Thursday, February 02, 2012

An Elephant, Rock Star Mega-Church Pastors and Discernment

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.


  1. Thank you for your blog. I think anyone with any maturity on the megachurch side will see the truth in some of your warnings. I do have this concern though. These sort of critiques tend to be read more by the "choir" than give true warning to those who need to hear it. Just as I believe anyone who attends a mega-church should be mature enough to take heed to some of the real dangers which you point out, I think there are many who would agree with you already, and who in immaturity, will develop a disdain or contempt for those who agree, support, attend, or lead these mega-churches.

    Having given your warning to the mega church, I think a strong warning of balance needs to be emphasized so that pride will not puff up those who are not a part of the megachurch movement. We all have blind spots. We are all members of one body. We need each other and one of the ways we need each other is to point out those blind spots. One of the blind spots I see in the more conservative elements of the body is a tendency towards pride and self-righteous separation-ism.

    I hope the mega church movement will heed your warning so that they are not so open that they allow heresy into the church. On the other hand, I hope the conservative church is not so closed minded that they will not allow for different styles within orthodoxy.

    "I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me." John 17:20-21

  2. Jason,

    I don't see any problem with preaching to the "choir" and warning the choir if the choir is in danger. And on the issues raised by Jeff I definitely think this is the case. I do agree that there is always a danger that immature Christians will fail to take such warnings in the right way, but then they are in danger of misunderstanding much that they need to be taught and warned about, aren't they? And that is why we as pastors have written more on this blog than this one article and why we teach the Scriptures so consistently to our congregations. It is also why your comment has been published.

    As for the danger of pride on our side of these issues, I do not doubt that there is always room for improvement, but I have to say that I haven't seen the kind of "self-righteous separationism" you allude to as a "tendency" in the more conservative churches, at least not in Reformed Baptist circles. If they have had a tendency to avoid involvement in conferences with men such as Rick Warren, for example, and have perhaps been critical of John Piper's involvement with him, I have seen it as a genuine desire not to condone what they think is a real danger to the churches. It has little or nothing to do with pride or self-righteousness, as far as I can tell, and everything to do with love for the truth and for Christ and His Church. But perhaps you didn't have such things in mind?

    When you say, "I hope the conservative church is not so closed minded that they will not allow for different styles within orthodoxy," I have to wonder what you mean when you speak of "styles." This is a term that may be used to refer to some legitimate areas where we may agree to disagree, or it may be used to refer to harmful (or potentially harmful) practices that minimize or distort the true message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So, for example, when a pastor uses crude and salacious language in his preaching in an apparent attempt to be cool and to appeal to the baser people around him, I do not think we can simply disregard this as a difference in "style." See this post for a message dealing with this issue:

    This is just one example of an area in which those of us who object may have been wrongly labeled "prideful" or "self-righteous" by some.

    Anyway, thanks for the input, brother.


  3. I do believe there is a virus that people catch and pass along; the sin of loving the applause of men. This comes from fixing one's sight on the seen rather than the unseen, as Scripture commands. Fools think we are to love heretics by accepting them rather than rebuking them and telling them the Truth. Biblical unity only comes from being redeemed by the biblical Christ - no cheap imitations will do!

  4. I have visited Reformed mega churches and found them very attractive, large coffee shops, modern decor, hip music, stage props and cool lighting. They offer less structure, less accountability, and less intrusion into a persons life while at the same time offering more excitement, fun, and games. Bells and whistles certainly have a broad appeal. The attraction is so great, I became a member at one. I am a member in good standing yet looking for a small RB church once again.

    Under the guise of "grace" or "Christian liberty," almost any form of entertainment is acceptable. I expected some limits and structure when it came to what my children were introduced to, but it is "no holds barred." Rated R horror movies, rap, and heavy metal, are acceptable in the Mega Reformed churches. Music is neutral you know....

    If it weren't for the command "not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together" there would be little or no Sunday services. That old command to keep the Sabbath day holy is passe. Once the morning services are complete, the rest of the day is free for anyone to do as they please.

    I would caution anyone considering a mega church to be careful. What you see up front is fairly conservative Calvinistic preaching, but what can be behind the youth group doors is scary. Also, if you have any conviction regarding the keeping of the Lord's Day holy, don't assume you will find one person in a 1000 to encourage you in your convictions. Trying to be an island in a world of "Christian liberty" is no easy endeavor.

  5. Interesting post. Sorry I'm so late commenting. As briefly as I can, let me say that Reformed Churches need to push back against the tide of the heretical mega churches. (TD Jakes, Osteen, etc.) And they are certainly trying, but still have a lot of growing pains to yet go through. Witness: I don't believe its wrong for a RC to use twitter and the internet to get their message out there. Its exactly what has been needed! The world has become socially connected, and that has to be taken into account. I hope your church has a Facebook! The opposition has one, to be sure.

    And one should be cautious to paint ALL the "neoCalvinists" with the same brush that one paints Mark Driscol or James McDonald. Both men are reaping the rewards of their mistakes, and must certainly be feeling the heat. (Churches leaving their para church associations, etc.) True, neos are more tolerant of the charismas, lacking in covenant theology, and tend to be in areas where hip is important, which sorta works against a gospel designed to free us from the need to be hip, but it is also the 21st century, and stardom is in and of itself, NOT a sin. Many handle it well. You listed some in your post. I would pray that the Pipers of the world and the others at TGC would stand up a little more to what is going on, but they have elected to take a slower approach, and let some chips fall where they may. The GOOD thing, is that the MacArthurs and Mohlers of the world ARE using social media, the internet, etc., to become part of the national conversation on these things, just as you are. The conversation is really going on about all this stuff, and every word you posted is apart of that conversation, too. The heretical left (for lack of a better word) has a huge headstart, on us true gospel believers, and we are just starting to make a little dent in it; like the neoCalvinism movement, and the Gospel Centered movement. They are making a difference!

    There's a lot of growing pains to go through, but the good thing is, look how fast the internet exploded after the ER2. And any number of things that happened. The conversation starts instantly. There's much to learn and process- multi-campuses, reformed/covenant theo, which came first: America leaving the church, or the church leaving her people? The conversations are endless. But its happening, and I am much more optimistic than I was 5 or 10 years ago.