Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Why "Celebrity Pastors" Aren't Really the Problem

There is a legend that has survived for around 30 years in my denomination.  Like a lot of legends, I'm not sure if this conversation actually happened, but it makes for a good story nonetheless.  Rumor has it that a young aspiring preacher once approached Dr. Adrian Rogers--the famous and faithful pastor who served three terms as President of the Southern Baptist Convention--and said to him "Dr. Rogers, my goal is to be like you.  I want to preach to thousands every Sunday."  In response, Adrian Rogers said "young man, you don't know what you are asking for, nor do you know how much it will cost you."

This year has been a bad one for quite a number of well-known pastors and faith-leaders.  Most recently, Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll has taken quite a beating even from those within his own tribe in what is apparently a well-deserved period of scrutiny.  But Driscoll is not alone.  Ed Young Jr., John Piper, Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, T.D. Jakes, Bill Hybels, Francis Chan and Billy Graham have all dealt with their own shares of sharp criticism from the public.  In fact, as I look back at that list of men and in particular view the wide theological diversity in that list, it appears that public criticism may be the only thing they all hold in common.  That, and the fact that all of them are well-known.

Which brings me to the subject of this post.  Regardless of theology, or even whether the criticism is legitimate, each and every time a very public pastor finds himself at the center of controversy, voices emerge from all around evangelicalism blaming the so-called "celebrity pastor" phenomenon as the culprit.  But perhaps the real problem isn't so much who is in the pulpit as it is those who occupy the seats.

The technology available to our generation through podcasts and vodcasts makes the popularity of certain preachers more visible and obvious than in past generations, but while the term "celebrity pastor" is somewhat new, the concept of well-known and admired preachers has been around since--well, the time of Jesus.  And from the Scriptures we know that before the end of the first century, Paul was having to deal with the negative consequences of those who seem to follow their favorite preacher more than Christ Himself.

Think about it this way.  The church at Corinth was witnessing sexual sin in their midst that would have made Jerry Springer blush! (5:1)  They were treating the Lord's Supper like an open bar at happy hour. (11:21)  Their worship looked less like a gathering of saints speaking truth, and more like godless pagans babbling incoherently. (14:26-40).  Yet with all those problems, the biggest threat Paul sees to this church--the thing that he chooses to address first--was the division among them that resulted from various groups of fan-boys.

"What I am saying is this: each of you says, 'I'm with Paul,' or 'I'm with Apollos,' or 'I'm with Cephas,' or 'I'm with Christ.'  Is Christ divided?  Was it Paul who was crucified for you?  Or were you baptized in Paul's name?"   -1 Corinthians 1:12-13

Does this sound familiar?

If Paul were writing this letter today and addressing it to the American church, do you think it might sound something like this?  What I am saying is this: each of you says "I'm with Driscoll,' or 'I'm with Ed Young,' or 'I'm with Albert Mohler,' or 'I'm with Paige Patterson.'  Were these men crucified for you?

Here's the thing.  I think its OK to admire a preacher.  I have a few myself who are regulars on my iPod.  I also think its natural to gravitate toward those well-known voices who best represent your own tribe and doctrinal persuasion.  The problem comes when our allegiance to a person divides us from other members of the body of Christ.  Trouble starts brewing at a church like Mars Hill, and all the Driscoll critics who have hated him for years yell "Fire him!" while those who have had a distant bromance with the guy scream that he's just being persecuted for "faithfully preaching the Gospel."  Next thing you know, twitter can't manage the traffic caused by followers of Jesus yelling at each other.  Then inevitably and predictably, someone steps forward and says "well, the real problem here is the whole 'celebrity pastor' thing."  But the 'celebrity' didn't start the fight.

Truth is, I've been truly blessed, inspired, and fed by Driscoll over the years.  There have also been times when I've turned him off because it became obvious to me that his own biases had clouded his exegesis. I could say the same thing about many other preachers, and I'm sure if asked, those who have sat under my preaching over the years would say the same thing about me.  

The bottom line is this:  No matter how popular a preacher is, no matter how many times his sermons get downloaded, the responsibility of Biblical discernment is the responsibility of those who listen.  If Osteen continues to perpetuate a message that sounds less like Jesus and more like Milton Friedman, its because people gave, people supported, people attended, and people refused to discern.  If Driscoll is indeed guilty of the abuses he's charged with and there are no consequences, it will be because people refused to discern.

Celebrity isn't the problem.  Lack of discernment is the problem.  And it begins when, as the Corinthians, we become more enamored with a man than with the message he is supposed to be preaching.


Kevin Sanders said...

Good post, Joel. One thing I've learned in my Christian walk is not to put too much "stock" in one preacher/author. It's fine to benefit from someone's ministry, but some get obsessive about it.

The Steele's - Missionaries to Mexico said...

Great post, brother. Lord, give us more Bereans and fewer Corinthians.