Monthly Archives: October 2011

Beale’s Biblical Theology in time for Christmas!

I am anticipating Greg Beale’s, A New Testament Biblical Theology in a few weeks! I hope many in the pews will find it enjoyable too.

Publisher’s Description: In this comprehensive exposition, a leading New Testament scholar explores the unfolding theological unity of the entire Bible from the vantage point of the New Testament. G. K. Beale, coeditor of the award-winning Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, examines how the New Testament storyline relates to and develops the Old Testament storyline. Beale argues that every major concept of the New Testament is a development of a concept from the Old and is to be understood as a facet of the inauguration of the latter-day new creation and kingdom. Offering extensive interaction between the two testaments, this volume helps readers see the unifying conceptual threads of the Old Testament and how those threads are woven together in Christ. This major work will be valued by students of the New Testament and pastors alike.

Refreshing Your Shepherd

It is Clergy Appreciation Month. Your pastor needs encouragement. These are good things, for it means that he is human, and that you have a unique opportunity to be a servant to him.

Many parishioners have and will celebrate their pastors during this month. They will give him gifts, say kind words to him, or provide him with some extra time off. Yet other local congregations will miss this great opportunity, and their pastors will go without any special recognition – this, despite the fact that celebrating the pastor in October is now an annual tradition known throughout the North American Christian community. Many pastors will not be honored even as they watch their fellow pastors receive honor again and again by their churches. Thinking that this responsibility is someone else’s – such as the pastor’s aide committee or the deacons – many churchgoers will miss a chance to be a great blessing within the kingdom of God.

Why do We Honor Our Pastors?

For various reasons, there are churches that do not believe in showing special honor to a pastor. Some have overreacted to being stung by the greed of hirelings and wolves. They have witnessed the pastor who demands unbudgeted financial gifts at every turn: For his birthday (and his wife’s birthday), his wedding anniversary, anniversary of his call to the church, Christmas, and for Clergy Appreciation Month too! For fear of being fleeced by this rouse, some people hesitate to give any special honor even to faithful, humble shepherds.

It is important to remember that honoring the shepherd is the Lord’s idea. Through Paul, the Lord says, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17; cf. 2 Tim. 3:16). Regardless of our bad experiences, shepherds, especially the hardworking and faithful ones, are due honor that is “double.”

The debate on the nature of “double” continues: “Double” of what? Is it twice what one gives widows (1 Tim. 5:3)? Is it much more than that due to other Christian workers? Is it greater than what one would give a professional outside of the church? Is it a unique measure of respect of their authority? One thing is certain: “Double” has a financial factor. The reasons for honor concern “wages” given for “labor” by the worker, and food for the ox to eat while he is pulling the plow (1 Tim. 5:18, cf. Mt. 10:10; Lk. 10:7). Of the later illustration, Paul writes that this Scripture concerns the payment of people (1 Cor. 9:8-12; cf. Dt. 25:4).

One church will build such monetary honor into the pastor’s salary and benefits package. Another church will provide it through a special annual anniversary gift (or annually during Clergy Appreciation Month). Still others provide special honor through a year-end bonus. These are commendable acts that demonstrate appreciation to the pastor. By some significant means, an assembly remembers the shepherd’s service for the maturity, comfort, and joy of his people.

Recently, a colleague of mine at a nearby congregation went to a pastor’s conference as a surprise gift from the leaders of his church. They recognized a particularly challenging season of work for their shepherd and spontaneously rewarded him. They paid for the conference registration and made travel arrangements. All he had to do was go. His smile was huge and humble as he recounted the story.

In stark contrast, for an unnamed number of assemblies and believers, the financial factor contributes to the caution (or refusal) of some to give generously toward their pastors: We are greedy people who love our money; we are selfish people who will spend discretionary funds on steak and shrimp, movies, and fifth and sixth mobile gadgets before we will give to one who labors in the word on our behalf.

Who Benefits from Honoring the Pastor?

In the economy of God, the great grace of the Lord toward his church is that the members of a local body benefit from honoring their shepherd. In Hebrews, speaking about leaders of the church, the writer says, “they are keeping watch over [our] souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Heb. 13:17). He then exhorts the church: “Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” The implication is that watching over souls with joy is of advantage to the people of God. Showing the shepherd special honor for his labors is one small way to foster this joy. Commenting on Heb. 13:17, Calvin notes,

“The heavier the burden they bear, the more honor they deserve; for the more labor anyone undertakes for our sake, and the more difficulty and danger he incurs for us, the greater are our obligations to him. And such is the office of bishops, that it involves the greatest labor and the greatest danger; if, then, we wish to be grateful, we can hardly render to them that which is due; and especially, as they are to give an account of us to God, it would be disgraceful for us to make no account of them.”

