One of the books on my sabbatical reading list is “Not In It to Win it” by Andy Stanley.
Stanley is the pastor of NorthPoint Church in Atlanta Georgia, a large mega-church with multiple campuses around the southeastern United States. Stanley is an author and hosts “The Andy Stanley Leadership Podcast.” I am planning on worshipping at NorthPoint while on my trip to the southeast in a few weeks.
Stanley is also notable because his church was one of the first to shut down completely for in-person worship and events during the COVID pandemic, and was one of the last to re-open. He took a lot of heat for this decision. When he would try to engage people to talk about the decision that NorthPoint had made, Stanley writes that “…I would ask, ‘What have you heard me say or not say that has led you to this conclusion?’ Nobody quoted me. Nobody even pointed to a particular message. It all boiled down to their interpretation of why we suspended live, in-person services. Their interpretation overruled my explanation. Basically, they didn’t believe me. They could not imagine that I decided to suspend in-person worship services just to protect the community. There had to be another, an ulterior, politically motive.”
The premise of Stanley’s book is that we live in a world that assigns motives to just about everything. And that in the world of the church, we need to step away from that. Churches need to avoid the realm of politics.
In reality, almost everything Jesus said or did had political ramifications at the time. But in our current, politically divided and partisan culture, when the church takes a partisan stand and chooses to engage ‘culture wars,’ it will automatically disenfranchise people and will make it more difficult to complete our mission, which is to walk with people as God draws them closer to them.
Stanley goes on to say that “When pastors and Christian leaders publicly participate in culture wars, we make it hard for those who are turning to God to find God.”
Our political culture has created a world of “winners” and “losers.” This is antithetical to the Gospel, where Jesus chose to go to the cross, to sacrifice, and to die for God’s people. Jesus chose to “lose” so that the world might “win.”
While I think there is a lot of wisdom in Stanley’s position, I think that we also must remember that God calls the church to speak out for justice, and to be the voice for those who are on the margins. While this can be political, it is not partisan.
And it is important to remember that while Jesus was not partisan, he was political. His criticisms of the pharisees and other religious leaders were critiques of the social and political systems of the time. But Jesus attached these systems. He did not choose sides. He was political, he was not partisan.
The church is called to occupy a difficult and uncomfortable middle ground. We speak for the disenfranchised, but we also are a place for people of different perspectives to gather and to be in community with each other.
And when we are able to live together in a community centered on Jesus Christ, that is really the win.