printing press

Before the church wrestled with how the internet would shape our church culture, we wrestled with how the printing press would shape our church culture.

This essay from Carl Trueman is gold:

It is probably a year or so since I raised the question of the impact of celebrity on evangelicalism. As I was told then, celebrity either does not exist in the evangelical subculture or is of no real importance there. Thus, I suspect the Evangelical Industrial Complex either does not exist or exerts no influence; but it is entertaining to imagine what would the signs be that it was a real issue (which, I am sure you will agree, it is not).

The aesthetics of success would subtly and imperceptibly supplant the principles of faithfulness or would indeed come to be identified with the same. The rhetoric of faithfulness would be retained, but the substance would be less and less important. Thus, the key leaders would be the men at the big churches or with the ability to pack a stadium or to handle media with slick sophistication. Fruitfulness and faithfulness would be rhetorically opposed in a way that would be ridiculous if we were talking marriage, but which somehow seems plausible in a church context.

This isn’t a new problem, of course. In the early days of his work in Geneva, Calvin was strongly opposed to publishing his sermons. He believed that the commentaries he wrote were for all Christians, but his sermons to the church in Geneva were specifically meant for the church in Geneva and shouldn’t be published for people outside the Genevan church to read.

Of course, you can probably guess what happened. Printers in nearby cities simply started selling unauthorized copies of Calvin’s sermons that didn’t always reflect his actual beliefs. Consequently, Calvin had to make a compromise and authorize a printed version of his sermon simply to prevent unauthorized versions from getting out. (As an aside, this is one reason I appreciate it when prominent churches put their sermons behind a paywall. That paywall is going to keep a lot of casual sermon listeners from regularly listening to their preaching and becoming more influenced by that then by their own pastor at their own local church.) The lesson here seems to be that technological developments can make our ideal scenario for church life a bit harder to realize.

The question we’re left with then is how we might actually begin to get away from this “evangelical industrial complex,” that Trueman writes about so forcefully and accurately. To go Marshall McLuhan on the issue, the nature of the internet as the dominant medium for communication is such that it’s hard not to develop “brands” or for prominent ministers to become really prominent. When you win on the internet, you really win. So how can Christians responsibly pursue a more spiritually healthy way of living in the church when the dominant mediums we use are so toxic in this particular respect?

To maybe put a bit of teeth on this, some of the most prominent “evangelical celebrities” going right now aren’t actually trying to build a brand or a personal empire. There’s a few of course, but many of the “evangelical rockstars” are actually better on these issues than Trueman’s critique might suggest.

John Piper, for example, doesn’t interact with people a ton on Twitter, his approach to his finances is above repute, and a few years back a specific change he wanted to make to the Bethlehem constitution was voted down by the elders, which shows that his elders were not simply yes men blindly following their fearless leader. In fact, they even felt perfectly comfortable contradicting Piper’s publicly stated position. That’s huge when you’re talking about a man with Piper’s influence and stature within the evangelical sub-culture. And, most obviously, the man voluntarily stepped down from leadership of his local church and then move over 1000 miles from that church so that he wouldn’t be a distraction during the transition time. A man addicted to power doesn’t do that.

Tim Keller, another evangelical celebrity, seems similarly above repute on these matters. Redeemer sermons are actually behind a paywall and he only published one book between the founding of Redeemer in 1989 and the first of his many recent books The Reason for God, first published in 2009. From a quick Google search, it looks like he didn’t speak at many conferences during that time either. Additionally, most of his books since Reason for God have been published with non-evangelical publishing houses. In fact, I remember reading D.A. Carson’s 2005 book Becoming Conversant with the Emergent Church where Carson talks at some length about Keller’s ministry in Manhattan which, up to that time, I had known nothing about. I knew about most the prominent evangelical pastors and authors, but I’d never even heard  of Tim Keller.

Of course, despite all that… when people think of “evangelical celebrities,” Piper and Keller are two names that immediately spring to mind, despite the things mentioned above. And it’s easy to understand why, of course. For all their efforts to resist becoming “brands,” and celebrities, Piper and Keller get a ton of attention, they have a lot of fans, and a lot of people hang on their every word. If you surveyed the sort of evangelicals Trueman is talking about who are more influenced by celebrities than their local church, I’d guess many of them would say that Piper or Keller are two of their primary influences. But I don’t think Piper and Keller have themselves pursued that kind of empire building in the nefarious ways implied by critiques like Trueman’s. In fact, both of them would probably tell those people to stop listening to their stuff if it’s giving them an excuse to not be involved in a local church.