In August 2010, when it was announced that Washington Nationals rookie star pitcher Jason Strasburg had to have Tommy John surgery, fans knew that this meant he would miss most of the 2011 season. He would need a year off for recovery and therapy. Then, he would have to work his way back to the Major League from the farm system. Did Nats fans say this was too much extra care to give to a rookie pitcher? No. Did his teammates say to management that he was gaining favored treatment? No. Did anyone in the Nationals’ organization suggest that Strasburg’s incentives were sufficient and that having the surgery and time off was over the top? No. Why not? Because both fans and players knew that such a surgery would make Strasburg an even better player, which would mean wins for the entire team. In and around Washington, DC, the baseball faithful wanted this perk and the hiatus for their team’s leader so that they all could celebrate the victories the leader would gain for and with the whole team.

In a similar way, believers in a congregation benefit from showing special, non-contracted, even spontaneous honor to their leader. The shepherd, serving from the overflow of a joyous heart filled by the love his people have shown, provides ministry with excitement and not drudgery. Being human, he is strengthened by his people’s displays of affection, and he gains esteem from their acknowledgement of his faithful labors. With gladness he then gives to his people. Again Calvin writes,

“If [pastors] have their minds restrained by grief or weariness, though they may be sincere and faithful, they will yet become disheartened and careless, for vigor in acting will fail at the same time with their cheerfulness. Hence the Apostle declares, that it would be unprofitable to the people to cause sorrow and mourning to their pastors by their ingratitude; and he did this, that he might intimate to us that we cannot be troublesome or disobedient to our pastors without hazarding our own salvation.”

What are Some Practical Means of Showing Honor?

Practically speaking, it is very easy to encourage a faithful shepherd! It is difficult to encourage a hireling because his goal is to take advantage of the flock for himself. Thus he never will be satisfied. But a faithful pastor will be grateful for a reward, because he serves out of a motive to please the Lord and serve the people. Here, then, are a few suggestions of simple ways to show special honor this month.

First, considering giving your shepherd a gift card to Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Westminster Bookstore, Christian Book Distributors, Family Christian Stores, or Lifeway Christian Stores, for most shepherds love to read. Their jobs are wrapped in reading the Scriptures, and anything and everything that helps them better understand Scriptures, explain it to their sheep, and utilize it to foster Christlikeness in their people is truly a gift. Having the ability to purchase books by gift cards will allow him to pick up some leisurely reading titles rather than titles only associated with his ministry duties and pastoral budget. In this way, your pastor can take advantage of some very encouraging books such as The Mighty Weakness of John Knox, Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor, The Faithful Preacher, The Bruised Reed, or Jonathan Edwards: A Life.

If your shepherd is one with a large family, consider giving a gift that will help stretch his family budget, such as a gift card to Walmart, Target, or a local grocery store. Sometimes vehicle maintenance or home repairs have to be deferred for long periods of time in large ministry families. So offering to help repair a vehicle or home could lift a financial burden off the shepherd’s family, and thus off him. Yes, small, non-pastoral families may suffer from prolonged deferred maintenance. However, no one has an expectation that laymen will always have means to travel to serve other sheep, or that they will regularly invite people into their homes. Moreover, laymen can ask for benevolence from the church body without concern of their ministry being suspect. Typically pastors are not given this margin of error.

Some shepherds would welcome a fancy dinner out for their entire family. They would like the experience of eating where you like to eat. They would enjoy your pleasant company too.

Other pastors would welcome a few personal days off without concern of being docked for pay. Many pastors do not use the annual leave contracted for them; even fewer experience professional sabbaticals of any form. If you are an elder and chairman of deacons reading this, I would charge that you are responsible to see that your pastor takes necessary periods of rest, and that you make it your duty to see that he has no concerns about the ministry ceasing or revolting while he is resting. Grant your shepherd free, unscheduled leave, and exhort the membership to direct concerns to you while he is away.

If you are tired of watching your shepherd wear the same three suits or blazers each month, take him to a men’s clothier and purchase him a new suit, shirt, tie(s), and shoes. If you do not take him, he probably will not take the time out of his ministry schedule to go on his own. Make him go by taking him to the store and picking up the tab. You do not have to do this alone; a small group can do this as a group gift. He (and his wife) will be glad that you noticed the pills and loose threads on his suit pants and took thoughtful actions to care for him rather than pity or scoff at him.

