There’s been a lot of talk in the blogosphere this year about the rise of “celebrity pastors” with “rock-star status” and the larger-than-life influence of popular conference speakers whose sermons are downloaded by the thousands. Some have openly decried this development; others are glad that at least pastors are being celebrated. Most of us are somewhere in the middle.

There’s no doubt that certain pastors have attained a kind of “celebrity.” And yet we are wrong to assume that this has happened because these pastors have intentionally sought notoriety and fame. It’s one thing to say that we may have a problem here. It’s another thing to start blaming people left and right for it. (Furthermore, I find it ironic that many of the pastors and bloggers who condemn the celebrity culture could be considered “celebrities” themselves, albeit of the curmudgeonly variety!)

All that said, in a recent conversation with Robert George, Russ Moore described a recent shift in how students speak of pastoral influence. Here’s what he had to say:

When I am talking to young evangelicals, often who are in ministry, and I say, “Who has been really influential upon you in ministry and on learning to preach and to do the things of ministry?” ten years ago, most people would have given me the name of a local pastor who had mentored them and worked with them. Now they are mentioning a disembodied voice that they have heard on a podcast. That’s a very dangerous thing…

… We’ll just become this amorphous, non-ecclesial movement where everybody is just concerned about individual flights to heaven and move from church to church to church based upon what the music is like or what the preaching is like and then become identified with these celebrities…celebrity preachers. One of the things that we have happening in evangelicalism right now is this rash of preachers who are leaving their churches in order to expand their ministries, and what they mean by that is to go on the conference circuit and simply become these itinerate type of celebrities. That’s a very dangerous thing in evangelicalism, and unless you’ve got a renewal at the local church level where people really are accountable to people they know, evangelicalism is not going to survive.

Dr. Moore’s anecdotal evidence is distressing. To be sure, I’m thankful for the opportunity to glean biblical insights from the podcasts available from many popular pastors today. I’m also thankful to be able to read sermons from pastors throughout church history. (Chrysostom and Spurgeon are two of my favorites.)

And yet the popular preachers of this year or yesteryear are not the pastors who have influenced me most. It could be that my preaching is influenced by the preaching I listen to or the sermons I read, but a preacher on a podcast is not a pastor to me.

The Perfect Storm

I worry that two weather systems have formed and are coming together in a way that might harm the church. The first weather system is a drought caused by the fatherlessness of our current society. People are looking for fathers and their influence.

The second weather system is the heavy rain of pastoral resources available through technological advance. People can easily access terrific sermon content from especially gifted pastors.

Put drought conditions and heavy rain together, and we have a potential flood situation. Pastors and preachers whose messages connect with our generation are filling the fatherless void but in a way that leads to a distortion of what pastoral influence and fatherhood is supposed to be.

I remember reading Collin Hansen’s book on the “young, restless, and reformed” a few years ago and being disturbed by one woman’s description of John Piper as a “father” of sorts, even though they’d never met. Fathers image God. The fact that a young lady could express the concept of spiritual fatherhood in relation to Piper shows what her view of God the Father is. Far off. Transcendent. Powerful. Distant. If fatherhood can take place without ever meeting, then we must have missed something about the immanence of God that expresses itself in God’s condescension to us in Christ.

Let me reiterate that I’m not faulting John Piper or any other popular pastor for this development. It must be said that much pastoral “fame” is simply the accumulation of honor for a pastor who has proven faithful to God’s call over time.

But just because we cannot and should not point fingers at each other regarding the problem of celebrity does not mean that we shouldn’t carefully consider the ramifications of pastoral influence being mediated through technology instead of the local church. I offer these thoughts not as a point of criticism but as one of concern. And I’m open to suggestions as to how to lift up local church pastors and celebrate their influence and mentoring.

John Piper was right to remind us that we are not pastored by “professionals.” Perhaps it’s time we remembered that we are not pastored by podcasts either.