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Thabiti Anyabwile, Carl Trueman, C.J. Mahaney, David Platt, Matt Chandler, moderated by Ligon Duncan

(Carl and Thabit had a number of exchanges at the Reformation21 blog on this: see here, here, and here.)

Carl: We tend to invest special insight and knowledge because someone is a celebrity.

When I ask students who are the most influential pastors in their life, it’s concerning that they rarely mention their local pastors.

When I ask who they want to be like, they mention people who are in situations where they will never be. Praise God there are big churches, and that God has gifted men in this way. But it’s a problem when it becomes an aspirational model for most students. I wonder if this has an impact on the high burnout rate.

It’s not necessarily a problem of the pastors himself—but of their reception. We need to be careful not to promote ourselves. Luther, the first celebrity pastor, in 1522 explained that the Word of God did it all. We should do all we can to minimize itself.

The aspirational model can be associated with the worldly model of success, rather than the faithful model of success. Paul’s plan was to find ordinary guys who are qualified and able to teach and preach. It’s not rocket science.

Thabiti: I agree with Carl’s concerns. What I was reacting to—let’s begin with where Carl ends. We need to find faithful pastors, but there is also a place for the appropriate expression of gratefulness. Sometimes the critique can catch too many people in the nets. Let’s distinguish between (1) celebrity as being famous for being famous, and (2) those are attract people through their faithfulness and giftedness. There can be notoriety that isn’t about self-promotion and self-adulation and fame-seeking.

Ligon: Certain types of media and platforms can project significance. Lig is mortified when people meet him and think he is someone of significance just because they see him preach on regional television. The medium can convey something.

Thabiti: In our day media access is pretty easy. To become a celebrity one must have a celebrity-conferring public.

Ligon: When T4G wanted to put Piper in front of folks in 2006, it’s not because he’s a celebrity but because he had spoken the word into our souls, and God gave him a wide influence. We exulted in that. But we didn’t intend to say to brothers pastoring a 65-member church that he’s a nobody. We wanted to serve that guy in that context. And that would be John’s heart. That motivation is important for us to clarify.

Carl: You can have all the best intentions, but we also have to be aware of reception.

CJ: This conference exists to dissuade that thinking but to encourage and honor ordinary pastors.

Ligon: We thank God for you, David Platt and Matt Chandler. David, I know you have to protect your heart when speaking to 55,000 people on the atonement.

David: This conversation is dangerous for me. It brings to the fore a poison to my soul. I really believe, I think, I want Christ to become greater and me to become less. The temptation is to think, I want Christ to become greater and me to become greater. Pride has always been a problem for me. More attention means more temptation. It involves an intentional fight and battle. At the end of the Day, I want it to be about Christ’s glory.

Matt: On top of that, there’s the cultural beast—fighting something that won’t die. If anyone says there’s not a part of you that doesn’t enjoy that, I’d call them a liar to their face. I don’t fear that this week I’m going to say “I’m Matt Chandler,” but it’s people getting in your ear saying over the years “How much do you get paid?” “Why don’t you have people do this?” It’s important that guys know me before I was “Matt Chandler.” And there’s no celebrity pastor in our home.

CJ: There are temptations toward those who are known, and among those who are not home. There’s probably a Corinthian temptation in every church. A pastor has to study his own soul.

For those struggling because of their lower numerical growth: cultivate an appreciation for me who are pastoring churches larger than you. It’s important to celebrate grace in other people.

Carl: I recognize that conferences cost money and that you can’t fill a stadium with just a couple of other OPC pastors! But would it be impossible to have, out of 9 speakers, 2 that no one has ever heard of?

It’s been great to rub shoulders with other believers from other denominations. (I believe in denominations because I like being around people who actually believe something.) My wife asked me, “Are you looking forward to going?” “Yes, because it will give me something to write about.” But I have to concede that I’ve rather enjoyed myself!

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26 thoughts on “T4G Panel: Celebrity Pastors”

  1. paul says:

    So was the last question that Carl asked ever answered?

