Reformed Rock Stars, Cults of Personality, and the Multisite Church

Several years ago I attended a conference at which Rev. Iain Murray (co-founder of the Banner of Truth Trust) spoke. After the last session, I thought I’d take a moment to speak to him. Some years prior, while I was in college, Rev. Murray had preached at our church. I met him briefly then, so I thought it would be nice to remind him of that occasion and thank him again for his ministry.

When the conference ended, I noticed people already talking to him, so I took my time chatting with old friends who were nearby. I glanced back from time to time to see when I might have an opening to speak with him. However, the line seemed to be getting longer rather than shorter. Eventually I was done chatting, so I stood where I was, observing the line. I began to notice something curious.

If you’ve ever met Rev. Iain Murray, you know that he is a quintessential English gentleman – humble, unassuming, and very polite. As I observed him, it struck me that he looked a bit uncomfortable – even nervous. He and his wife were standing together, listening and speaking with each person desiring to talk with him, but he had an air of discomfort about him. I also realized that, perhaps unconsciously, Murray seemed to be retreating. Every few minutes, he would inch backwards, towards a door six or so feet behind him. I had the strong impression that he was discomfited by all the attention. Holding court with a stream of admirers was definitely not his cup of tea. Too polite to simply dismiss them and walk away, he looked like a man trapped in an unseemly situation.

Once I realized this, I decided to just go home, rather than add to his discomfort by joining the line.

Clearly, being treated like a “rock-star” doesn’t suit Iain Murray. I don’t believe it suits most so-called Reformed rock stars. But the experience opened my eyes to the fact that a preacher doesn’t have to pursue rock star status to attain it. The conference-goers were the ones who made Iain Murray into a rock star, albeit an improbable one.

The “Reformed rock star” phenomenon is hardly new, nor is it the case that such men are always reluctant to “hold court” for admirers. For example, I recall a different conference in the 1990s, one at which a Reformed minister who was much better-known than Murray spoke. An all-day affair, the event featured a book signing hour, one of several markers of the celebrity status of the man we’d all come to hear.

Discussion of Reformed rock stars has been heating up, fueled most recently by differences of opinion over the increasing use of the multi-site model in Reformed churches.

Multi-site churches usually begin as a single church with a successful, dynamic preacher. As the seating capacity of the church’s meeting venue is reached, other locations or “campuses” are established, where worshippers gather for a service that is led mostly by on-site pastors, but in which the sermon is preached by the more dynamic chap. There are variations in the model: in some instances, the “rock star” preacher commutes from campus to campus, delivering the sermon and departing mid-service to head to the next venue. In other instances, the more-dynamic minister’s sermon is beamed in via video feed.

Recently a group of Reformed Baptist pastors had a sort of debate about the multi-site model, to no obvious conclusion. In the midst of the discussion, Thabiti Anyabwile made a remark that I think failed to get the attention it deserved.

Some of the pro-multi-site ministers explained that they were using the model because the “beamed-in” preacher simply is much more highly gifted: the campus pastor isn’t as good a preacher as the dynamic guy. To this, Anyabwile responded, “but is the [local guy] a good enough preacher?”

The unspoken assumption seems to be that the satellite campus won’t maximize its drawing power without the “really gifted” preacher as the main event. Crowds won’t come just to hear the “warm-up” preacher do the preaching, because… well… they’re picky. They don’t just want the sound preaching of the Word, they want to hear it preached by someone who is, to them, a rock star.

A “rock star” preacher need not have doubtful motives. The problem is not with the preacher, but with the hearers. They know the difference between a good preacher and a great one, and they want only the best. Whether the rock star preacher is seeking a following or not, that’s what he gets: people who are following him – at least partly – as a kind of celebrity. If a man as unassuming (and unwilling) as Iain Murray can be made into a rock star, I think that proves that anyone can.

In 1972, Rev. Murray wrote an excellent biography of a Victorian-era “rock-star” preacher that most 21st-century Reformed folk know by name: Charles H. Spurgeon. Strictly speaking, Spurgeon predated rock by a few years, but there can be little doubt that by the standards of his day he was a “rock star” preacher par excellence.

At the height of Spurgeon’s ministry, he pastored London’s Metropolitan Tabernacle, where 6000 people (1000 of whom stood during the service) heard him weekly. He was so popular that many waited in line, hoping to gain entry, and often people had to be turned away for lack of space. In 1857, he preached to an audience of 23,000 in London’s Crystal Palace. The Times of London and the New York Times printed his sermons in their entirety each week. Allowing for the fact that all this took place in the Victorian era, Spurgeon was arguably far more popular in his day than any present-day preacher.

