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We’ve tried to do a little work on definitions and the scope of the problem.  All of that simply lays foundation for us to work on theory.  That’s what we’re really concerned about because theory allows us to explain the dynamic on some level and, at least for the practitioner, begin to propose solutions to the problem.  Here’s where rubber meets the road.

No one denies that a problem exists.  We simply disagree about (a) the appropriate terminology for accurately describing the phenomena and (b) the scope of the problem.  Some see the “culture of celebrity” under every conference brochure.  Others see “celebrity seeking” in the lives of a few particular pastors.

But there’s one more fundamental question to ask in order to develop a working theory: How does it happen?  How person go from pastor to “celebrity pastor” or “rock star pastor”?

A Brief Framework

If you’re really interested in the cultural analysis of “celebrity,” you really need to read Daniel J. Boorstin‘s groundbreaking work, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1961), and Neal Gabler‘s Life: the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality.  Boorstin, as far as I can tell, introduces the term “celebrity” to the American landscape, defining it tautologically as “a person who is known for his well-knownness.”  Gabler, more sanguine about the concept than Boorstin, thinks of “celebrity” as “an art form wrought in the medium of life.”  Indeed, Gabler contends that “celebrity” is now the culture’s “dominant art form, not only in the attention it demands or in the way it subjugates other media but in the way it seems to refract so many of the basic concerns of the culture, precisely as art does.”  The “celebrity” Boorstin feared was the unmaking of the “great man,” Gabler hails as art refracting life.  You couldn’t get two more opposing views. (To read Gabler’s engaging interaction with Boorstin, see here)

I’d like to propose a framework that posits something of a hybrid of Boorstin and Gabler.  I’m not so much attempting to reconcile their views as much as use both men’s work as a way of illustrating two processes often conflated with bad results.  I want to suggest a noble path to notoriety, and mirror it with the corrupt corridor to celebrity.  Then I hope to say a word about how notoriety becomes “celebrity.”

The Noble Path to Notoriety. The Bible not only allows a godly category for notoriety, but commands Christians to honor the noteworthy.  We see this in places like 2 Cor. 8:18—“With him we are sending the brother who is famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel.”  Or Philippians 2:22, 29-30 with its commendation of Timothy and Epaphroditis—“But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel. So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.”  Or, in the context of the local church, the command in 1 Tim. 5:17—“Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.”

One important feature about each of these commendations is the individual’s work and accomplishment.  These persons are well-known and honored because of their work and accomplishment in the Lord.  In other words, they have earned (if you will) the respect of the church because they are “proven,” risked their life in service, or “rule well”—especially in the ministry of the word.  We may safely conclude that the Bible is not describing shallow, superficial “celebrity.”  These accolades are honest and redound to the glory of God himself, who was at work in these men to will and do His good pleasure.

The noble path to notoriety might be illustrated as:

The person and their work attract the appropriate attention and respect of their peers and followers.  I’ve chosen the terms “notoriety” and “honor” to distinguish from the sometimes negative connotations of “fame” and “celebrity.”  Whatever prominence, notoriety, and honor these persons receive, they receive justly because of their labor in the Lord. Indeed, the Lord himself commands His people to respond with honor.

The Corrupt Corridor to Celebrity. I maintain “celebrity” is generally a pejorative and not a positive good because the corridor to celebrity essentially empties notoriety of its nobility.  “Celebrity” does this in one of two ways: either by eliminating accomplishment as the basis of fame and honor, and/or by embellishing a narrative that deifies the celebrity while creating a false attachment with the audience/crowd.  Gabler’s work details this process most clearly.

Now, according to Gabler, the difference between fame (simply being well-known) and celebrity is story or narrative and “tangibility”. The celebrity is someone who lives out a plotline that captures some public’s attention and makes the celebrity “tangible,” real, or “accessible” to that public.  In other words, the public likes their story and in some way identifies with the “celebrity.”  This explains and supports Trueman’s observation that celebrity includes “a strange familiarity whereby the celebrities are referred to in quite intimate terms by people who have never met them or have only the most passing of connections with them. That connection, according to Gabler, gets created by the tangible narrative surrounding the celebrity.

