Review: Deep & Wide

Andy Stanley.   Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend   .  Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016, 400 pp. $25.95.

Andy Stanley. Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016, 400 pp. $25.95.

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An important work in the A.S. collection

In many ways, Deep & Wide seems to be Andy Stanley’s watershed work. On one hand, it’s the culmination and summation of a decades-long exploration of church purpose and methodology. The book is the articulation of Stanley’s now-solidified ecclesiology upon which North Point Community Church (and many others who have followed their lead) is built.

On the other hand, the content of this work also serves as the soil out of which Stanley’s current theological trajectories lay their roots and find nutrients for growth. For example, his view on the church’s use of Scripture only makes sense, in my estimation, if one first holds to the theology described in Deep & Wide.

So, the book is a bit of a hinge point in the theology and ministry of Andy Stanley and, in that way, is an important work for one seeking to understand him and the way he thinks about gospel ministry.

An overview

The opening section of the book is Andy’s personal testimony of ministry maturation, starting as a youth pastor in the church his father pastored and leading up to the present day. It’s actually a sad tale the other side of which can be found in papa Stanley’s autobiography (also kind of sad).

The second section is the authors’ ecclesiological statement in which he seeks to answer the question to which all pastors should have an answer: 1) What is the church? and 2) Who is it for? Essentially, this is Stanley’s biblical justification for North Point’s unapologetic pursuit of “creating churches that unchurched men, women, and children love to attend” (11).

Stanley is no stranger to critics, something he makes clear from the outset, and labels them “religious people,” a term intended to be pejorative and synonymous with the first-century Pharisees opposing Jesus, who, I suppose, is Andy himself in this metaphor (16).

Section number three is where the author claims things get “deep” and unveils North Points “secret sauce” of ministry success (101). This sauce has “five ingredients” that are essential for a church to witness faith development in her participants’ lives. They are practical teaching (111ff), private disciplines (117ff), personal ministry (124ff), providential relationships (131ff), and pivotal circumstances (137ff). The chapters in this section flesh-out each ingredient.

The fourth and fifth sections of the book explore respectively how a church becomes a place unchurched people love by creating “irresistible environments” and how to transition a church toward being deep and wide.

The problem

There is much that could be said about North Points’ erroneous understanding of the church, but ultimately it comes down to this: They misidentify its purpose. And, like a ship beginning its journey across the ocean a single degree off course ends up miles away from its intended destination, so a church with the wrong goal is destined to be increasingly lost as time passes.

From where I’m sitting, the mission of the church is crystal clear: Train Christians (Eph. 4) to reach non-Christians (Matt. 28), then bring those new Christians into the church to be likewise trained, healed, matured, nurtured, and then sent out to reach more non-Christians. It’s actually a beautiful structure (as if God could create anything other than!).

North Point has decided to build a church focused on the mission of bringing non-Christians into the church. Notice the subtle, but significant difference. They have, in many ways, cut out the middleman.

And, while many will celebrate this “innovative” ecclesiology because of “all the people who are now in church who wouldn’t otherwise be going,” this is certainly hurting Christianity more than helping. It’s short-sighted and, ultimately, unfaithful to our assignment. We are called to be faithful with God’s prescribed means (how we train believers to go and make disciples) and leave the ends up to him. Deep and Wide proposes a redefining of the ends and, necessarily and unsurprisingly, man-concocted means to meet those ends.

Hear me well: I’m not saying we shouldn’t encourage people to invite their non-believing neighbours and friends to church. Sure, we can do that. What I’m saying, however (and more importantly, what the Bible is saying), is that is not to be the primary function of the church. We are not to be an evangelistic gathering, even though evangelism can happen there.

As a former professor of mine has said: “The correct application of ‘you are the salt of the earth’ is not to build more attractive salt shakers.”

Little good can come of Stanley’s ecclesiology, even if it appears, for a season, like fruit is being grown. The only benefit that I can see is that it forces people who disagree with him to clarify their (more biblically faithful) views.

I’ve already written an unfavourable review of another of Stanley’s publications, and this one follows the same path. It grieves me that this unapologetically pragmatic approach to church ministry is popular. It grieves me that many see this as biblical. It grieves me that many churches consider North Point as a target at which to aim rather than an iceberg to avoid.

This erroneous ecclesiology—which inevitably and necessarily must be justified by wonky theology—is a cancer to the church of Christ and needs to be cut out.