Andy Stanley, Church Size, and Raising The Next Generation

Recently, a message by Mega-church pastor Andy Stanley has made the rounds on the internet. He was speaking of the value of Christian friendship. But he digressed into the need for churches to have separated junior high and high school youth groups. This, he said, will help friendships develop. Then, he spoke his most controversial words:

“When I hear adults say, ‘Well, I don’t like a big church. I like about 200, I want to be able to know everybody,’ I say, ‘You are so stinkin’ selfish. You care nothing about the next generation. All you care about is you and your five friends. You don’t care about your kids, anybody else’s kids…If you don’t go to a church large enough where you can have enough middle schoolers and high schoolers to separate them so they can have small groups and grow up the local church, you are a selfish adult. Get over it. Find yourself a big old church where your kids can connect with a bunch of people and grow up and love the local church.”

Okay. Let me first say Andy Stanley apologized for what he said. He admitted he was wrong. I’m not going to touch the “selfish parent” part of his message. I think he has already backtracked on that portion. But the principle of what he said is the belief of many, many Christians today. They believe that a decent sized group will keep their children in the faith and in the church. There are three basic errors to this idea.

1. Relationships are not the answer. The right relationships are the answer.

I’ve met many parents who move to a bigger church in hopes that their youth will be able to connect to church because of the number of students and the programs those students have a chance to participate in.
I’ve been a part of big groups. I’ve led some bigger groups. I’ve witnessed the work of bigger groups. And I can tell you, bigger groups are not the answer. I’ve seen students get together with other students in big groups and they became worse people not better people.
In fact, one of the most heartbreaking stories I’ve ever heard was the story of a large youth group where some of the group loved a good party. One night, when one of the youth member’s parents were out of town, a large party was held. Many members of the church youth group attended. One young man got drunk, drove some other youth home. They never made it. There was a terrible car crash and one of the passengers died.
Big groups are not the answer, but I’m amazed at how many parents think they are.
I would rather my kids have one good friend then a roomful of bad friends.
God can bring a good friend to a small church or a big church. Size does not matter. Quality of relationships matter.

2. Divided age groups are not the answer. Discipleship is the answer.

When Stanley said his most offensive words he was talking about making sure the junior high and high school youth groups were divided.
Most Christians think dividing people up by life situations and age is the best way to approach church life. While I can understand why this is sometimes necessary, it also reveals a big problem.
When you divide church by groups and ages you build in divisions. The older youth want nothing to do with the younger youth and so there is no chance for any mentoring. There is less chance to love the unlovable. There is less chance to see the needs of those who are different.
The gospel is not about me loving people who are like me. It is about me loving people who are not like me. The gospel is about eyes to see the needs of those who are not like me. It is about developing a heart of compassion for those who are different.
Teaching youth to love the younger group and appreciate how they can make a difference in their lives is a powerful tool that separation of age groups undermines.
My point is not to make a case for putting everyone together or dividing them up, my point is that as young people grow in their faith they need opportunities to grow with people who are not like they are.
I do not pull my daughters out of situations where they have to deal with those who are younger, older, or different in some other way. I give them tools to deal with the situations they find themselves in. I teach them to love the other, even when they are different.

3. The “Right” Church is not the answer. Knowing your children is the answer.

Blanket statements about what parents should do with their children are ridiculous. There is no one size fits all. Andy Stanley grew up in a big church, found solid friendships, and those friendships helped him grow to love the church.
Great.
My teenage daughter is in a small youth group, incredibly active in ministering to children, and loves God and our local church.
Great.
There is no one size fits all approach to raising your kids to love the local church.
Know your child. Know what they need.
Many parents ask me what they should do when it comes to educating their children. Home school? Christian school? Public school?
They are usually surprised to hear that my oldest daughter has experienced all three. Different seasons of her life meant different things. And I think it was God’s will for all three to happen.
There is no one size fits all.
Same with what church you go to.
If your children grow to love Christ in a big, medium, or small church, then that is the church you should belong to. If your children are not growing to love Christ and the church at a big, medium, or small church, get them out of there and find somewhere where they will.

The bottom line is this. Many parents think the size of a group and the friendships their children develop will insulate them from leaving the faith.
That belief is a MYTH.
The horrible truth is churches of ALL SIZES are doing a terrible job of passing faith along to the next generation. The majority of kids raised in the American church will walk away from their faith after they leave home.
I watch it happen in big churches and I watch it happen in small churches.
What we need is not blanket statements about what kind of church is better for our children. What we need is intelligent, nuanced discussions about every aspect of what makes a young person love Christ and the church. Friendship, character, service, spiritual disciplines, and transformation all matter in the life of young people.
Until we can have those kinds of conversations our kids will keep walking away from Christ and His church.

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