If you have no financial means to provide a gift, a heartfelt note of thanks and encouragement will be very meaningful to your pastor. Cards and notes, however, should not be used as excuses for not making sacrifices to show honor. Honor is not communicated by thoughtless, cheap, obligatory acts; only duty is communicated: “I gave this to you because I had to, because it is politically correct to do so, and did the minimum necessary to fulfill this requirement.” Works of this sort reveal a heart that lacks gratefulness to Christ for granting a man of God to prepare the Lord’s church to meet with God, and to care for them in the stead of Christ until our Lord returns.

Is All of this Really Necessary?

Is all of this really necessary? Shouldn’t a shepherd serve faithfully even if he does not receive encouragement from the sheep? My answer to the latter question is “Yes!” Yes, a faithful shepherd will serve diligently when the fuel needle goes past “E” to “D” and “C.” However, whether or not special honor is necessary is the wrong question.

Again, the idea of double honor is from the Lord. Giving special honor is just one means of providing double honor. So we do not have the authority to ask if it is necessary. I follow my pastoral mentor in finding that those who desire to be obedient in providing double honor look for opportunities to provide special honor.

Also, as stated above, your overseer is a human being. He therefore needs occasional refreshment—an idea common to Paul’s writings about himself. The great apostle had need for his spirit to repose and gather strength (1 Cor. 16:18, Gk. ανεπαυσαν [anepausan]), and, figuratively speaking, he had need to cool off and recover from the effects of heat (2 Tim. 1:16, Gk. ανεψυξεν [anepsuxen]). Your pastor is no apostle; his needs are greater than Paul’s. He needs acts of love that will allow him to collect his strength and recover from working in the sun of ministry—from ministry sunstroke. When he is back to full strength, you will see and feel the effects in his ministry toward you and all of God’s people.

Act Now

October is almost over. But there are just enough days left this month for you to show special honor to your pastor. Your whole congregation will relish in victory as your refreshed shepherd leads you toward the Cross. Your obedience will magnify the Cross as you show gratefulness to God for sending someone to model and point you to the Great Shepherd who gave his life for us. Because of his grace, we will spend all eternity gladly showing special honor to Christ our Shepherd without any restraint from sin.


If you are one of those shepherds who will not be celebrated by his people, I have prayed that this post will encourage and refresh you, that your people might show you a special kindness, and that even if they do not, that the Lord might be your treasure. May his grace be great upon your faithfulness. The Lord himself remembers your labor of love and will reward you.

Josiah’s Reformation, for Reformation Day (October 31)

 Josiah’s Reformation by Richard Sibbes looks like a great Reformation Day resource. A revival in the hearts of individuals certainly must precede corporate reformation. I suspect this text would complement a reading of 2 Chronicles 34.

Publisher’s Description: Richard Sibbes always sought to get under the superficial layer of his listeners’ behavior and deal with their hearts. He knew that the outward acts of sin spring from the inner desires of the heart. Merely to alter a person’s behavior without dealing with those desires would cultivate hypocrisy, the self-righteous cloak for a cold and vicious heart. Sibbes believed that hearts must be turned, and evil desires eclipsed by stronger ones for Christ.

This book is as relevant today as when it was first published in 1629. Our busyness and activism so easily degenerate into a hypocrisy in which we keep up all the appearance of holiness without the heart of it. Christians even use Christ as a package to pass on to others, instead of enjoying him first and foremost as their own Savior. But true reformation must begin in the heart, with love for Christ. And that can only come when the free grace of God in Christ Jesus is preached.

Is Your Pastor a Celebrity?

Is Your Pastor a Celebrity?.


Is Your Pastor a Celebrity?

We’ve worked our way through some basic definitions and we’ve attempted to estimate the scope of the problem. We’ve also worked through a basic framework for understanding how “celebrity” develops, and how even appropriate notoriety may morph into celebrity status. In all of that we’re attempting to establish some working first principles as we think about this issue using the work of others who have for some time written and thought about “celebrity” as a cultural phenomenon.

Here’s what I’ve contended in a nutshell:

  • We need definitions that distinguish the pejorative “celebrity pastor” from a biblical and appropriate “honor.”
  • We need to identify the scope of the problem: Is it pandemic or is it isolated? I’ve argued that the problem is not isolated, but nor is it pandemic. I’m making a purely anecdotal guess that 10-15 percent of conference goers exhibit “celebrity infatuation.”
  • We’ve discussed the various pathways to celebrity status, including “the noble path to notoriety” and “the corrupt corridor to celebrity.” When people who should be known for their God-glorifying achievements are censored as “celebrities,” confusing honor with “celebrity,” we may see at least three unintended consequences: undermine godly ambition and hard work, undermine godly gratitude, and rob ourselves of godly examples to follow.
  • We’ve seen the need to also identify the various “players” contributing to the problem. We’ve suggested three: the pastor(s), the media, and the audience.
  • Finally, we’re in need of identifying the respective roles and responsibilities each sector plays. While most commenters have argued the pastor plays the most important role and bears the greatest responsibility, I’ve argued that each sector has its responsibility but the public has the greatest role since ultimately the public confers “celebrity status.”

