About a decade ago, I attended one of the first Together for the Gospel conferences in Louisville, Kentucky. This was long before the event exploded into what it is today, the hallmark of celebrity-driven Christianity, where thousands pack the KFC Yum! Center in downtown Louisville every two years to ogle over the stars of the show.
At that time I still had fading stars in my eyes as a newish seminary student at SBTS, awed as much by the pristine campus as the personas of Mahaney, Moore, Mohler & Co.
As a college student, I’d grown up on a steady diet of material published by what would become the T4G Dream Team, having read, been shaped by, and admired the works of John Piper, Al Mohler, C.J. Mahaney, Mark Dever, John MacArthur, and R.C. Sproul. They literally wrote the books on expositional preaching, healthy church life, and, yes, humility.
Three events (among many others) shattered the idyllic vision I had of the men and place that was Southern Seminary.
SEEING WITH NEW EYES
First, at orientation, Russell Moore—yes, that Russell Moore, then dean of the school of theology and now infamously at the helm of the ERLC—jokingly remarked that when he began his PhD, he rented a space in the library and didn’t see his wife for years. Despite the fact that it was supposedly the headquarters for biblical man- and womanhood, there was a culture of family abandonment accepted, even celebrated, for the sake of a high academic standard.
Second, in one of my final convocation chapel services, Dr. Mohler proclaimed it the “The Year of Living Dangerously.” And then he got in his new Cadillac with his fancy suit he likely bought at Edgar’s and drove to his Presidential Mansion just a few blocks from chapel. I’m no rocket surgeon, but the seminary John Piper once described as “posh and nice” was now telling students to live dangerously and it seemed to me a touch like hypocrisy.
Many of the students were on WIC or food stamps, strung out from working nights at UPS, and the man preaching in a suit worth more than many of our family vehicles was telling us to live dangerously. Hmmmm.
Buddy, the wheels could fall off this family truckster at any moment and we are all seriously malnourished and sleep deprived. You have no idea just how dangerously we are living.
Third, the celebrity pastor union guild meeting, I mean, T$G (by the way, the “4” and “$” share the same key on the keyboard, how utterly convenient).
One of the most disturbing things I ever saw was 18- to 20-somethings madly running around the Kentucky Convention Center trying to steal a selfie with their favorite celebrity pastor. It was at that moment I realized something had gone terribly, horribly wrong with the celebrity reformed movement.
Checking the math since those early conference days, here’s what I’ve come up with: C.J. Mahaney was forced out of Sovereign Grace Ministries and T4G (only after so much hubbub) when a very public legal process put him at the center of a string of sexual abuse cover-ups inside the church; Mahaney’s boy wonder, No. 2, and new head pastor of the Gaithersburg, Maryland, church, Josh Harris, declared himself an atheist, divorced his wife, and has since been marching with the LGBTers; The Notorious Ron Burns, AKA Thabiti Anyabwile, Mark Dever’s offspring, has gone like full black power Social Justice Warrior (SJW) on us, blaming whites across America for killing Martin Luther King, Jr. …
… Dever himself defended Mahaney to the hilt, then went silent about that, but picked up the SJW, identity politics schtick; which brings us to Lig Duncan and his, uh, “crying episode” at a later T4G, which was all a bunch of emotionalistic drivel to please the leftists in the ranks; Mohler himself has faded hard over the homosexuality issue, an issue that’s been well-documented in The Grace of Shame; and then there’s our favorite little leftist, the crowning jewel of them all, Russ Moore, whose feminist-endorsing ERLC will destroy everything that isn’t soft, left, and on the right side of Beth Moore.
Move out of the center a little ways and you’ve got Mark Driscoll bullying fellow churchmen and using mission dollars to hype books he plagiarized to make it look like he’s more popular than he is. Kicked out of his Calvinistic Acts 29 Network, he starts a new church in Arizona, denounces Calvinism, and is basically irrelevant now.
James MacDonald, charlatan, I mean former pastor, at Harvest Bible Church in Illinois, was fired and then, as the church’s elders reported, it was discovered he’d siphoned millions to himself for everything from golf club memberships to hunting leases to his own personal luxury compound. Speaking of Illinois corruption, even the founder of the modern celebrity church movement himself, Bill Hybels, was fired for sexual misconduct.
Here’s the problem: Most of the responses we’ve seen from the conservative reformed crowd is all the same run-of-the-mill stuff. Were these men really saved? Can I be sure of my salvation? If these men were faithless, does that mean the Gospel failed? And so on. But none of that gets to the heart of the issue.
The greater issue most people aren’t addressing is the cancer that is celebrity-driven Christianity. If the church is to be healthy again, there’s some painful chemotherapy ahead, which means actively putting the celebrity-driven movement to death.
Any of these corrupt and fallen men is but one example of a crumbling system of greed that has been a dominant feature of American evangelicalism. It is time to rethink the celebrity pastor model and the multi-campus, conference tour, book deal garbage that attends it. All of it needs to die.
The greater issue most people aren’t addressing is the cancer that is celebrity-driven Christianity.
It all starts with the money, which reveals where our hearts are. Simply stop funding the sickness that is celebrity-driven Christianity. In the infamous words of Roberto Duran, “No Mas.”
It’s time to stop buying books from publishers with their word-neutering translations, and all the other books that fund this ego-driven celebrity conference tour circuit. Much of the Christian publishing industry is at war with men anyway, as I’ve written about elsewhere in greater detail. Instead of funding Ligonier’s next luxury cruise that sponsors teaching about suffering (even Alanis Morissette would find that ironic), invest in your local church where local men are serving faithfully.
Interestingly enough, Jesus actually had a lot to say about crowds, and most of it reflected His attitude of distrust toward them. When the crowds grew, Jesus often immediately doubled down on hard teaching (John 6) or moved on to the next town. The same crowd that sang His praise one day was shouting for His execution the next. Live by the crowd, die by the crowd.
While Jesus no doubt displayed compassion by teaching and healing, He built his church around 12 faithful men, not a rebranding campaign that would attract millions or via a rockstar Instagram account with millions of bought-and-paid-for followers.
And yet that’s exactly what many of the so-called champions of expositional preaching are doing today—chasing the crowd, the money, the seat at the cool table. In which case the next words on the lips of faithful Christians everywhere ought to be, “Bye Felicia.” Or something like it.
Speaking of social media, most of these celebrity pastors would probably go away if you stripped them of their tweeting privileges, and we’d all be better off for it. So, dear church elder boards across this country: Do us all a favor and get the man off of Twitter. We’d all be better off without Tim Keller and his enigmatic nonsense. If Beth Moore needs to go home, then tweet-happy pastors need to shut up and go be with their people.
Regarding all the fawning and funding we’ve each thrown at celebrity pastors, their books, their multi-campus mini Epcot Center churches, and time wasted reading their indefatigably inane tweets, I want to summarize with the words of Bob Newhart: Stop it.