The narrative comes in two forms: star-driven stories based on the actual lives and achievements of the “star” (think great actors like Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington), and plot-driven narratives that can sometimes involve unaccomplished persons (think Joey Buttafuoco or Tanya Harding) in compelling dramas that interest us in the person.  Contrary to Boorstin’s view and that of many people today, some celebrities and famous persons are actually rather accomplished persons.  Star-driven celebrity has longer staying power because once the plot in plot-driven narratives is over the “celebrity” status fades as well (think Kato Kaelin).  But in either case, to go from simply being known to being a celebrity, one needs a compelling narrative and publicity (more on this in later post, D.V.).  The corrupted corridors might look something like this?

Star-Driven Corridor to Celebrity

Plot-Driven Corridor to Celebrity

The star-driven process looks a lot like the noble path to notoriety.  That’s why many folks who simply should be honored may easily be mistaken as “celebrities,” especially in a sub-culture or among individuals already nervous about conferring honor on others.  Although the star-driven “celebrification” process looks like the noble path to notoriety, here’s the difference: the narrative and publicity in the celebrity-making process renders the person a “pseudo-event” (Boorstin’s term) or a “human entertainment” (Gabler’s term).  Folks who simply should be honored for their achievement and even folks with no achievements can be “celebritized” when the real person gets eclipsed by a “role” or “image” conflated with the person’s real life.  Gabler uses a great example:

The only action John Wayne saw in World War II was on the screen in war films, yet his heroism in those movies became welded to his personal narrative to the point where he was given awards and honors for his bravery.  People believed, evidently wanted to believe, that it was his story and not just his performance.

Or consider the insights we gather from Gabler’s evaluation of the Charles Lindbergh:

Boorstin saw Lindbergh’s greatness and subsequent fame flowing from his accomplishing of having flown solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927.  Lindbergh transmogrified into a celebrity only when his publicity and popularity reached a critical mass where they became the story, usurping the accomplishment itself and making Lindbergh well known for being well known.

Or so Boorstin has it.  [W]hat Boorstin failed to recognize is that popularity is the by-product of celebrity, not its source.  For Lindbergh, the source was the narrative of that flight–a narrative that was later elaborated by his marriage to socialite Anne Morrow and by the tragic kidnapping and murder of their baby in 1932.  He wasn’t well known for being well known.  He was well known–a celebrity–because he had a great story, and he remained a celebrity because he, or history, kept adding new chapters to it.

When performance supplants person you have celebrity.  Unaccomplished persons need “the story” to carry them to “celebrity.”  Accomplished persons may become celebrities with minimal story, but when they do become celebrities the public has welded a “larger-than-life” (or simply other-than-life) story to their persons.  What normally becomes larger-than-life for Evangelical pastors is either preaching ability, leadership, godliness, or all three.  What should have stopped at honor gets transmogrified into idol and fantasy independent of and larger than the personal reality.

The Parts We All Play

Now, I’ve been arguing that no person can make themselves a celebrity any more than a man can make a woman love him.  We all play a part in the making of celebrities.  In fact, there are three primary players: the celebrity, the media, and the audience or crowd.  The celebrity presents the achievements and narrative.  The media provides the publicity or “celebrity treatment.”  The public provides the “audience to appreciate the narrative and admire its star; for in the end, celebrity without someone to consume it is like a movie without someone to watch it” (Gabler).  In this way, the media and the public become the “friends” that make the pastor a celebrity.  These gears turn swiftly and smoothly in our pixelated and digital age.  We might call these interlocking relationships the “culture of celebrity.”

We’ll think more, Lord willing, about the role of media and technology in this process, but for now we simply need to know we’re hacking our way through celebrity culture as “a kind of cultural kudzu” (Gabler).  If you’ve been to my beloved North Carolina, you might know that kudzu grows over everything.  But you might also know that not everything is kudzu.  What you think might be a dense forest of vines, may only be a thin sprawling network disguising a brick building or overhanging tall trees.  Perhaps this is why people sometimes think they see “celebrities” everywhere.  The kudzu celebrity culture does surround and grow on us all.  But that doesn’t make everything we see kudzu.

