“Sometimes I dream that he is me. You’ve got to see that’s how I dream to be. I dream I move, I dream I groove like Mike. If I could Be Like Mike, like Mike, oh, if I could Be Like Mike.” Gatorade’s 1991 “Be Like Mike” ads featuring Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls caught me at the perfect time. I was in junior high and obsessed with basketball. Michael Jordan had just led the Bulls to their first NBA title and everyone knew who Michael Jordan was. Everyone wanted to be just like him too. I was no exception. I practiced basketball in front of my house, imagining myself hitting the game-winning shot like Michael Jordan thousands of times. Fade-away jumper, tongue hanging out, nothing but net…sometimes. Michael Jordan was the model and I, a knock-kneed junior higher, did whatever I could to imitate him.
Imitation is a very real part of our culture. We imitate fashion models who wear certain types of clothing by buying those exact clothes or at least clothes that look like them from T.J. Maxx. We imitate almost everything we see on television as well. We mimic our favorite sitcoms by using the one-liners we heard last night in conversation today. We imitate people on the Food Network by buying their knives, pots and pans, aprons and other kitchen tools to go along with their cookbook so our meals will taste like Paula Dean made it herself (which is a great idea if you’re not diabetic). Kids in high school form bands to perform cover songs of their favorite bands. They stand like their favorite singer, hold the guitar the same way, contort their body the same way, “style” their hair the same way. Whatever it takes to imitate our idols, we do it.
My intention is not to spend the majority of my time discussing the idolatry that characterizes our celebrity-obsessed culture, though the evidence for that problem is everywhere, and clearly the Bible is vehemently against our having another gods above the one true and living God (Exodus 20:3). My intention is to focus on the ease at which evangelical pastors can slip into celebrity worship and then imitation, followed by frustration and, if allowed to continue, depression.
Don’t get me wrong, I like going to pastor’s conferences. I enjoy listening to the speakers, getting free books and buying more books. But my attendance at these events has revealed something wicked in my heart that I didn’t know was there. I still want to “be like Mike”, except “Mike” has now been replaced by “Al” or “John (MacArthur or Piper)”.
Unintended Celebrity Worship
When these pastors and teachers take the stage there is usually an elaborate introduction given, at which time they ascend the platform while the throng applauds. I’ve been to many baseball games and many concerts. When the latest baseball star or the headliner of the concert is announced, the same thing happens. This is the guy. This is the guy that will soon hit the ball over the fence. This is the guy who will soon play the songs that you heard on the radio. He is the best and you get to watch him.
Granted, no organizer of any pastor’s conference would say their motives are to make the attendees feel as if they are watching a celebrity or athlete “perform”, but it certainly looks that way. It may be that my perspective is to blame. Maybe these guys didn’t ask to be put on the stage in that position and they are honestly trying to serve the brothers in front of them. That is certainly true of most pastor’s conference organizers and speakers, but if the attendees aren’t careful, something unintended by the conference organizers happens when the keynote speaker takes the stage. The message fades away and the man becomes the focus. His mannerisms, his tone of voice, his appearance and dress, his usage of humor or refusal to use humor are all noted in the back of our minds.
What qualifies a man to speak at a pastor’s conference? Usually the people speaking will say something patronizing to the audience to reassure them that they, the keynote speakers, are just like everybody else. That the size of their church doesn’t matter. But, to be fair, no one is asking a guy in Indiana with a church attendance of 55 to speak at a conference. Most of the people who speak at conferences are there because their churches are huge.
When the pastors of the large churches speak, pastors of average size churches like me pay attention and mentally take notes for several reasons:
- Genuine joy in listening to good preaching and teaching. For many conference attenders, this is one of the only times when they aren’t expected to be the person talking and there is something refreshing about being able to sit and listen to good preaching and allow the Holy Spirit to convict, challenge and teach.
- The desire to emulate good preaching techniques. This desire begins well, but it can get twisted by sin fairly quickly. While C.J. Mahaney is helpful to quote Spurgeon in his quip, “They [well-known orators] may preach the gospel better than I, but they can never preach a better gospel”, people still go home and try to preach like Piper. The desire begins innocently because he is such a faithful preacher and passionately delivers the gospel. The desire becomes evil when the desire to emulate becomes the desire to imitate, not because of his faithfulness but because of his fruitfulness.
Piper is a rockstar (we think) because he is speaking at a conference, and he is speaking at this conference because his church is huge, and his church is huge because he preaches like that. So, in my mind at least, the following scenario unfolds: If being a rockstar is the goal, then I need to get invited to speak at a super cool conference, but that won’t happen until the attendance at my church blows up, and that obviously isn’t going to happen if I keep preaching like me, so I’ll try to preach like Piper and then I should get more numbers, get noticed and join the rockstar pastor tour. What begins with good intentions can end badly.