There’s an old saying in the Sunbelt that goes like this: When Jesus makes his glorious return on the last day, He will still have to fly through Atlanta.
I will visit that giant airport myself, today, on my way home from speaking at a Poynter Institute conference — “Telling the Stories of Faith and the Faithful” here in Los Angeles. One day featured meetings with West Coast reporters, including many that don’t work the religion beat, and the second day focused on talks with a circle of faith-group leaders. There were great questions and lots of dialogue.
Thinking about the Atlanta airport reminded me of what I think was as highly symbolic encounter with the Rev. Charles Stanley, a pivotal Southern Baptist leader and preacher who died this week. See this Associated Press report: “Charles Stanley, influential Baptist preacher, dies at 90.”
The leader of First Baptist Church of Atlanta was elected SBC president in 1985 during what was, in my experience, one of the most intense, even angry, national conventions ever (and that’s saying something) during the near life-and-death Southern Baptist civil war of that era.
To get to that meeting in Kansas City, working for The Charlotte Observer, I had to (#DUH) change planes in Atlanta. I ended up on the same plane with Stanley, who was rumored to be a candidate for SBC president. He was in First Class, obviously, and I was not, obviously. After we had been airborne for an hour or so, I walked up front to give Stanley my card and to request an interview before the election.
Seeing that he was reading a document, I confess that I looked it over before I alerted him to my presence at his right shoulder.
Trust me — I wish I had a photographic memory. Why? Because he was reading a professional set of public-relations guidelines describing (#WaitForIt) how to deal with journalists after his election as SBC president. I don’t remember them all, but I do remember the essence of three:
(1) When asked hard questions, give short answers and move on. No follow-ups.
(2) Avoid questions from national religion-beat pros, since they will know the details of SBC life and, thus, ask the most probing and dangerous (or a word to that effect) questions.
(3) Welcome questions from TV journalists, since those newsrooms contain zero religion specialists and the general-assignment reporters sent to the convention will ask safe, vague questions. (Questions like: What are your hopes for peace in the SBC?)
What’s my point? Stanley was a megachurch leader, but he had lots of media skills. He knew how to project and image and control a narrative and that played a crucial role in the larger SBC story for a decade or more. Here is the top of the AP report (note the tired, vague term “televangelist,” which never fit Stanley’s work):
Charles Stanley, a prominent televangelist who once led the Southern Baptist Convention, died Tuesday at his home in Atlanta at age 90, In Touch Ministries announced. …
Born in rural Dry Fork, Virginia, Stanley was senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Atlanta for 50 years. The church grew rapidly after he became its leader in 1971, moving from central Atlanta to a suburban campus in 1997 to accommodate a growing flock in the sprawling urban area. …
But his greatest fame came from his role in hosting “In Touch with Dr. Charles Stanley,” a Christian teaching program that began airing on the newborn Christian Broadcasting Network in 1978. That led to the creation of a separate nonprofit, In Touch Ministries, that sent Stanley’s broadcasts across the nation and world through radio and television. It even created solar-powered audio players containing the Bible, some of Stanley’s sermons and other materials that are available in more than 100 languages.
Stanley crafted that “teacher” persona, which was radically different than the style of other religious broadcasters. He was the opposite of flashy.
The other key fact that had to be included was this — Stanley wasn’t the most famous leader of the resurgent SBC “biblical inerrancy” leaders. But the timing of his rise was crucial.
“My election infuriated the opposition and ultimately revealed many of the underlying problems that had existed in the convention for a long time but had either been ignored or denied,” Stanley wrote in a 2016 autobiography. “All the liberal and moderate political forces of the Southern Baptist Convention were against me, which included seminary presidents and state convention newspapers.”
In his first term, Stanley helped stop congregations from ordaining women. His second election in 1985 was bolstered by a last-minute telegram of support from famous evangelist Billy Graham, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
“After Stanley’s election, the battle subsided and eventually the moderates moved on from the fight or away from the denomination,” Ed Stetzer, executive director of Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College in Illinois, told the newspaper.
His personal legacy? A complex family history that will only grow more symbolic as his megachurch superstar son, the Rev. Andy Stanley, moves — this is the irony — toward a style of ministry and theology that is openly “moderate,” like the enemies of his father.
The roots of that moral and doctrinal evolution? Maybe this:
Stanley separated from his longtime wife, Anna, in the 1990s, before divorcing in 2000. Although First Baptist had barred divorced men as ministers, and Stanley had once said he would resign if his wife left him, the church affirmed him remaining pastor.
Some other evangelical Christians panned the decision. Dissenters included his son, Andy Stanley, who said he wanted his father to offer to quit and let the church decide. Instead, it was Andy Stanley who left the congregation and founded Northpoint Ministries, a network of eight evangelical Christian churches in Atlanta and its suburbs.
Readers interested in the drama behind that Stanley drama should seek out this famous “Stanley vs. Stanley” cover story that ran at World magazine — infuriating many old-guard evangelical supporters of Charles Stanley. To download a .pdf copy of that World issue, go to the archives page and look up the Feb. 17, 1996 issue.
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