It is amazing how many mistakes are repeated generationally. Of course, not in the same way and usually under a different name and in a different suit of clothes but — nonetheless, the same error is recycled in hopes of its purchase by a new and naive era. This insightful article not only speaks to this but serves as a good warning for us to remain true and authentic to biblical servant ministry in every era. Alas! Is there nothing new under the sun?
“The New Televangelists” Chris Nye
“Pastoral work is the aspect of Christian living which specializes in the ordinary.” —Eugene Peterson
I thought we were done with the Televangelists.
I grew up as part of a generation that scoffed at their expensive suits, golden watches, flawless smiles, and poufy hair. The sermons I heard growing up had lines about their cheesiness and insincerity. These sermons proclaimed a gospel that could not be bought, one that didn’t need vials of healing water or anointing oils that could be mailed to you after a small payment. I liked being part of that generation, one that stood for authenticity and rejected anything that smelled phony. And when it comes to being phony, Televangelists were Exhibit A. I believed our Christianity was moving away from the make-up encrusted, spiritual hucksterism that dominated the airways during our childhoods.
I was wrong. Sure, most members of my generation still have no time for Televangelists, but many of us have fallen prey to something just as pernicious.
Role Models under Shining Lights
During the first two years of church ministry, I was surrounded by some really wise older pastors. They met with me regularly, prayed for me, and kept me up to date on the business of the church. We all worked for a pretty classic suburban megachurch, but all loved one another. But there was one problem: I didn’t want to grow up to be like any of these pastors. The pastors above me were pretty normal guys. They had solid skills and were leading decent-sized ministries. They wore Hawaiian shirts or pressed dress wear and enjoyed golfing. But that wasn’t me. This was not my future, I thought.
I began looking for role models, for people I wanted to be like. Through the Internet, I was exposed to ministries from all over the country—pastors with 3,000 member churches preaching to multiple campuses and looking good doing it. They preached slick sermons under shining lights. Best of all I could watch it all on my laptop from anywhere.
I want to be a pastor like that, I thought. I just need to be like them, imitate them, and then I’ll have success—my ministry will grow. These pastors taught me how to teach, how to read Scripture dramatically, and how to hold a Bible the right way when making a point. It seemed like all these guys had to do was prepare a sermon for Sunday and deliver well and watch their churches grow—how rewarding! It all seemed to be working for them. Certainly, I thought, this will work for me, too.
This slowly became my vision of a life in ministry. But as I soaked up podcasts and sermon videos from famous pastors, I was unwittingly forming an inaccurate vision of the life of a pastor. The more I listened to and watched these dynamic pastors, the less I heard the voices of the pastors in my own church. They don’t know what they’re talking about, I would think as I loaded another video.
But two years into my ministry, I found myself with the same sized group. What’s more, they seemed to experience only marginal spiritual growth. I was frustrated with my ministry and annoyed at the small things I needed to get done and the people I needed to tend to. It was around this time that I realized what I was doing. I wasn’t sincere at all. I wasn’t authentic. Sure, I knew a bit about the Bible and knew how to sound good, but when it came to caring for people and guiding them toward spiritual maturity, I didn’t have a clue. The podcasts were teaching me a lot, but I wasn’t learning how to pray for the sick or counsel someone in a bad marriage or comfort the hurting. It wasn’t that I just needed to look at some different role models; I needed to figure out if I really wanted to be a pastor in the truest sense of the word. Was I committed to ministry even if it didn’t mean communicating to thousands of people from a stage?
Image or Identity?
We are not finished with the Televangelists, I’ve realized. We have simply rebranded them. We’ve changed the style but not the substance. When it comes to the habit of elevating certain gifted communicators, and trying desperately to be like them, little has changed. As our culture has moved from the television screen to the computer/tablet screen, the Televangelist has moved along with us. He now exists on his blog, his YouTube channel, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. He looks good too, better than any of his predecessors. He is groomed to look sincere, to preach with passion, and, of course, to never mention money like the old Televangelists did. But just like the Christian celebrities of yesterday these new Televangelists seem to live our ministry dreams. They have nice clothes, they write books, they hang out with famous people, and they always seem to be so happy.
And here’s the problem: holding them up as paragons of ministry leads us to become dissatisfied with our ministries. We get a distorted view of what life is like as a pastor. We lose sight of true spiritual leadership, of what it really takes to shepherd people. In the blogs and Twitter feeds of the New Televangelists, being a pastor looks entertaining. It looks fun, and kind of easy. We have lost the true vision of spiritual maturity: that suffering produces character, and that recognition and accolades rarely will.
The biblical vision of pastoral leadership is nothing like the Televangelists of the 1980s or the ones of the new millennium. It is not about fun or entertainment. In fact it is often painfully ordinary. The building blocks of a great ministry include such everyday things as a community meals, counseling sessions, and private prayer. It is about knowing the poor by name and praying for the people in your congregation when they ask. It is about calling people back and remembering the names of their children.
This is not about wealth or poverty, recognition or obscurity. It is not about big churches, small churches, or medium-size churches. The New Televangelists aren’t bad people. We just elevate their skills above their character. We love their image, not their identity. We want to emulate their personalities, not their personhood. We don’t really know them.
It was the faithful who our master celebrated (Matt. 25:23, 1 Tim. 1:12), and if we’re truly following Jesus, we will celebrate faithfulness as he did. We must check our fascination with good looking and success and learn to value of being men and women who walk with God and truly lead his people. Only a few of us will ever be in the celebrity spotlight. Only a small minority will speak at conferences and write books. But those “ordinary” men who spoke into my life during the early years of my ministry have experienced true success. They may wear Hawaiian shirts or boring suits beneath balding heads, but they have done something very few have us have: remained.
I continue to learn from the prominent pastors. But I no longer extol them as paragons of ministry. The truth is, most of us will lead small groups of people. We will be entrusted to lead a few people in the process of discipleship. We will learn their names, know their stories, and love their families. I am not aiming for the entertainment of masses anymore. I am seeking to be faithful with the people that God has given me. My role as a pastor has been simplified. My greatest contribution will not be preaching sermons that are watched on TV or downloaded by thousands. My mission is to love the people God has placed in my life for as long as possible.
(As printed in the March, 2013 issue of Christianity Today)