Several years ago when writing my blog, I posted a link and discussed this well written and needed post: https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/trevinwax/2011/12/19/your-podcast-is-not-your-pastor/ . I have stated multiple times that one of the benefits of growing up in a Pastor’s home was that I had the opportunity to meet some of my “Heroes Of The Faith” and, in my early teens I discovered they were just like other men I knew. If I was around them long enough, personality flaws or struggles with sin manifested, but the more I got to know some of them the more I loved them and wanted to know them. However, the more I got to know others, the less I wanted to be with them. At a very early age, I had the crazy discovery that these men were actually human. Those encounters impact me even in my ministry today. Because I had the honor of being around so many of those godly, yet human men, it gave me the ability to respect and honor them, but not idolize them. When I saw them interact with their family and say something in frustration to their wife or kids, it actually allowed me to realize grace was needed and at work in their life too. I know on the surface we are all fully aware that those people we watch in conferences or listen to on podcasts are human, but there is a tendency to think they don’t struggle with some of the everyday problems we face. It seems that many times we are more apt to give a “Christian Celebrity” speaker or preacher the benefit of doubt well before we will extend that same courtesy to the people that do life with us week in and week out in our local church. At times we have had to deal with Biblical errors by a “celebrity” and, it is astounding how quickly people will run to the defense of that man or woman, whom they do not know but they like their teaching. I have often wondered if they are as quick to rally around a church member being gossiped about.
All of those wild and crazy verses like “love one another,” “prefer the other,” “be patient with one another”… those are actually supposed to begin in the people I do life with in the local church. In fact, if it is not done there, frankly we are hypocritical when they are held to anywhere else. I have an amazing wife and two incredible boys but, as we live together we are keenly aware of the different struggles with sin we all have. I must confess if someone came gossiping about them to me, or was demeaning their character – while I fully know they are capable of sinning, I love them and want to give them the benefit of the doubt. I want to protect them and believe the best. I know them and their sin the most, but I love them deeply and my goal will be to defend them/protect them, but not condone or ignore their sin. I say all of this because as believers doing life with one another, my first calling is not to defend my favorite teacher/preacher on TV, but to believe the best of and protect the people I know and love the most. If my favorite preacher moves out of orthodoxy tomorrow, I am not obligated to attempt to be their advocate and explain their position. However, as a believer in a local church, I am to commit my life to Christ and to do that as I live life with those in my local body. We can’t get so caught up with following someone that we ignore Scripture, and we can’t strive to blindly believe the best of people that in truth we only know from a book or sermon, and not do so with the people right in front of us in our congregation. We are not called to worship or accept blindly the teachings of our podcast preachers or favorite teachers, we are called to worship God and to see everything through the lens of truth. One of the first ways I can live out that truth is to love the people right in front of me… after all, those are the ones I really know.
There’s been a lot of talk in the blogosphere this year about the rise of “celebrity pastors” with “rock-star status” and the larger-than-life influence of popular conference speakers whose sermons are downloaded by the thousands. Some have openly decried this development; others are glad that at least pastors are being celebrated. Most of us are somewhere in the middle.
There’s no doubt that certain pastors have attained a kind of “celebrity.” And yet we are wrong to assume that this has happened because these pastors have intentionally sought notoriety and fame. It’s one thing to say that we may have a problem here. It’s another thing to start blaming people left and right for it. (Furthermore, I find it ironic that many of the pastors and bloggers who condemn the celebrity culture could be considered “celebrities” themselves, albeit of the curmudgeonly variety!)
All that said, in a recent conversation with Robert George, Russ Moore described a recent shift in how students speak of pastoral influence. Here’s what he had to say:
When I am talking to young evangelicals, often who are in ministry, and I say, “Who has been really influential upon you in ministry and on learning to preach and to do the things of ministry?” ten years ago, most people would have given me the name of a local pastor who had mentored them and worked with them. Now they are mentioning a disembodied voice that they have heard on a podcast. That’s a very dangerous thing…
… We’ll just become this amorphous, non-ecclesial movement where everybody is just concerned about individual flights to heaven and move from church to church to church based upon what the music is like or what the preaching is like and then become identified with these celebrities…celebrity preachers. One of the things that we have happening in evangelicalism right now is this rash of preachers who are leaving their churches in order to expand their ministries, and what they mean by that is to go on the conference circuit and simply become these itinerate type of celebrities. That’s a very dangerous thing in evangelicalism, and unless you’ve got a renewal at the local church level where people really are accountable to people they know, evangelicalism is not going to survive.
Dr. Moore’s anecdotal evidence is distressing. To be sure, I’m thankful for the opportunity to glean biblical insights from the podcasts available from many popular pastors today. I’m also thankful to be able to read sermons from pastors throughout church history. (Chrysostom and Spurgeon are two of my favorites.)
And yet the popular preachers of this year or yesteryear are not the pastors who have influenced me most. It could be that my preaching is influenced by the preaching I listen to or the sermons I read, but a preacher on a podcast is not a pastor to me.
The Perfect Storm
I worry that two weather systems have formed and are coming together in a way that might harm the church. The first weather system is a drought caused by the fatherlessness of our current society. People are looking for fathers and their influence.
The second weather system is the heavy rain of pastoral resources available through technological advance. People can easily access terrific sermon content from especially gifted pastors.
Put drought conditions and heavy rain together, and we have a potential flood situation. Pastors and preachers whose messages connect with our generation are filling the fatherless void but in a way that leads to a distortion of what pastoral influence and fatherhood is supposed to be.
I remember reading Collin Hansen’s book on the “young, restless, and reformed” a few years ago and being disturbed by one woman’s description of John Piper as a “father” of sorts, even though they’d never met. Fathers image God. The fact that a young lady could express the concept of spiritual fatherhood in relation to Piper shows what her view of God the Father is. Far off. Transcendent. Powerful. Distant. If fatherhood can take place without ever meeting, then we must have missed something about the immanence of God that expresses itself in God’s condescension to us in Christ.
Let me reiterate that I’m not faulting John Piper or any other popular pastor for this development. It must be said that much pastoral “fame” is simply the accumulation of honor for a pastor who has proven faithful to God’s call over time.
But just because we cannot and should not point fingers at each other regarding the problem of celebrity does not mean that we shouldn’t carefully consider the ramifications of pastoral influence being mediated through technology instead of the local church. I offer these thoughts not as a point of criticism but as one of concern. And I’m open to suggestions as to how to lift up local church pastors and celebrate their influence and mentoring.
John Piper was right to remind us that we are not pastored by “professionals.” Perhaps it’s time we remembered that we are not pastored by podcasts either.