But this issue of role and responsibility deserves a closer look. I hope in the next three posts take each sector in turn and offer some thoughts about how they contribute to celebrity culture and what concrete responsibilities they may take. We begin where we must: the pastor.

Moving from Notoriety to Celebrity

Neal Gabler in his work on the development of celebrity identified something he thought was missing in earlier critiques of celebrity culture: story or narrative. Gabler argues that compelling narrative is the defining element that moves a person from notoriety to celebrity by garnering publicity and audience attention.

Most evangelical Christians would readily admit that faithful pastors and preachers of God’s word deserve honor for their work (1 Tim. 5:17, for ex.). Such pastors, whether only in their congregations or in their cities or nationally or internationally, gain notoriety for their labors. We’ve represented the flow to notoriety and honor as follows:

How does a pastor go from simply being known to be a faithful teacher and shepherd to being a “celebrity pastor”? Here’s where I find Gabler’s thinking about narrative so intriguing. Gabler rightly points out that every celebrity must be famous, but not every famous  person is a celebrity. The difference is that the celebrity has a narrative or story that (a) gets publicity and (b) the public enjoys or finds compelling. A simply well-known man—perhaps deservedly so—now becomes larger than life with a public that over-identifies with him. If we expressed as a formula it might be something like this:

(Notoriety + Narrative) * Publicity * Audience = Celebrity

Or building on our earlier diagram, we might represent the move to celebrity as:

Evangelicals—A Narrative-Driven People

There’s a rich irony in all of this. Stories make celebrities. We love stories.   But, what we love to do (tell and hear good stories) often results in what we love to hate (“celebrity”).

If there are a people almost defined by story, it’s Evangelicals. Ours is a culture and view of life built inseparably on layers of story.

1. The gospel itself is a story. The familiar creation, fall, redemption, consummation framework attempts to put the message of salvation in a biblical theological (storied) framework. The events of the gospel—the Incarnation, perfect righteousness, crucifixion, resurrection, and Second Coming—relay a story about how God intervenes in time and space to purchase for himself rebellious sinners, making them new. There’s no way for Evangelicals (any Christian variety) to be “Christian” in any meaningful sense without story.

2. Moreover, our personal testimonies of conversion are stories. We were not Christians lost in sin. Then a friend began to share the gospel, or we visited a church where we heard the gospel story shared. Perhaps we wrestled with the implications. But at some point the overarching story of the Gospel—and the Person it features, Jesus Christ—intercepts our story and we’re radically changed. When someone asks, “Are you a Christian?” we hear an invitation to “tell our story.”

3. Then there are the stories of church growth. Some pastors retell this narrative in their bios. Others share “what’s going on at my church” in conversation. We look for best practices or to learn how others developed this or that practice. We listen to the experiences (i.e., stories or narratives) of others with the hope of benefitting in some way. Our churches have a history and a vision. We’re communities in the midst of drama (narrative).

4. Finally, Evangelicals love accounts of suffering, perseverance, and heroism. Think of the many missionary biographies, public confessions, and interviews we’ve enjoyed. Some of it becomes hagiography, to be sure. But we love a compelling story of overcoming some odds. How many of us marvel and give praise to God at the faithfulness of an Adoniram Judson in Burma, or a Joni Erickson Tada, and so on?

Evangelical culture is in many ways a culture of layered stories. That, in part, is what makes us particularly vulnerable to “celebrity culture” concerns. It’s part of what creates the blind spot for many people. For what some see as “celebrity” appears only as interesting narrative to others.

Elements Contributing to Celebrity, or Celebrity-Seeking

So how does a notable pastor become a “celebrity pastor”? Or, to put it in accusatory terms, what might “celebrity-seeking” look like in a notable pastor? Applying Gabler’s work and insight about narratives, I’d suggest five things. You can spot a “celebrity-seeking” pastor when:

1. He Plays Up a Success Story. Gaebler: “[S]tars by virtue of being stars come equipped with the first two prerequisites for celebrity: Publicity and what might be called a “foundation narrative.” They all have the story of their success, always a good tale and the subplot of everything else they are likely to do in their lives.” Gabler’s “foundation narrative” is the “self-made man” or “rags to riches” archetypal story. The hero who comes from nowhere. The one-time “Mr. Anonymous” who becomes an Evangelical “Adonis.” We might be on the scent of “celebrity-seeking” when we see a man tell and re-tell that narrative—especially when it’s told in such a way that lionizes the man rather than glorifies God.