  2. David says:

    That comment at the end about the unsung 2 is interesting. I think it’s all a matter of our perspective on justice. We want the unsung man to get his recognition. That shows the shallowness of our thinking at times (we all do it, I’m not pointing fingers). We think that the brothers getting recognition before the world[wide church] is poetic justice. But, we want to stand up for the little guy from time to time. We think it’s just for certain brothers to get the applause because they have great insights and speak so clearly…WOW aren’t those all just gifts from God? Let’s not boast in what was given. Let’s boast in Christ. Let’s talk about Christ’s celebrity.

    Let’s be honest, just because someone is faithful and a great servant to 50,000 makes him no greater in God’s eyes than the man who labors for 35 brothers. It all came from Him and all of it returns to Him.

    God is just, and the Rewarder of those who believe. Speaking before thousands is not a reward. And, I think the fact that most would view it as: 1) strange that a no name guy is on the docket because what’s his audience pull, 2) unfair, because I’m just as no name as he is, 3) unwise, because it could go to his head or create tension among the other speakers (or even draw out judgmental pride in comparison).

    This would be a good idea if the reason were to provide perspective as to how the relatively unknown pastor influences and ministers…but it should not change very much if we operate by the Spirit.

    Love you all. Thanks for keeping us up-to-date, brother!

  3. Ben says:

    I too would have been interested in hearing a response to Carl but, while some may state that it is a good idea, I would be shocked if anyone took the bull by the horns and made it happen.

    David, I appreciate your insight but I must respectfully disagree. While it is true that there could be a variety of reasons for a suggestion such as this, I would like to give Trueman the benefit of the doubt and believe his are better than the one you presented. I’m just not sure that I feel comfortable attributing this to justice.

    His suggestion is one I’ve thought often about, for all the lip service given to local, unknown, pastors by “celebrity pastors,” I haven’t ever seen anyone step up to challenge the status quo. It would be foolish for me to say that God hasn’t mightily used “celebrity pastors,” indeed He has and I’m thankful for their ministry. However, one begins to wonder about the collateral damage of putting these men up on pedestals. The human heart is an idol factory and we are always looking to say “I’m of Paul, I’m of Apollos, I’m of Cephas,… etc.” I truly believe we are products of are consumeristic culture. Many times we go along with “Any way you want it, that’s the way I need it” as opposed to challenging this attitude with words and action. I find it interesting that Trueman has made comments about how various English ministers have little fame in their home country but it is only across the pond that there is this celebrity.

    I think your point is good, someone pastoring a bigger church is no greater in the eyes of God. EXACTLY! So is there not value in demonstrating that by not always asking the “celebrities” to do the conferences? The fact is, I see all three of your objections as being perhaps pragmatically valid. But is that the way it should be? These are the attitudes that the church must challenge as sinful. Number 3 I feel could be used of any human being and not just the unknown.

    The fact is, some of these pastors allow their churches to become so big that they are stealing people from other good churches when, in fact, there needs to be a loyalty by laypeople. Are they often perpetuating a problem? I’m not against big churches but I feel that the dangers abound.

    I don’t want to come across like I’m trying to get you, I am as influenced by culture as the next guy, but I think there needs to be real attention to this growing problem.

    1. David says:

      Good points, Ben.

      I appreciate your thoughtful response. I agree with most of what you said and was probably too brief and varied with my post. I agree that our tendency to want to see the unsung brother (who may be equally or more qualified to lead because of his study and eloquence – though truly for his humility) is not a bad thing, and I do find the lip service and encouragement to go pastor where you’ll never be known is both honorable (go lower?) and unsettling when it’s coming from brothers who are known and growing in influence (and they are freely noting their temptations to be proud). It’s that pride that C.S. Lewis notes has comparison at its essence. Without comparison it cannot exist. It’s a dangerous poison. There is also concern about providing someone unknown with a platform. That seems to be an issue. Some brothers get so much influence that they fear its use, that it could be immeasurably damaging, and so they don’t leverage it for the sake of another messenger. This can happen, in part, because the celebrity pastors can become overworked. With families and churches and conferences and retreats, there may be little time for tight friendships, especially with an unknown quantity who you may fear is seeking celebrity for himself (which one’s pride will not admit, nor admit the man to equal status). These are hard matters for all hearts. The celebrity brother may say in his heart (may say), “I have great influence, and people trust me to guide them right, and so I must not risk the flock.” But, that brother may have covered in his heart the fact that this brother is not his lesser. What if that unsung brother said in his heart, “God has given me this flock of 25 to watch over and care for diligently, and so I cannot let this celebrity pastor have my pulpit. It may be that he left the unsung ministry for fame. He may be serving two masters and I don’t have the time to get to know him well – given that I have to constantly attend to my twenty-five.” Would that change perspectives?

