Now He’s Channeling Glen

Not Glen Beck but Uncle Glen, that is.

Carl Trueman is on a roll and a recent post gives his objections to celebrity pastors. A friend told Trueman about an inquirer who came to him with a doctrinal question because the inquirer’s own pastor was too busy on the speaking circuit to meet with his congregant.

To which Trueman responds:

What was interesting was that this person was a member at one of the flagship Reformed evangelical churches in the US where the pastor is seen as one of the great hopes for the spread of gospel churches in the post-Christian world. In fact, this church member had actually tried to speak to this pastor about the issue, but had not been able to get an appointment. The church leader was simply too busy, with countless external demands on his time; and now, presumably protected by a praetorian guard of personal assistants and associate pastors, he was essentially as unavailable to the masses in his large congregation as the average rock star is to the punters who buy his concert tickets. . . .

I am immensely grateful that I have only ever held membership in churches of a size where the pastor has always been accessible and available. Indeed, my pastors have always even known my name, my wife’s name, my kids’ names, and even what sports they play (this latter may seem trivial but it has been peculiarly important to me: my kids may not always enjoy going to church; but they have never doubted that the pastor actually cares for them; and that is something for which I am more grateful than I can articulate). Indeed, each of my pastors has cared about his people, not as a concept or a good idea or as an indeterminate mass, but as real, particular people with names and histories and strengths and weaknesses; and this surely reflects the character and love of God who, after, calls his sheep by name and cares for us all as individuals. If I gave you the names of said pastors, few reading this post would ever have heard of them: they have written no books; they have never pulled in huge crowds; and they have never spoken at megaconferences. But they have always been there when even the humblest church member has called out for advice, counsel or even help with bailing out a flooded basement.

This sounds a lot like the point that avuncular Glen made in the pages of New Horizons to his nephew James:

The problem with your attraction to Pastor Strong’s church is that you may be succumbing to unhealthy standards for a pastor. Yes, this man does much of what a minister is supposed to do, and he does it in a much more visible way than most. He studies Scripture, expounds and applies it, leads worship, and apparently assumes his responsibilities as a presbyter both in his session and in his presbytery. I say “apparently” because someone who travels the way he does, especially when he is in book-promotion mode, is not going to be available for some regularly appointed session and presbytery meetings, not to mention any committees on which he might serve. He is also an effective speaker, and I have heard a number of recordings that attest to his powers of delivery (though I am not as sure that he preaches as much as he “gives a talk”).

As I say, Pastor Strong does the things that pastors are supposed to do in a very visible or public way. This means that he is ministering the word to a wider audience than that of his congregation. But when folks read his books or listen to his online sermons, Strong is not acting in his capacity as a minister because he has no relationship to the reader or listener. They are not members of the congregation that called him. They did not take vows to submit to him in the Lord, and he has not made promises ratified by real people to minister the word faithfully to anyone who picks up his book in a bookstore. In other words, he has no personal, and therefore no pastoral, relationship to remote listeners and readers.

Granted, you say you would like to become a member of his congregation, and this would put you in a real relationship to Strong. But then comes the flip side of the problem I have just described. How can a man who is as busy as he is have time for a personal relationship with his congregants? What generally happens in situations like Strong’s is that he is at the top of a large pastoral staff in which the pastors without star power have the day-to-day responsibilities of shepherding the flock. At least that accounts for the pastoral oversight that Christians need. I can well imagine the disappointment you will experience if you move to Boston only to discover that you had more access to Strong during his visit to Rutherford than you do in the place where you worship.

Think of it another way. Have you ever heard of a celebrity dad? Well, of course, there are dads who are celebrities because of their work outside the home (Brad Pitt might qualify). But do you know any dads who are celebrities because of their activities as a father and husband? Bill Cosby’s character on his hit television show comes to mind, but that still isn’t the real thing. We do not know what Bill Cosby was like as a father because most of the duties of fathers are hidden from the public eye—taking out the trash, cleaning up after a child’s upset stomach, praying over the family meals. These are not tasks that create celebrity because they are unexceptional and do not attract publicity.

Some might argue that I am simply setting into motion a set of expectations that tolerates average or even mediocre men in the ministry—those without the ability to attract large audiences. Perhaps so, since I believe what Paul writes about God using earthen vessels to accomplish his purposes. The skills of the pastor are not what make his ministry effective; rather, it is the power of God that saves. My point, though, is not to deny the value of excellence. It is rather to underscore the quiet and routine ways in which the pastoral ministry transpires. Pastoral ministry is not flashy, but we need it in the same way that we need fathers and mothers to be in the home, not on speaking tours about parenthood.

It is good to know that Westminster Seminary has someone who understands the personal and routine nature of the pastoral ministry. Back in the day when I was at WTS, a certain transforming pastor in a large metropolis had a reputation at the seminary so large that he not only walked on water but hovered over it. Now, perhaps, sanity about the work of a pastor is reemerging at Machen’s seminary.

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13 Comments

  1. Posted September 1, 2010 at 6:25 am | Permalink

    The best line in the piece was , “and now, presumably protected by a praetorian guard of personal assistants and associate pastors,…”. I remember hearing Iain Murray asked one time why MLJ did not have a bevy of assistants and associate pastors to go along with his large congregation and he responded by noting that MLJ actually trusted his Elders and himself to handle the kind of work that we in America typically lay upon associates and assistants.