What Happens When We Confuse Honor with Celebrity

I’m assuming no one will argue against the principle of giving honor where honor is due.  In fact, I’m assuming everyone wants to do that while guarding against celebrity-induced adulation.  But what happens when we confuse “celebrity” with “honor”?

I think there are three harmful results, which is why I’m trying to think through this issue and offer a minority report on the subject.

First, we undermine work and godly ambition.  Honor and notoriety rest on the shoulders of genuine accomplishment and hard work.  Notoriety and honor are biblical rewards for faithfulness.  When we erroneously attribute a person’s status to “celebrity” rather than “honor,” we rhetorically erase or disregard years of Christ-honoring labor.  Moreover, we dis-incentivize hard work and labor in others by punishing rather than rewarding faithfulness.

Second, we undermine godly gratitude.  The Lord calls us to show honor to those who serve well.  We’re to do that with our own leaders in our local congregations (1 Tim. 5:17), but we’re also to show honor to those from other churches that minister to us in some way (2 Cor. 8:18; Phil. 2:22, 29-30).  By pejoratively branding faithful leaders as “rock stars” and “celebrities” we effectively distance people from them.  We mischaracterize honor-worthy examples and teach people to sneer when they should cheer God’s work through others.  Rather than gratitude we stimulate inappropriate criticism.

Third, we rob ourselves of examples to follow.  The Scripture is replete with exhortations to follow the examples of others.  Most of these passages appeal to congregations to follow the examples of their leaders (Heb. 13:7, for example).  But sometimes, entire churches are challenged to follow the examples of other churches and leaders (2 Cor. 8, for example).  Let’s face it: We need examples.  We primarily and mostly need local examples to follow.  But we also need “heroes” as Kevin DeYoung recently pointed out.  When we tag faithful men with pejorative titles we rob ourselves of the potentially heroic examples we sometimes need.

There are dangers to celebrity.  But there are also significant dangers to hating our heroes and failing to honor the faithful.

Lord willing, in a future post, we’ll give some attention to how this theory of celebrity-making might point the way forward in correcting some things.  We need to ask ourselves some questions like:

  • What narrative allows a local church pastor to move to notoriety and honor and then possibly to “celebrity”?
  • In what ways are “larger-than-life” attributes developed in the stories we tell or participate in, and how do they contribute to celebritization?
  • What media and marketing practices promote this move to “celebrity”?
  • How might the audience distinguish between honor due and undue attachment?

But for now, I’d be interested in your thoughts on the framework or theory and the danger of labeling people we should honor “celebrities” or “rock stars.”


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Comments:


29 thoughts on “With a Little Help from Their Friends: How Pastors Become Celebrities”

  1. A few thoughts
    1) We should take a look at how “honour/shame” functioned in Paul’s culture. As you’ve said it involves respect, but I think it also entailed a social standing. There seems to be an element of hierarchy, or something like hierarchy, at work in honour.
    2) This is why James and Paul had to work so hard to subvert the surrounding culture’s assumptions about “honour/shame”.
    3) People do desire to be led by an honourable person; young people often mistake a telegenic person for an honorable person. So there’s a danger of disillusionment.
    4) We often use the criterion of “success” to judge who is honourable; by success, we mean “measurable success”. By this reasoning, Jonah is a success story, and Noah a failure.
    5) The criteria of measurable success suffocates biblical wisdom. It is very difficult to watch videos in which pastors settle debates by statistics. (I have “x” number of church members, and “y” number of Churches. Therefore I can create “z” number of speaking opportunities for potential leaders. Therefore, I win this debate about multi-sites.”)
    6) Evangelical “shock-jock” tactics can be used to create superficial success. We need to look at how the “church growth” movement has evolved. Management techniques remain, but “communications” takes precedence.
    7) There are “accidental stars” who deserve honour. Tim Keller is very good at conversational envangelism, and apologetics. So he looks good on YouTube – but that’s quite accidental.
    Polished stars who seem to rehearse for YouTube, and who talk to the web-cam (like Clinton and Malcolm X learned to talk directly to the TV camera) actually take honour away from people like Keller. We get guilt by association. We get a culture of cynicism.

