OK, so it’s a provocative heading. It’s based on the title of this article. I’ve got nothing against John Piper. I’d be hesitant to describe his preaching as a ‘monumental event’ but if Facebook promotion is anything to go by, he’s been helpful to stacks of people in our day and age. It’s a good call to encourage the average pew-sitter to respect, love, sit under and encourage their own pastor, which I think is Burchett’s main aim in the article.
From George Whitefield to Billy Graham, evangelicals have long adored a homeboy. Piper is the latest in that tradition. So any discussion about John Piper as a hero isn’t just about John Piper: it’s a broader question for all of us who identify as evangelicals.
There are great benefits to having a pin-up guy. Doesn’t Paul himself encourage the Corinthians to follow him as he follows Christ? God gives us leaders who are concrete examples, in Paul’s case, of ‘trying to please everyone in every way’. In Piper’s case, many would point to his recent sabbatical as a lived example of repentance and the grace of God.
But also in 1 Corinthians, Paul points to the futility of “I follow Paul / Apollos.” They are merely servants: they don’t bring the growth. Can you hear the warning against idolatry there? Our heroes are not God, no matter how gifted they seem! Of course, no one’s suggesting that John Piper or his fans think he is God! But Piper would be the first to acknowledge the deceit of the human heart, how carelessly we can be led astray, how diligent we must be in examining ourselves and keeping true to the true God.
I want to bring us a question and then suggest a plethora of potential answers. My hope is to probe our motivations and insecurities just a bit, to help us better understand our hero worship tendency, and harness it for good.
Here’s the question: There are hundreds of wonderful preachers, both faithful to the text and charismatic in style. So why is it that one captures the our imagination so devotedly?
Here are four possible answers:
Is it the absence of a Pope? Evangelicalism spans denominations and it’s a messy and sometimes nebulous movement. That can be unsettling. In the absence of institutional authority, do we seek a collective hero instead? One pastor said to me, “When I want to prepare a sermon, my first port of call is to listen to Piper and Keller. Man, it’s all you need!” Of course, he was overstating his case. He does work from the text as well. But he listens differently to a sermon from, say, his boss, to what he does to Piper’s sermons.
Is it the availability of the hero? Evangelicalism arose at the same time as huge leaps were made forward in technology. From faster sea travel which allowed Whitefield to go on preaching circuits on two different continents, to the web-phenomenon that allows Piper to be broadcast across the globe, it’s almost easier to access a ‘great preacher’ than your own pastor!
Is it the feeling that what the hero offers is unique? Do we feel that the preaching we are receiving is somehow impoverished or that there’s something better out there? Do we feel like we’re missing out on work God could be doing in us? What’s behind that? Is it competition with other Christians? Or perhaps wanting to grow and feeling frustrated? There’s a whole stack of different things mixed up there: desire to be equipped for service can be married to an emphasis on knowledge over love, for example.
Is it the ascendency of American evangelicalism over British? American society is more celebrity focused and praises the extraordinary. By contrast, British society is more reserved and more concerned for balance than rhetoric. Compare the hype around Piper with the influence of John Stott. For all his theological clarity, there’s a sense in which Stott was still somewhat obscure: his last and perhaps most fruitful decades were spent in undistinguished locations with Langham Partnership.
I imagine it’s not one or the other, and there are other factors to add to the complexity.
How do you see it? Is your tendency to eshew heroes or run after them? To what do you ascribe those motivations?
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.