learned that you're learning individually as a leader?

Andy Stanley: First, I am naturally an introvert. I don't like to do anything until I'm 110% prepared. I am a preparation addict. It has been very difficult for me to step outside of that and to be more in the moment. I interviewed Patrick Lencioni and I said, "Patrick, what are you telling leaders?" And he said, "I'm telling the leaders, be human." So I've had to remind myself, Andy, be human. It doesn't have to be perfect. It doesn't have to be prepared. You've got to show up more, you got to speak up more. You have to quit texting and start calling. The other day I came in and said to my wife Sandra, "Did you know so-and-so, they've tested positive and COVID, and she had to take her husband to the hospital?" And Sandra said, "Well, have you called her?"

And I told her, no, I was going to text her later. She takes my phone and literally slides it across the counter and says, "Call her," because that is not my nature. But leaders cannot hide behind our temperament, our personality, a job description, an organizational chart, or a title. This is the time that you step out of your comfort zone for some of us –– maybe I'm just preaching to me –– and you put your humanity out there front because out in front, because people need to know that we feel what they feel if they're going to listen to what we have to say, especially during times of disruption and uncertainty. So personally, that's a big one for me, practically.

Here's one thing we've learned. I think a lot of churches are going to do this: I think going forward in all of our middle school and high school small groups, we are always going to have a laptop in the room, flipped, open to zoom because so many of our students are, you know, they're with mom one weekend and dad another weekend, or they're traveling.

They couldn't make it. They got home late from soccer practice and so on, but we've seen extraordinary conversations happen through zoom and through technology. To some extent your students are more open and more vulnerable through the technology than they are sitting in a circle in a small group. So all of our leaders have said, Hey, zoom is a permanent part of the small group experience. I think that's going to happen for all of our middle school, high school, and probably most of our adult groups as well.

The other great takeaway is a lot of adults have learned to do online conversations. They've never been forced to do that before. It was just kind of a hassle. Well, now everybody is so comfortable with this technology. I think this is going to make the small group participation more consistent with a lot of people because they know how to do this. Now they're not going to miss small group just because they're out of town or their kids are sick, and they couldn't find a babysitter.

Ed Stetzer is executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, serves as a dean at Wheaton College, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group. The Exchange Team contributed to this article.

Daniel Yang is director of the Send Institute, a church planting think tank at the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center.

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