2. He Seeks to Create Publicity Focused on Himself. Here, I simply mean a mean attempts to stay in the media in story after story. Perhaps he appends an interesting twist or a new update to an existing narrative that brought him celebrity status. Or, sensing the old narrative has waned, he goes about telling a new story that focuses on himself. He’s not busily keeping his nose to grind; he’s stalking the paparazzi rather than being stalked.

3. He Conflates ‘Roles’ and His Real Life. Gabler writes: “Conventional stars also have the advantage over other potential celebrities of being able to draw on the roles they play which their fans often conflate with the stars’ real lives, allowing the actors, in effect, to borrow the narratives from their movies or television shows.” Remember the John Wayne example. John Wayne, a legendary ‘tough guy’ in the movies, actually received awards for courage following WWII even though he never served in the war. The roles Wayne played on the big screen were confused with the life of the man. One can scarcely entertain such confusion when it’s made by a cheering audience; it’s inexcusable when a pastor sets out to do it for himself. How does a pastor do this? Chiefly by preaching himself. He’s the hero of all his personal anecdotes—of which there are many. He never confesses his own sins—of which there are many. He creates the impression that his life is near perfect, while, of course, offering the obligatory, “I’m not perfect.” Interestingly, like John Wayne, one of the most prevalent instances of conflation happen to be ‘tough guy’ images among some evangelical pastors. But their real lives bear no scars from brawls, nor should they.

4. He Exploits Congruence.  Again from the pen of Gabler: “Of course movies and television shows have tangible stars, too and, as noted, people do confuse the person with the part. But one of the things that generates the excitement of celebrity, one of the things that distinguishes celebrity narratives from the fictional or even fact-based narratives of conventional media, is the congruence between the person and the narrative he is living.” In other words, celebrity also results when the person we see depicted in media and advertisements really is like that in real life. Congruence or integrity sometimes generates a compelling narrative. Whether it’s Simon Cowell really is that sharp-tongued, or Denzel Washington really is that humble and laid back. The congruence or integrity of character may become attractive to media and the public. Celebrity-seekers may reveal themselves by attempting to exploit that congruence.

5. He Exploits His Position. Gabler: “[S]tars of conventional media benefit from the fact that they are more likely to generate a narrative because they are much more likely to be at the center of the action….” We might discern celebrity-seeking wherever a pastor looks to direct all attention and action around himself. We know this problem all too well from local congregations. Many churches feature pastors that micro-manage every detail, protect authority and power for themselves, and cultivate in the congregation a dependence upon their presence. The pastor becomes the “star of the show.” It can happen in “celebrity cultures” as small as the local congregation of 50 or conference events of 5,000. Looking to be at the center of everything is celebrity behavior.

Here’s the thing: It’s not just notoriety or even some media attention that makes a well-known person a celebrity. Nor is it merely the creative or edgy use of media and social technology. Lights don’t make a celebrity.  Aesthetics don’t make celebrity, even if they reflect it on some level.  Narrative, story, drama moves a man from notoriety or carnal fame to celebrity status. There must be some compelling plot line to drive the adulation. When that plot line meets media exposure and audience approval, then, at least for a season, you have a celebrity. Therefore, the thing to watch out for is the use and misuse of certain narrative elements in speech, communication, and media. At the most fundamental level, that’s where we’ll see “celebrity-seeking.” Other things, imo, though important, tend to be symptoms or tend to be debatable matters of taste and preference.

Some Homework for Us Pastors

Well, what should pastors do to avoid as much as possible the tendency for others to confer celebrity status, and to crucify the tendency toward celebrity-seeking in themselves?

1. Attribute everything to God. That’s a no-brainer but it needs to be said. Our hearts are idol factories and we do act like glory thieves. Our flesh wants attention, affirmation, and applause. There’s no denying that. The antidote—Colossians 3:23-24.

But let me illustrate the difficulty of this. Sometimes John Piper finds himself in the cross-hairs of those who decry “celebrity pastors.” At first glance, we might not understand this reaction to John. After all, his entire life and ministry has been dedicated to the supremacy and glory of Christ in everything. He disdains public adulation. He ends his sermons with quick move to prayer in order to avoid applause. He’s difficult to compliment—intentionally so. I remember observing the sheer nervousness of Sam Storms and Justin Taylor as they unveiled the festschrift in honor of John. They seemed to fret, How would he respond to public honor? At one level, John Piper works against celebrity status more than any Evangelical pastor I know. So, why does he get the label? Some people mistake notoriety for celebrity and celebrity-seeking. But at a deeper level, perhaps John gets tagged this way because of congruence. He is rather consistent in seeking God’s glory both in and outside the pulpit. That’s compelling narrative because we see so little of it, honestly. So, try as he might to attribute all the glory to God, some confer celebrity status on him for that very reason. A pickle, no?