  2. David A Booth
    Posted September 1, 2010 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    Uncle Glen’s letter is helpful because it challenges what might be the unhealthy motives of a young man who wants to attend a church with a celebrity pastor. Nevertheless, we in the OPC should be careful about throwing stones at large churches as though they were necessarily inferior to small churches.

    We should also be careful about where we afix the blame for any particular problem. For example, the second paragrpah above is slightly misleading when it says: “A friend told Trueman about an inquirer who came to him with a doctrinal question because the inquirer’s own pastor was too busy on the speaking circuit to meet with his congregant.” Why is this misleading? Because the church as described obviously had other pastors on their staff and this ‘inquirer’ didn’t approach the other pastors who were there with his question. Why not? Did this ‘inquirer’ only want to meet with the Senior Minister because of his celebrity status?

    In a world that shouts “big is better” it is helpful to occassionally say “no it isn’t”. But the Biblical response to “big is better” is not “big is bad”.

  3. Posted September 1, 2010 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    @David –

    Re: “Because the church as described obviously had other pastors on their staff and this ‘inquirer’ didn’t approach the other pastors who were there with his question. Why not? Did this ‘inquirer’ only want to meet with the Senior Minister because of his celebrity status?”

    Justin Taylor raised this issue to Trueman, and Trueman has responded on Ref21.

    http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2010/08/on-organ-grinders-and-monkeys.php

    In a nutshell, it may be unpersuasive, but it basically is a restatement of,

    “What generally happens in situations like Strong’s is that he is at the top of a large pastoral staff in which the pastors without star power have the day-to-day responsibilities of shepherding the flock. At least that accounts for the pastoral oversight that Christians need…”

    And of,

    “Pastoral ministry is not flashy, but we need it in the same way that we need fathers and mothers to be in the home, not on speaking tours about parenthood.”

    I would only add that the reason they want to speak or meet only with the Senior Minister is at least arguably symptomatic of the pastoral scenario in which megachurches (which are arguably themselves symptomatic entities) place the average congregant.

  4. David A Booth
    Posted September 1, 2010 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    Thanks Bill.

    I am blessed to serve as the pastor in a small vibrant church. When I look out at the congregation prior to a service I can immediately recognize if anyone is not there. Our Session knows, prays for, and is involved with each of our members on a very personal basis. I love this.

    Yet, having been involved with small churches most of my life, I think that we in the OPC are in danger of unjustly denigrating large churches when we are just crying about sour grapes. Congregations like Park Cities Presbyterian Church in Dallas and First Presbyterian Church in Jackson are able to do things that such small churches could never do. Perhaps there is a place for the 5,000 member church even though that is not where hardly any of us are called to serve.

  5. Posted September 1, 2010 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

    I love Trueman’s second paragraph. Our prayer at our church is that the Lord would send us just as many people as we can disciple well, and not a person more. We are in fact feeling stretched in that regard, and the sanctuary is full when the local colleges are in session, so our next step, is NOT to build a bigger sanctuary, or go to two services, but as God blesses, to plant another small church, rather than trying to grow much larger ourselves. Why? Because I WANT to know which sport each kid in our church plays, and even go to their games — but it’s getting hard. So why make it harder?

    However, since post this is basically aimed at Tim Keller (can we just be honest?), from what I know I think Tim is an authentic pastor who has just happened to see tremendous success. For one, he constantly talks about his first pastoring experience in a small, blue collar church in Virginia. For another, writing books came later rather than sooner (other than his book on Mercy Ministries). For another, there is anecdotal stuff back in the early 90s when things were just starting to take off. He knew his folks, but things kept getting bigger, so what to do? I am not a fan at all of multi-site congregations for the reasons stated above, but Redeemer’s eventual plan is to have 5 or so Kellerless churches, rather than replacing one mega pastor after another. I think they are trying hard NOT to be the typical mega celebrity church.

    As for me, I just give all my guys Willie Still, and that cures em of even wanting to pastor a big church.

  6. Bobby Avant
    Posted September 4, 2010 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    “since post this is basically aimed at Tim Keller”

    Its fairly self evident that this is about Tim Keller. The one thing D. Hart & the Baylys have in common is their attitude towards Tim Keller.

    thanks Chris for putting this constant crticism about Tim Keller into context.

  7. dgh
    Posted September 4, 2010 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Bobby, you left out CRT. It’s the Bayly’s, Hart, and Trueman.

    Chris, I think you may be right about Keller not wanting celebrity. But he does seem to want influence and hasn’t at all been timid about receiving funds from MNA or in being a guru for MNA strategies. If he only wanted to do his little “big” thing in NYC, that would be one thing. But he hasn’t seemed to turn down letting the NYC model become the norm for most church planting efforts, at least at the denominational level.

    And I just once wish Keller would acknowledge the good work that pastors do in the suburbs. Not everyone can be a Big Apple pastor.

  8. Bobby Avant
    Posted September 6, 2010 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    Maybe so but I rarely see Trueman rail on & on against Keller like you & the Baylys do.

  9. dgh
    Posted September 6, 2010 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    Bobby, maybe he’s not as discerning.

  10. Bobby Avant
    Posted September 9, 2010 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    yeah probably so. Thats what you & the Baylys have in common discernment

  11. Posted September 9, 2010 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Bobby, don’t forget that the Bayly’s hold something in common against Keller and Hart: neither pickets Planned Parenthood.

  12. Posted September 9, 2010 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    Bobby, the Baylys and I also share the same sex.

  13. Paul
    Posted September 9, 2010 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    So Darryl, I’ve counted the number of comments you’ve made on the Baylys, would it be safe to say that “you’re obsessed”. :-)

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