    Finally, a big question
    8 ) How do we give honour to the anonymous workers who have no presentational skills? I can think of Tommy Manson and Wee Jimmy Muholland (both with the Lord) who laboured for decades, building a children’s work in Ballybeen estate. They were never slick, and so they were often overlooked. Businessmen who were more comfortable at the front of their church took the limelight; but many of those businessmen did not stay at the Church. They moved on. Tommy and Jimmy were committed to the work, so they stayed on, no matter what. Tommy still visited the Sunday School, just to see the kids, when he was dying with Liver Cancer.
    Men like that are overlooked. They could only build the work because they put in long hours, to get to know the kids. They don’t like the limelight.

    Can elders and pastors be urged to acknowledge such men and women, even in private? Could we urge elders to seek the opinions of such men and women before they consult younger leaders?

    Graham

  2. Thabiti,

    I wonder if one of the reasons it’s so easy to refer to some pastors as “rock stars” or “celebrities” is because our exposure to them is the same as our exposure to actual rock stars or celebrities, namely on the internet, via audio or video. The medium of exposure would seem to affect how we see them.

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      Hi Chris,

      Great comment, bro. You’re on to something. I think that’s increasingly the case, and should be a good “check” on the pastor’s uncritical use of those mediums. It should also be a good “check” on the audiences quick use of “celebrity” as a tag for pastors. We’re back to some variation of “the medium is the message,” aren’t we?

      Thanks for enriching the conversation, bro.
      T-

  3. But surely this goes beyond appearing on YouTube. You can watch math lessons made for YouTube; you can see Bill Craig debates and lectures on YouTube. Yet Craig is clearly an academic; and we teachers have yet to achieve “rock-star” status. (One of the centuries greatest injustices!)

    When someone performs for YouTube, then they are likely to be labelled a “pop-star” or “rock-star”. And we have to ask – should Pastors be “performing”? Ever?

    Graham

  4. John says:

    Thabiti,

    This truly has been an interesting couple of weeks in the blogosphere concerning this topic. Forgive me if I repeat any comments but here is perhaps another angle.

    I do think there is blame that needs to shared. Not only do conference goers need to guard themselves from the celebrity problem and “pastors” need to be wise also but those who market and promote the events are maybe most responsible for this problem. The “event” phenomena is perhaps the real issue. Drawing a crowd requires a big name. Before you know it the humble servant of God is on savy promotional material with slick advertisement. I find the cause of the Gospel and marketing techniques do battle against each other.

    And really we are basically talking about pure humility, an important characteristic of any servant of Christ. Somewhere humility got confused with weakness and now we have a monster growing behind our pulpits fueled with the over emphasis on “vision” and “leadership”. Here is a test, do we dare investigate what these conference speakers require as payment (travel, lodging stipend etc) to secure there slot at the next event? There is a big difference between honoring the servant of Christ and the servant demanding the honor.

    Just some thoughts,

    John

    1. Thabiti says:

      Hi John,

      Great to hear from you, bro. And great thoughts, too! Thanks for contributing.

      Your points about “event phenomena” are very helpful. Also, you’re correct: so much of this boils down to the basic but difficult to maintain issue of humility.

      As for speaker fees, I think practices vary considerably. Most of the pastors I know and serve with don’t have a set fee schedule. The gospel and the word of God should be free. Even though a man has the right to earn their living from the gospel, we must keep in mind that we serve the gospel–it does not serve us. Personally, I’ve never asked for an honorarium, and would often prefer to stay in a family’s home than a hotel. Most groups choose to offer an honorarium of some sort and want to extend Christian hospitality.

      The other thing that would be interesting to investigate would be how many guys serve at smaller conferences. We all seem to be concerned with the “mega-conferences,” but most of the guys spend more time at much, much smaller events. That, too, tells us something.

      Anyway, grateful for your comments and perspective. Helped.

      T-

  5. Doc B says:

    Excellent work.

    I think your ‘three harmful results’ have some very serious implications, which I hope you’ll develop.

    I think the flip-side, ‘what happens when we confuse celebrity with honor’, also deserves treatment, for this side of the coin is probably more the cause of the dust-up in the first place than the other side. At least, the phenomenon of people in pews honoring an achievement-less true-celebrity pastor seems to be what got Dr. Trueman’s dander up initially.

