Pastor Andy Stanley of Atlanta's North Point Community Church said he is “embarrassed” by churches that engaged in “spitting matches” with state and local governments over COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, lamenting that far too many churches “abandoned the mission for the sake of the model.”
Stanley, who made headlines last year when he announced that his Atlanta-area multisite church would not resume in-person worship services until 2021, said during Expoential’s Future of the Church event on Thursday that many churches across the country had the “exact wrong” approach to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The thing that has been concerning to me about the local church is how quickly so many local churches felt like, ‘We've got to get back in our building, shoulder to shoulder, doing what we've always done,’” Stanley said.
“It was the exact wrong response to COVID because we had an opportunity ... of a lifetime to do new things, try new things, experiment with new things because we couldn't do the old things. And instead of focusing on what we can't do, we should have been 100% ... focused on what we can do.”
The megachurch pastor said he was “embarrassed” by the churches that sued and engaged in a “spitting match” with local governments over COVID-19 restrictions.
“I thought, ‘Wait a minute. We're the Body of Christ. We're not in it to win it.’ As you're in it to win it, you've abandoned our New Testament mandate. We're in it to serve, and there is more need than there's ever been. Everybody's experiencing the same thing, all at the same time — that's never happened before. Not just all over our communities, our country, but the whole world,” he charged.
The pastor stressed he’s not “discounting the pain and suffering and the job loss and the death” Atlanta experienced due to COVID-19, but said the pandemic presented the church with a tremendous opportunity to focus on external ministries and accelerate online programs.
“[We were able to do] so much more in the community because the community had our undivided attention,” he said, revealing that The Red Cross’ biggest blood drive was held at North Point.
“I know it sounds like I'm bragging, but I'm so proud of our staff and our churches and the adults in our church who put up with me saying, ‘No, we're not going to meet. I know the church down the street's meeting ... But we are intentionally re-deploying and refocusing our attention at this time because this is a unique opportunity, and it's going to come to an end, but we need to take full advantage of the opportunity.’”
The pastor said that North Point learned “so much” in the wake of COVID-19, adding: “We're going to carry so much of what we've learned forward.”
He stressed to other church leaders, “You marry the mission, you date the model.”
“You inspire people to follow Jesus — that's our mission. You date the model: Shoulder to shoulder in a building, singing songs and worshiping and listening to sermons. I know I'm going to get in trouble for saying this — all that is, is a model.”
He continued: “During this season, you abandon the model for the sake of the mission. But the local churches that abandoned the mission for the sake of the model and rushed back into the model. ... I feel like we, in some cases, missed an extraordinary opportunity, especially the churches that got in a spitting match ... with local and state governments. That was just embarrassing to me as a Christian.
Churches across the U.S. have grappled with how to operate amid ever-changing circumstances presented by state government lockdowns in response to COVID-19.
Most notably, Pastor John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, has been embroiled in a legal court battle with the county for months after the church openly defied public health restrictions amid COVID-19. MacArthur has held in-person services since July of last year amid the ongoing series of restrictions in California.
In a recent interview, Pastor Rick Warren of the California-based Saddleback Church said he rejects the notion that churches are being discriminated against. He posited that COVID-19 revealed a “fundamental weakness in the Church,” which was that most churches see worship as their sole purpose.
“And if you take worship away, you’ve got nothing. They’re in a hurry to get back to worship because that’s all they’ve got,” he said.
But the 20,000-member Saddleback Church is built not on one purpose, but on five,” Warren explained.
“You take one circle out, we’ve still got four other circles. We’ve got ministry going on. We’ve got mission going on. We’ve got fellowship going on. We’ve got discipleship going on. Those all stand on their own.”