• Why I’ve Gone Mainline (for now): There are no celebrities

    February 5, 2015

    paparazzi(NOTE: This is part two in an ongoing series. For other posts on this topic, click on “Mainline Musings” under Categories on the home page of this site.)

    Some time ago, I got curious about church history. How did we end up at this point in the story of Christianity? Franklin Graham had used his considerable influence to help pass North Carolina’s anti-gay-marriage Amendment One. Mega church pastor Mark Driscoll was self-destructing after years of pastoral overreach and abuse. John Piper seemed incapable of tweeting anything sensitive. And Elevation’s Steven Furtick was building a three-million-dollar, 16,000-square-foot home that he said wasn’t “that big.” How did we get here? How did we arrive at a point where Christian ministers are sometimes elevated to celebrity status, often to their own detriment and to that of the church itself?

    The answer is complicated, but one factor stood out particularly as I read church history. While the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century certainly dealt with Catholic abuses, it gave the world its own set of problems. Never before had the sermon been so front and center in a worship service. For 1500 years, the taking of Holy Communion, the Eucharist, was the central act of Christian worship, something the entire congregation participated in, and for which the minister was, well, the minister, not the star. With the elevation of the sermon during and after the Reformation, the minister was the solitary participant and the one drawing the attention. The longer and more central the sermon became, the more a congregation came to associate themselves with a particular man. The church and its services became dependent on the pastor, and the pastor, who could not help but enjoy feeling essential, took on more and more of a central place in worship. Today, you will still hear people say, “What is Pastor talking about this week?” as though that were the primary concern on Sunday morning—one man and his thoughts on a topic as it relates to Scripture.

    The especially dynamic pastors attracted bigger and bigger crowds to hear their teaching, and huge churches began to grow up around these Christian celebrities, almost all of which have come from the Evangelical wing of the Protestant church in America. With celebrity status comes influence; influence is power; power corrupts; abuses happen; ministers fail; the church and the world suffer. Not all celebrity pastors fall, of course, but I wonder if it isn’t almost worse when they don’t. Should any one man and his thoughts on the Divine be so elevated in the context of worship? Should we place that much importance on anyone’s sermon?

    Just today I watched a message by Matt Chandler (which you can view by clicking here), one of the current rock stars of Evangelicalism. He’s young, he’s attractive, he’s eloquent, he’s firy, he grabs your attention, and he keeps it—in this case for 50 minutes. Fifty minutes! Ironically, he begins the sermon saying, “I’ve gotta go short because I want to give you an opportunity to see what [resources] we’ve got out there for you [in the lobby].” He invokes “all the boldness the Holy Spirit will grant me,” as if to say we should trust that whatever intense or excited emotions he might display are from God himself. And then there are the overstatements and outright misstatements that are inevitable when anyone speaks passionately and somewhat off the cuff, with only notes to guide him, about sublime things for nearly an hour. Chandler in this sermon calls Hitler and Stalin “brothers” and says the US has made them “look angelic” in comparison to the number of babies we’ve killed through abortion. He likens abortion after rape to tossing an old pair of jeans just because it has a tear (an odd and, I would think to any woman who’s been raped, outrageous comparison). Early in the sermon, Chandler says God has designed the intricacies of our very personalities; God even made sure Chandler had “tight vocal folds” so that he would be loud and without an inside voice all his life (pastors do love to justify and boast about their blusteriness). But then, later in the sermon, he says we are totally depraved and sinful from the moment of conception and that our personalities bear that out right from the get-go. So, are our personalities God’s design, or sin’s, or both? How do God and sin share that influence? Chandler doesn’t say. He couches his entire argument about the science of prenatal development in the decidedly unscientific Hebrew poetry of Psalms 51 and 139, the typical go-to passages on abortion, which were not written as scientific explanations of genetics. All of this goes on for 50 minutes, apparently unquestioned by any of the 10,000 (yes, 10,000) spectators observing this celebrity pastor.