    At least you are looking for real causes and are refraining from finger-pointing accusations that seem to be the bulk of the blogosphere these days.

    I love it when people *think*.

    1. Thabiti says:

      Doc B,

      Thanks for the comments and engagement with the issue. You’re absolutely correct, the “flip side” needs a look, too. Thanks for helping us think.

      For Jesus,
      T-

  6. Tom says:

    Pastor Anyabwile,

    You wrote: “In fact, there are three primary players: the celebrity, the media, and the audience or crowd.”

    Again, I think you are missing the important forth player: the gate-keeper. This person is the one who vets, grooms, endorses, and exposes the individual to the audience or crowd via media, book endorsements, and conferences. In conservative evangelical circles, this is often another celebrity or high-profile individual with connections. Without the gate keeper, the individual is never given exposure to the audience or crowd.

    I know I sound like a broken record on this, but the gate keeper is the elephant in the room in this discussion (pardon the pun).

    Tom

    1. Doc B says:

      Tom, it seems to me that by definition, the ‘gatekeeper’ is part of the media. That’s how I read his analysis.

      “Media- Intervening agency or instrument” (dictionary.com)

    2. Thabiti says:

      Hi Bro. Tom,

      As Doc B says, I would put that group in the media section. You are correct, however, that some of the organizers are themselves regarded as possessing notoriety or celebrity.

      T-

      1. Tom says:

        Pastor Anyabwile,

        So you would classify people like CJ Mahaney, Mark Dever, John Piper, and Al Mohler as part of the media?

        If so, I’m not sure I would agree with you.

        Tom

        1. Doc B says:

          Tom,

          I won’t presume to answer for the Pastor, but I think the answer to your query is fairly straightforward; if you are thinking, ‘news media’ when the word media comes up, you are overly limiting the term.

          If any of the above named individuals are engaged in promoting a particular speaker, then they are indeed, ‘media’, as they stand as a promotional entity in the process. They are in the middle, hence the term, ‘media.’

          This is a neutral position, neither good nor evil per se. It can be turned bad by malmotivated people or made good by pastors wanting their people to hear a particular message from a particular speaker.

          My suggestion, which you are free to take or leave, is to not run too far ahead of Pastor T…he’s getting to these details in his analysis, if I’m reading his plan right. In any case, it is important that we all agree on and use the same definitions of our terms, and your definition of ‘media’ is not the same as the way Pastor T is defining it, if I understand you.

          1. gv720/ JUsher says:

            I think that “credibility by association” is, perhaps, a little like the ancient concept of “honour”. One could gain “honour” by associating with an “honourable” person.

            Speaking at a “Desiring God” conference is a sign of J Piper’s approval; you gain “honour” from J Piper.

            I actually have no problem with this, as long as we relativise this type of honour by (a)there is as much honour to be gained by assocation with quiet faithful workers like T Manson and J Muholland (see my first post above); and(b)remembering that our deepest source of “honour” comes from being known by Christ.

            Graham

  7. Ty says:

    Perhaps you did not intend to Pastor T but you seem to have left people without comments. You rightly point out that workers of the gospel are due honor, I suspect that’s a point that folks, a bit, seemed to be blinded to.

    My question(s)-

    This issue is largely within the beholder. What do certain beholdee’s do to deflect some of the adulation they are given?

    It appears you feel that it is not right to judge other workers but it also certainly appears that there needs to be mechanisms in place to censure those seeking celebrity – what can the evangelical community do to police itself in this manner?

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      Hi Ty,

      Thanks for dropping by and joining the conversation. I don’t know what you mean when you say I “left people without comments.” Can you help me with that?

      Lord willing, we’ll give some attention to each “sector’s” responsibilities and potential responses in all of this. Stay tuned….

      And, yes, I absolutely believe accountability or “censure” to be appropriate. But we need to judge righteous judgment. I don’t think most of the general condemnations fit with righteous judgment, and a lot of the specific accusations fail the test, imo.

      Grace and peace,
      T-

      1. Ty says:

        Hi Pastor T,

        To somewhat clarity what I’m thinking I believe that the blogosphere is so intent on speaking against the celebrification of pastors that they’re not taking into account that there are men that are rightly due honor. I suspect that many haven’t taken that into account and are somewhat left speechless that you’ve pointed it out. Whether that was intended or not by you I don’t know. I’m very interested to see where this develops.

