By Matthew Bowerman
Tim Keller, John Piper, Matt Chandler, David Platt, Matthew Bowerman… One of these is not like the other. One of these is not famous and probably never will be. (Hint: it’s me.) Now to be fair, one time God did use a donkey to proclaim his message (Numbers 22). So I don’t want to underestimate God’s ability to effectively use an unimpressive messenger. But odds are that I am going to be a very ‘ordinary’ pastor. I doubt that I will ever sign a publishing contract with Crossway, that I will ever be a keynote speaker at a national conference, or that I will ever be a household name among Christians. So as an ordinary pastor, here are a few commendations and cautions when it comes to how church members should view celebrity pastors and preachers.
First off, I am thankful to the Lord for gifting particular men with extraordinary abilities to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, I’m thankful that we now live in an age in which these blessings can reach a far wider audience than ever before. For almost all of human history the only preaching that church members would ever hear would come from their local pastor. But now, with the advent of technology and social media, a famous pastor can preach a sermon on Sunday morning, and within a few hours, believers on different continents can hear his message. The ability of these men paired with the opportunities of the mediums of today is resulting in people who would never have otherwise heard faithful gospel proclamation. Praise God for seeing His kingdom expand!
Secondly, I’m thankful to the Lord for these men because I know that I am a better preacher because of these men. One of the best ways to grow as a preacher is to listen to great preaching. And having never met any of them I have grown as a preacher. I’ve learned from Piper’s precision in biblical interpretation and word choice. I’ve learned from Keller’s mastery of contextualization. I’ve learned from Chandler’s humor and how to easily relate to large numbers of people while speaking. And instead of being left on an island to figure it out all by myself, my development as a preacher has undoubtedly been accelerated because of the access that I have to the preaching of these well-known men. What today has taken me 5 years to learn as a preacher would most likely have taken me 15 had I been born 100 years ago. Overall, I think the quality of Christian preaching is higher because of how God has used these celebrity pastors to teach ordinary pastors like me. Again, praise God!
But there are a few cautions that we should keep in mind when it comes to celebrity pastors, at least for the Christians who are not members of those famous pastor’s churches. So to the people that belong to churches led by ordinary pastors like me, I would say this:
I know that many of you are listening to the celebrity pastors throughout the week. Which I am thankful for. I will always celebrate any means that the Lord gives us to grow in our understanding of the Word and in Christlikeness. So please, listen to the Kellers, Pipers, Chandlers, and Platts. But know that when your ordinary pastor gets in the pulpit each week, he feels the pressure. He knows that he is the weakest and least talented voice that you are hearing that week. And as much as he tries to fight to remember that his identity and worth is in the gospel of Jesus Christ and not in his ability to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ…he still feels the weight of comparison.
One consequence of celebrity preachers is that while the overall quality of preaching among churches is being raised, the tolerance among congregations for young and growing preachers is being diminished. Because everyone is listening to the celebrity preachers and becoming accustomed to their giftedness and excellence as the standard, young preachers and normal preachers are on a tighter leash. As a 26-year-old, I feel like I don’t have the benefit of taking 15 years to master my craft. I graduated seminary 4 months ago, and I feel the pressure right out of the gate to be as polished and skilled as those who have been doing it for 30 years. And if I have a string of sub-par sermons, what’s to stop you from staying at home the weeks that I preach and listening to a podcast sermon instead?
Unfortunately, many Christians have realized this talent disparity and have chosen to attend Podcast Church in lieu of their local church. And this is my primary caution when it comes to listening to celebrity preachers: Don’t let the gifted preaching of a pastor that you’ve never met lower your love and commitment to your local church and pastor.
Do you want to know another difference between Tim Keller and me? Do you want to know what I am better at than Tim Keller? I’m better a knowing you. Tim Keller didn’t invite you over for dinner last week. John Piper doesn’t ask how he could be praying for you. Matt Chandler doesn't think of how this week's sermon could address your marriage difficulties, your depression, or your job situation. I know that they would if they were your pastor. But I’m your pastor. I know you on a personal level. I know your history, your family, your sins, and your triumphs. And while I will never be able to preach the gospel as well as these men, I will be able to preach the gospel to you better than these men. Because I am going to be able to contextualize and personalize and aim the gospel arrow directly at your heart better than anyone because I’m the one that actually knows you.
So should we listen to celebrity pastors and preachers? I think so. I think God is using these men to expand His Kingdom and strengthen His Church in ways that the world has never seen. But Ephesians 3:10 reminds us that it is “through the church”—through the faithful and personal proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ by very unimpressive and very ordinary preachers—“is the manifold wisdom of God made manifest.” So listen to celebrity preachers, but love your local church.
Matthew Bowerman serves as Church Planting Resident and elder candidate at Redemption Parker. He is the husband to Lauren. He likes to write about preaching, the church, and following Jesus.