Andy Stanley: ‘Give ‘Em Permission Not to Believe…’

Few things discredit the church more in the minds of unbelievers than when it holds them accountable to a standard they never acknowledged to begin with. 

Andy Stanley

The imperatives of the New Testament are addressed to Christians. Consequently, Christians are accountable to each other for how they live. But for reasons unbeknownst to me, Christians love to judge the behavior of non-Christians.

What makes this doubly perplexing is that the apostle Paul addresses this issue directly in 1 Cor. 5:12-13: Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside” (1 Cor. 5:12-13). There you have it. But historically, the Church has been way better at policing the behavior of outsiders than it has been at policing its own. That’s unfortunate. And unnecessary. Few things discredit the church more in the minds of unbelievers than when it holds them accountable to a standard they never acknowledged to begin with. 

“Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders … Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Col. 4:5- 6, emphasis added).

Like you, I’ve heard way too many messages addressed at nonbelievers that were full of salt seasoned with grace. That’s part of the reason so many unchurched people are just that: unchurched.

I think we would be wise to extend Paul’s advice to our preaching. When addressing unbelievers, it should be all grace with just a pinch of salt. To do that, we must distinguish between what the biblical authors expected of believers and what is expected of nonbelievers. In short, give non-Christians an out.

I’m very intentional about this when I preach. I make statements like, “If you aren’t a Christian, you are off the hook today.” Or, “If you aren’t a follower of Jesus, then you are not accountable for what we are about to read. You get a pass.”

On most weekends, non-Christians are not your target audience. They are welcome guests. Just as we don’t expect guests in our homes to clear the table after dinner and serve the coffee, so there are things we shouldn’t expect nonbelievers to do while visiting our churches. And we need to tell ’em. If you do let them off the hook, you might be surprised at the response.

My experience is that when you give non-Christians an out, they respond by leaning in. Especially if you invite them rather than expect them. There’s a big difference between being expected to do something and being invited to try something. We naturally push back when pushed. But we don’t generally push back on an invitation.

So I always invite our non-believing friends to try living like Christians, to apply the principles we’ve discussed, to adopt the new way of thinking that the scriptures present. And I usually give them a time frame. A week or a day.

Maybe an example would help.

In the opening installment of our message series, “The New Rules for Love, Sex, and Dating,” I asked the singles in our audience: “Are you the person the person you are looking for is looking for?” I taught through 1 Corinthians 13, discussing the various terms Paul uses to define love. Then I closed by reading verse 11:

“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”

I reminded them that childhood stories always END with “and they lived happily ever after,” that children’s stories END when the prince and princess finally get together. The assumption being that once the prince and princess meet, the rest is easy!

“That’s how children think,” I said. “Some of you still think that way.”

From there, I proceeded to challenge the Christian singles in our churches to put away their childish views of love, sex, and dating and to grow up. I told them that the time had come for them to begin focusing on what they were becoming rather than whom they were hunting. Catchy, huh? I went on to say that meeting the right person without first becoming the right person is a recipe for an unhappily-ever-after ending.

Ahhh, but that’s true for everybody, isn’t it? So I addressed the non-Christians in the audience: “You may not be a particularly religious person. Certainly not a Christ follower. But you know in your heart that what you’ve heard tonight is true. You’ve had enough relationships go bad to see ‘the right person myth’ for what it really is. A myth. You’ve met the right person. Several times! So during this series, I want to invite you to wrestle with this question as well: Are you the person thzt the person you are looking for is looking for? If not, we want to help you become that person. And, more importantly, we believe you have a heavenly Father who wants to help as well.”

When people are convinced you want something FOR them rather than something FROM them, they are less likely to be offended when you challenge them. 

If you tell me I have to, I assume you want something from me. If you offer me an opportunity to, I’ll be more inclined to believe you have my best interests at heart. Inviting unchurched people to take small steps is the same as inviting them to take first steps. We’ve all seen God honor first steps. We’ve seen God honor childlike faith. Learn to create space in your preaching for those who are unsure, skeptical, disbelieving. Give them an out. But then offer them an invitation.

Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide Zondervan.com. Based on Deep and Wide by Andy Stanley. Zondervan, 2012.