Friday, May 6, 2011

Pray for me. Listen better. Stay off the Porn.

Billy Sunday laying down the smack in 1920

In Basking Ridge, NJ there is a 600 year-old white oak tree which sits in the "The Yard" of the local Presbyterian Church. In the summer of 1740, under its shade, Anglican cleric George Whitefield preached to 3000 as he traveled from New York to Charleston to evangelize and raise money for his orphanage in Georgia - a staggering number given the rural population and limits of travel at the time. Benjamin Franklin heard of the crowds gathering to hear Whitefield and was skeptical. In his autobiography, Franklin describes listening to Whitefield preach outdoors on Market Street in Philadelphia. He backed up to a distance where he could still clearly hear Whitefield's voice and by "imagining then a semi-circle, of which my distance should be the radius, and that it were fill'd with auditors," he determined "that he might well be heard by more than thirty thousand." Not only was Franklin persuaded the numbers were possible, he witnessed those crowds as he began a close friendship with the evangelist. According to Whitefield biographer Arnold Dallimore, crowds of 25,000 were not uncommon during his relentless tours of the colonies.

George Whitefield was English but he was arguably America's first celebrity preacher. And, of course, not the last. In the 19th century, Henry Ward Beecher built at Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn Heights what historian Debby Applegate claims as the first American mega-church. She writes, “His volcanic preaching was so widely celebrated that tourists by the hundreds took the Sunday ferries, nicknamed ‘Beecher Boats,’ from Manhattan to Brooklyn to hear the flamboyant preaching at ‘Beecher’s Theater.’”  Beecher's fame was suffused by the time he lived in - what Georgetown University professor Michael Kazin calls the 'Protestant Century.'  An era, "when an eloquent preacher could be a celebrity, the leader of one or more reform movements and a popular philosopher — all at the same time."

By the 20th century preachers were outside the highest strata of celebrity but there were still many whose fame extended well past the religious subculture. Early that century there was Billy Sunday, an ex-baseball player whose fundamentalist zeal, stage histrionics and incendiary support of Prohibition brought him a massive following and an audience with two presidents. Later Billy Graham reached the cover of Time Magazine four times. Bishop Fulton J. Sheen hosted a network television show for almost 17 years until 1968 (watching him on this 1956 episode of "What's My Line?" an indication of the Bishop's fame).

The celebrity preacher endures but shifts in society and advancing technology bleed together to give it a new form. The landscape of celebrity has been essentially balkanized. Individuals like William Randolph Hearst, Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite used to have a singular and towering influence as news providers. Now multiple cable and internet news outlets, along with the rabbit warren of news blogs have produced niche celebrities like Bill O'Reilly, Keith Olbermann, Matt Drudge and Arianna Huffington. Each of them itching the ears of the similarly convinced. My teenage kids are passionate fans of musicians that some of their friends have never heard of. That would have been unthinkable 20 years ago, but now a personal computer with Protools and access to Bandfarm gives musicians legitimate access to millions of people and the opportunity to make a living from a relatively small number of fans.

Celebrity preachers now tend to shine brightest in their particular ecclesial constellations. Every now and then they turn up on the Today Show, Nightline or in the New York Times and their followers become breathless that their heroes are now cultural influencers. But in the big picture of contemporary cultural formation these are crumbs from the table, not a seat at the banquet. (explicatus: I'm not advocating the church shouldn't seek to influence culture, but the suggestion we are currently even marginal players in that is self-aggrandizing nonsense. And U2 doesn't count. Or Justin Bieber.)    

All this is important for me to remember when, as a parish minister, I stand up every Sunday and know that for a not insignificant swath of my congregation I simply don't measure up to the preacher rock stars that inhabit their iPods and imaginations. Now that may sound like self-pity in full throat as you read it in the flat medium of a blog. I assure you it isn't. Well, mostly it isn't. Age and guile beats youth and a bad haircut according to P. J. O'Rourke. It's also pretty handy when it comes to being comfortable with your calling and gifts. 

If I didn't think I had gifts to preach I wouldn't be doing what I do. When I started I was focused on swinging for the fences every time I stood behind the pulpit. That produced an almost paralyzing self-consciousness in what is supposed to be an act of pastoral care and, dare I say it, dependence on the Holy Spirit. Add to that the inevitable gloom when it was clear that my efforts barely left the infield. I wanted to be A-Rod and the fear of being a utility outfielder was crippling me. Now? I prepare as diligently as I can, pray (way less than I should), tremble appropriately when I dare to speak for God and...generally leave it at that. Don't mistake that for a casual approach to preaching. Hardly. Word and Sacrament is the height and fullness of what I'm called to do as a pastor and I see it as a matter of life and death.  I'm just increasingly, by God's grace, unconcerned about my place on the roster and I'm reasonably sure that makes me a better preacher.

