Last week I gave my opinion on the greatest mark of a great pastor: service. I recalled an example in my local pastor, a man who I see every week and who brings me so much encouragement. It should come as little surprise, then, that I’d like to talk about the opposite side of the coin: the celebrity pastor. Celebrity pastors are everywhere around us, writing blogs, recording podcasts, and radiating their thoughts over social media, and yet we don’t see them like we do the local pastor. We don’t get to shake their hands, meet their families, and see them as they serve week in and week out.
Celebrity pastors are a powerful force in today’s evangelical world. They shape not only doctrine, but the way it is lived out. Their churches are huge and people flock to hear them preach. The Apostle Paul traveled far and wide, but never had the kind of immediate impact on the world that these men (and sometimes women) have. This can be a huge blessing, but it can also be a chance for great failure if we are not diligent in how we approach them.
Some of my good friends are really concerned about this phenomenon, with good reason, but I’m not utterly critical of celebrity pastors. I read their books, visit their blogs, and listen to their podcasts. I even follow some on twitter. When I was coming out of my divorce and feeling crushed by the way the church handled it, it was RC Sproul’s podcasts that encouraged me and kept me in the race of faith (OK, well it was the Holy Spirit that did that, but it was Sproul’s podcast he used!). It is an amazing thing to have access to evangelical preaching and teaching around the clock, wherever we are.
However, I do believe there is a dark side to this if we are not careful.
What Are Your Qualifications?
Celebrity pastors often have very long lists of qualifications: seminary with master’s or doctorate degrees, reams of written books, large churches with thousands of members: this list goes on. From the standpoint of the world, these men can exude success, and we hear it all the time. If ever there’s a concern about pastor xyz’s teaching, someone will be quick to point out the number of people who have become believers through his ministry. You can’t argue with numbers.
Certainly a lot of these qualifications are very compelling. If lives are being changed by these men, surely we want in on whatever it is they have to say, don’t we? There’s nothing wrong with that as far as it goes, but what are the scriptural qualifications for leadership? A quick read through 1 Tmothy 3 and Titus 1 gives us some pretty good lists:
The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. (1 Timothy 3:1-7, ESV)
This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you—if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. (Titus 1:5-9, ESV)
Certainly “able to teach” is in the list, which celebrity pastors have in spades, but how about the other requirements? Can we assume because a pastor sells a lot of books and has a lot of followers that he is “sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable” and all the rest?
I go back to my local pastor, who has impressed me so much with his acts of service and the way he lives. He’s not a just a voice on the iPod or words on a computer screen. He’s a REAL, flesh and blood human being who lives out Jesus right before my eyes, and no remote teacher can ever replace that. The way he serves, the way he lives with his family; the qualifications for leadership found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 is presented before my eyes. Celebrity pastors cannot do that. They might be wonderful examples of a 1 Timothy/Titus elder in their individual communities, but that’s not something I see or can know.
If we realized this and did not extend celebrity pastors undue trust, I think none of this would be a problem. But unfortunately, I do see it. I hear people talk about what “pastor xyz” said way more than I hear them talk about the teaching they receive at their own church. It seems a celebrity pastor gets immediate credibility because of his worldly success, whereas a local pastor has to earn it over time and will always be measured to the celebrities his congregation is reading. This is not at all the way it should be. Our local pastors should not supplement the celebrities; it should be the other way around . Those we can see living out real faith before our eyes should compel us far more than two dimensional personalities we don’t see beyond their ability to teach.
What Is The Measure Of Success?
Celebrity pastors have a lot of obligations and are measured on many different axis. Blog hits, followers, book sales. All of those things get tracked and people watch. If books aren’t selling, they have to answer to the publishers. But the one thing that really matters, the lives of those consuming their teaching, is essentially unmeasurable. How is a pastor who publishes a book to know if it is popular because it has resulted in changed lives or due to some unintended error that appeals to the sinful flesh?
Local pastors have the same goals, but if they are doing their jobs they are tapped into the lives they touch. They can see their congregation members living transformed lives and reaching spiritual maturity. Even the Apostle Paul, remote as he was, was in good enough communication with those he led that he could write books like Galatians rebuking the Judiazers or Philippians full of encouragement.