2. Don’t tell a bunch of intimate personal stories. Keep your private life private, pastor. Telling personal details creates “tangibility,” that sense that the audience “knows” you when they really don’t. This is more art than science, and a man isn’t necessarily in sin if he shares some personal detail. But learning the judicious use of personal anecdote can be the difference between staying away from celebrity tendencies and creating cult following.

But this has its difficulties, too. As a public, we might be tempted to see celebrity-seeking through personal story where it’s not there. Might I use another example? How many of us watched and prayed as Matt Chandler shared the stunning news of his brain tumor and fight with it? How did we learn of this? It was through Matt’s brief video updates to his church. He used the opportunity to further teach his people about suffering, how to think about it like Christians, and to invite their prayer and concern. Many of us eavesdropped and prayed. National press took interest and Matt’s “celebrity” increased. He wasn’t celebrity-seeking, but a compelling narrative developed around his illness.

Now, should he have remained silent? Of course not; the Scripture calls us to bear one another’s burdens. Should he have used video to share with others (keeping in mind some skepticism about video and its celebrity-making tendency)? Well, given his depleted physical state, how else could his people hear from him without taxing him even more? Seems the video was an appropriate and efficient medium. But what happened? Tangibility. Increased exposure. In the eyes of some, celebrity. In Matt’s eyes, I’d guess he was simply pastoring his church and the rest of us either joined in and benefitted, or have now become critics who think of this as some celebrity-seeking tactic.  It’s an interesting example of how personal information may be appropriately used and simultaneously result in “celebrity” for some people.

3. Resist being type cast, especially if the “role” is sensational or controversial. High-profile pastors need to work against becoming “that guy.” You know. Like Josh Harris had to fight against becoming “the dating guy.” That meant turning down some writing and speaking opportunities that might have put him in a singular role and further wed him to a sometimes controversial issue. If he wanted to seek celebrity, all he needed to do was focus on being “that guy” for the rest of us.

Becoming “that guy” is as simple as milking that story or accomplishment. I’m often asked to share my story because people are curious about how a “Muslim convert” came to Christ. That’s part of “my story.” I can tell that story at length in ways that highlight this or that aspect of my life while leaving out specific and detailed mention of the providence and grace of God. I could become the “Muslim convert” speaker on a little chitlin’ circuit for folks interested in that kind of thing. It wouldn’t be good. It would be conflating a sensational story or role with my own life in a way that could be inaccurate. I could pretend to be the super-apologist against Islam and feed on Western fears about the spread of Islam. We’ve had university professors and presidents do exactly this, only to be exposed for exaggerations later. The media and public may clamor for the type or role, but the pastor needs to resist that narrative.

4. Leave the statistics at home. Numbers and statistics tap into the meta-narrative of all celebrity stories: rags to riches, man over environment, etc. Too many pastors use numbers as a proxy for success. They give out the numbers in their church as frequently as retirees give out their social security numbers—and their identities seem to be as connected to the numbers. But if we would avoid making ourselves celebrities or having others confer that status on us, we have responsibility for avoiding worldly measures of success and giving God all the glory (see 1 above).

5. Focus promotional materials more explicitly on the Lord, the gospel, or other biblical themes and truth—not on persons. Don’t be subtle about it. Make “the message of the gospel” the message in the advertisements. Many have commented in previous posts about the tendency of conference promotions to focus on the people. At a certain level, we’re not likely to get completely away from this, any more than we’re likely to have all authors write anonymously. In fact, the advertisement of names can be vitally important if we’re talking about topics requiring meaningful credentials and expertise. I don’t want to hear about my heart disease from my auto mechanic. Likewise, I probably won’t go through the expense of traveling internationally to hear a “regular Joe” discourse on a technical subject he hasn’t studied. At that level, we’re likely to continue hearing people with expertise promoted in materials. And pastors shouldn’t shy away from that where it’s helpful.

However, much could likely be done by pastors to make sure the message is unmistakable. For example, some have taken issue with this T4G promotional video:

T4G 2012 Teaser: The Game from Together for the Gospel (T4G) on Vimeo.