Which brings me back to my question–how do evangelicals resist the evangelical industrial complex, something which we absolutely must do for the sake of the spiritual health of our churches and for individual Christians? It seems like the issue here isn’t always that evangelical leaders are trying to build a brand online or become celebrities. There’s something more complicated going on which involves our sin natures, evolving communication mediums, thin ecclesiology, and probably several as well.

In some cases it may be as simple as smacking a leader getting too big for his britches down a few pegs. Sometimes leaders really do become brands and the results are toxic. But those cases seem to be the minority. A lot of prominent Christian figures are just ordinary Christians with specific (and usually above-average) giftings that they are trying to steward for the advancement of the Gospel.

But because of the many other factors in play, that good desire gets twisted and they find themselves a member of the complex. In those cases… what do we do? I agree with Matt’s recent call for more pastors to embrace downward mobility, but even when they do that, they end up in the spot light. Francis Chan decided that he needed to get out of the celebrity rockstar role, which just became another reason that people followed him and hung on his every word. So what do we do? It seems like a classic damned if you, damned if you don’t situation.

We can’t change the fact that the internet is the dominant communications medium today. And we can’t immediately change the thin ecclesiology that marks American evangelicalism, though that should definitely be a long-term project. So is the only way to solve the problem for all the rockstars to simply stop publishing books, stop speaking at conferences, put their sermons behind paywalls, refuse every interview request, and start pastoring small congregations of 200 people? Even if they did do that (and I’m not sure it’d be a good idea to do so anyway)… what’s to keep some other group of pastors from simply taking their place? I’d love to hear from readers on this one because I’m clearly long on questions and short on answers.

Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy as well as the Vice President of the Davenant Institute. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell and Austin. Jake's writing has appeared in Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play. His first book, "In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured Age," will be published summer of 2019 by InterVarsity Press.

  • Well, you just convinced me that Keller’s even better than I realized. ;)

    No, but seriously, I have no big answer for that. Part of my fear is that, like you said, if the good ones step out and resist the prominence through absenting themselves, the true narcissists will step forward and lead the masses–like me. Which would be horrible. To be honest, one of the wicked motivations in my heart when I started writing was seeing some absolutely terrible blogs getting read. Kind of like C.S. Lewis said, if nobody does good phlosophy, then bad philosophy won’t be corrected. If good pastoring and preaching won’t make its presence felt, nature abhors a vacuum and the clowns fill the void.

    I have no thoughts beyond that, other than that Trueman’s brilliant and this was a great post. Really thought-provoking.

  • anastasis37207

    So many good questions here.

    What if evangelicalism is, perhaps, as much a marketing strategy as a coherent theology? I don’t mean to sound too cynical, but, at one level, the whole notion exists to keep any number of ministries, publishers, conferences, event planners, etc., in business. That’s not the whole story, of course. But it is an angle — as you suggest, Jake — that we’ve not given nearly enough thought to.

  • CG

    I think the issue with evangelical celebrity isn’t so much shameless self-promotion among the notables (though that does occur here and there), but rather, a pull toward idolatry among those of us who look up to them.

  • Personally, living in the Bible belt (Texas Panhandle), this is a rather huge question and issue that our local church faces – Piperites who know more of Desiring God than they do the Bible. Now before I talk on that I want to put a couple of things forward to give a sort of broad disclaimer – we’d certainly rather have them reading Piper or Keller than the garbage largely known as Twilight or something of that sort. The other part is that the reason Keller, Piper, Chandler, etc. have a celebrity status and are respected by many is largely due to faithfulness. Be it Keller pastoring, at the time, one of the most difficult places to go be a pastor (and before it was ‘cool’ to go to NYC besides); Piper, after writing a book on marriage, taking a Sabbatical and publicly acknowledging that his isn’t where he wants it; Chandler owning up to his words on suffering and then suffering well through cancer; and so on. So I don’t want to discount their influence and they were my own introduction to solid theology and teaching and I believe that, if you are going to listen to something, it might as well be them (though preferably not to the detriment of serving your local church).

    Now, getting back to the issue at hand and addressing Trueman’s article and to quote some Carson: “First the gospel is accepted; then the gospel is assumed; then the gospel is confused; finally the gospel is lost.” And, if I had to take a guess, I would say that the way church is now handled at large is somewhere in between assumption and confusion. We have let the liturgies of this world reshape our hearts to the point that our churches look more like malls or even political arenas than they do places to direct our worship and hearts to God (thank you, James K.A. Smith). And so success in the church looks more like how much money it brings in or how big your constituency is rather than being stewards, diplomats, and agents to see God’s kingdom meet this present world.