    And the problem is not his staunchly conservative theological views; you could easily reverse his statements to make them staunchly liberal and end up with a similarly objectionable result. The problem is that in many an Evangelical service, the pastor and what he’s talking about this week are the showpiece of the service, even if what’s being said is highly questionable. The preacher and his preaching are what we’re really there for. Yes, the music and baptisms and scripture readings and occasional observances of communion matter, but mostly only insofar as they build up and support whatever the pastor’s message that week happens to be. That leads to innumerable abuses and overextensions of pastoral importance and authority, which can, and often do, end in destruction. The recent demise of Mark Driscoll is just one in a long train of examples from Evangelical Protestantism’s past, and while Matt Chandler has not unraveled (yet), he has had to retract a “few” things–like four years worth of sermonsI did a little research on Chandler after listening to his message. Turns out, as The Blaze notes in a profile on the pastor,

    “Visitors to the church’s website who want to listen to Chandler’s past sermons will notice that messages from 2002 through 2006 are gone. A note accompanying it reads in part, ‘We have removed all sermons prior to January 2006. The decision was made because of secondary concerns regarding tone, language and youthful angst over peripheral matters.'”

    Secondary concerns? I wonder how secondary those concerns felt to the people who may have been hurt for four years by Chandler’s tone? We all know that how you say a thing can hurt as much as or more than what you say. Do the 10,000 people hanging on his words every week know that a few years down the road he may wish to take them back over “secondary concerns”? Only, you can never really take them back. You can retract a statement, but you cannot retract the consequences of what you said.

    Why have I gone Mainline, at least for now? Because there are no Matt Chandlers. There are no celebrities. Some of that is a manifestation of Mainline Protestantism’s decline in recent decades. People aren’t flocking to the local Lutheran or Presbyterian USA church the way they still do to Evangelical churches, so there are no crowds to adore this minister or that. But part of the reason that celebrity pastors tend not to sprout from Mainline churches the way they do often from Evangelical churches is, I think, that Mainlines put less of a focus on the weekly sermon. To be sure, it’s still important; it’s just not as central as it tends to be in the Evangelical world. Time is granted for a sermon (homily, as Mainlines tend to call it), but there’s so much else that has to happen—hymns to be sung, communion to be taken, liturgy to be recited, plates to be passed, Scriptures to be read (often long passages from three different places in the Bible)—that the pastor’s sermon becomes just another part of the service. It’s important, but no more so than anything else happening. Typically in the more liturgical settings, the homily also follows the historic church calendar, so the minister feels at least somewhat less free to launch into whatever issue he or she feels passionate about that week, and I would say that is a very healthy restriction. (I couldn’t help noticing that Chandler’s abortion sermon was apparently part of a series on prayer. How in the world did he decide that, out of all the things one could say about prayer, he should devote a sermon to abortion?)

    Many of us are subjected to a seemingly endless stream of commentary all week long, from television “news,” from Facebook, from our own family members. Who really wants to sit for 30 to 50 minutes on a Sunday and listen to one more person tell us what they think, based (often tenuously) on a verse here and a verse there. My brain is tired by Sunday with opinion overload. I don’t mind hearing a homily or sermon, but at this point in my life, I’m less and less comfortable with a service structure that elevates the pastor’s role in speaking above even the congregation’s role in taking Holy Communion.

    Necessary qualifiers: I was a pastor. I delivered many, many sermons that were 30 minutes or longer which functioned as the centerpiece of the worship service. Millions of Christians have been nourished by this approach and I do not wish to demean their experience or the ministers who provide it (some of whom are my friends). Not all Evangelical pastors speak in the manner Chandler does. Most probably don’t. They don’t all make overreaching or careless statements about Hitler and Stalin or compare abortion after rape to tossing a pair of jeans with a tear. Chandler is merely an example to communicate a concern I have. This is not an attack on people; it’s a critique of a service structure that has traditionally granted too vaulted a place to the pastor and his thoughts—and however much a pastor may protest, they are his thoughts, and not, by extension, God’s. I’m in a transition time, where I’m asking questions and trying new things, after which I may end up right back where I started, so I’m not expecting people to abandon their church to join me down at First Methodist. I may end up Evangelical after all in terms of worship structure. For now, I really find that setting problematic. It remains to be seen whether I will, after a time, find the Mainline world more or less so.

    More thoughts later …

    Posted in: General, Mainline Musings

Recent Comments

  • Dave said...


    Really thoughtful piece, Matt. The sermon has always been the part of the service that stays with me after church and leaves me thinking throughout the week. I admit, it’s the reason I go.

    But I also agree with the dangers of celebrity and have experienced it numerous times in my own life. Twice now I’ve been part of churches that have split simply because the lead pastor leaves.

    Maybe I need to look more at the other functions of church that I give little thought to, and see how they can also play a formative role in my spiritual life. Thanks for the insight.

    02/7/15 2:01 PM | Comment Link

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