They’ve found this 47-second video objectionable because it didn’t “say gospel” to them. Now, I would offer that the video does say “friendships” and “fellowship” and “team.” At least that was the intent. And that’s what T4G is built upon. But no matter how I might explain that (a) the video isn’t the main video for the event, (b) that a host of other video advertisements speak to “The Underestimated Gospel,” (see the 16 other videos)and (c) we were just playing pick-up for fun for crying out loud, as communication we missed the mark with some of our audience. Rule #1: Be sure to communicate what you’re trying to communicate. Rule #2: Usually subtle doesn’t work. Communicating well is our responsibility and impressions of “celebrity-seeking” might be minimized with more attention on this point.

Well, that’s five things I think pastors are responsible for when it comes to minimizing celebrity culture. I’m certain there are other things, but I’m focusing on those foundational things having to do with narrative and how it creates celebrity.

Some Non-Answers

In closing, there do also seem to be some things floating around that are non-answers, imo. I think they’re non-answers because they either don’t address the fundamental issue of story or narrative in making celebrities, or they might actually cause other more serious problems. Here are three:

1. Pastors should not seek to build the church beyond their own local church. Christians have always partnered for the spread and the health of the church. From the Macedonian church’s concern for famine relief in Jerusalem to the formation of denominations and pastor fraternals to the conference movements of the last 100-plus years, cooperating for mutual encouragement, the spread of the gospel, and the strengthening of the churches seems a necessary objective. This is the baby we don’t want to toss with the bathwater.

2. Avoid all media: Don’t write books or hold conferences or podcast sermons or use videos. Suffice it to say celebrities have existed before the advent of modern electronic media. Media may speed the spread of celebrity, but it doesn’t create celebrity alone. Eschewing various forms of media won’t fix the problem.

3. Ban things like clapping. Such a recommendation may be culturally determined or derived, but it’s hardly a solution to celebrity culture. It may be a matter of taste and preference, but a ban may also be yet another way we undermine godly expressions of appreciation and gratitude.

At any rate, the basic point is that pastors have some responsibility in all of this. But the best reactions will be attempts to handle the narratives more discerningly, not just withdraw or decry any notoriety.

Should Preachers Show Their Work? Or, Should Our Preaching Train People to Read the Bible?


Should our attempts to preach the Bible train people to be better readers of the Bible?

I think the answer to that question is obvious. It seems like a no-brainer to me that our attempts to preach the Bible should train those who hear us to be better readers of the Bible. This has implications for what we do in our sermons, implications for how we preach.

In short, it means we “show our work” in ways that are appropriate. Remember that phrase from math class? It refers to the way that all the steps on the way to the answer are to be written out, as opposed to doing the math in your head and shortcutting from problem to solution.

Obviously we can’t show every step, and we shouldn’t bore people with unnecessary exegetical detail.

That said, we’re preaching the Bible, and the Bible is a book. We’re making disciples of Jesus who are to obey everything he commanded. As we preach, we’re training people who need to meditate on the word of God day and night. We’re training people to read and understand the Bible.

Why am I saying all this? Because to my thinking it follows from the people of God needing preaching that is squarely based on the Bible.

What’s wrong with preaching where the work isn’t shown?

It’s too easy for preachers who don’t show their work to make assertions that the text of Scripture does not make, and this is complicated when they make applications from their own assertions. If you can’t show it to me from the Scriptures, it does not carry the authority of the word of God. In such a case, it is not the word of God that is being preached.

As I listen to preaching, I want to hear what the Bible teaches. I want the preacher to prove to me that what he’s claiming is what the Bible teaches. I want him to show me enough of his work to earn my trust, I want his applications to come from what the Bible actually teaches, and I would like to go away with a better understanding of the passage that has been preached.

I’ve heard analogies that argue against what I’m contending for, and I think they fail.

Here’s one: when you preach, you don’t show your homework because preparing a sermon is like building a house. When you walk into a house that’s been built, you don’t see its structure. The drywall covers the frame, and paint covers the drywall. It’s finished. So should the sermon be.

But what if as you preach you’re preparing people to build their own houses? That is, what if you’re making disciples, not just being a disciple on their behalf? Even if a particular Christian never stands to preach a sermon, don’t we want him to be reading the Bible for himself? Don’t we want Christians arriving at the meaning of the Bible for themselves? Don’t we want them to be able to evaluate claims about what the Bible says for themselves?

This “finished house” analogy seems to suggest that the preacher is going to do the thinking and the Bible study and the responding to challenges for his audience.

If a preacher isn’t showing people how he got to his interpretive conclusions and applications from the Scripture, will anyone who hears that preacher learn to be a better Bible-reader?

