It’s out there. And (increasingly) it’s among us.
It is not uncommon for commitments to Christ to take place when a person is 10 or 11 years old. Hence, when a couple I know took their 10-year-old daughter, Melinda,* to an evangelistic meeting addressed by one of the most significant figures in today’s Adventist Church, they had prayed the Holy Spirit would work on her heart.
The meeting went well. The “significant figure” could not have been in better form. Melinda’s parents waited to see what their daughter would do at the end of the message.
To her parents’ delight, Melinda was the first person out of her seat. She made it to the front of the room so fast she was there before the “significant figure” made landfall in front of the pulpit.
That was when she asked him for … his autograph!
That this happened says nothing negative about Melinda, and certainly not about the preacher. It is, perhaps, a small indicator that we have a celebrity culture in our church.
Other indicators are also evident. Local preachers and pastors have long given up their pulpits to any “star” who happens to be in town. And since the geographical disposition of the “stars” is now shown on the Web, the phenomenon of the floating congregation has become more apparent. A greater tendency exists to follow the “big names” to wherever it is they’re preaching.
Before the DVD age, an Adventist media organization marketed cassette tapes of favored international speakers. The cassettes of three speakers in particular were especially popular—stars, you might say. For one reason or another, all three popular preachers have long since ceased to be part of the Adventist Church scene. Their celebrity status, it seems, led them to push the boundaries either of belief or behavior just too far.
Years ago a well-known English cricketer, David Shepherd, was made Anglican bishop of Liverpool. Starstruck myself, perhaps, I made my way to an afternoon service in the cathedral there. I arrived in time to see Shepherd leading a procession out of the nave, the main entry to the cathedral’s altar. He was carrying an enormous shepherd’s crook. I asked him about the crook. He made a self-conscious, self-deprecating remark about the bishop’s gear in which he was attired, explained that the crook was a symbolic reminder of the nature of his “proper job”—and made the inevitable pun on his surname.
In the celebrity culture that grips us and the shallow religious hucksterism to which it sometimes gives rise, could we use a symbolic reminder of the “proper job” of pastors?
A group of Adventists from the Republic of Ireland traveled to England for a camp meeting. But they became disillusioned about camp meetings, they said, “when the people all queued up for [a ‘famous’ speaker’s] autograph!”
Do you recognize it—the celebrity culture, religious hucksterism, or whatever you want to call it? It doesn’t work for some of us, however. It actually turns us off.
Remember what Jesus said when James and John wanted to get in on the ground floor of the celebrity culture? They received the distinct impression that promotion in the kingdom of God is not won by aggressive self-presentation, and that God, not us, determines how His honors are distributed. That was the cue for the other 10 disciples—who were miffed, perhaps, because they had not claimed top seats themselves—to become indignant with James and John. Then came Jesus’ opportunity to talk about His reversal of the world’s ideas of greatness and leadership.
“Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’” (Mark 10:42-45, NIV, italics mine).
The phrase “not so with you” is correctly translated “it is not to be so among you.”
The church is not to work in the same way as other organizations. From first to last the church is an alternative society in which the first are last and the last first. Wherever we see the stratifications and divisions that human society takes for granted, we need to remind ourselves: “it is not to be so among you.”
The Word says “all men” (and that means women, too!) will be drawn to Jesus when He is lifted up (see John 12:32). It does not work so well when it is the preacher who is lifted up!
And that inappropriate “lifting up” is not the fault of the preacher. The likelihood is that he or she is trying to lift up Jesus. The fault is in the attitudes of the listeners toward the preacher.
Jesus was and is the Son of man. Daniel prophesied that a time would come when “all peoples, nations, and languages” would serve the Son of man (Dan. 7:14). Yet Jesus, the Son of man who fulfilled Daniel’s prophecy, came not to be served but to serve. In serving He fulfilled another great prophecy of the Old Testament: the Suffering Servant described in Isaiah, chapters 42 and 53: “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isa. 53:5, NIV).
Jesus’ model of servant leadership is one meant for our imitation. We cannot, of course, imitate Him in His specific role of being “a ransom for many”; only Jesus could do that, and it need never be done again. But we can imitate Him in the utter neglect of self-interest, which enabled Him to choose death for many rather than the glory that was His due.
And that will require an adjustment in our attitudes and our behaviors. We must not lift up humanity. Lionize men and women and you will warp and damage them. Lift up Jesus—then all will be drawn.
Notice that in “all men” of John 12:32, the word “men” is in italics: it is supplied. The text actually just says “all.”
Jesus is the great magnet of the ages. Idolizing those who lift Him up can only get in the way of the magnetism of the Savior. Jesus does not need to stand in the shadow of the preacher. The preacher needs to stand in the shadow of the cross.
David N. Marshall is editor at Stanborough Press Limited in Grantham, Lincolnshire, England.