    Moving on to grasping at shadows of an answer: we need to have re-formation (Reformation pun not intended, going more for Desiring the Kingdom usage here). And while I think this should make us ask questions about the medium we use to preach the Gospel, focusing solely on that brings up the issues that you mention above. More (maybe) the issue we should be focusing on is what the academy is training our pastors in and what are our pastors preaching and what actions are being encouraged to form hearts in both. At the end of it, it cannot be argued that Keller, Piper, etc. are not preaching the Gospel. And that by its very nature is a transformative message. Add to that that Chandler, for example, talks about reasons The Village doesn’t have a coffee shop is because they want people out in culture interacting with the local community and preaching the Gospel, you derive the physical aspect of formation as well.

    People are going to miss the point (for example, take most of the disciples’ questions with Jesus), but I do think they teach, encourage, and exhort many who are involved in their local churches and are acting as agents of the Kingdom (the scary part of the Trueman article on that note is when he brings up how many would not list their local pastor as the most influential, transformative person in their lives). And so, I would argue that maybe we need to pick our battles a bit more carefully. Specifically with those “celebrity pastors” that aren’t preaching the Gospel, but a salvation of the things in this world (the general carnage left in the wake of Osteen’s message in this area particularly comes to mind). This requires people to preach the Gospel that focuses on God as the end and not just the means, and that most effectively happens at a local level. Let Keller and Piper continue to faithfully live the call that God has placed on their lives, but we do need to focus more on home and have our local churches be ones that overflow with the full message of the Gospel and ones that have deep community so that iron may sharpen iron.

    Finally, one other thing I think deserves mentioning: the other part that makes a Keller or Piper sermon very worthwhile is that they do teach solid, thought-out theology. And this is a ‘need’ that is missing in the church at large. In an age where EVERYTHING is questioned, having satisfactory answers that delve beyond the surface and superficial is slowly becoming more and more necessary. To come back to point, I think this points to the possibility that the academy has become too far separated from everyday life in the trenches. One thing I’m extremely grateful for is that schools like Reformed Theological (where I am actually blessed to attend from halfway across the States) and Calvin are starting quality online programs for pastors, church leaders, and even lay people to learn and have their lives become immersed in the Word. I think this reconnect should be developed further. The logistics are nightmarish to think through, but deep, personal, theological training and study is difficult to obtain, especially when names like Calvin and scary, when Vos, Berkhof, and Van Til are complete unknowns, and when aisles of Osteen books sit in every bookstore in America. One of the things that struck me particularly when reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead was Ames’ being this small-town pastor who’d still attended seminary and having deep knowledge of theology. This is an interesting picture she paints that just isn’t the case where I am: seminarians are usually reserved for the Baptist or Presbyterian churches in the mid-sized towns like Amarillo or Lubbock whereas the small towns outside are lucky to be able to even keep a pastor, much less a seminary graduate. And the megachurch pastors here to be qualified more based on their personality rather than their training or even character. As for remedies for this and methods that could reconnect the academy and the church, I’ve legitimately had sleepless nights mulling over it. Some of my 3 am ideas have even gotten as far as ‘seminary planting.’ I think that is probably an idealistic notion, but promoting organizations like the Gospel Coalition is perhaps a start… though still leaves a bit to be desired as far as diversity of thought is considered.

    • Well said. You just convinced me to finally go ahead and read Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom, among other things.

  • SJ

    Perhaps in someways, celebrity pastor-ism rests in the way we have be cultivating the pastoral role for decades. Well before the super-pastor was still the archetype of the untouchable pastor. The pastor who was perfect and who’s family acted along with the role. Perhaps the board and elder members had enough face time to see his humanity, but for the most part we have embraces this model. Why? because it’s easy, it makes church policy efficient and the chain of authority powerful. I’m afraid that for “bring heaven to earth,” church administration can have a very reactionary and pragmatic view on congregants

    What is interesting is how the power dynamic might be different in other settings. Churches around the world revere their pastor, but in many situations (often those in physical danger) view their pastor as a comrade rather than commander because they are all working together. I think this model is terrifying because of obvious power struggles we see in the church, it’s a lot less messy to be an untouchable pastor. Looking at the major differences that ruffle our feathers about super-church/celebrity pastors I see a lot of things done in small churches at a greater scale. A lot of it comes down to convenience.