For all these reasons, this past Sunday (October 16, 2011) I took some time to explain how I had arrived at the turning points in Jeremiah’s flow of thought in the passage I was preaching. It’s difficult to determine the structure of the whole book of Jeremiah, and it’s difficult to arrive at the structure of individual passages.

Why should we care about structure? Because the way that Jeremiah has arranged his presentation is essential to understanding his message.

As I preached Jeremiah 4:5–31, “Wash Your Heart from Evil,” I explained that repeated words and phrases, changes in content or theme, and changes in point of view (for instance, from first person to second or third) are all indicators of turning points in Jeremiah’s presentation.

What do you think?

Should preachers show their work?

Are these reliable indicators of the movements in Jeremiah’s thoughts?

Can someone learn to read the Bible from those who don’t show their work?

Book Notice: Black Megachurches, by Tamelyn Tucker-Worgs

This looks interesting:

The Black Megachurch: Theology, Gender, and the Politics of Public Engagement, by Tamelyn Tucker-Worgs, Associate Professor of Political Science, Hood College.


Reformation Resources for the Black Whole Church

Reformation Resources for the Black Whole Church.


Reformation Resources for the Black Whole Church

One of the more encouraging developments in the first decade of the 21st century has been a number of books written by African American pastors and scholars laboring to serve and reform the black church. The list below may not be entirely exhaustive, but it will give you a good snapshot of the faithful, quiet work that a number of brothers have produced thus far.

I think it’d be a mistake, however, to think that these works are only for our black brothers and sisters in the church. I would encourage all of us, no matter our race and ethnicity, to consider picking up one or two of these books and working through them. I think the result will be better listening and more learning as we see faithful wrestlings with the interplay of contextualization, compassion, and conviction.

Listen, for example, as a couple of other brothers reflect on the effect of these books on their own lives:

John Piper writes about his experience of reading Carl Ellis’s book in the summer of 2001:

It was like one of those little magnets which, as you lower it slowly onto a table where there are thousands of tiny metal filings, the filings begin to turn and vibrate and orient in the same direction; and then you touch the table where they are and all of them come together and cling to that little magnet and dangle from it if you lift it up. I felt, in reading this book about the soul dynamic and the black experience in America, that everything I had ever seen and savored of the sovereignty of God and the centrality of God and the supremacy of God was a preparation for being a part of this reality—that is, a God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated rebuilding of black and white evangelical culture not primarily around color but around the triumphant, sovereign glory of the all-knowing, all-governing, crucified, suffering, and living Christ.

Or consider D.A. Carson’s perspective on Anthony Carter’s edited work on Glory Road:

This book is a wonderful encouragement to those who love the doctrines of grace. The ten men described are African Americans—but quite frankly, what their ethnicity is does not matter nearly as much as their common delight in Christ and his gospel. Their stories are sufficiently diverse that they cannot be reduced to a simplistic mold; they have enough similarity that together they bring us back to God’s sovereign goodness in the cross of his Son. Read this book and rejoice.

Or Mark Noll on the historical and theological value of Thabiti’s book on the African American theology:

It is remarkable that, to my knowledge, there has never been a book that attempts what Thabiti Anyabwile’s The Decline of African American Theology attempts. . . . For both historical and theological reasons, this is a very important volume. . . . Because I have already learned so much from its pages, I am delighted to recommend it wholeheartedly to others.

There are riches here, awaiting discovery by the whole church. Tolle lege!

Carl F. Ellis Jr., Free at Last? The Gospel in the African-American Experience (IVP, 1995)

Bruce Fields, Introducing Black Theology: Three Crucial Questions for the Evangelical Church (Baker Academic, 2001)

Anthony Carter, On Being Black and Reformed: A New Perspective on the African American Christian Experience (P&R, 2003)

Thabiti Anyabwile, The Faithful Preacher: Recapturing the Vision of Three Pioneering African-American Pastors (Crossway, 2007)

Thabiti Anyabwile, The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Accommodation (IVP, 2007)

Anthony Carter, Experiencing the Truth: Bringing the Reformation to the African-American Church (Crossway, 2008)

Eric C. Redmond, Where Are All the Brothers? Straight Answers to Men’s Questions about the Church (Crossway, 2008)

Anthony Carter, ed., Glory Road: The Journeys of 10 African-Americans into Reformed Christianity (Crossway, 2009)

Anthony Bradley, Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America (Crossway, 2010)

Jarvis Williams, One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation in Pauline Theology(B&H, 2010)

Anthony Bradley, ed., Keep Your Head Up: America’s New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation (Crossway, 2012)

Jarvis Williams, A Chosen Race and a Royal Priesthood: A Biblical Theology of Ethnic Identity (Crossway, forthcoming)