  8. kateg says:

    Thank you for developing this theme of honor. Maybe the problem is that the way Christians show ‘honor’ should not look so much like the world’s panting after celebrity. Maybe it would be really counter cultural to not have applause, obligatory standing ovations, and lines of autograph seekers. As Paul says, imitation of him should be as he imitates Christ. The most honoring thing would not be to honor as the world honors but to imitate these men as they imitate Christ.

  9. gv720/ JUsher says:

    Digging out my old notes on this, David de Silva defines the ancient Mediterranean concept of honour as “the affirmation of a person’s worth by peers and society, awarded on the basis of the individual’s ability to embody the virtues and attributes his or her society values.” (Introduction to the New Testament, p125).

    Now presentational skills are highly valued in a consumer society. The danger is that we leap to “honour” those who can package the Christian message in an attractive manner.

    Honour must be given by Christian leaders to those who model the life of Christ, and who embody New Testament values. We then pick our leaders from that pool. Christian leaders must be honourable; but not all honourable Christians will be leaders.
    Then we grant those leaders the additional respect that their gifts warrant. This respect is not based on the leaders character as such; it is based on the order God has created for his Church.

    Graham

  10. gv720/ JUsher says:

    In other words, I think that you are wrong to include “accomplishments” in the chain leading to honour; and the “work” must be any “work” that is produced by faith, prompted by love or inspired by hope.
    Honour was not to be given to Timothy for his gifts as a minister or speaker; rather, Timothy was to be honoured for the sacrifices that he had made for his Lord, and the faithfulness he had shown to the Gospel.

    I think the gifts of teaching and eldership demand a certain respect – God has given his Church a hierarchical leadership structure. Elders lead; I follow.
    But I must show the Rev Alister McNeely (my Pastor) more respect than I can give to, say, Don Carson or Timothy Keller or John Piper or Ben Witherington or…
    because God has placed me under Alister’s care, not theirs.

    Graham

  11. gv720/ JUsher says:

    So, my thoughts, for what very, very little they are worth…

    Star Driven&Plot Driven paths – very illuminating, very helpful for understanding my wider culture and how it is impacting on the Church.
    Path to Honour – helpful and convincing, but needs a bit of minor tinkering, just to clarify that this path is open to all kinds of accomplishment, not just the accomplishments of leaders. This would significantly strengthen your point about “Godly ambition” and “examples to follow”.
    The Parts we All Play Convincing. I’m looking forward to what you say next about this.

    (If I were a publisher I’d be pestering you around now… ;-) )

  12. michael henry says:

    Sir,
    It’s more difficult for me to follow the reasoning behind theories than the presentation of scripture and the theological underpinnings of the subject, because I must first and foremost interpret through the lens of scripture regardless of the subject. Along those lines, I see the danger of us using the terms you reference, when the subject is either maligned and not given the brotherly affection he should be; or as a denigration where respect due is not given; or when used affectionately, where man gets the honor and no good but only pride will ensue. When used impersonally and in moderation, as with so many things, it can be a useful and general descriptive.
    Along the secular theory line, frankly for a layperson it gets a little muddy, and it seems there are quite a few tracks one can end up wandering off. When the standard is scripture the path is narrow, when it is a theory it seems it can easily break down. As a general recommendation we as the body need to avoid celebrity worship or any perception at any cost without sacrificing the respect and honor to our elders and teachers you so rightly point out. Why would we ever want glory to go to other than God?
    Thank you for your fine post.

    PS Please advise your publisher that folks want to buy your “Decline of African American Theology” in ebook form. Personally I jumped the gun a bit going to e format only. Thanks.

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    Best Driving school for driving lessons in Surrey, Delta, Langley, Burnaby… Pass the N test, get your driver’s license, be an accident free defensive driver!

  14. John says:

    The appropriate term is Flockstar.

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Thabiti Anyabwile


Thabiti Anyabwile is a pastor for Anacostia River Church in southeast Washington, DC and a council member of The Gospel Coalition.

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