      The church-hopping is an issue as well that celebrity can bring, but it works as a purifier for churches that are left, because healthy Christians aren’t the ones that usually leave. They usually persevere unless the leadership is completely out of sorts and unwilling to submit to God’s Word – and even then, many faithful men and women have labored inside the wreckage as unto the Lord. Thus, celebrities often draw immature followers – they don’t tend to steal the mature (who may pay attention, but usually to be more useful and helpful in their local assembly – that’s why we read commentaries and biblical theologies, etc.). Sometimes the church-hoppers’ church-hopping can help them grow in order to be useful for some service they’re too immature to be useful for presently.

      1. Ben says:

        David, you make some good points concerning church-hopping. I would tend to agree that those who church-hop probably are more immature believers. That is an excellent point and well taken.

        I think some others have asked the question, “If an unknown pastor is put in front of others won’t this then make him a celebrity?” I think this is a good question yet, I’m not sure it matters. First of all, I don’t think putting someone on the speaking schedule at a conference necessarily will end up making them a celebrity. I think a sense of “celebrity” came to many of these guys before they began to really get the conference invites because God has blessed their ministries in a particular way and they are extremely gifted. Secondly, not everyone who speaks is going to become a “celebrity” simply by virtue of them speaking at a big conference. Thirdly, even if they did, how does that put is in any worse of a position than we are now?

        Ultimately, I think the point remains. Bringing in guys who are not “celebrities” could be a very good thing. 1. It demonstrates to the average layman that God is and does use men who aren’t well known. People should not look down or disregard their local pastor simply because of his lack of prestige. 2. It helps to put both “celebrity” pastors and those who aren’t on the same level. They are both servants of God and God has chosen to use them in different ways. It says that just because this guy is unknown doesn’t make him any less qualified, any less a servant of God, it doesn’t mean what he says is any less valid. 3. I think it helps to provide for some balance rather than continually elevating these same “celebrity pastors.” Not saying we should be elevating anyone, but only making the point that we can point people to pastors who speak the Word of God, have valid things to say, are worthy of respect, and who aren’t famous. Maybe I’m a cynic but it really does seem to me that we have, in part, become a product of the consumerism around us. I wonder, how much does some of this have to do with money, power, etc? Having Godly leaders and models is a good thing. Having celebrities turns us into the world. When was the last time you heart someone say, “Well, John Piper says…” or “Mark Driscoll’s opinion is…” Nothing against those men, but how much does it matter what they say? Firstly,what does the Bible say? Secondly, people need to understand that just because those guys say something, it doesn’t mean it’s correct. AND it doesn’t mean it is more accurate than what their own pastor is saying.

        :) Sorry, that’s really long. I guess this is a soapbox of mine.

  4. I enjoyed the panel discussion today. Perhaps this is too simplistic, but if Carl got his wish and an unsung small chuch pastor was invited to T4G, wouldn’t they likely end up a celebrity as well, with more conference invites because of the exposure? Celebrity pastors have been around since Luther (as Trueman mentioned), Spurgeon and Graham. The key (as Platt mentioned) should be a holy terror in the hearts of those who are popular and a wariness of the heart’s propensity toward idolatry for the rest of us.

    1. Daniel F. Wells says:

      I agree with Jeremiah. And while Carl Trueman has asked some good questions, I think we need to be careful to avoid another “Reformed” category that many of us are tempted toward. We have those who are “Truly Reformed” and others who are “Barely Reformed.” We don’t need the “Negative Reformed” to become a stereotype.

