Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Megaconferences and False Dichotomies

I share the concerns about celebrity pastor worship, but I also have concerns about the judging of hearts behind the conference appeal.

I like Carl Trueman's work a lot, and there's a lot to like in this post, the latest in a recent series of shots fired across the megaconference bow. But then he writes this:
First, market conferences on the basis of content not speakers. Send a clear signal - from the design of the webpage to the wording of the fliers - that it is what is to be said, not who is saying it, that is important. Indeed, maybe one could be really radical: do not even let people know who is speaking; just tell them the titles of the talks. "Ah, but then no-one will come!", you say. Well, if that is true, then the case for saying that conferences are all about idolising celebrities would seem to be irrefutable.
Really? These are my choices? Either I would gladly go to a conference whose speakers were not advertised or I'm an idolater of celebrity preachers? I think not.

It's possible I would want to go to a conference because Tim Keller or John Piper are speaking because I am an idolater of those fine men. But it's equally possible that I would go to a conference where they are speaking because I know, if I'm going to shell out hard-earned money for what a conference is meant to provide, that I want to make sure the speakers are reliable. I have prior exposure to them. I know they are solid teachers and the Spirit has used them to refresh, enrich, and edify me.

Gracious, we might as well argue for taking authors' names off books. (I notice Carl Trueman signs all his blog posts.) All we should be interested in is the subject matter, yes? Who cares if the author is an unreliable, unaccomplished nutcase. We have plenty of time to figure that out halfway through. ;-)

Actually, some folks just tried something like this. I don't know how it went.

Let us not be extreme either way; let us be sensible.

On the other hand, I think Trueman's suggestion "bring in at least 50% of your speakers from churches of, say, 300 people or less" a fine idea. I nominate Bill Streger.


Bill Streger said...

Thanks for the kind nomination, Jared. Means a lot!

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Jared, I didn't think his comment in the "First" point was that scandalous. Having read Christopher Hitchens' tirade against the royal family I would propose that the difference between the UK and the US is WHERE absurdly undue deference to persons and personality happens rather than IF it happens.

I agree it doesn't have to be a false dichotomy but, as I'm sure you've noticed, we Reformed types can traffic ever so well in false dichotomies played up for rhetorical effect. :)

It's good to hold on to one and not let go of the other but we obviously face the constant temptation to let go of one because it seems better than the other. There is a proverb somewhere that says if you see a man skilled in what he does he will serve before kings and not before obscure men, right?

Chuck Thomas said...

Trueman is usually genius with his observations and his wit is unbeatable. But in this case, he has reverted a bit too much of the idealized world of the acadamy and paid far too little attention to the practical reality of making judgements about how and where precious and sometime scarce resources will be spent when evaluating the value of one conference over another. The issue of "hero-worship" is a very real consideration and demands a serious examination of the heart, but most the solutions he offers are not in the least bit helpful. And he effectively precludes new conferences from being born with his suggestion that the prospective attendee rely on reputation alone for trusting content thus eliminating the need to market speakers.

Anonymous said...

Here is an overview of how the Epic Fail Conference went.

Josh Cousineau said...

I would also second Bill Streger!

Dave Moore said...


Here is what I posted on Thabiti and Justin's sites.

Your post is spot on, but there remains an issue you did not address and one that concerns me.

I have no doubt that many who preach to large congregations have great humility and do everything possible to steer the light away from them and to Christ.

My concern, pure and simple, is why there are no “Tom Carsons” (DA Carson’s dad) speaking at conferences like the Gospel Coalition or T4G. I know and respect several of the men who spoke at Gospel Coalition, but they hardly have “Tom Carson” ministries.

Finally, in anticipation of a comment being raised about me baptizing smallness as more godly, I don’t. I have spoken to small and big groups. Smallness is not inherently more godly, but neither is bigness, so why don’t the big, evangelical conferences have representatives from both? It is this kind of blind spot (and I do believe it is a blind spot rather than knowing sin)that gives the impression that we American evangelicals revel in celebrity status.


Nick C said...

Great post Jared.

A couple of points.

Your final point about bringing in preachers with smaller churches is a nice idea but realistically would be a poor use of resources. The Pipers/Kellers/Chandlers etc. are chosen because they're known to be reliable for the very reason that they are already in the public eye (whether through pastoring an influential church, writing books etc.). In order to bring in smaller church preachers there would have to be some sort of background check or 'qualification' on doctrine, experience etc. This seems unnecessary.

Added to that, how would a preacher's 'celebrity' status be measured? 'Piper sold 250,000 books this year, that rules him out'? Silly. Similarly, what would be the measurement of 'smallness'?

I think Trueman is forgetting that conferences are put on because pastors want to learn from guys with expertise. People don't just attend because they idolise a certain preacher, they attend because that preacher is, quite simply, really good at preaching.

At the end of the day idolatry of a preacher is a heart issue. Setting a boundary or making a rule will do zip toward taming the heart. The worthiness and sufficiency of Christ is the only thing that will kill 'celebritisation' and the guys who preach that the clearest are the very guys whom we idolise.

Jared said...

Nick, it's not silly if you read what Trueman actually wrote, which I thought was a pretty good idea: you still bring in the Pipers and Chandlers, but you also bring in lesser-known (or unknown) guys from smaller churches. (50% he suggests). He's not saying "only" small guys. So the draw would still be there.

Also, you suggest it would be an overwrought process to vet these guys for quality. That itself is silly. The organizers of these conferences know pastors from smaller churches. They're not only friends with famous people. They could very easily know what lesser-known or largely unknown guys are good preachers with solid doctrine. They are friends with such men already. They just don't let them speak on the big stage. Some of them are already doing breakouts.

Ray Ortlund currently pastors a church of less than 300 (by my estimation). Surely his preaching quality and doctrinal soundness are within the scope of TGC, b/c he's on the council and does breakout sessions.

I do share your concerns about idolatry, of course. It is a heart issue and cannot be solved simply by throwing "unknowns" into the mix to appease critics. I just don't think the proposed solution to the justified criticism is untenable.