Posts Tagged ‘George Barna’

Many years ago, I saw an ad in a Christian publication promoting a product I found offensive.

A certain televangelist was inviting churches to buy satellite equipment so they could beam the messages from his church into their worship services.  The idea behind the ad was that if a church really wanted to grow, then its people needed to listen to this single gifted man.

The ad outraged me.  This televangelist came from the South, while our church was in the West.  He came from a charismatic church, while ours was non-charismatic.  He often used a condemning tone, while I tried to speak with grace.  He did not know our people, but I did.  And he was not a biblical expositor, while that’s what I loved doing most.

How dare he presume that every church in America needed to hear him preach every week rather than their own pastor!

I hope that few churches signed up for this offer.  Not long after that ad came out, that televangelist engaged in some extracurricular activities that resulted in the satellite dishes being turned off … for good.

While that was an extreme case, the Christian world seems to be increasingly listening to fewer and fewer biblical teachers.

Many churches now have only one teacher in the entire congregation: the pastor.  Since most churches don’t offer adult classes or Sunday evening services or midweek worship anymore, the pastor becomes the lone communicator of biblical truth by default … or design.

Even if a church has small groups, leaders are usually instructed to facilitate discussion rather than teach in any meaningful way.  And increasingly, that discussion is about the pastor’s message from the week before.  So even gifted teachers who lead such groups aren’t supposed to teach anything, but let everyone talk.

There are pros and cons to this approach.

For starters, it helps some preachers lead a more balanced life.  I once knew the pastor of a megachurch who told me he studied 50 hours every week.  (You read that right.)  He studied 15 hours for the Sunday morning service, 15 hours for the Sunday evening service, and 20 hours for the Wednesday night prayer meeting.

Why so long for the Wednesday night service?  Because he never knew who might show up to hear him, and he wanted to be accurate in his teaching.  (John MacArthur showed up a few times unannounced.)

Forgive me, but that’s insane, if not self-destructive.  In fact, that pastor died less than two years after he shared that information with me.  Since studying is a sedentary habit, the lack of bodily movement may have done him in.

So that’s one extreme: the pastor is the primary teacher in the church and teaches all the time except when he’s on vacation.

We now have another approach which I believe is much more healthy: the pastor shares the teaching role with several other gifted communicators.  Each teacher may teach for an entire series and then take the next one or two off, or each teacher might be assigned a different Sunday during the same series.

The advantages are enormous.  The congregation gets to hear from several gifted teachers.  The pastors have plenty of time to prepare their messages.  And messages can be divided up by specialties.  It can be difficult listening to the same voice all the time, but if you hear two or more voices, it’s much easier to take.

The downside, of course, is that most churches can only afford one gifted teacher, not three or four.  And the more gifted someone is, the more often they want to speak … and the more often the congregation wants to hear them.

Now a few megachurches are planting satellite churches in outlying areas and sending a live feed of the message from the mother church into those venues.  A church I once attended has been doing this all over the Phoenix area and has started several satellite campuses in the area where we used to live.

When they did this, they absorbed another megachurch.  The pastor from that megachurch taught periodically at the mother megachurch, but several months later, he left … and hasn’t been heard from since.

It seems to me that technology is leading to a social Darwinism in the Christian community.

For example, a pastoral colleague recently told me that Rick Warren was opening up a satellite campus in his community.  What would happen in your area if that happened?  Would people from your church flock to the satellite campus and desert your church and pastor?

Is this about reaching more people, trying to amass the most followers, increasing revenue streams, or all of the above?

I have six concerns about this particular trend:

First, what happens when a popular teacher veers off course theologically? 

If thousands of people have to choose between the teachings of Paul the apostle or their favorite Christian communicator, who will they choose?  There is a Gen X preacher who is clearly off the rails theologically, and I know someone who thinks he’s great.  How much effort should I expend in trying to convince him otherwise?

Second, what happens if a famous teacher falls morally?  

Twenty-five plus years ago, some of America’s best-known Christian leaders were involved in sexual scandals.  It was a hard time to be the pastor of any church.  I remember one woman (who did not attend our church) who kept calling and implying that all these guys were crooks.  Although there have been fewer scandals in recent years (thank God!), when we farm out our teaching to a chosen few, those teachers seem to represent all of Christianity to many people.  And if a few of them go down, it impacts everybody.

Third, what happens to smaller and medium-sized churches? 

Back in the 1990s, Christian pollster George Barna predicted that the days were coming when most churches in America would be either small or large and that medium-sized churches would soon become extinct.  I’m not worried about the satellite churches winning lost people to Christ.  There are enough unbelievers out there for everybody.  Instead, I’m concerned about believers in smaller churches who have struggled for years to make their church go and finally leave it to join a satellite church.  While the jury is out on this approach, I hope we’ll see the results of surveys on this trend soon and be able to adjust accordingly.

Fourth, why are we letting a few people do all our thinking for us?  

I once heard a new pastor in Silicon Valley tell a group of pastors that whenever he started preparing for a message, he first read all the commentators and then added his own thoughts.  My immediate response was, “Why aren’t you letting God speak directly to you first?”  Like many pastors, whenever I selected a passage to preach on, I first did all my own work and then consulted with the commentators to check my conclusions.

I didn’t want to preach a message that God gave to Chuck Swindoll or Bill Hybels: I wanted to bring a message to our people that God had given me.  Since many of these satellite churches hire pastors to be on premises while the megachurch pastor is speaking on satellite, how do they feel about having their teaching gifts shelved?

We need tens of thousands of pastors all over the world who don’t buy sermons from Rick Warren but who let God’s Spirit speak directly to them through His written Word.

Fifth, what is this one-teacher trend saying to other gifted teachers in a local church?

Let me share my own situation.

My primary spiritual gift is teaching.  It’s what I love to do more than anything else.

But after 36 years in church ministry, I don’t think I will ever be able to use my gift again inside a church.

Why not?

If I attended a small or medium-sized church, and the current pastor found out I was a former pastor and invited me to preach … and I did well … I would become a threat to him … and he would never ask me again.

If I attended a large church or a megachurch, it would probably take me years to be asked to preach … because 36 other guys would be asked before me.

So my teaching gift sits on the shelf, unused and unvalued by the wider body of Christ.

I wonder how many other gifted teachers have been banned from using their gifts in local churches because of the one-teacher approach?

Finally, what happens to rookie preachers? 

I preached my first sermon at 19 years of age in a Sunday night service at my home church.  While it wasn’t very good, my church let me teach many more times because I told them I had been called by God to preach.  There were a lot of venues back then for someone who was learning to preach: Sunday School classes, the Sunday evening service, the midweek service, as well as the local rescue mission.

But where does a preacher learn to teach today?

I have always believed that if someone is called by God to preach, they should preach first in front of their home church.  But the larger your home church is, the less likely that is to happen.

Before I became a pastor at age 27, I had preached in a church setting about 50 times.  There were a lot of things I had to learn – and a few I had to unlearn.

But with increasingly fewer opportunities, where can a young preacher learn to develop his gift?

Acts 13:1 says that the church in Antioch had “prophets and teachers” [plural], including Barnabas and Saul.

1 Timothy 5:17 mentions “the elders who direct the affairs of the church well” and then singles out “those [plural] whose work is preaching and teaching.”

Seems to me that New Testament churches didn’t have just one teacher … they had multiple teachers.

Romans 12:6-7 says, “If a man’s gift is … teaching, let him teach …”

If local churches have one only teacher, where are the other gifted teachers supposed to teach?


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