  5. Aaron Britton says:

    Good word Jeremiah. From a musicians standpoint, I can guarantee that if they started picking a random smaller church pastor to speak at T4G, all of the other small church pastor would want to be him and would start to figure out how they could get on the stage at the next conference. Trueman is right, we have to think about reception. . how about the reception of a smaller church pastor who was chosen as the token “small church guy”. That would be a disaster.

    The last time I checked Thabiti had around 300-400 people in his church and Kevin DeYoung was also around 500. Those are certainly not mega-church numbers.

    This is not a helpful discussion in my opinion. Carl Trueman, and others from the confessionally refromed side are too scared of cross-denominational networks. They’re too scared of alliances that aren’t strictly from confessions.

    My idea for an improvement to the conference scene would be to make the panels more honest and robust, and/or to have actual debates between people that love and respect each other. Although I love the panel times at these conferences, they sometimes turn into Elephant Room-like self-congratulatory sessions where the Elephant in the room isn’t addressed. Let’s let the guys be superstars. . .and let’s call them to answer the tough questions, and disagree with each other charitably.

  6. Casey says:

    It is intriguing to me that at a conference entitled “The Underestimated Gospel” there seemed to be a reluctance to consider letting an underestimated pastor deliver the underestimated gospel, as if there were a lack of confidence in non-celebrity pastors/preachers.

  7. Joe says:

    This reminds me of trying go get the senate to vote pay cuts for itself.

    “Hey guys, maybe your voice and face are too front and center…”

    “Ok, let’s all talk about it!”

    “Problem solved! My close-up, please…”

    1. Bill says:

      That pretty much sums up my impression of the entire discussion.

      Would have been truly interesting, and maybe even productive, to at least have some non-celebrity Pastors on this panel.

      But, well, you know, they’re not well know enough . . .

  8. Ben: “The fact is, some of these pastors allow their churches to become so big that they are stealing people from other good churches when, in fact, there needs to be a loyalty by laypeople. Are they often perpetuating a problem? I’m not against big churches but I feel that the dangers abound.”

    I agree. In 1998, when Chuck Swindoll started Stonebriar Community Church, I had heard that within six months of the church’s start attendance was at 1500. I knew then that either they were either doing some amazing evangelism or some serious sheep-stealing by virtue of Swindoll’s celebrity status. Now, maybe they were able to minister quickly to a burgeoning community in a way that existing churches without celebrity pastors could not do, but I still wonder.

    My church has benefited not from a celebrity pastor, but merely from keeping firm on the truth of the gospel. When other churches in the area bowed to spreading liberalism, my church didn’t. As a result, many fled other churches and joined mine. In fact, I was one of them.

  9. Another set of problems I see with celebrity pastors is the ear they have of members of other churches. I’m of the mind that pastors are given to minister to the needs of local churches. This creates two problems:

    First, when people regularly listen to pastors ministering to other churches, it can – not always – set up competition in the hearts of those people between their own pastor and whatever celebrity pastor(s) they listen to. That is to say that people may wish that their pastor preached like so-and-so on the radio or on the podcast. Even though that other pastor is at a distance it can be an undue attachment similar to an emotional love affair. Your pastor’s preaching is for the edification of your church and should be a unifying force when the church is fed the same spiritual meal week after week. Listening to celebrity pastors can be like living off of culinary delights and only snacking on meat and potatoes.

    The second problem this can cause is that celebrity pastors seem to often stop ministering to their own churches in favor of the wider audience. A church I know has regularly aired its services on a local television channel. But occasionally the service aired has to be a re-run because the pastor had some specific things he needed to preach to address the concerns of that church. They were biblical messages with specific applications that weren’t for other churches. Celebrity pastors often lose the ability to do that.

    1. Phildog says:


      Your first point is crucial. People only become celebrities because of the adulation of their fans. We will stop idolising them when we firstly recognise the importance of their own pastor/elders. Have I valued attending T4G – yes. Have I benefitted reading Sproul, MacArthur, Piper, Platt, etc – yes. Did I appreciate Dever doing a IX Marks session for our congregation (and others)- yes. However, do I value may pastors more than these esteemed brothers – yes. Why – because my pastors know me, they pray for me, they feed me, they share my struggles and joys, I share theirs.

