Thursday, April 28, 2011

Some Potential Solutions To The Celebrity Pastor Critique From Dr. Carl Trueman

Carl Trueman:
All the discussion about the church and celebrity culture motivated one person to write the following to me, which I reproduce here with permission. I should also add that I do not know to which church he is referring:
"Pastoral care, you might say, is my greatest concern for the church. Preaching, sacraments, prayer, worship - all critical components to it - but actually spending time with your people (as elders), knowing them, ministering the Word of God in encouragement and rebuke without a row... well... this is a lost art and, apparently, one that few people see any need for anymore.
"I worshipped this Sunday with my in-laws at their home church which is pastored by a man featured at this year's [conference name supplied] with 6000 of my closest friends. My father-in-law has been dying for five years (renal failure) and is very likely within months of his death. I can't get a pastor or elder from this congregation to come and visit him once, let alone make it a weekly priority to help him die well - in the full confidence of the Lord Jesus. But there's time, mind you, for (yet another) conference."
Read the rest.

Over the course of 12 years I have worked for three different churches all over 1,000 people in attendance.  I now work for a church of 70.  I understand the differences between big church and small church.  There are certainly advantages and disadvantages to both.  It seems that for Dr. Trueman, big church has few advantages and small church is the way to go.  In some ways I agree with him.  But I'm not sure that simply saying, "Churches should be small enough for one or two pastors to care for all the people" is a workable or realistic solution.  It will be a great solution for some but for others, we are going to have to think more creatively within the Biblical boundaries that God has given us.  We all agree that having structures of pastoral care for our people is a very good and necessary thing.

I would love to hear Dr. Trueman speak to one such as John Piper or Tim Keller or Matt Chandler about this issue. I know that Piper never went looking for fame and celebrity as a pastor. It simply has happened. God has gifted him in such a way that people are attracted to what God is doing through him and want to be caught up in the wind that the Spirit blows through his life. I know there is whole generation (my generation) of men and women who have been forever altered by his preaching and teaching.

What is John supposed to do? People ARE coming to his church. That is not up for debate. His church is going to grow and keep growing. What is the solution for those that God has gifted to have a huge church without ever even trying to have a huge church? Are they just supposed to turn people away at the doors? Cap attendance?

I have heard Dr. Trueman repeatedly identify the problem but I have not heard him offer any solutions to pastors like John Piper and Tim Keller who, as a fact of life, will simply have huge churches.  What is the solution for these men specifically?

As one of the pastors of a very small and very young church in Madison, WI, here are some of the things that we might offer as potential solutions that might help deal with this problem.  We may stay small for a long time but if God brings growth we want to have structures in place that allow us to grow in a healthy way.  These are by no means original to us and they won't solve everything but could greatly alievate some of the concerns that Dr. Trueman raises.

1. Our leadership development, especially as it pertains to leaders of small groups, is of the utmost importance. If our small group leaders are bad, our whole church will be bad. If our small group leaders are strong, loving, pastoral, gospel-centered men, we'll be a strong, loving, pastoral, and Gospel-centered church. A pastor who has a large church and neglects leadership development of his people will be asking for big trouble in reference to pastoral care.  How could one pastor think that he could do it all effectively?

2. Our small group leaders, in some sense,  have to be thinking and acting like pastors. When I sit down and describe the job description for a new small group leader I want them to know that it entails more than just facilitating a good discussion each week for 90 minutes. I ask them questions like, "Do you have space in your life to minister to the couple in your group who just had a miscarriage? Do you have space in your life to develop a small group apprentice who will take the next group when your group expands and divides? Do you have time in your life to address the daily pastoral care issues that come up for your small group?" Now certainly I and the other elders at The Vine will be involved in much of this care with the small group leader (like a marriage falling apart or a miscarriage, etc) but we want to empower our small group leaders to create a small community of care, evangelism, and shepherding that is reflective of the ideals of the larger church community.

3. Having a plurality of teachers or up-front leaders might be a good solution. We are 11 months in on this model at The Vine and thus far (I know it is VERY early) it seems to be working well. When there is a rotation of preachers and teachers is it hard to fixate on one guy and make him "the man". But again, for some guys like Mark Driscoll or Piper or Chandler, they have been gifted in such unique ways that they'll always rise above. This is who God has made them to be. We shouldn't shame these men because they can't name everyone in their congregation.

4. Trueman's article speaks to the need for church planting. We should be constantly raising up new leaders and sending them out and sending some of our people with them when we can. But it won't solve the problem.  If people want to hear mega-pastor preach then it doesn't matter how many churches he tries to plant, they will simply show up to hear him preach at his location.  I think we need to make room in our understanding of the church to give grace to those who are uniquely gifted and will thus attract a unique following.  If that person is really that gifted shouldn't we allow people to be exposed to their ministry?  His people might be selfish consumers but they might not be as well.  There is probably much grey in everyone's motives and we should pause before assuming we know the heart.

5.  In the end, big or small, we have to be committed to the care of our people but if we are caring for our people as we should our churches are going to grow.  Real care for Christian people implies that we'll be shepherding them to look outward as well as inward.  When our people look outward and see the "fields are white" then our churches are going to grow as God supplies the growth.  In a sense, all true Biblical churches should be living in the tension of what to do with a church that is experiencing growth that might feel somewhat unmanageable.  Some churches will do this really well and some will have more challenges in this area but the greater concern might not be "How do I care for my small flock?" but rather, "If my flock is consistently small over the course of decades, why is that the case?"  Is it because God is simply not choosing to draw people to himself at this time and place or is it because our people are not sharing their faith and embracing the mission that God has mandated for his church?  Pastor, do you lead your people with an inward AND outward focus?  These are important questions for all church leaders to answer.  


