Decentralized Preaching

In North America, we have an unhealthy fascination with celebrity preachers. Building a church (or a movement) around a celebrity pastor/preacher has inherent dangers and gives rise to certain problems. Let me list a few:

1. Celebrity pastors/preachers de facto become unaccountable even if they voluntarily submit themselves to a group of brothers. In the worst cases they become uncontrollable. As long as the man is humble, and remains humble, it can work. But the temptations to lose humility are almost irresistible.

2. A steady diet of one man’s preaching, one man’s perspectives on and means of approaching and applying the text, even if it is excellent, is unhealthy. Eating steak at every meal may sound good at first. But after just a few days of beef at every turn, you start to feel sick (that’s right vegans!).

3. Reliance upon one preacher, even in the best cases, inevitably tends to promote the man rather than the message. Oddly, the Word itself can become less the focus than the one doing the exposition of the Word or the particular way the Word is exposited.

Several years ago, when I first encountered the approach to preaching at a prominent church in London (a church, by the way, known across Great Britain for exemplary word ministry), I was fascinated. Rather than having one dominant preacher, they had four men that equally shared the responsibilities of the pulpit. At that time each of the four would prepare a sermon series that they would then proceed to preach at the various services of the church—Sunday mornings, then Sunday evenings, then Tuesdays at lunch and then Thursdays at lunch, each in his turn, using each sermon at least four times. The other day when I was talking about it with the Rector of the church, I called the approach “platooning”. He chuckled and said, “Leave it to you Americans. You have a unique ability to come up with a name for everything.”

The beauty of the system was that, while one of the four was (and is) the Rector (and definitely the leader), the system diminished the focus on personality while elevating the centrality of the word itself. People in the congregation were sure that no matter who was preaching they would hear good exposition of the word at every meeting of the church. They didn’t come to hear one or another of the particular men; they came to hear the Word. Their interaction was not so much with what the man said as with what the Word said.

We make a grave mistake when we focus on the preacher rather than what is being preached. And that is what I fear we are doing in the States. The church is weaker for it. Nowhere in the New Testament do we see the phenomenon of a preacher/pastor being exalted as we do in North America. The only place there is a hint of it is in 1 Corinthians 1 & 3 where Paul decries the tendency of people to rally around cults of personality: "One of you says, 'I follow Paul'; another, 'I follow Apollos'; another, 'I follow Cephas.'" It is the first (and arguably since it is the first, the most grievous) error Paul addresses in the letter. It is the message of the cross that is important, not the messengers and how cleverly they use words. There is always shared leadership and shared Word ministry. In Paul’s ministry the “preachers,” members of the apostolic team, seem almost interchangeable. It almost didn’t seem to matter who took charge of a given church or for how long. It was the centrality of the Word to the ministry of the church that was important, not the one bringing it.

In our case, Tim Keller has been one of the greatest strengths of Redeemer as a church. But in an odd way his very strength as a preacher creates a weakness. (Currently Redeemer is transitioning to a collegiate model with three lead pastors for three different locations, partly to address this.) It is a strange thing to figure out how to use to the maximum benefit the most gifted leaders the Church has today—more accessible to the masses than ever via the Internet—and yet not deform the local church, a place to be known and discipled in community, in the process.

In no way do I want to limit the ministry of the best and brightest men we have available for gospel ministry today. Please don’t hear me saying that. But I do think that in most "normal" churches and church plants, it is wise to have more than one regular preacher and deliberately to raise up cadres of preachers and teachers that can rightly handle the Word in all situations where it should be proclaimed.