Thursday, April 21, 2011

Thoughts on thoughts: Dr. Carl Trueman, megaconferences, and the Reformed celebrity cult

Dr. Carl Trueman, Professor of Historical Theology and Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary, has posted some very interesting thoughts up at reformation21 about so-called “Reformed” megaconferences sponsored and promoted here in America. Before relating some of Dr. Trueman’s insights, it is worth noting that his remarks are not the sour grape rants of a petulant wannabe who could only wish to have the kind of slice of fame, even for just 5 minutes as it were, that many of these “reformed” starlits enjoy. Dr. Trueman is probably one of the most educated and seriously enlightened Reformed thinkers on the scene today who not only knows Reformed theology and church life, but knows and can more than capably interact with contemporary intellectual currents. Instead of taking the route which most Reformed “intellectuals” do today, which is to publish in Christian sub-culture magazines which they themselves edit, or turn in one manuscript after another rehashing some previously written about topic, to small fish Reformed publishers in order to keep a steady pay-check coming in from the book sales to their zealous disciples, he actually puts out thoughtful, respectable works which either address real academic issues or advance contemporary Reformed discussions in significant ways. All this I throw out there so that no one will be easily prone to characterize and then summarily dismiss Dr. Trueman's remarks as the bitter sniping of the poor kid left standing on the sideline after teams were chosen up at a pick-up basketball game down at the local park.

Now, to Dr.Trueman’s “deep thoughts.” First he points out the all too obvious problem in American evangelicalism more broadly, and now a huge problem among conservative Reformed types, which is the problem of the celebrity cult. It turns out, that Reformed people, who once thought they were immune to the Billy Sunday’s of evangelicalism, actually now have their own, its just that they don’t have quite the same star power in the eyes of outsiders. Never mind that though, because the sad, but humorous thing is, that we don’t care about that as much as we do that he is “our” Billy Sunday. See, if a man gets enough headlines, publishes enough popular books, speaks at enough conferences, and can throw in a few good jokes while he is at it, well, eventually he can attain a certain level of celebrity status among the Reformed, as long as he is willing to coattail the fame of other evangelical celebrities such as John Piper or John MacArthur by speaking with them at various conferences and backslapping them and refusing to condemn their gross sin of being Anabaptists.

I wish Trueman had said these things at least 10 years ago, because I fear that the time for giving a fair hearing to his message about the celebrity cult is long past. Reformed sub-culture has not only constructed its own superapostles, it has become a veritable superapostle making factory. Many in our Reformed world have taken the cues and studied the lessons well of how the evangelicals built a vast evangelical sub-culture that capitalized on the desire for star power and have now reproduced that with incredible efficiency within the Reformed world. At one time in the Reformed community, we stood shoulder to shoulder in criticism against the appalling atrocities committed in the evangelical empire, simultaneously sounding the criticism and sneering in contempt as we made light of their folly. Now however, we have our celebrity cruises with your favorite superapostles, we have “megaconconferences,” and even some of our leading lights actually know the evangelical superstars on a first name basis and have had the opportunity to shake their hand! Isn’t progress grand? What is next, can you say “Reformation theme park!”?

The second thing worth noting in Dr. Trueman's post is the prescription he offers. One, don’t advertize the names of the people speaking at the conference, instead, advertize the subject matter of the conference. The novel idea he proposes is that people will be attracted to the content not the speaker. Here, I think we should cut Dr. Trueman some slack, after all, he is a foreigner: silly Brit, don’t you know that conferences are the only time that most Reformed people will have a chance to know what it feels like to be at a church related activity that has a megachurch feel and atmosphere, and don’t you know that conferences are the only chance we have to get up close, within 15 feet or so, of bona fide celebrities (even if just a celebrity of our making)? Great idea Dr. Trueman, but it will never work. Two, he proposes that conference organizers should consider inviting small fish, from small ponds to speak at the big conferences. His reasoning is basically, that the small fish pastor has a lot more in common with the rest of the folks he is speaking to on account of the fact that most pastors who waste their time going to conferences serve churches of a 100 people or less (give or take). As much as I appreciate new ideas, and Dr. Trueman has some good ones, this is one I think I will pass on. First, if you invite the small fish pastors and people enjoy what they hear, knowing the Reformed sub-culture, they will do everything they can to feverishly commence the work of preparing this poor small fish to be absorbed into the big sea of the Reformed celebrity cult. Second, this would only reinforce the all too common tendency found among many Reformed pastors now which is to dream about one day making it to the “big leagues.” Look at how many small fish there are out there “publishing” their paltry wares with Timbuktu Publishing House in hopes that one day, just one day, they will finally hit that big break and get a chance to be a warm-up act on the Reformed celebrity circuit. Bad idea Dr. Trueman, although I will concede that your heart is in the right place in what you propose.

