"Andy Stanley" by NPPublishing / CC BY 4.0

The Evangelical Reckoning Begins

Nov 17, 2020

By Emma Green

Andy Stanley’s evangelical megachurch was empty on Election Night, with only a few cars in the Disney World–style parking lot out front. North Point Community Church and its nine satellites in the Atlanta area have been mostly closed since the coronavirus pandemic began in March. When Stanley decided to cancel in-person worship until at least early 2021, dozens of families were so unhappy that they decided to quit his church. “Never once did I hear, ‘We’re upset because we miss coming to church,’” he told me, leaning back in a heather-gray wingback chair. The vibe of his church offices is tasteful and inoffensive, as if his decorator was trying to channel that magic Fixer Upper quality of looking distinctive while appealing to almost everyone. “What I heard was, ‘We’re upset because you bought into a political agenda. We’re upset because you believe the Democrats’ narrative.’”

Stanley has spent his career in ministry deliberately avoiding this kind of politicization in his church. The 62-year-old pastor is a child of the religious right: His father, Charles Stanley, is a televangelist and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention who wrote the devotional that President George W. Bush used to read each morning. “I grew up in a family that was very, very right-leaning,” Stanley said. “I saw the hypocrisy there.” He yearned to reach people beyond the conservative Christian world, to make the story of the resurrection irresistible to the unchurched. So he rejected his culture-war inheritance and struck out on his own, and now the son has arguably surpassed the father: Andy Stanley leads a congregation of more than 37,000 adults and children each Sunday, second in size in the U.S. only to Joel Osteen’s Houston empire, according to some estimates. He’s written roughly two dozen books, mostly Jesus-y self-help, including one that came out in October called Better Decisions, Fewer Regrets. North Point has a network of roughly 90 churches around the world, and young Christian leaders flock to the church for guidance on how to expand their influence. Sam Collier, a Black pastor and friend of Stanley’s who is about to open Atlanta’s first branch of Hillsong, the Australian mega-ministry network, told me North Point is like “the Christian Gap.”

The rise of Donald Trump, however, has made it harder than ever to separate evangelicalism from politics. Exit polls suggest that three-quarters of white, self-described evangelicals who voted chose Trump in 2020—a slightly smaller share than in 2016, but still an overwhelming majority. “To his credit, he’s figured out how to leverage that group,” Stanley said. “I mean, he’s not evangelical. But he owns them. And they’ve loved him.” The pastor likened the relationship to a lyric from Bob Seger’s “Night Moves”: “I used her, she used me, but neither one cared.” Soon, Trump will be gone, he said, but the conservative judges and justices he appointed will be in place for a long time. “It’s like: ‘Got what we wanted!’”

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