Interior of the original Metropolitan Tabernacle

Interior of the original Metropolitan Tabernacle

In Murray’s biography The Forgotten Spurgeon, he explains that at Charles Spurgeon’s death, the Tabernacle was thrown into turmoil over the question of who would succeed him. Eventually, the congregation called Spurgeon’s son Thomas, who had been a pastor in New Zealand. Murray explains that, “to the pleasure of many, he had his father’s voice.” He further notes that “Thomas Spurgeon had a simple evangelical faith, …and had, like his father, the gifts of humor and imagination….Yet he did not have the structure of theological thought, nor the spirit accompanying it, which were the essence of his father’s ministry.” The younger Spurgeon’s ministry at the Tabernacle was accompanied by a revivalist approach to evangelism that his father would have decried, and the church shifted considerably in its theological commitments under his leadership.

The degree to which the congregation’s choice for a replacement was influenced not by theology, but by sentimentalism, undoubtedly reflected its love for Charles Spurgeon. Thomas Spurgeon’s voice and manner reminded them of his “rock star” father, and retaining that memory may have overridden other more significant considerations. Perhaps the Metropolitan Tabernacle’s experience offers some lessons for churches built on the preaching of contemporary Reformed rock stars.

One question that comes up in multi-site debates is, “what happens if the big-name pastor dies?” The response from defenders of the model is typically that the campus pastors just take over the preaching at that point. But if the campus pastor is really an acceptable substitute for the big-name preacher, why can’t he take over the preaching now?

There seems to be a built-in inconsistency: if the multi-site campus will be the same after the rock star dies, why do you need him now? Implicitly, the multi-site model is built on an assumption that many people coming to the “satellite” campuses are there because of who’s preaching (in fact, some of the remarks of the pro-multisite pastors in the debate above corroborate this inference). The desire to hear a rock star preacher brings in the crowds. If the rock star goes away, some will remain through inertia. But maintaining outward momentum and growth may require finding another preacher who can pack ‘em in like Spurgeon.

Of course, it’s the exception that tests the rule. In presbyterian circles, the best-known practitioner of the multi-site model is Tim Keller in New York City. A couple of years ago, USA Today carried an article on multi-site churches in which Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church was prominently mentioned.

After the article was published, Rev. Keller was quick to note that Redeemer’s use of the multi-site model is intended to facilitate a transitional process in which each satellite campus will develop into a local “parish” with its own on-site minister. Keller does most of the preaching now, with one site getting a sermon each week from someone else. Eventually, the campuses will all have “Lead Pastors” who will share the preaching with Keller. It sounds as though Keller will still preach in rotation among the campuses, but will do so less often as time passes, thus transitioning each campus over to its own pastor.

It will be interesting to see how this approach works. It does seem to me an improvement over “beaming” one man into multiple locations, and may enable the development of churches where there are real shepherding relationships between preacher and flock. Still, if anyone qualifies as a Reformed rock star, surely Tim Keller does. There are not a few people coming for whom he is the main draw. Part of his pastoral challenge will be to persuade such people to be more committed to serving Christ in a local church than they are to hearing a rock star.

Several years ago I had a conversation with a friend who was an elder in a Reformed congregation that had been growing by leaps and bounds. He noted that many of the people flocking to his church were not coming because they were eager for Reformed teaching. Rather, he said, they were people who wanted to be part of “a happenin’ church.” His church was doing what it could to teach and edify them, but he wasn’t confident that all of them would hang around indefinitely. He thought some of them might well wander elsewhere if they decided that some other church appeared to have better stuff “happenin’.” If that’s what drew them in, it could also draw them out.

Time will tell whether the multi-site model’s dependence on “rock star” preachers is a fatal flaw or a fortuitous feature. I do wonder how a real pastoral relationship can exist between a preacher and a group of people with whom he has essentially no contact. I wonder whether the model’s primary outcome is the advancement of the Gospel, rather than the encouragement of evangelical church-hoppers. Most of all, I wonder whether it wouldn’t be better to allow men who are “good enough” to just preach the Word, rather than (implicitly) catering to the American consumerist impulse in all of us.

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One Response to Reformed Rock Stars, Cults of Personality, and the Multisite Church

  1. Lyman White says:

    This is so very well presented, Tom. Thank you. Many of us know how busy your life is, and the pressures you are experiencing.

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