Well, let me conclude my thoughts on Dr. Trueman’s thoughts by saying, “seriously!”? Has it really come to the point that we need a xeno to politely tell us Reformed people that somehow in fighting against evangelicalism, we have become like our enemy? I wish it were not so, but all indications are that we really need to turn this ship around or it won’t be long before we start printing the names of our talk shows and radio programs on coffee mugs and t-shirts. Oops, we already do that!


Oscar said...


"I am basically the most vanilla guy around" does not fit you in terms of the ordinary. You need a more robust and masculine term to fit your commonplace self-descrption like: The most cheesburger and fries guy around, or bacon and sausage type of fella. However, there is some redemption for the vanilla thing -- you fire-up Partagas.

About an opinion on the post, I responded by email.

Whittier Heretic said...

Pastor John,

In your conclusion you wrote: "we really need to turn this ship around…"

What do you suggest? Do we do away with megaconferences all together? Do we move forward by focusing on the local church--inward only? Do we return to counsels overseen by the visible institutional church? I'd like to hear what your thoughts are on this. But keep in mind that if you come up with a really great idea and it begins to spread because of its sheer genius, you too will become a celebrity before too long. That's just the way it works (2 Cor. 8:18!). And if becoming a Reformed celebrity is off limits, then does that mean the road to becoming a celebrity is off-limits too? And if the road is off limits, is this blog considered to be on the road? And… :) I think you see my point. So, help us out here!

John Sawtelle said...

Good and fair questions. What I meant when I said we need to turn this ship around is that we need to put the boot to the throat of celebrity culture within the confessionally Reformed community. If you read Reformed church history, you will find that the church was opposed to what is called "occassional hearing." In fact, members could be disciplined for casually drifting between churches and tasting sermons at churches they were not members of. It was not until Glibert Tenant, during the Great Awakening, proposed that church members should feel free to go hear revivalistic style preaching that made them feel excitement, that occassional hearing began to take root in the REformed world. It turned out this proposal, along with some other concerns, actually split the Presbyterians in the early 18th century between old lights and new lights---and that very division exists to this day within the Presbyterian world, even though the names are not used. So, my response is that we need to understand that opposition to conference style meetings and awareness of celebrity, revivalistic preaching, has been around in the Reformed world for quite some time.

What is the solution to all this? Well, return to the ordinary means of grace, the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments. Churches need to regularly preach and teach from the catechism and confessions so that the members are regularly exposed to the whole counsel of God. If that if faithfully done, then that pretty much eliminates the supposed need for these conferences since they started to be organized around 30 years ago because the churches were not doing their job.The other thing that I think would stop this celebrity culture in its tracks is if all these guys who write and publish books, would take no royalties from the sales. Instead, they could either publish all their "helpful stuff" online for free at a public website, or they could ask publishing companies to direct all profits from royalites back to the denominations they serve. This would ensure that a profit motive was not what drove these starlits to publish, and if what they produced was actually useful stuff, and there was a real public demand for it, it would not only help edify the church spiritually, it would also build up the Reformed denominations financially.

Let's start with these proposals and see what you think.

Steve_Mac said...

Ha. "Whittier Heretic" was an old handle I used years ago. I was logged in to my Google account when I posted and the old handle came up.


I agree that a return to the ordinary means of grace is the solution. If a believer knows that their union with Christ is intensified only in the instituted means, then they will not have a need to look elsewhere. The power and weight of that message though, and the communication of it, inevitably leads back to the problem in my opinion. Here's what I mean… Let's say 100 Reformed people in Orange County are completely unified on the solution. Do these 100 people keep quiet about it and focus inwardly in their own congregations (a question I raised earlier)? Or do they try to get that message out to everyone else for the health of the church universal? If they try to get that message out to everyone else, what "means" do they use to communicate it? Is it verbal only to their inner circle? Do they use Facebook, blogs, and other social media websites? And if they do use social media, how can it not point attention back to the originator, and how can that not result in a mini celeb-factory?

