The unbelieving world will always do “cool” better than the Church. When the Church adopts coolness and relevance as its corporate values, it slavishly agrees to follow, lagging always one step behind the world. (This is why Christian music always ends up ripping off the sounds and styles of their secular counterparts, while Christian film always has a cheesy “cringe factor”).
I had to do a double-take when I saw the tour bus.
There it was, idling softly in the parking lot, with the pastor’s name and newest book title emblazoned large–in bright yellow letters–across either side. Being advertised on that conspicuous rolling billboard was a “special evening,” (no doubt repeated dozens of times in select cities across the nation) with the newest “it” pastor.
His similitude to a rock star was highly intentional. Autograph sessions would soon follow as well, of course.
You may not recognize him as a pastor at all at first. It will take a moment for the fog machine to clear up, as he takes center stage. But soon enough you will be able to identify him clearly: he’s the guy wearing the sneakers and the torn jeans, possibly even a hoodie and a snap-back too. He doesn’t carry a Bible under his arm—that would send the wrong signal—he carries his tablet computer.
He is the “cool pastor,” the next big thing.
He didn’t come to your city for a show? No problem. He’s building a satellite campus in your suburb next. In fact, there are already dozens of wannabes cropping up in churches near you. They are the next generation. The hipster pastors.
But this whole celebrity minister phenomenon has me wondering: isn’t “cool pastor” an oxymoron?
Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with being current. There is nothing wrong with using modern communication tools. There is nothing wrong with speaking in a relevant way to current trends, both societal and cultural.
But the closest thing to the pastoral job description in the Bible is found in 1 Timothy 4:1-5:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
No mention of having panache or chic jeans there. If anything, it sounds decidedly arduous. Difficult. Even subversive.
If I can be completely honest, there was a time in my life when I craved to be considered a “cool pastor.” In the early years, as the morning dawned on my pastoral vocation, I honestly believed it was possible to walk in both worlds, that is to say, the world of cultural approval and the world of Biblical fidelity.
More and more, however, I am not sure this is even desirable.
I am not suggesting that pastors return to monkish albs or don black robes exclusively. (Full disclosure: I do own a robe, but I haven’t worn it in over five years). I am however convinced that my desire to win cultural approval as a minister must die and die soon!
Our current fascination with our pastors’ book sales, name recognition value, and proliferating multi-site video venues ought to be considered a dangerous trend. Never before in the history of Christendom has a pastor’s reputation been graded by any other factors than his doctrine and his personal ethic. Today, we would add his fans.
No, my highest goal as a pastor is not to secure the greatest number of Twitter followers, but rather to model one man: our Lord Jesus Christ. His message must be my own. His methods must be sufficient for me. His majesty must be my highest end.
Though Jesus attracted a large following at times (Matthew 19:2; Mark 4:1; John 6:2) there were other moments when His doctrine and His fiery preaching sent men running in the opposite direction (John 6:66). If we should ask whether our Lord was more often cultural or countercultural, the preponderance of the Gospel materials emphatically suggests the latter.
I am sure there will be some who will appeal to texts such as 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 to justify the coolness factor as the necessary “cross we must bear” to make the Gospel intelligible in a modern context. They will argue that this is how we “become all things to all people, that by all means we might save some.”
But isn’t it ironic how those who use that Pauline text to defend a dogged pursuit of “relevance” end up making the Gospel less relevant to their hearer’s salvation and sanctification? At the very least, interpreting 1 Corinthians 9 as a methodological “free pass” makes light of the historical context surrounding the tensions between the Jewish and Hellenistic Christians to whom Paul ministered.
To assume the role of the pastor is to assume the role of the prophet. I do not need to dress like John the Baptist, but I had better be ready to preach like him as well as to be treated like him. The pastor must more frequently confront a god-forsaken culture than conform to it.
Whether or not I am even aware of it, the subconscious and non-verbal communication that I put out is as instrumental in articulating the Gospel as the words I preach. Unfortunately, the more conspicuous the “show” surrounding my sermon, the less magnanimous the Gospel appears in juxtaposition. It is obscured by bright lights and video clips, high-wires and hair gel.
I will never forget the moment I met John Piper, although I doubt he could possibly remember it. His brown belt didn’t match his black shoes, and his well-worn slacks and tweed jacket wordlessly whispered, “This world has nothing for me!” He wasn’t the least bit slovenly or unkempt, but his entire demeanor adorned the very message He preached: Jesus Christ is supreme above all things.
Here is the bottom line. The unbelieving world will always do “cool” better than the Church. When the Church adopts coolness and relevance as its corporate values, it slavishly agrees to follow, lagging always one step behind the world. (This is why Christian music always ends up ripping off the sounds and styles of their secular counterparts, while Christian film always has a cheesy “cringe factor”).
The church is not called to be the caricature of modern culture; it is called to be the critique (even the foil) of that same culture. When we explicitly model ourselves on the unbelieving world—whether its art, architecture, or ethos—we are implicitly and foolishly endorsing it.
As a pastor, I cannot afford to do that.
Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville, Florida. He is the author of Hold Fast the Faith: A Devotional Commentary on the Westminster Confession of 1647 (Reformation Press, 2012). This article appeared on his blog and is used with permission.