More than a decade ago, Thomas Friedman declared The World Is Flat in his bestselling book about how technology has collapsed the barriers between local and global. The American church has also experienced this “flattening,” as trends in media and ministry bring faraway leaders and national organizations into Christians’ everyday routines.
Believers can chat with Tim Keller in one of his Twitter Q&As, Facebook Live with Judah Smith, or play a Rick Warren podcast in their earbuds while they hit the gym. Though teachings from prominent theologians have spread across the church throughout its history, never have they been so immediate or intimate.
Plus, there’s the bigger, 21st-century scope: More Christian leaders are releasing “content” than ever before, giving evangelicals overwhelming opportunities to hear from nationally known figures alongside the leaders of their own congregations.
“People are hungry for answers, even from a disconnected authority figure,” said Philip Nation, an author and pastor at First Baptist Church of Bradenton, Florida.
As with most things in the Christian life, the draw to outside teachers is not merely an issue of personal preference—it stems from and impacts involvement in the local body, as well.
In some cases, Christians take interest in the kinds of leaders they don’t see in their own churches. As Christianity Today magazine reported last fall in “The Bigger Story Behind Jen Hatmaker,” this phenomenon has surged among women, with famous figures such as Jen Hatmaker and Ann Voskamp fetching mass followings through their popular blogs, books, and conference sessions at events like Catalyst and the IF:Gathering.
“When [local women leaders] are missing, the voices of women with national platforms can become too loud in the ears of younger women, in particular,” said Jen Wilkin, minister at the Village Church in Texas. “National women leaders should be a reference point, but not a replacement for female leadership at the local church level.”
Bestselling authors and biblical scholars contribute to Christians’ spiritual development and scriptural savvy, as pastors and churchgoers alike can attest. However, the work of Bible application is—by necessity—personal and incarnational, as well. It’s studying in community that allows Christians to disciple one another to live out gospel truths.
Are You My Pastor?
John Mulholland, associate pastor at Worthington Christian Church in Minnesota, wrote on his blog:
The pastor in your church will never out-preach Francis Chan, John Piper, Matt Chandler, Alistair Begg, Beth Moore, Andy Stanley, or any other pastor that you listen to through podcasting. As much as I enjoy listening to Matt Chandler, he is not my pastor. I belong to a local body of believers that I am called into to be an active member.
The attention around a popular Bible teacher and their work can make any given Bible study or sermon series from a local leader seem lacking in comparison. So Christians have fretted the influence of celebrity pastors.
“When a Christian author writes a book, it takes months or years. The work is unintentionally held up as a standard [that] local pastors must meet,” said Nation, who has written several small-group studies and books on discipleship. “We are trying to deliver biblically sound and soul-stirring messages on a weekly basis while also leading, counseling, and the like. It sets up a pastor to feel completely inadequate as a communicator of eternal truth.”
Jenny Rae Armstrong, teaching pastor at Darrow Road Wesleyan Church in Wisconsin, agreed. At smaller, rural congregations like hers, pastors “have to do everything from hospital visits to organizing music to serving on boards in the local community to making sure someone’s coming to pump out the holding tank.”
“I can’t compete with Bill Hybels or Lysa TerKeurst with a schedule like that,” she said, noting that Baby Boomers in her congregation typically follow some leaders they know from Christian TV, while younger congregants aren’t as interested in Christian celebrities. “Small church pastors are generally more focused on the pastoral aspect of their work than on polishing their presentation skills. The goal for teaching is ‘solid,’ not ‘spectacular.’”
The Best of Both Worlds
But churches can also benefit from exposure to different styles and perspectives on biblical teaching. Christians have always encouraged gifted teachers to use their skills to serve the body as a whole. Back in 2 Corinthians, readers find what might be the first reference to a celebrity pastor, though he remains notably nameless: “With him we are sending the brother who is famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel” (8:18, ESV).
Bringing in other leaders or referencing their scholarship, whether or not they are famous, can give congregants a more robust understanding than a single preacher could.
“A pastor can’t be expected to address every specific need of every Christian in their congregation through their preaching,” said Trevin Wax, Bible and reference publisher at LifeWay. “Good pastors seize the opportunity to resource their people with likeminded, trusted Christian leaders who may be especially strong in certain areas or speaking on certain subjects.”
For smaller congregations, the proliferation of well-known Bible teachers can be somewhat of a double-edged sword, according to Jeff Breeding, pastor of Midtown Baptist Church in Little Rock, Arkansas.
