A couple of weeks ago Seattle mega-church pastor Mark Driscoll got into a tiff with Los Angeles mega-church pastor John MacArthur. Their dust-up provided a few moments of entertainment in an otherwise slow news week, so religious publications as well as a few secular ones gave some attention to it.
I have to admit the situation made me laugh because of Driscoll’s sheer chutzpah—he wears the trait like a merit badge. That his target was the dean of American fundamentalism John MacArthur made the matter even more interesting. But what the whole episode revealed about the state of the American church made it important for all of us to think about.
Here’s what happened. MacArthur was hosting a conference called “Strange Fire” that was devoted to exposing—in his view—the errors of charismatic churches. The conference was built around his new book of the same name, Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship.
For reasons known only to himself Driscoll showed up uninvited and began passing out free copies of his own new book, A Call to Resurgence: Will Christianity Have a Future or a Funeral? To rub salt in the wound, he went on to pray with people standing in line to get into the conference.
A security detail arrived on the scene and told Driscoll he couldn’t hand out his books at MacArthur’s conference. That’s when things got weird. Driscoll claims he was thrown off the property and his books confiscated. MacArthur’s people say he gave them his books and left on his own accord.
Earlier this week Driscoll sent an open letter to MacArthur inviting him to Driscoll’s upcoming conference—like MacArthur’s previous meeting, a seminar based on his book—to be held next month in Seattle. It remains to be seen if MacArthur will hand out copies of his book to Driscoll’s crowd.
I expect MacArthur to join Driscoll at his conference. The two of them will make a public appearance and profess their appreciation for one another and how the whole thing was just a misunderstanding. Then their respective camps can breathe a sigh of relief that their two heroes are back on speaking terms and America’s evangelical churches can get back to normal.
This is the part that troubles me. The normal state MacArthur and Driscoll will return to is what started the controversy to begin with. The fact is that their normal state is their celebrity status. No one would care about their disagreement and who tried to show up whom at whose conference if both weren’t such widely recognized and publicly celebrated pastors. And that’s the problem. In churches today, celebrity pastors have become larger than life, to the point where the churches they serve often become—in perception if not in fact—little more than platforms that support their personal ministries instead of communities of grace and mission in their own right. The normal state of a growing number of American churches is an unhealthy dependency on their celebrity pastors.
I’m not pointing fingers at MacArthur and Driscoll. Both seem to be men of integrity and vision and I’ve been blessed by their ministries. I continue to benefit from reading some of their books.
Like many other mega-church pastors across the country, though, their public personas have assumed a life all their own. Can you imagine a Mars Hill Church without Mark Driscoll as pastor? Or a Grace Community Church without John MacArthur as its leader?
When a pastor becomes larger than his church, isn’t that some sort of red flag?
The Church has always recognized and honored her outstanding servants. In early church history John Chrysostom was more famous than any religious leader today. Martin Luther was just as celebrated in his day. In our time we could point to Billy Graham.
But today’s fascination with celebrity pastors feels different. There’s less substance and more hype. Less authenticity and more marketing. There’s a cold-eyed strategy that makes it feel as though we’re being sold a product instead of being led into a deeper walk with Christ. When I see the glitzy campaigns that keep celebrity pastors in the public eye—through television interviews, planted newspaper stories, book sales, twitter feeds (does anyone really believe these pastors write their own tweets every day?) or professionally designed publicity campaigns—it looks as though the pastor himself is the center of the church.
He’s not. The center of the church is Jesus.
Humility is a pastor’s most important quality. The church isn’t his platform, his creation, his business or his plaything. It’s the people the Holy Spirit has given him the privilege of serving. Congregations and their pastors who forget that biblical truth create a celebrity culture where the church’s mission is secondary to the pastor’s ego.