Had a mostly encouraging time at the Evangelical Ministers Assembly today at St Helen’s Bishopsgate. There was a fantastic plea from unity from Vaughn Roberts that stood out for me and an interesting interview of John Piper by Adrian Reynolds.
Piper explained that because the church had grown so much they now had 3 campuses – spread over a 24 mile strip of a highway in Minnesota. Obviously Piper can’t be at all three campuses simultaneously so he records his sermon the night before at a smaller congregation and they then show that in whichever of the campuses Piper is not in that morning.
Piper explained that he had been wary about doing this because preaching should be “eyeball to eyeball” but this was maybe a B plus (or B minus) solution. Adrian rightly asked the question we were all muttering – why don’t you just train up more preachers to which Piper replied that there are plenty of opportunities for others to preach in the church when he is on holiday.
There was a whole queue of people waiting to speak to Piper after his talk so I didn’t get a chance to raise these issues with him directly. Piper explained in the rest of the interview that he likes to spend a lot of time on the internet “showing idiots why they are wrong” so perhaps he might contact me sometime.
There are some strengths to this approach.
1. It recognises that some people have a God given exceptional gift and it seeks to provide the biggest opportunity for its use.
2. It is seeking to “think outside of the box” and effectively utilise new technologies.
3. It allows a group of churches to be “on the same page” by hearing the same message as a point of unity.
4. It is only a degree different from multiple back to back services where the preacher zooms from one to the other – Keller apparently travels to multiple campuses leaving one service when the singing starts after the sermon and arriving just in time for the preaching slot having missed the rest of the service. ( I am happy to be corrected if this is wrong).
But I do have a number of problems:
1. Cult of personality
The model effectively says there are no preachers that could possibly take the place of the gifted preacher. In fact its says its better to have a pre-recorded sermon than to have one of these lesser preachers. On this principle – if the preacher doesn’t have to be a) physically present or b) live – why not extrapolate this thinking. If John Piper is that good maybe we should just beam him into all the churches in the UK – we wouldn’t need to employ preachers and use the money and time that goes into sermon preparation into other forms of ministry – it would certainly be more efficient. Or if the preacher doesn’t have to be speaking live – why don’t we just use recordings of preachers from the past – a classic John Stott series or even LLoyd Jones or just have someone read old Whitefield sermons? If as Tim Keller says that global cities all have the same basic culture then we could just show recorded sermons of one preacher. This for me is unacceptable, but the logical consequence of the thinking expressed by Piper. Which leads onto the second problem.
2. Lack of communication
we need sermons that are going to engage with the people in the room. Being able to speak into the pastoral situation of those that are present. If you know that someone in the congregation is seriously ill, or a wedding is coming up or the town is facing some major changes or a whole gang of newcomers have turned up – then you would want your sermon to adapt to that. Preaching has definitely become a prepackaged monologue. There’s no room for the immediate feedback of seeing people getting bored, being moved. Many a preacher will know when God has moved an audience and you need to ditch what you had planned because the Spirit has done something in the congregation. Good communicators know when an illustration is working as you see peoples eyes track you, or their faces light up – even when preaching a similar sermon in a multi-service event – there will often be a different demographic present in the early service to the later service so you need to hone your illustrations or adapt your application. But none of that is possible if you are not preaching live in the room.
3. Lack of relationship
Part of the problem with the Mega church / Multiple Campus model is that it has separated the Ephesians 4 joining together of Pastor / Teacher. It has instead made teaching into a set piece generalized celebrity monologue.In a megachurch the person preparing the food for the sheep to feed on – does not know the sheep. They speak bland general applications at their audience rather than truth into the lives of people that we have journeyed with through the years. There’s little room for the biblical models of interaction – Jesus often preached in response to a question, or explaining an event that has taken place like a miracle or a lack of a miracle. None of that is possible in the pre-record. But it is also true in Keller model of rushing between multiple services.
4. Consumer Church – church becomes a place where I go to get my spiritual fix for the week of singing and preaching. Piper did explain that he thought that preaching was not the most transformational aspect of the church’s life. So the place of small groups becomes more significant – as a friend of mine reminded me of Rick Warren’s dictum – “we need to stop thinking of a church small group and instead think of a church of small groups” but this is still an interesting comment from a man who has given his life to raise up preachers. When asked to justify his reasoning for doing the move he said “we got great feedback” which sounds a lot like a marketing mentality rather than the usual theological explanation we’d expect from Piper.
I must admit I grew up as a huge Piper fan, I can look back at Desiring God as a very influential book on me as an 18 year old. I was uncomfortable with the language of Christian Hedonism then – and am probably more uncomfortable with it now 20 years on. I really enjoyed “Let the Nations be Glad: Piper’s book on mission. But found “Future grace” to be more harm than good to me personally. I was saddened by the attacks on NT Wright’s work. What I value most about Piper’s ministry is his commitment to expository preaching combined with passionate about emotion-touching charismatic style worship as well as a ministry that shows genuine and practical care for the poor. For conservative evangelicals Piper offered an interesting counterbalance to some of the Sydney Anglicans who were strongly opposed to any kind of church involvement in social justice at the time. Conferences like EMA were influential in moving the debates along for conservatives and Tim Keller’s recent rise in popularity has swung the debate firmly towards a more holistic missional approach.
One thing that struck me about Piper this year as he explained he was going on an 8 month sabbatical to try and reach out to the sons he had lots relationship with and to invest time in his marriage. This was a humble and brave thing to say in front of a crowd of over a thousand ministers. So much better to do things this way round rather than hear that a marriage has fallen apart. But it was intriguing that he didn’t say he had any regrets though, and for a man who has been a hero to so many preachers – it might be helpful to hear if the sabbatical reveals another model for sustainable ministry.