I am perplexed! No, I am troubled! I am concerned, or maybe I am just a “hater.” I pastor a small church, so who cares what I am, how I feel, and what I have to say. I am sure I am just jealous, or a fundamentalist, or a failure. Whatever I am, I am sure I will not be classified as “discerning.”
Why am I troubled? Because Reformed Christianity appears to have fallen victim to the Hollywood pop culture where a few celebrity mega-church pastors have more influence upon younger Christians than a multitude of ordinary pastors who remain faithful and unknown. It is difficult to sound the alarm (Hey! There’s an elephant in the room and he kind of smells) because of the likelihood of sounding jealous, but the elephant has gotten so large and stinky that it’s hard not to say something. This is not to say that it’s wrong to pastor a mega-church or have a large following, but it is dangerous to place a person on a pedestal just because he pastors a mega-church and to fall all over ourselves in seeking to win their approval and a few of their internet followers. Credibility should never be based upon how many twitter followers a person has, but upon how faithful a pastor is with the truth. As said in the intro of the Mike Corley Program, “…the messenger does not validate the message, but rather the message validates the messenger.”
Human nature desires fame, envies those who are famous, and seeks the friendship of those who are famous. It is amazing how fame subconsciously and quickly warps our perspective and judgment. The most undeserving and despicable famous person in Hollywood may be Paris Hilton. Not even a fan of hers (I don’t like her at all), I thought I had great bragging rights after I ran into her in London. I remember eagerly and shamelessly walking back to the hotel so I could tell my friends. As if somehow the value and worth of my life went up some degree due to running into someone who is famous. Silly, I know, but this is human nature. We want to be famous or at least connected with those who are famous. I think it is because if we can get near to those who have the spot light we may somehow get out of the shadows. Even famous people do not seem exempt from the influence of this phenomenon. Have you not noticed that famous people befriend, date and marry other famous people? Maybe it’s because famous people think that being connected to other famous people will bring more popularity for themselves, as though two famous people coming together brings each a broader fan base than they would have had on their own. Whatever the case, fame has a gravitational pull on all of us, and I am afraid that the church along with her discernment is being sucked into its black hole. Here is some of the refuse the elephant is leaving behind in the church, and I personally believe it smells.
1. Reverse Fundamentalism
We can’t use discernment and question the actions of various well known celebrity pastors without being judged as a fighting fundamentalist or just flat out jealous of their success. We can be more liberal than they are, but we dare not be more conservative. If we happen to be more conservative, we are automatically villainized as belonging to the fundamentalist camp that only wants to fellowship with the King James Only Advocates. For instance, Steven Furtick, who is a mega-church pastor in Charlotte North Carolina went on this rant:
All of a sudden I am the hater because I take a more conservative and cautious approach to the ministry. I could believe the prosperity gospel and be a muddled modalist and be tolerated and even accepted with a cool, manly fist bump (as was the case with Driscoll and T. D. Jakes in the Elephant Room 2), but I dare not question the methodology of a pastor who pastors a mega-church or I will be labeled as a hater. Even worse, I may be threatened to be arrested, as was the case for our Lutheran friend Chris Rosebrough when he attempted to attend the Elephant Room 2 conference (see here).
The point is that we are charged with being haters because we voice our concerns, but our voices are the ones that are being cut off from the conversation.
2. Jumping on the Bandwagon Just because There is a Long Boarding Line
Have you ever gone to Walmart and counted the people wearing jackets with the little words “North Face” stamped in the corner? Probably not, but I have, and you would be amazed at how many people want a jacket just because of that little logo. Everybody seems to have one, and that seems to be the reason why everybody wants one, me included! Don’t say that it’s the quality, because I can go get a Snozu jacket, which is just as nice at T. J. Maxx’s for half the price. Yet without that North Face logo, a Snozu jacket just doesn’t seem as cool. If the herd of people were not wearing North Face jackets, I am sure I wouldn’t feel so tempted to buy one. The point is, it’s human nature, so it seems, to follow the crowd without really examining why.
The growing mega-church and celebrity pastor phenomenon seems to be under this spell as well. Grab people’s attention by talking about sex and the use of controversial and slightly seditious methodology, and then the momentum of the crowds rushing in will do the rest. People want to go where all people are going. If you stopped and asked them why North Face, why this church? The honest answer would likely be, because it’s cool, and it’s also where all my friends or potential friends go. The right music, the right aesthetics, the right web-design, and throw in a bigger than life personality for the pastor and then presto—you have created the perfect combination for a mega-church, and the rise of the latest celebrity pastor. But, if we step back and ask why is Paris Hilton so famous? What has she really done to deserve such a large fan base? Besides some questionable behavior and a little bit of charisma, there is no substantial reason for her to be so popular. She is not the prettiest girl, she can’t sing, she is not much of an actor, but for some reason she is famous. In the same way, many of these celebrity pastors have nothing substantial to justify such a large following. I am not saying that they have no spiritual gifting, but I know many obscure pastors who are more knowledgeable, spiritually gifted and devoted who remain out of any national or international spotlight. Martin Luther, George Whitefield, Charles Spurgeon, and even contemporaries like John Piper, R. C. Sproul and John MacArthur have something unique about their spiritual gifting that sets them apart. These men deserve a broad hearing. Yet, other than their personal charisma and charm there is not much that makes ministers like Rick Warren and Steven Furtick worthy of such attention within the Reformed community. My point is, the most faithful, the most gifted and the most devoted pastors do not always equate to the most famous in the kingdom of God. Nevertheless, fame has the tendency to warp our judgment, for in many cases the most faithful and gifted pastors are overlooked, while the celebrity pastors grab all the headlines. Carl Truemen rightly noted:
One thing that is so striking about the rise of celebrity in the wider world is that it has been accompanied by the rise of the myth of the polymath. Thus, a pop star who can write a song that becomes a hit also becomes a person who is consulted about things like gay rights, Third World Debt and global warming. They are no more qualified (and in some cases much less qualified) than you or I to offer such advice; but we are never asked because we have not written a pop hit or starred in a movie. We now see this phenomenon in the evangelical world: fame and a big church make you competent to speak all over the theological map.