“On the one hand, it allows church members to take advantage of many more resources than our small church can offer,” said Breeding. For instance, the church does not have a formal counseling ministry, but members can access resources on the topic from teachers such as Paul David Tripp, the author and pastor who teaches on Christian living, parenting, marriage, and suffering.
“On the other hand, the prevalence of Bible teachers also seems to have dulled some people’s discernment,” Breeding added. “If a person has a podcast or is featured at a conference, then he or she is assumed to be solid. Sadly, as you know, that’s not the case. Overall this current situation calls for pastors to be much more in-tune with what church members are listening to and reading.”
At Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, pastors preach expository sermons from the Bible, design small-group curricula around those messages, teach the Bible through classes and seminars, and encourage members to read the Bible regularly. The church also opens up to the wisdom of those outside their staff and congregation, featuring authors like Keller and Voskamp.
“Hosting well-known writers for speaking events, quoting them in sermons, and relating to them on social media are other ways to signal to our people and our community who our thought leader friends are,” said lead pastor Scott Sauls. “Having a public friendship with and/or affinity for well-known writers and authors also gives a certain credibility to our church for those who know the work of the authors well, but are still getting to know us.”
Such networking also helps the preachers themselves. Regardless of location, denominational support, or congregation size, they can access the surplus of Bible resources now available—a chance for them to find inspiration and new insights years after seminary is over.
“The proliferation of teachers available through podcasts, books, and conferences also gives the local pastor the opportunity to grow in the skill of preaching,” said Wax. “Yes, it raises the standard of excellence, but at the same time, it offers pastors the possibility of improving their craft as they benefit from prominent pastors they respect.”
Taylor Turkington, co-director of Western Seminary’s Verity Fellowship, describes the difficulty in analyzing how Christian women are influenced by the leaders they find online.
“Following someone on social media doesn’t mean they have become your dominant spiritual influence; neither does reading their book,” she wrote. “While it is hard to measure the quantitative impact of many of the online teachers, it’s not hard to find the devotees in our churches.
“Their books become part of Bible study; they are quoted from memory. The women speak of their beliefs as settled on an issue because of what they read in a blog post, and they presuppose others should follow suit.”
On the web, readers can find and follow compelling, gifted teachers without assessing where their theological affiliations or beliefs fall in comparison to their own. And at times, a leader’s popularity, presence on a certain book list, or spot on a speaker lineup might be enough for churches to share or endorse that leader.
Mulholland urged pastors not to let name recognition and amenability substitute for theological examination. He suggested they review all materials used in a leader’s ministries, asking, “Is it biblical? Do we agree with the doctrine being taught? Ask ‘Why this?’ and ‘Why now?’ and ‘How does this fit with the rest of what we are doing?’”
Of course, Christians need not limit their reading to teachers whose positions line up exactly with their own. But discerning readers know how to engage various teachers in relation to their own beliefs and the beliefs of their tradition.
According to Sauls, emerging conflicts can sometimes lead Christians to doubt their own pastors’ teachings or position them to choose which they see as more authoritative: their church or the blog in their browser bookmarks. But rather than continually creating a crisis of faith, exposure to outside teachers is, largely, helpful. It prompts curious, engaged Christians to ask deeper questions and learn more in their church context.
“These sorts of differences almost always lead to fruitful conversations between church leaders and members who are reading conflicting material from this author or that author,” Sauls said. “It also forces us to sharpen the ‘why’ of the things we say we believe.”
These conversations are only going to become more common in small groups, Bible studies, and church offices as Christians continue to supplement their spiritual lives—like everything else—with what they find on social media and Google searches.
Michelle Van Loon, a writer on spiritual formation, recalled the warning from Ecclesiastes: “Of making many books there is no end” (12:12). These days, we could add Facebook debates, trending topics, blog controversies, and hashtags to the unending issues vying for our attention.
Local church leaders find themselves at the point of convergence, helping to equip their congregations to process teachings from both inside and outside their church and inside and outside their belief system. Put simply: It all comes back to them.
The context keeps shifting, but fortunately the truth does not. Sauls stated:
The role of the local pastor is to affirm that which is true and beautiful according to Scripture, and to challenge that which is not true and beautiful according to Scripture, especially with the flock under said pastor’s spiritual oversight and care. This applies not only to well-known authors, but also to politicians and secular writers and philosophers and such. In every school of thought, there are things to affirm and, perhaps, things to also critique. But the measuring stick for the pastor should always be, “What does Scripture say about this?”
Kate Shellnutt is online associate editor of Christianity Today. Follow her on Twitter @kateshellnutt.
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