Book Review: Deep & Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend, by Andy Stanley
When I enrolled in seminary, I knew I wanted to preach God’s Word, tell people the good news of Christ, and help others follow Jesus. And to this day I am grateful that I have been able to spend my life this way. So when my professors assigned a number of books on pastoral leadership and church growth, I was happy to read them. I had fundamental questions to answer before I hoped to lead a church: What is the church? What does it mean to be a pastor? How do these two (church and pastor) fit together? What is success in ministry?
Have you ever asked questions like these? Maybe you already pastor, but are still asking these questions, like the guy who finds himself flying the plane at 30,000 feet and is desperately flipping through the owner’s manual. Needless to say, you know the importance of getting answers to the fundamental questions and getting them right.
Andy Stanley understands this too. Near the beginning of his new book Deep and Wide he writes, “One of the perplexing things we face as church leaders is that most church people don’t know what the church is or why it exists” (51). Absolutely! Any discussion about church or pastoral ministry should begin there. If we get that right, our marching orders should be clear.
WHAT IS THE CHURCH AND WHO IS IT FOR?
Let me begin with the author’s conclusions: the church is a “movement” (ch. 3) and it is for unchurched people—people who have not attended a church in five or more years (chs. 4 and 5).
If the church is a movement, we should not hold onto any specific tradition or ministry model, but should always look for new ways to help people love and follow Jesus. If the church is for unchurched people, then whatever we do as a church should aim at them.
One helpful thing in this book is its call for evangelism. Stanley writes passionately about reaching the lost and wants to provoke churches to be zealous with the gospel rather than settle into maintenance mode. I appreciated this and was challenged by Stanley’s discussion of ways to do spiritual formation (chs. 6-8), church environments (ch. 9), and preaching (ch. 11). In whatever he does, the author leads his church to ask, “How can we do this to reach those who are not yet followers of Christ?”
But does that mean a congregation can be indiscriminate in how they “do church” so long as they attract unchurched people? Are there costs that come with such an approach that would undermine the effort to evangelize? To answer these questions let’s consider the author’s two major claims and a crucial consequence of them.
“The Church Is a Movement.”
First, what about Stanley’s contention that the church is a “movement”? In chapter three, Stanley points out that the Greek word for “church” in the New Testament (ekklesia) simply means “gathering.” From there he traces through history to make the claim that over time “what began as a movement…had become an insider-focused, hierarchical, ritualized institution” (63). Clearly, not every institutional development in church history has been a good one. But what I don’t understand is how Stanley came to the conclusion that the church is a “movement” and not an institution. Does the Bible teach this?
In Matthew 16, 18, and 28 we see Jesus give the local church the authority to mark off God’s people from the world through the practice of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In this way, the church is a gathering with the unique responsibility of helping both the confessor (like Peter in Matt. 16:16) and the world (Jn. 13:35) know what it means to be a Christian. The church’s boundary line of membership illustrates the world’s separation from a holy God and the fact that it needs a Savior. This boundary is not something the church should blur in order to attract the unchurched; it should make this line bright and clear exactly for the unchurched.
“The Church Is for Unchurched People.”
Stanley’s second major claim is that the church exists for unchurched people. Does the Bible teach this idea? Yes and no. “Yes” in the sense that God’s evangelism plan involves congregations that display his gospel as they embrace his rule (Jn. 13:35, Eph. 3:10-11) and cling to an unshakeable hope (1 Pet. 3:15). We should want every person to hear the gospel, and so everyone should be welcome to attend.
But “No” in the sense that the Bible places the focus of the church’s corporate gatherings on building up Christians (1 Cor. 14:4, 12, 17, 26). The church is made of people who are born again. Non-Christians are welcome to come when the church gathers, but in a very important sense, they don’t belong: they are not part of the body (1 Cor. 12), or part of the new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), or part of the people of God (1 Pet. 2:10). They come to witness these supernatural realities, yes, but not to be lulled into thinking they are part of something supernatural when they are not.
A church that is unclear about “who belongs” in order to attract unbelievers may be “nice,” but they are also unloving.
This is where Stanley’s advice is dangerous. He is vague about what he means by “participating” in (91), being “part of” (69), or being “admitted” (72) to the church. Does he mean for non-Christians to be members of the church? Whether he teaches this or not, the practices he promotes lean in that direction. He encourages “nonbelievers to sign up for short-term mission trips” (79), “nonbelievers [to] serve in as many roles as possible,” (80) and points out that “you can join our church online without talking to a real person” (81).
“Innovation Is Essential.”
Finally we need to question a conclusion that Stanley draws from these two claims. That is, is innovation important to having an effective ministry?
Stanley suggests innovation is essential. “Culture,” he writes, “is like the wind. You can’t stop it. . . . But, if like a good sailor you will adjust your sails, you can harness the winds of culture to take your audience where they need to go. If people are more interested in being happy, then play to that” (115).
Later on he explains, “Every new and innovative approach to ministry has an expiration date as well. Every single one. Nothing is irresistible or relevant forever” (265).
This makes sense if you are running a business. But as John Piper teaches us, we are not professionals. Neither are we sailors catching the wind of culture or innovators coming up with the next idea that will keep people’s attention. Pastors are shepherds called to feed the flock and lead it according to the unchanging and all-sufficient word of God.
Do ministry models have expiration dates? If they are centered on anything other than God and his Word, they will lose their luster. But if a ministry model is ordered according to Scripture with the aim of displaying God, it is timeless.
 See the discussion of these passages in Jonathan Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), chapter 4.