(Photo: Willow Creek Association)
Andy Stanley spoke to church leaders during the last session of The Global Leadership Summit on Friday, encouraging them to remember that even when things don't seem to be working in their favor that Jesus Christ will continue to fulfill his promise and build his church.
Despite the many differences between the various Christian denominations and groups, Stanley said, the one thing they all have in common is Jesus Christ and that they are a part of his promise in Mathew 16:18 that he will build his church. The Greek word translated "church" does not refer to a building or a location, he emphasized, but a congregation of believers.
The founder and senior pastor of North Point Ministries, who has regularly been named one of the most influential pastors in the U.S., says he wishes Christians would realize how significant it is that the church survived the first century. Jesus gave the Great Commission to a small group of "outlaws" who would be faced with great persecution, he said, yet millions of people worldwide have since converted to Christianity.
The church survived "because Jesus made the promise, and he has been at the epicenter of the activity of the local church for 2,000 years," said Stanley. "And you can believe or not believe. You can participate or not participate. You can behave or misbehave. It does not matter. Jesus has been and will continue to build his church, and nobody's death is going to stop it – not even his own."
Stanley says the church in America has gotten "too big for our britches" and has stopped preaching the message preached by the first century church, so it's time for church leaders to ask how it all started. The church has become focused on teaching what Christians believe, he says, but the early Christians had a slightly different message.
"The central teaching of the church was not 'we believe something is true,'" said Stanley. "The central teaching of the church was 'we believe something happened.'"
Every religion has a "truth" to teach, he says, but the Christian message is that God raised Jesus Christ from the dead.
Jesus saved Saul of Tarsus, later known as the Apostle Paul, who had been persecuting the early believers. Some church leaders have had experiences like Paul, Stanley says, where they were headed in one direction in life or were focused on one career when God interrupted their efforts and called them in a new direction.
"Every once in a while, because your savior and my savior is so committed to building the local church, he interrupts plans...He'll be willing to interrupt anything, because whether you participate or not, cooperate or not, or believe or not, our savior is building and will build his church, and nothing, nothing, nothing will stand in the way," said Stanley.
The author of Deep & Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend went on to say that he took a family trip to Rome, and while he was visiting the Colosseum he was struck by the significance of the cross that hangs over the entrance known as the Emperor's Gate.
Stanley wondered aloud, in front of the audience of about 75,000 people watching from sites all across America, if Paul could have imagined on the way to his execution that one day the Roman Empire would fall but Christianity would remain. Could he have imagined, Stanley asked, that people would travel to Rome and ask not where the ancient emperors are buried, but ask where he was imprisoned and where the Apostle Peter is buried? Or did he wonder if the church would be "snuffed out" like his own life would soon be?
Stanley then took a moment to address discouraged church leaders, and reminded them that Christ will build his church with these words: "In your most discouraging moment, and the time when you think it's not working, that it is all in vain...there is a cross hanging over the Emperor's Gate in the Roman Colosseum."
Stanley's message concluded the two-day event, which was broadcast from Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., to more than 230 locations throughout the U.S. Later this year, an estimated 100,000 people across 100 different nations will watch the messages presented this week.
The 2014 Global Leadership Summit will be held on Aug. 14 and 15.