  • Just posted this other other day about Christian “brands”. Can’t stand them. http://shar.es/ltMfO

  • David Strunk

    Jake,

    Maybe it does some good to process these issues throughout church history? I’m thinking of the celebratory of martyrdom at the end of the 3rd century…Athanasius’ on again off again with the Alexandrian church…St. Francis…Luther and Calvin…Isaac Watts and Wesley and Whitefield and Edwards…Lewis and Tolkien and Graham…

    I’ve grouped these saints in their eras, and there’s many more that could be listed, and some of those are heroes of yours. They became heroes because, and not in spite of, their celebrity status. They become remembered, and for good reason, because of their celebrity.

    In addition, as a pastor, I’m the first person to recommend the importance of the life of the local church and it’s worship over against evangelical celebrities. But I have that high view of the sermon, corporate worship, and the life of the church because of people like James K.A. Smith and, yes, Tim Keller.

    Given these issues, hasn’t there always been a celebrity culture, to an extent? Is it really moreso now with the internet and “evangelicalism”? And, shouldn’t we take comfort in the idea that the celebrities of evangelicalism are men and women of repute- doesn’t that speak well of us? (I’m fully aware that the counter-argument here is a wider circle to “Christian” celebrities such as Osteen, T.D. Jakes, Beth Moore, and a whole host of questionable celebrities)

  • Brian Auten

    Jake,

    The one part of your post with which I have the most difficulty comes near the end, where you reference gifting — and especially the aside re: above-average gifting. This is a cut-and-paste from what I’d said a while ago during a Boar’s Head Tavern discussion about this very issue: Certainly, one might have here a God-blessed, high octane,
    little-sleep-needed, multi-tasker-of-the-year-award-winning,
    extraordinary pastor. But I read something like this and certain
    categories come to mind: (a) parenting style and approach; (b) pastoral
    counseling or “case” load; (c) wife’s expectations re: extent of
    everyday involvement in the home; (d) commute time; (e) ages of
    children/stage of life; (f) research assistance; (g) logistical
    assistance (travel, ordering, etc.) ; (h) platform-building assistance
    vs. running one’s own blog/Twitter/FB and media strategy, just to name a
    few. How can one automatically make the assumption that a person’s
    super-productivity and celebrity is all about “special” or
    “extraordinary” gifting if all one sees or hears about is productivity
    and celebrity? When it comes to productivity and celebrity, there are
    also choices and systems involved, and I rarely see them discussed and evaluated.

    Best,

    Brian

  • Jonathan McGill

    This is something evangelicals will simply need to grow up and grow out of.

    Perhaps this is simplistic, but when do people get hooked on Keller and Piper and Chandlers? After years of reflecting on St. Paul, Athanasius, Augustine, Maximus, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, the nature of theology, the richness of life’s mysteries? Do they finish off the works of Henri de Lubac and say, “Keller, now this is something new”? Are they searching for that one obscure Josef Pieper work to round out their library and stumble upon John Piper instead, thinking, “Has theology even been done before this man?!”

    No. Typically we (yes, I include myself among their former devotees) began the task of thinking at all in college, came across these guys in the dorm room, and then realized theology was, like, actually something people talked about. God is holy! God is sovereign! I’m a sinner! Piper’s a wild man! Keller’s a scholar and a gentleman! We were immature, babies who learned to walk with the aid of these men. And when you are young in faith, it is easy to idolize.

    These guys are so popular because they do a great job effectively presenting foundational material (which is mostly what evangelicals care about; give me the basics for the ‘simple man’ and show me how to ‘reach’ my neighbors). The problem I see is that these guys aren’t pointing beyond themselves, but talking like their theology is really where it ends, and now you just need to cultivate more excitement or existential satisfaction in it. In my view, Piper expends a whole lot of energy preaching milk. That doesn’t mean it isn’t nutritional. But there may be more substantive food to be had.

    And when some are willing to recognize that there may be more than baby food up there at the ‘big-people’s table,’ they go exploring for something they can sink teeth into rather than smilingly gumming mashed carrots. Hence the so-called “Evangelical Exodus.”

    What should the celebrities do? Encourage people to move beyond them, perhaps? Yet, this is the inherent detriment of Evangelicalism when viewed as an ecclesiological structure (thanks, Tim Gombis): it identifies the foundation and pretends there’s nothing more to the house than that.

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