      Should we fear celebrity pastors? No – they have been around since the church began. (NB I am reading a biography of Whitefield who was a celebrity about the time he started preaching) History will sort the wheat from the chaff, but we should be thankful for brothers who have pastored churches for a long time and have been part of faithful congregations. THey may be better preachers than my pastor, but that does not matter. If they produce books that make my pastor a better preacher, wonderful, and I have become more Christ like because of their limited influence on my life – wonderful.

      Let us not put these brothers on pedalstalls, but pray for them. Let us buy their books and attend the conferences,but let us encourage our pastor daily, weekly, monthly in what we do for him and what he wants to do for us.

  10. Jimmy Justice says:

    Seems most who take the “Title” Pastor/Reverend are desiring “Celebrity.” To be well known.
    That simingly innocent “Title” comes with something – “A Little Bit Extra.”
    Power – Profit – Prestige – Honor – Glory – Recognition – Reputation etc…
    ALL those things that become “Idols” of the heart. All those things Jesus spoke against.

    And the Bible warns us to “hew down “the graven images” of their gods.” Deut 4:14 KJV.
    But, instead, we make the “Title“ Pastor a “graven image.” An “Idol.”
    “A Graven Image” on Diploma’s and Denominational licenses, placed on office walls.
    “A Graven Image” on business cards handed out, books, Conference Ads, tracts.
    “A Graven Image” on office doors, secretarys desks, church letterhead,
    on Sunday morning bulletins, church street signs, , etc, etc…

    And anyone who reads them knows who “the Pastor” is. Yes? …
    Isn’t that – “He who speakes of himself seeks his own glory?” John 7:18 KJV.
    Isn’t that – marketing self? Desiring “Celebrity.” Desiring “to be well known.”

    In my experience…
    “Titles” become “Idols” …………. (“Idols” of the heart – Ezek14:1-11 KJV)
    “Pastors” become “Masters”……. ( Jesus taught His Disciples NOT to be called Masters. Mat 23:10 KJV)

    And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold:
    them also I must bring, and they shall “hear My voice; “
    and there shall be “ONE” fold, and “ONE” shepherd.
    John 10:16

    One Fold – One Shepherd – One Voice – Jesus

      1. Jimmy Justice says:


        Was wondering…
        Eph 4:11 does mention shepherds, or pastors, depending on your translation.

        But – Can you be a little more specific?
        why did you mention… Eph 4:11. ;-)

        1. It indeed mentions shepherds. Translation of “pastor” is also a good translation since it basically means the same thing – that’s where the early church got the word: “pastor” is Latin for “poimen” which is used in Eph 4:11 (in the plural “poimenas”) as well as John 10:16.

          Since you pointed out that Jesus said that there was one Shepherd, I was balancing that with Paul’s teaching that shepherds, or pastors, have been given to the church. Your response to celebrity pastors was to point out that Christ is the only true Shepherd. This is true in the universal Church. But Paul’s point is that local churches have been given pastors to do the work of Christ (along with the other spiritual offices mentioned) in the local church – following the passage: to build up the Body of Christ toward unity of faith and knowledge by speaking the truth firm against wayward doctrines, growing the Body in every way into Christ, the Head, so that the Body learns to build itself up in love.

          That’s the principle behind my comment just before yours, which I hope your comment agrees with: Pastors need to pastor their own churches and sheep need to stop chasing after other shepherds. It’s fine to snack around some. There’s some good general teaching that we can bring home, but we need to stick with our own flock.

          However, your comment seemed to indicate that pastors in general are somehow biblicaly illegitimate. I hope I’m wrong and just misread what you were saying. So I offered Eph 4:11ff as a balance to John 10:16.

          I agree that some pastors get their status quite wrong. All earthly pastors are fallen and themselves yet being sanctified. Nevertheless, based on Eph 4 they have been given to us by God as servant leaders, hence “poimenas”, “Shepherds”, for we are the sheep given to them to shepherd.

