The counterfeit calling of celebrity (revisited)

“The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord. The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word. And Samuel’s word came to all Israel.” (1 Samuel 3:19 – 4:1)

I love this artless description of Samuel’s ministry. In just a few sentences, it tells you everything you need to know.

No overheated hype about “reaching millions in this generation.” No cant about “your breakthrough is coming in this hour,” just some of the “prophetic” boilerplate that is currently catnip to the spiritually jaded and dissatisfied.

And no catalogue of “life-changing teachings on 2 DVDs for a gift of any amount.” (Is there some other kind of teaching besides “life-changing,” as if it’s like chicken wings, bland to mild to hot and custom prepared to your taste?)

There’s a reason for this, of course, and Paul sums it up nicely: “When I came to you, brothers [in Corinth], I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. . . My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Cor 2:1-5).

With the pandemic still knocking many of us back on our heels, many of us in America are not exactly flush financially at the moment. But since the end of World War 2, we as a nation have enjoyed a wave of prosperity probably unique in world history, its ebbs and flows notwithstanding.

But prosperity can create problems of its own. “When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands . . . Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down . . . then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God” (Dt 8:10-18).

Or, to apply this to ministry today, if you have a market, you have a calling.

That’s going to sound cynical or even insulting to some, but I’m not saying that everyone who finds a niche in which to minister is driven by the desire for personal gain. Just that the prosperous society in which we live creates the opportunity to say or do things we couldn’t do in another context. Rich, dark garden soil grows weeds as well as cucumbers or beans.

At 63, I’ve been a believer for 44 years, since I was a freshman at the Johns Hopkins University. I’ve moved around a lot and been involved in start-from-scratch churches, small established congregations and ministries that started and eventually withered, never to be revived.

And, based on my observations and experience, I can tell you that if you have a committed nucleus of like-minded persons, enough money to rent a middle school cafeteria once a week and stock it with folding chairs (preferably padded) and the wherewithal, both human and electronic, to assemble a worship ensemble, then you can have a ministry.

Will “all Israel” [i.e., believers within a reasonable driving distance] “attest” that you’re a legitimate work of God? Maybe, maybe not. But I hope you realize what does matter, because “unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Ps 127:1). No one wants to invest their life in something as evanescent as the morning mist–though many have, some more than once. (Fool me once, fool me twice, etc.)

The same goes for another form of ministry that was unknown in biblical times: the crowded field of Christian publishing.

Leave your Sunday-go-to-meeting phrases in the closet and tell me what possesses someone to write a book like Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship (John MacArthur), A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband ‘Master’ (the late Rachel Held Evans), I Declare: 31 Promises to Speak Over Your Life (Joel Osteen), or Dare to Dream: Understand God’s Design for Your Life (President Trump’s spiritual adviser, Paula White).

And I mean that sincerely; think about all the possible reasons for writing these books and leave the conclusions about legitimacy for later. Does a calling figure into those calculations? Everyone glibly answers, Well, of course.

I can already sense jaws tightening over the inclusion of favorite authors in this list. And, OK, maybe possesses could be better expressed as motivates and be more respectful, appropriate and lacking the apparent sinister insinuation. (Which really isn’t there, incidentally.)

I can assure you that I am not implying anything about the relationship between the authors/ministers cited other than they are all popular. They have a lot of followers, listeners and readers. They sell lots of books, so you will find them in every well-stocked bookstore, on bestseller lists and highlighted in promotional emails.

I could tell you how I personally regard each of their ministries, all of which I know more or less by reputation rather than intimate knowledge of their views. But though you might be too courteous to say it out loud, your response to this might be something like, Who cares what you think?

Which is precisely my point. Who does care? A lot of readers care, and that’s enough on its own to sway opinion like a stiff breeze wraps the sheets over the clothesline.

Don’t kid yourself. Concealed behind a quirky, whimsical or opaque screen name, a lot of us can get pretty bold, as bold as the new prophet Samuel had to become in prophesying the end of Eli’s ministry (though his reluctance reveals character lacking in a lot of social media “prophets,” 1 Sam 3:15-18).

But when “the mob” shows up with Cancel on their mind—MacArthur/Held Evans/Osteen/White or any other favorite’s partisans worked into a lather—a lot of “boldness” just evaporates. With its built-in anonymity social media accommodates bullying, trolls and cowardice. And that is the way fear of man/loving praise from men can descend like a plague—a different kind of pandemic, if you will—on the people of God.

In addition to shedding wordy book subtitles, I’m for a return to this: “The word of the Lord came to me, saying . . . “  (Jer 1:4). And this: “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’” (Acts 2:37)

This, in all its simplicity, has driven restoration, revival and powerful change throughout church history–and it never had to be promoted with 2-day shipping, bulk pricing or small group study guides.

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