I just returned from a conference that centered on the Gospel. It featured some well-known preachers, what some might call “big-name” pastors; others might use the description “celebrity pastors.” In fact, I’ve heard one of these pastors described as having the status of ”rock star” among young evangelicals.” You can check out that conference here. In addition to the plenary sessions there were several panel discussions, one of which took up the topic of “Celebrity Pastors: “Indecent Exposure?” The discussion centered on the celebrity-like status achieved by pastors who typically (1) lead large churches, (2) author books, (3) serve on influential boards and councils, all of which give them considerable name recognition and influence in the evangelical community, resulting in them (4) being sought-after speakers.
The 40-minute discussion revolved around whether or not this celebrity phenomenon was a good thing or a bad thing. It was impossible to delve deeply into the subject with the time constraints. There was open and honest dialogue among the five panelists, several of whom would be placed into this celebrity category. One panelist raised the question as to whether the conference itself contributed to this celebrity-pastor phenomenon by scheduling the “big names” to address the 8,000 registered attendees, knowing they would draw in the crowds. He expressed the opinion that predictably turning to the big names to address the big crowds feeds this celebrity craze. He tossed out a challenge that, to make a visible statement against celebrity pastors, the conference organizers invite a “no-name,” common, ordinary pastor to preach to the thousands at a future conference. His remark was applauded by some. But not by me.
It is true that we live in a celebrity-crazed culture and I detest it. But does celebrity equal sinful or does being popular equal being prideful? Is it wrong to become famous? Of course it depends on what one is famous for, but this discussion isn’t about wannabe celebrities who thrust themselves into the limelight every chance they get, who plaster their faces on the covers of their books, and who insist on Perrier in the pulpit. No, the men at this conference were men who have risen to notoriety through powerful preaching that is faithful to the God’s Word, and effective, yet humble, leadership. Is it wrong to have thousands who want to hear and learn from and even follow a person like that?
I sometimes get the impression from the non-famous that fame is wrong; that somehow the only way one achieves fame is by compromising important things and being driven by ego. Our world (if television is any indication of our world) is over-populated with under-talented and over-confident narcissists. But that doesn’t mean every famous person has walked that pathway to get to where they are. Becoming famous, in and of itself, is neither righteous nor evil. It’s worth noting that a celebrity doesn’t achieve that status alone. Their accomplishments may make them a candidate, but it’s a clamoring public that casts the deciding votes.
I am okay with the fact that there are pastors who rise to higher levels of recognition than other pastors, whose ministries reach farther than other’s. I am fine with the fact that I pastor a church of 200 plus while other pastors in the area lead churches of 2,000 plus. I am okay with not being a best-selling author (though writing a book is on my bucket list). I’m not jealous of them. I’m not suspicious that they’ve compromised something important to get there. I am thankful for the reach of their ministries into so many lives. I don’t envy their speaking schedules or their fame. I don’t think that is due to my being an unmotivated or under-achieving person.
So why am I really okay with, even thankful for, “celebrity pastors” and why do I think it’s unfair to be perjorative with the label “celebrity” when referring to them?
- The Church’s History. There have been celebrity pastors from the beginning. The apostles were the most famous Christians of the first century, and it didn’t take long for other teachers to begin to rise to prominence and popularity. Can it really be said that Paul, even in his own day, was not famous among the existing churches? What about Martin Luther and John Calvin? What about George Whitefield who was the most celebrated preacher in Britain and America in the 18th century, one time preaching to a crowd of more than 30,000? By every standard of today’s “celebrity pastors,” Charles Haddon Spurgeon was one. By the age of 21 he was one of the most popular preachers in 19th-century London. Thousands filled the auditorium where he preached every Sunday and it’s estimated he preached to more than 10 million people in his lifetime. His sermons were transcribed, published and sent around the world on a weekly basis. And there was D. L. Moody, so popular that the President of the United States came to hear him preach. Every generation in the church’s history has had men extra-ordinarily gifted by God to affect the lives of numbers beyond the ordinary. The current generation is no different. Today’s celebrity pastors walk in honorable footsteps.
- Jesus’ Parable of the Talents. In this parable, a master gave five talents to one servants and only one to another. Seriously, 5 to 1. You tell me who was given some advantages. The bottom line was the master gave the talents however he chose and the recipients were responsible to use what came from the master for the master. One pastor may be given great communication ability, excellent writing skills, natural leadership gifts, a magnetic personality, and (I need a fifth…) a double-portion of the spirit of Elijah, while another pastor is just given the ability to preach. Is that fair? That’s not even a valid question. Each is to use what he is given, and accept the fact that quantities of giftedness, passion, aptitudes, personality, and experiences given to any singular guy won’t be the same as those given to another.
- The Holy Spirit’s Gifting. The Holy Spirit distributes gifts for ministry “as He wills.” Every pastor is gifted however the Holy Spirit decides he will be gifted. This has nothing to do with personal or pastoral worth. It has everything to do with divine assignments. Some pastors are gifted by God for ministry beyond, sometimes way beyond their own congregations. That call belongs to the Head of the Church and the Spirit’s work. What He gives to one He has no obligation to give to all.
- The Faithful Pastor’s Responsibility. A pastor is to provide an example worthy of being emulated. Can a pastor have too many people watching him, too many wanting to hear him preach, too many reading what he writes, or too many following him? Of course not. And besides, he’s not really in control of that. At some point the number of people watching, learning, and following a pastor moves him into the celebrity category.
- God’s Sovereignty. I trust in the sovereignty of God (illustrated in the parable of the talents and the Holy Spirit’s gifting). How that applies to this discussion is this: I wouldn’t want to go to a conference and hear me preach. I actually prefer to go to a conference and hear somebody better than me preach. Going to a conference and hearing someone like me wouldn’t encourage me in my ordinariness. I am not saying God could not use that person in my life because He could. I’m just saying that I don’t go to conferences every week, nor every year for that matter. I’m not going to go to a conference featuring the “ordinary.” I live with that every day of my life. Now here’s the sovereignty of God part. If I really had something to say that 8,000 people needed to hear me say and that God wanted me to say to them, I believe God would put me on the platform before those 8,000 to say it. If that platform isn’t given to me I am just fine with accepting the fact that it’s not a platform God wants to give to me, though it will be a platform He gives to another. There’s no place for jealousy in the presence of God’s sovereignty.
So for me personally, I don’t see anything gained by by having a fellow “ordinary,” unknown pastor invited to preach in a big-venue conference. I don’t seek it. I don’t need that kind of validation for the legitimacy of ordinary ministry and ministers. If that’s under-achieving then God will have to convict me of that. Perhaps the only regret I have with not being one of these really gifted pastors is this: I feel for my congregation. If these “celebrity pastors” so stir my soul, so feed me, so challenge me, and so inspire me, what might my congregation be like if they had that kind of pastor speaking into their lives every week? I’m not saying that to rag on myself. I say it because I love my congregation and I want the best for them. I believe I’m where God wants me and that means I’m the pastor for this flock, not someone more famous or more gifted than me, for now anyway. I don’t feel I’m missing out. I just hope my congregation isn’t.
I thank God for the kind of celebrity pastors who don’t see themselves as celebrities and whose ministries bless way beyond what any of them ever dreamed. They truly are God’s special gifts to His Church.
P.S. If you’d like to read a response of the panel member most skeptical of “celebrity pastors” to what he heard and experienced at the conference, you can read it here. He rightly concluded that this particular conference was not about featuring celebrity pastors but serving ordinary pastors.