          As far as that goes, I’m the shepherd of my family. That doesn’t mean that I have some super-status. That means that I have a dire responsibility to serve them in word and truth and lead them as a microcosm of our local church. It’s a wolf that would tell my kids not to follow the biblical instruction I have been called to give them and there is a legitimate point at which the pastor of a church as its shepherd needs to exercise his calling against those who would deny that calling. The shepherd should not give up his flock to the wolves. If that looks like self-seeking glory, then it’s misconstrued as such.

  11. Jimmy Justice says:

    Jim Pemberton

    Seems to me, the “shepherds” mentioned in Eph 4:11,
    were a little less “Celebrity” conscience then the so-called Pastors of today.

    The “shepherds” mentioned in Eph 4:11,
    have NO resemblance, or anything in common with
    those “Today” who wield the “Title” *Pastor.*

    I mean – can you find one of His Disciples – in the Bible…

    Who was “called” Pastor/Reverend?
    Who had the “Title” Pastor/Reerend?
    Who was, “Hired, or Fired,” as a Pastor/Reverend?

    In the Bible, are there any congregations “Led” by a Pastor/Reverend?
    In the Bible, are there any Pastors moving from one congregation to another?
    What’s up wit dat? Are they climbing the ladder of success?

    These guys, in Eph 4:11, were either very shy, or NOT into promoting themselves.

    My guess is these “shepherds” of Eph 4:11, looked to Jesus as their example…

    Jesus humbled Himself, made Himself of NO reputation,
    and took on the form of a “servant.” Phil 2:7-8.

    Seems when someone takes the “Title” Pastor/Revered…
    They separate themselves from the common folks. Special Clergy Class.
    And they now have a reputation, whether they want it or not.

    Jesus loves me this I know…

  12. Daryl Little says:

    Jimmy Justice,

    It maybe that pastors all desire celebrity.

    On the other hand, so do you.

    And so do I.

    Pray for the grace of humility for them.

  13. Richard says:

    Could students not mentioning local pastors as their most influential also be partially because the faults of your local pastor are clearly visible on a regular basis while the “celebrity” pasotrs are often shielded from that public perception?

    Might this be an indication we have a wrong view of how “polished” or “faultless” our pasotr should be?

    I don’t know just thinking out loud…

    1. Jay Beerley says:

      I would also wonder if there is a need to throw out a name that is recognizable from the professor. You know, that desire to say, “I’m influenced by Piper” means that instantly the professor knows a lot about what you believe whereas if that student said, “Pastor Jay is a great model for me” I wonder what kind of response he would typically receive. Interesting discussion.

  14. Matt says:

    When will T4G post the audio for this panel?

  15. David says:

    Celebration of pastors isn’t something only done in the U.S. My pastor has helped foster the planting of over 1,100 churches in Southeast Europe. He’s well known there. He used his reputation to give me leverage in ministry among national leaders who had no reason to trust me or acknowledge me for my youth (given the culture of suspicion). And, he’s leveraging it to give other brothers and sisters platforms for better, more strategic partnerships for the Gospel’s advancement and the Church’s unity by the Spirit. He’s trying to transfer the reputation and its associated “power” to others so the work can continue with greater zeal and wisdom without his presence or persistent participation, as it’s not his work any longer; but, it remains God’s. This is what celebrity is great for: unifying brethren for bigger and more complex, Spirit-inspired works. It’s a leadership blessing.

    Thus, it’s not about having a stage to espouse from; it’s about having a stage by which one can unify and energize (vision cast) FOR _________ (agreement in orthodoxy, funding, dedication to pray and fast, etc, church planting endeavors, building, unification efforts, etc.).

  16. michial.brown says:

    Im still trying to imagine Paul’s response to VIP sections, hordes of admirers asking for bibles and books to be signed, and pastors who rather than plant churches with a local teaching elder/ shepherd, think they can do it better by duplicating their own celebrity gifted ness on multiple plasmas to satellite multi site campuses. Oh for a Peter or Paul. Where are they?

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Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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