Now in spite of all that I still have to deal with how people listen to me and that's where I need to understand and lead. In Practice Resurrection, Eugene Peterson writes,
"Romantic, crusader, and consumer representations of the church get in the way of recognizing the church for what it actually is. If we permit - or worse, promote - dreamy or deceptive distortions of the Holy Spirit creation, we interfere with participation in the real thing. The church we want becomes the enemy of the church we have."
There's a spin you can put on the last line. The preacher you want becomes the enemy of the preacher you have. Not unlike the body of the woman you want on the porn site becomes the enemy of the wife you have. And Peterson is correct when he sees the problem as interfering "with participation in the real thing." The preaching event has to be participation and that's hard to do when in the throes of a celebrity preacher-crush in full flower. And like porn, disengagement with the real thing (a wife, your preacher's sermon) is abetted by the illusory and cost-free nature of the substitute (air-brushed perfect body who you don't know or have to engage with, a man defined only by prodigious preaching gifts who you don't know or have to engage with.) And here again technology makes things worse. 

Eric McKiddie of College Church in Wheaton observes "the Evangelical Hollywood is not new, but what is new is 24/7 access to it. Blogs, tweets, and decades of sermon archives are available at the click of a mouse." Unlike in the past when it took a day long walk through the New Jersey wilderness or a ferry ride across the East River, access to the celebrity preacher is immediate, attractive and virtually inexhaustible. That allows for the dreamy, romantic illusion that Peterson sees as inhibiting real participation in the church.

I suspect by now some may be getting concerned with the parallels I'm drawing between celebrity preachers and pornography. Don't be. I'm dealing strictly with the way they are seen and consumed by many in our churches, not their character, motives and certainly not their gifts to the church. In the past 30 years I have been up close and personal with two rock star preachers. One who is, alas, past his celebrity shelf-life (evidence suggests he may not realize it) and another now at the top of his game. It's not an exaggeration to say that they have both been deeply formative in the way I see God and the mission of the church. I have also seen the burden and discomfort they carried as they had to make peace with their celebrity status. But I also saw in both cases the institutions surrounding them reflexively move to, I can't put this any other way, "protect the asset". In the process distancing them even from the real life people surrounding them. The reasons for doing that are likely more complicated than the cynical ones I'm tempted to see. But the end result is that even those in their immediate purview relate to them in a way that is distant and dreamy.

This is the dreaded "double tap" for most preachers. First shot: We are not as gifted as the celebrity preachers. Second shot: those who sit regularly under our preaching actually know who we are. And that's the kill shot friends. I've long disabused folks at Red Mountain Church of any dreamy or romantic view of their preacher. They have seen that, as Wendell Berry puts it, "I am a man crude as any, gross of speech, intolerant, stubborn, angry, full of fits and furies." They see me struggle with parenting, my mood swings, the apparent lack of a left brain, and my involuntary and distracting arm and leg motions when I preach (someone compared it to the way Peter Garrett sang with Midnight Oil). I know there's more but I'll stop there.

But here's the thing. The deep beauty of the gospel and the church actually requires the full participation of the flawed preacher and parishioner. St. Paul's self deprecating description of himself as a leader and preacher in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 is not feigned humility but a perquisite for seeing the wisdom and power of God.

As to how to participate better in my preaching? I've put it this way. Pray for me. Listen better. And if the sermons on your iPod are porn, stay off it.









9 comments:

  1. Well said... I enjoyed the read. Will share with my pastor friends. Keep up the good work.

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  2. Good stuff, Tom. Thanks. I needed that.

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  3. In the words of Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry McGuire, "Baby you are the shit"

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  4. Tom...as a recovering pastor...thanks for the grace!

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  5. great post, tom. your words challenge the mind and the heart.

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  6. ...it was good while it lasted.

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  7. Great post, Tom. This reminds me of something I heard you say in a sermon we heard while we were visiting back in Alabama (and RMC). I remember you saying something to the effect of "Some of you aren't going to get/like my personality, my style of teaching, my topics, etc, but in the long run you really need to get over it and deal." (It was of course said rather more kindly, but that's what really struck me.) I didn't have a problem with your ministry, but I sure was grumbling about the church in Cali. When I went back I tried to apply your sermon and discovered that I was really learning a lot and beginning to appreciate the ministry of people I wasn't even sure I liked at one point.

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  8. This is a great post Tom. Keep writing.

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