Think about it. We're talking about destroying people's idols. There's no doubt that hundreds, maybe thousands of professing believers have their idols lined up on the mantle in the works of men like John Piper and Tim Keller. When they hear that 100 small-time Reformed folks in OC are calling them out on their sin they are sure to take offense. In their offense they will use Google to research the claims made by the 100, find the links where these things are being discussed, and if they're persuaded to our position they will share the link in their Facebook feed in hopes to reach all their friends, etc. It will go viral, and because the discussion will likely contain quotes from "John Sawtelle," you will begin to gain a following just like Piper and Keller did at one point. If a Confessional Reformed movement takes root and former evangelicals are converting in masses (not those kind of masses), is it too much to assume that they will have a weak ecclesiology and/or poor study habits because it's all new to them? How are they supposed to learn the truth? If this group of newbs exists, what's the harm in making use of the advances of culture and media to reach them and holding a conference on infant baptism and why it is the only biblical option? Or a conference in OC on why people who believe Reformed doctrine shouldn't continue in a false church like Calvary Chapel or some baptist church? Etc. I don't see the harm in that and I don't see how it is unbiblical at this point.

Steve_Mac said...

Please correct me where I'm wrong, but I don't think it's a sound argument to posit the doctrine of separation on the sole grounds that it's been around in the Reformed world for quite some time. Most of the people here in OC that attend church are going to be baptist-ic/evangelical types (and boy are there all sorts of types). These people are not going to accept an appeal to tradition or even creeds because they've been trained to have their Roman Catholic sensors go off whenever someone does that. What they need is a case from Scripture, and confidence that our Reformed forefathers made their cases from Scripture. They need all sorts of help. But where do we put our efforts to help them? Our pastors can't speak in their churches, and according to our principles they shouldn't be looking anywhere outside of their own church anyway -they're perpetually stuck in ignorance!

I just see massive problems with all this. I rambled on to give you an idea of the sort of implications I see and where I'm coming from.

What about something I asked earlier: "Do we return to counsels [sic] overseen by the visible institutional church?"

If we organized a council to debate, discuss, and decide on whom the recognized visible institutional church is, and say the decision was as broad as some have suggested, NAPARC, it can be established and broadcasted all around the world that it is settled and finalized - all anabaptist churches are false churches, and those that remain in them are cut off until they repent. Then we would have a clear denunciation of all baptists, evangelicals, neo-reformed, reformed baptists, etc. This would prevent anabaptist celebrities like John Piper from gaining ground in the church and confusing her with his strange doctrines. His only audience would be the sectarian balance already acknowledged as unorthodox and cut off. Whenever some new error creeps in and begins to pick up momentum, the council can meet and discuss the issues and issue a final ruling on the matter. What's wrong with something like this? Wasn't one of our three forms founded on this?

John Sawtelle said...

I think we are in basic agreement, but I admit that my remarks about conferences are more on the negative side.

My concern is that these conferences have become a platform for talking heads to build a media platform for selling their parachurch organizations and all the little trinkets they push in order to pad their bank accounts.

Another concern I have is the route these guys often take to get the best conference gigs. The price for admission to stand on stage with the big boys is to suppress all major Reformed distinctives whether about worship, the sacraments, or polity. Suppressing these major truths in order to make a superficial show of unity with Baptists is a huge price to pay and unfortunately says more about their desire to promote themselves and their agenda than a desire to promote the truth.

I think if 100 Reformed people in Orange County want to promote Reformed theology, the best way to do that is through the local church. Let a local church sponsor Reformed conferences, which would be under the oversight of the elders, and aim at the promotion of the local church. Following this structure provides a substantial check and balance against the "I am of Apollos" syndrome which Dr. Trueman correctly rebukes. Surely we could make use of social media and the internet to advertize these conferences both to like-minded people and those who are searching for truth. That does not contradict any principle proposed here. Now, someone might say, "well, if a church sponsors all these conferences and social media blows up attendance, won't we be right back to square one and the celebrity pastor issue?" My answer to that is no, it doesn't because it is entirely different. Celebrity culture and the megaconference do not promote the church or even Reformed theology, they promote individuals and their interests. The model I propose, conferences under the authority of the local church, promotes the local church, and the truth which is summarized that local church's confession.

I hope that clears up a bit where I am coming from.