Mega-Star, Mega-Preachers – A Pox on Your House Too!

The last couple of posts have allowed me to do a little venting. As I wrote some time back, this blog allows me to “talk to myself” a little, while at the same time hopefully causing others to think. I am certainly not sitting here thinking that I am going to change the world. The extent of my range to change things is limited to the cat boxes.

However, in discussing the issue of entertainment in worship, my mind was inexorably drawn to perhaps the greatest single worship issue confronting Churches of Christ today – and I am not referring to “praise teams” or instrumental music in worship. I am talking about the cult of hero worship that we have created, or are in the process of creating, around “professional” preachers.

Years ago it was said that the Roman Catholic Church had the Pope, and Churches of Christ had editors. There was a great deal of truth to this, as preachers, and even entire congregations, could be identified as “Gospel Advocate” men or “Firm Foundation” men or possibly even “Standard” men. That is not so true anymore, as print publications have waned tremendously in popularity and editors have faded in teaching authority. What has seemingly replaced them is a rising cult of mega-star, mega-preachers. It is not that Churches of Christ have never had what we consider to be 5-star, marquee level preachers, you might even say its in our DNA, dating all the way back to Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, Walter Scott, et. al. What differentiates today from yester-year is that along with those luminaries there was a vast, innumerable army of preachers working in virtual obscurity, laboring in congregations large and small, all knowing that their service was just as vital to the health of the church as the “big boys.” And the “big boys” knew the value of the small town preacher because they were, at one time, all small town preachers.

However, what is occurring now is taking place right in lock-step with the greater world of evangelicalism. What I see happening how is that small town churches (and even some large city churches) are dismissing their located preachers (or are not replacing departed preachers) and are moving to the “multi-site” or “multi-campus” paradigm whereby one hero-preacher preaches via satellite link to a number of congregations, some many miles away.

I would suggest that what follows can best be described as a “chicken or the egg” issue, where the cause or effect is impossible to determine. However, we read left to right and top to bottom, so something has to come first. My first might actually be the second, so read the next sections with that in mind.

Beginning at least in the late 20th century (when I was an undergraduate), young men were encouraged to enter into just about any ministry other than preaching to local congregations, especially smaller congregations. It’s not that “located preaching work” was openly denigrated, its just that it was not actively promoted. The older professors, those who had preached for small congregations, still spoke approvingly of such work, but the younger professors rarely mentioned it, and when they did, it was very often in condescending ways. The model that was promoted was stepping straight from graduation into a large, multi-ministry congregation. The “jack-of-all-trades” preacher who did everything from direct VBS to folding the bulletin was viewed as an anachronism, a relic from a by-gone era. Because we loved the young professors so much, and strove to emulate them, ¬†we all just naturally assumed that we were all destined to serve 500+ member congregations. It was our ministerial birthright.

The result has been nothing short of predictable. When I was a young man, our “hero” preachers were men who started out preaching to very small, mostly rural, congregations and either built them up, or transitioned to larger urban congregations where they once again built them up. They never forgot their roots, however, and their preaching demonstrated it – they praised the work of the multitude of “anonymous” preachers, because they knew what small congregation ministry was like (and they had the bruises to show it). Today, our “hero” preachers have never stood behind the pulpit of a congregation of 25 members. They have never known what it is like to work with a “men’s business meeting.” They simply do not understand, and therefore cannot appreciate, small town ministry or small congregation preaching. It is one thing to preach when you have 15-20 elders to support you, and 4-5 other staff members to do everything from plan the worship service to make sure the waste baskets are cleaned. Put some of our “mega-preachers” in a single-minister congregation and they would become whimpering little puppies within six weeks.

Simultaneous to this shift was a shift that was occurring in congregations as well. It wasn’t good enough to just have a man serve as a preacher. He had to come with star status. He had to have a quiver full of baptisms everywhere he went. He had to be well known on the “preaching circuit.” Young men straight out of college or schools of preaching need not apply. Start out as a youth minister or education minister was the advice – ergo, start out with one of those 500+ member congregations, prove your mettle, and then move on to a preaching gig.

Then, the generation shift hit – and congregations everywhere started to age. Simultaneous to this shift was the rural-to-urban shift, and smaller rural congregations lost members (mostly younger adults) to the growing urban congregations. The 250 member congregations suddenly became 500 member congregations, and the 500 member congregations became 1,000 member congregations. The smaller, rural congregations lost their ability (and sometimes even their desire) to support a full-time minister, and even some urban congregations (in decaying parts of cities) were unable to maintain their full-time staff.

All while this was occurring there was a simultaneous shifting paradigm among (mostly) evangelical churches – take a mega-pastor, video his sermons, link them via satellite to any number of remote “campuses,” and bada, bada, bing, his stature and acclaim grows exponentially, as does the status of the “home” congregation. Instead of being a “pastor” (the term grates on me) of a 5,000 member congregation, he can be referred to as the pastor of a 15,000 or 20,000 member “congregation,” even though that “congregation” is made up of 4, 5, or more distant “campuses.”

Apparently, Churches of Christ have swallowed that model hook, line, and sinker.

Part of the shift is pragmatic – smaller congregations, or congregations that are struggling financially, get the benefit of hearing a sermon broadcast in “real” time. Buildings that would have to be shuttered are kept open. Members can stay in locations where they are comfortable, and sometimes in the only congregations of Churches of Christ for miles around.