J Kanz said...

I wonder too how many pastors, church leaders, and up and comers actually pray that they would not become famous. I wonder if Proverbs 30:8 has any application here, where it says "give me neither poverty nor riches." I know that the verse addresses monetary riches, but could the same be said here. How many well known bloggers, pastors, and Christian leaders choose to fight daily on their knees to not be made much of. I would suspect that for those in the evangelical celebrity sub-culture, this is a constant and difficult battle.

I know that for me, that would be an issue.

Lonnalee Anderson said...

excellent. VERY good thoughts.

Aimee Byrd said...

Thank you for taking the critique to the place it needs to go. I am thankful that so many people are drawn to hear good preaching from these men, considering how many flock to the false teaching. I just wish some of the marketing and promotion was calmed down. It seems like many of the people who attend these conferences are "making an investment" for whatever they are self-promoting.

Anonymous said...

Your point in number 5 that churches will always grow if we care for the people does not seem to be supported by Scripture.

Vitamin Z said...

I did say "as God supplies the growth". God calls some to a ministry like Jeremiah. No doubt. Is that you?

Anonymous said...

As someone who has gone to large and small churches for 28 years, I now prefer large churches for one primary reason. It seems that serving in any significant position at many small churches is an issue of favoritism. Who is closest with the pastor and his wife? Whereas at large churches, the pastors don't have to control everything, and so many people can serve without have to win a popularity contest. I think that some churches stay small because the pastors want to control more than they want growth. You can't have both. I think many large churches have grown big because the people are able to not only sit in a pew, but have significant contributions. When the only role at a small church is to sit in the pew, sit in the pastor's wife's Bible study (I'm a woman), or bring a cassorole, you feel unnecessary. At large churches, I can often contribute far more significantly.

Anonymous said...

Vitamin Z

You did not say that "as God supplies the growth" when you made the statement "if we are caring for our people as we should our churches are going to grow"

If you want to stand behind that statement, then do so, but it was a pretty clear if-then statement with no caveat. 

Do I need to be Jeremiah to point this out?

Michael said...

First off, I agree with everything you've said. I have worked with small groups at a large and growing church for the past three years and know full well the absolute necessity for well-trained, well-equipped leaders who can shepherd and care for God's people, under the authority of the elders. I believe the continual development of such leaders is indispensable to the care and healthy growth of a growing church. However, I still think Trueman makes some important points that deserve attention:

1. It seems to me that many times in larger churches elders become something more akin to "ministry managers" than shepherds of God's people. These churches reach a certain critical mass, and one day the congregation finds that their pastors are no longer accessible. In fact, a large percentage of the congregation may not even know one of their pastors personally, and because there are ministries to be managed, new strategies to be developed, and the all the rest, the pastors don't have time for pastoral care visits, personal meetings, or phone conversations with church members. I don't know whether or not this is the case with the person who sent the email to Trueman. Regardless, I have seen first hand that this becomes a very real issue in larger churches.

2. I could be totally wrong about this one, and I'm willing to be proven wrong, but it seems to me that sometimes, at least, celebrity-type senior pastors of megachurches exist above the messiness of ministry among broken people. They are responsible for preparing and preaching sermons, casting vision, and may write books, speak at conferences and occupy influential positions in evangelicalism - but are they in the trenches? Do they know their people's joys, burdens, questions, and sorrows. Are they engaged in the private ministry of the Word as well as the public ministry of the Word. At the end of the day, how often do they find themselves preparing sermons sequestered in a study away from the very pain and struggle of the people to whom they will be delivering the sermons? How often do at least some of them find themselves preaching those same sermons to a people they don't really know?

In this regard, I think Trueman makes a good point: If this is the case, it is a travesty of what Christians and the church have thought pastors should be throughout the ages.

3. I don't think there can be any doubt that a celebrity, cult of personality type culture exists within American evangelicalism, especially within more Reformed circles. And personally, I think Trueman has the right idea when he reminds his Westminster students that such megachurch ministries bear no resemblance to the kinds of ministries they are going to experience. Most pastors will end up in churches where they are the only staff member, where they are responsible for everything, where they'll never be given an opportunity to speak at a conference, much less be given time away from their responsibilities to write a book. Who is celebrating the in-the-trenches, slugging it out, year-after-year faithfulness of these unsung heroes? In the end, if we're honest, who really wants to be the kind of pastor who has a 20-30 year run in a small church, in a small town, with little influence, little credit, and to finish the race having authored no books, no articles, no blogs and spoken at no conferences. I have to admit, having been on staff in a large, growing, increasingly influential church that I've struggled with these kinds of questions in my own heart, and I'm sure there are others who do too. That's where I think the celebrity pastor culture that exists in many circles doesn't help at all.

Vitamin Z said...


great comments. i agree.


Tim J said...

The insight is great. I agree with your words yet Trueman has very valid point of the favoritism of such mega-pastors.

Why do events have to boast in who is addressing the comers

why do then need VIP seats etc

Yet you are right, their fame is unavoidable, and they didn't wish it upon themselves to make their name great

Ben said...

A well thought out post...I appreciate the balance. I've been more and more impressed with the thought that not only are individual believers given spiritual gifts in order to minister to the body, but whole churches are also particularly gifted by the Spirit to play a specific role in the Body as a whole. Understanding this leaves us free to appreciate churches of all sizes and styles, so long as they are faithfully and boldly proclaiming the gospel.

May the Lord give us wisdom and humility to navigate the path he has set before us!