The “Celebrity Factor” — Pondering the Implications of Preaching For Church Planting and Satellite Dreaming

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Not too far beneath the surface of our discussions about church planting and satellite dreams is the so-called “celebrity factor.” That is, there is the awkward awareness that my reputation as an author and speaker may make it hard for some people to leave my preaching and make it easy for others to come. There is an ambivalent attitude to this factor in our thinking about church planting and growth management.

Devotion to Hearing Pastor John Preach the Word

Some people are unashamedly devoted to me as a preacher and do not want to leave. One person (who is admittedly given to hyperbole) expressed it like this:

I would prefer sitting in a smelly underground fruit cellar, complete with angle worms, swamp gas, water seepage, without lights or air conditioning, and watching a video feed of you, than to see your sermon library cut in half, to contemplate the negative effects which it might have on Bethlehem, and to miss out on your preaching by 50%. We have to have our eyes wide open here, I think. There are probably quite a few good churches to worship in, and to find fellowship. But, then there is the preaching!

Warning Not To Be Too Attached to Pastor John

Others are not as devoted to hearing Pastor John and are more wary of the “celebrity factor.” For example, one person wrote:

I believe there is much greater spiritual profit in hearing systematic Bible exposition from someone other than John Piper than to hear him half the time and so to be always listening to two separate series. To do that is to communicate to the world that we have one “star” preacher that we listen to half the time. . . . In summary I believe that there is far greater spiritual profit in hearing consecutive Bible exposition than hearing John Piper half the time, as good as he is. We mustn't glorify the man over the Word.

What Lies Behind the “Celebrity Factor”?

We need to clarify what we mean by the “celebrity factor” and how to think about the influence of one man in the life of a church and a movement. What really lies behind the so-called “celebrity factor”? We must be very careful to acknowledge that something good and something bad may lie behind strong attraction to a leader.

Bad Reasons To Be Attracted to a Leader

One bad reason for attraction to a leader is a vicarious sense of self-exaltation. In other words, people may be attracted to a leader because it inflates their ego to be associated with someone who is well known. This kind of pride is evident in what we often call, “name-dropping.” People mention the names of famous people they have relationships with to give the impression of being somebody. This kind of attraction is unworthy of a Christian and should not be pursued by preacher or church-growth strategies.

Another bad reason for attraction to a leader is the pleasure one gets from his style alone, but not the content of his message. This is like being attracted to Handel’s Messiah with no interest in the Scriptures that inspired it and permeate it. If one is drawn to a preacher by oratory or logic or diction or illustrations or passion, without being moved by the biblical truth of the messages, the attraction is hollow and unworthy of a Christian. Such attraction should not be cultivated by the preacher or the strategies of the church.

New people may be attracted to hear a well-known preacher out of curiosity. This may or may not be bad. Whether it is bad depends on the motives for continuing to listen to such a preacher.

Good Reasons To Be Attracted to a Leader

There are some good reasons for seeking out a preacher and being devoted to his ministry of the Word.

First, it is good to be attracted to a faithful expositor of the Word of God the same way it is good to read God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated books. There is an assumption here, namely, that some preachers exposit the Word more helpfully than others. That is, people may be drawn to a preacher because they get more help in understanding the Scriptures from him than from some of the others they have heard.

Second, it is good to be attracted to an expositor of the Word of God whose way of preaching not only helps the understanding but kindles our affections for God. Some preachers say truth but do not inspire love for the truth as much as others. They explain texts but do not kindle delight in the Word of God. To be drawn to a preacher who not only increases understanding but also awakens zeal for God and holiness is not a bad thing.

An Analogy

By way of analogy, you may have ten commentaries on Romans in your library. But as you prepare your lessons or your sermons, you find yourself going back again and again to the same three. This is not because of any “celebrity factor,” but because these three are the most helpful. They get at the meaning most clearly and compellingly. Similarly, people may desire to hear the same preacher each Sunday because, in their case, he gives the most help in showing the Bible powerful and relevant in their struggles.

An Important Implication

One implication from all this, which troubles some people, is that there is a kind of leadership and exposition and exultation that should attract people. God-centered leadership, with faithful exposition of the full counsel of God in Scripture, with a contagious exultation over the truth should be sought after. It would be a defect in a Christian to be content with leadership that is not God-centered, preaching that is not Bible-saturated, and a leadership demeanor that is uninspiring.

Therefore, it is important that we not assume that strong attachment to a preacher is a bad thing. It may be. But it may not be. There may be good reasons to be loyal to a leader who is weak in one or more of these qualities, but that does not mean it is wrong to want the qualities in a leader and to hold fast to them when you find them.

Two Final Questions for Bethlehem

Two questions beg to be clarified in regard to my leadership and preaching. One is whether it attracts and sustains more hypocrites than it does hungry seekers and growing saints. That is, are people mainly drawn to hear my preaching because of the externals like oratory and logic and diction and illustrations, or is it because the Bible is clarified, Christ is magnified, and longings for God and holiness and missions are awakened?

The answer to the second question depends on the answer to the first. If, for this brief season of life, God’s gift and blessing are on the preaching, in a way that awakens passion for God and holiness and missions rather than producing a crowd of worldly celebrity-seekers, then a crucial question for the elders of Bethlehem is not only how to prepare people for the post-Piper years, but how to maximize the impact of his ministry for the next fifteen years (or whatever God gives).