Once again, a lot of celebrity pastors have great teaching with wonderful influence that does result in transformed lives. But what happens when a popular teacher starts going down the road of error and people latch on? Is it easy for him see he is in error and course correct, or will he continue to follow his bad logic down the hole because that is what people are buying? Of course this can, and does, happen at the local level, but I think a local pastor has far less riding on defending his public mistakes: The “cage” around him is a lot weaker than the one around a celebrity. Once a celebrity goes out and plants a flag on a given issue, changing his stance is all but impossible. With humility, a local pastor who finds himself in error may have to deal with the embarrassment of admitting he was wrong, but those who know him won’t resent him for it. In fact, they will likely appreciate the humility. He won’t be getting in bad with a book publisher or legions of adoring fans.
Does this happen? I don’t know for certain, but I’ve seen some very bad teaching on critical issues from some very well regraded teachers, and my suspicion is that sometimes this is the result of a minor issue spinning out of control. It’s not that they are deliberately teaching error, but that the whole system is set up to hide their mistakes from them. Their teaching is re-enforced through blog hits, positive testimonials, and high numbers of books sales, all the while they never see the destructive effects their teaching may have on individual lives.
Of course, when a local pastor goes down such a road, often he can explode an entire church. This definitely happens, especially when there isn’t accountability. But I feel like I always have the choice to walk away from bad teaching if a pastor persists. At the celebrity level, I can stop reading a pastor or buying his materials, but if he’s popular enough I’ll still be hearing about him from my close Christian friends.
One Way or Two Way Conversations?
One thing I really like about my church is that the preaching isn’t just a one-way conversation. Certainly it starts that way, but I know my pastor is always available, sometimes even for lunch after the service, to ask him questions, get clarity, and perhaps even challenge him. I remember specific instances where I thought my pastor had oversimplified something, and after the service we hashed it out until we both understood each other better. This kind of thing is impossible when it comes to celebrity pastors.
I’ve had several moments where I wanted to respond to something I’ve heard RC Sproul preach and get clarity. Heck, I even wrote him once (but didn’t get a response back). He’s a smart man and obviously a good teacher, but you can only pack so much into a sermon. Sometimes a pastor has to pick out the important parts and gloss over the details, even critical details for a given situation.
I’ve also seen people challenge celebrity pastors on twitter or other social media. It seldom goes well, even when the pastor responds. There’s just no context of who the people really are in such a conversation, so it becomes a debate of topics or chance to trap one another in their views rather than an earnest search for what the Bible really says. I even remember my own attempt at doing this via Twitter with Paul Baloche. It was an interesting conversation talking with a “celebrity” individual one on one, but I ended up very cognizant that we didn’t know one another and he really wasn’t going to easily see my perspective. At least he was very polite and respectful, even if he never really got the point I was trying to make.
The best way to go deep in faith is not consuming what others have to provide, but iron sharpening iron in two way conversations. This simply cannot happen with celebrity pastors.
My False Dichotomy
An astute reader at this point may have been saying all throughout this post: “But wait Jeff, these celebrity pastors ARE local pastors, just not local to you.” This is true, and a point that should not be missed. I’m not trying to sit here and say “My pastor is great, Timothy Keller is second rate because he’s a celebrity”. My guess is that Keller is a huge asset to Redeemer and the local congregation there. It’s not about comparing him to my pastor, but for me, in MY world, the elders and pastors here in Suwanee, GA are the most important teachers. Keller, as much as I enjoy his work, is supplemental.
And that’s really the point: all of this stuff needs to be kept in perspective. Real Christianity is lived out in our relationships with others, not the books we read or ideas that we consume. Books by these celebrities may help us do the living out better, but they’ll never carry the ball for us.
In the end, I think it’s important that we never invert this relationship: making celebrity pastors and what they teach more important than our own local pastors. Celebrity pastors are very two dimensional: they may be great for one aspect of the Christian life, but beyond that they have very limited value. Whereas our local pastors are fully fleshed out, multi-dimensional people in our lives who have many different ways of changing us and helping us become more Christ-like.
With all of this, I’m only saying we need to be careful. Our rule of faith is scripture, and we should not allow celebrity pastors to have undue influence in our lives. They are a good tools and can bring much encouragement, but lets not do ourselves (or them) a disservice and raise them beyond the role they can fulfill.