But, as with my thoughts on “praise teams,” there is something sinister about this pragmatic shift. There is some serious theology that is utterly missing, and some really dangerous thinking taking its place. For one thing, this is but the first step in the death of the autonomous congregation. It is a veiled introduction to the concept of a bishopric, where one man is viewed to be “chief among equals.” Just as we can see in the evangelical world, when a man is followed by 20,000 or more energetic disciples, under whose authority does he place himself? What eldership can discipline a man when his face is being broadcast to 3, 4, 5 or more distant locations (and, by extension, there is a fiduciary relationship among those congregations)?

Before anyone responds with the inevitable – I know, I get it, it “works.” But if you want to see the ultimate in how this “works,” you need not look any further than the Roman Catholic Church, with its elaborate hierarchal structure. I for one do not want to go there. I also know there are very real, and very serious, issues relating to aging congregations in communities that are themselves dying. I know there are very real, and very serious, issues in urban congregations where shifting demographics have created membership issues.

But, brothers and sisters, can we not approach these issues from a theological perspective instead of a pragmatic one? I know that changes are going to have to be made, but can we not make decisions that will promote the health of individual congregations and provide for local ministers instead of raising the names and faces of just a few “mega-preachers” to idolatrous status?

  • Can we not demand that our colleges and universities return to a model of preparing men to preach, and to minister, to small congregations?
  • Can we not develop a pattern where larger, and more affluent, congregations can “send” men to preach for smaller and financially weaker congregations, and to place those men under the leadership of that local congregation?
  • Can we not raise up a generation of men who see the value of serving the church for whom Christ died, whether he preaches to 25, or 50, or 5,000 members?
  • Can we not devise a system where a man can preach for a small congregation without being forced to live on government assistance? We have created a caste system of ministry – we have those who feast sumptuously on caviar and others who cannot even feed their families without taking a second job.

I will freely admit I do not know all the answers – but I just feel in my bones that the road we are traveling down is the wrong road. I see no lasting solution in selling our spiritual birthright for a mess of evangelical porridge. We can do so much better.

But, I think the solution is to begin by learning what it means to take a towel and start washing some feet.

We will climb higher only by descending lower.

Political – or Biblical?

As a preaching minister I have long made it a goal to avoid overt political posturing in the pulpit. One of the most egregious violations of this principle occurred while I was actually not preaching, but the offending preacher did everything in his power except name names in attempting to get the congregation to vote for one particular candidate. I do my best to avoid overt political issues for one very important reason: I believe doing so cheapens the message of the gospel. Our political system cannot be placed on a par with the message and mission of the church. In my opinion, there should be a very clear boundary separating preaching the gospel from advocating for a political party or candidate.

The question arises, however – just what constitutes political posturing and what constitutes biblical preaching? Let me explain with a simple scenario:

Let’s say one Sunday I stand and preach a sermon condemning homosexual behavior, and along with that the behavior all of the associated gender-bending issues that our culture is being inundated with today. If I were to assemble a cross section of all of the congregations of which I have been a member, I would hazard a guess that the overwhelming majority of them would compliment my lesson, tell me I was very brave, and generally not even consider whether the sermon was political or not. So, the very next Sunday I get in the pulpit and preach a “hell fire and brimstone” sermon condemning greed, covetousness, and the racial/economic discrimination that our free-market capitalism has produced in America. Without any firm numbers, I can say almost without hesitation that those very same people who were so supportive of my condemnation of sexual perversions would have a very negative reaction to my sermon on economic perversions. Whether they would actually confront me or not (and a few would), my guess is that the overwhelming majority of them would categorize a sermon condemning racial and economic discrimination as being “political,” while a sermon condemning sexual sins as being “biblical.”

Yet, from cover to cover, does the Bible have more to say about racial, social, and economic injustice, or sexual sins? Consider the teachings of Jesus – which subject occupies more of Jesus’s time and attention? This is not to say that sexual sins are never addressed – the New Testament is replete with exhortations toward sexual purity and condemnations of sexual misbehavior. I am only illustrating a point – which subject receives the majority of discussion? In my understanding the results are not even close. While either or both subjects could be addressed as political topics, it is perfectly possible, and I would say necessary, to address both as matters of biblical doctrine

Speaking only for myself here, but I think the answer to this problem lies not with our desire to re-write the Bible. Its just that, in the words that I saw on Twitter the other day, it is so much easier to confess other’s people’s sins than it is to confess our own. It is easy to condemn sexual sins because, at least for the majority of Christians, that condemnation has been a part of our vocabulary since we were little children. Greed, covetousness, avarice, racial discrimination – all of these things have been singled out as being sinful, but how does one identify a greedy person when everyone in the community is bent on buying the latest model car, the newest cell phone, the most popular makes of clothing, etc.? It is easy for “conservative” Christians to wag our finger in the face of an adulterer or practicing homosexual, but who wants to condemn covetousness while we are standing in line for the newest and greatest smart phone?

So, I will continue to maintain my aversion to preaching overtly political sermons. I refuse to preach “get out and vote” sermons just before elections, because I do not want the cross of Christ to be seen as some platform for our American political system. But – and read me careful here – faithful preachers should reserve the right to preach on every issue discussed in the pages of Scripture that has a direct bearing on the manner in which a disciple of Christ lives his or her life. That means when the text demands we preach against sexual sins, we will preach against sexual sins. And when the text demands that we preach against issues related to racial discrimination, legal justice, and economic fairness, we will preach on those issues as well.

I just pray that when I do preach on any subject, I do so with the humility of Christ (and his apostles), knowing that the first person that hears any of my sermons is the man in the mirror. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it “theology from below,” and its a pretty good description. Let us all realize we are called to live under Scripture, not above it as its master.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.