There has been a downgrade in the Reformed Community. I was afraid of this back when Mark Driscoll was introduced as a Calvinist. For years, Calvinism was despised and marginalized by mainstream Christianity. Pastors were run out of their churches and they sacrificed greatly for their faithful stance for the truth. Now with the rise of this neo-Calvinism, God’s sovereign grace is cool and fashionable. Yet it appears that this new form of Calvinism is only cool when it comes to Jonathan Edwards screen-printed T-shirts, but has nothing to do with one’s methodology of ministry. The famous Calvinistic ministers of old where known for their commitment to truth in all facets of life, but these new Calvinists are known for how fast they can grow a church and cumulate a fan base by marketing themselves as cool and providing a multi-sensual worship experience. Worse yet, these young Calvinists, who know little to nothing of the hardships of the previous generation of Calvinists, are telling that generation to get out of the way, for they have discovered a better and less offensive way to do ministry.
3. Mega-Pastors’ Gravitation Toward Each Other
It’s weird, but it does seems that the larger the objects the greater their gravitational pull. Mega-church pastors seem to attract other mega-pastors, regardless of their doctrinal stance. I love John Piper and think his books (especially his book on missions, Let the Nations be Glad) are excellent! With that said, I am disappointed with his endorsement of Rick Warren. I am sure we can learn something from Rick Warren, but whatever we may be able to learn from him we could learn from someone else without all the seeker sensitive baggage. The question I have is why? Dr. Piper, why Rick Warren? Whatever the reason, if Rick Warren was not so popular I am almost certain that Piper wouldn’t be so drawn to him. But worse than John Piper’s association with Rick Warren is the latest Elephant Room fiasco. The mega-church pastor T. D. Jakes is treated as a hero even though he will not take a firm position on the Trinity, and even though he perverts the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ by preaching a man centered health and wealth gospel.
It almost seems as bad as this mock conversation below:
“Okay Benny Hinn, get ready! I am sure you’ll be the next celebrity who will be welcomed into the fold. Maybe by reaching out to you, our Reformed celebrity pastors may be able to win some of your audience and followers over to Reformed Theology.”
“You’re crazy, Jeff,” the mega-church pastors may respond back to me, “don’t you understand that unity is not about Reformed Theology, it’s about the gospel!”
To which I would replay, “Is it?”
In which they respond, “Well, okay, it’s technically not about the gospel because we accepted T. D. Jakes and his prosperity gospel.”
To which I would reply, “Well, since it’s not about the gospel, at least you celebrity pastors may be able to broaden your fan base by reaching out to these other celebrity pastors.”
Finally they agree, “What a good idea! Your right, Jeff! Hey, Benny Hinn come on over and bring us some of your followers.”
4. Multi-Sight Campuses
I wonder why mega-church pastors are not willing to plant new churches rather than feeling the need to open various satellite campuses. I understand that any given locality has its limitations, and people are willing to drive only so far, but what are the reasons to divide a local body when starting a new work seems to be more in line with the biblical pattern? Do these mega-pastors think so highly of themselves as to think that no other preacher is as capable? Are they unwilling to share the glory? If it’s the people who would rather have a famous virtual pastor than an unknown pastor who is present, then are not these mega-church pastors unwilling to teach their followers of the danger of exalting a man? Is it about building a kingdom that is centered around a mega-church personality? Is it all of a sudden acceptable to have a bishop pastoring multiple flocks? Is it biblical to divide a local body, or can it even be called a local body? How do you effectively pastor a flock in an off site location? It seems slightly better than handing a group of people a pile of recorded sermons and then telling them that I am happy to be your Shepherd who watches over your souls. I am sure there may be some good motives mixed in with opening satellite campuses, but I can’t help but think it’s not about reaching more people (planting local churches could do that), but about ego and building a fan base. I know I am a “hater” for bringing up such concerns, but all this celebrity Christianity seems to be getting out of control.
There is an elephant that has squeezed into the church and hardly anyone wants to admit it. Maybe it’s because we’re scared that we will be judged as envious or overly scrupulous. Also, if I am seeking popularity among young teenage girls, the last thing I want to do is vocalize any criticism towards Justin Bieber. In the same way, if I want to broaden my ministry opportunities, and if everybody loves these mega-church personalities, then the last thing I should do is offend the followers of Mark Driscoll. I think it’s the desire to be famous which is a large part of the problem, and the elephant in the room is so big it’s time for us to say something regardless of what it may cost us.