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Christian Celebrity and the Conference Culture

Like so many others, I will be heading to Louisville, Kentucky next week, to take in the Together for the Gospel conference. What catnip is to your cat, T4G is for a New Calvinist, and, like so many others, I am looking forward not only to the conference, but to meeting people, spending time with friends, and taking in the wider conference atmosphere. I’ll be honest: My favorite part of the conference is spending time with people. For me, this ranks at least as high as taking in the sessions and the singing.

What I am about to say should not be taken as a rebuke of Together for the Gospel or any other conference. Rather, it is something I have been considering lately as I’ve thought about the conference culture that pervades the church today. (Or, at least, the conference culture that pervades the New Calvinism today.) I think it is clear that this conference culture is directly related to the celebrity culture we have fostered.

The conference culture revolves around celebrity speakers so that the biggest conferences are the ones with the greatest number of the most popular celebrity preachers. In many cases conference planners choose a theme and then bring in as many of our favorite preachers as they can to speak on that theme. The more of these speakers they can get, the greater the attendance. The math is simple.

This is important to consider: These men are not necessarily the authorities on that theme. Rather, they are solid preachers and godly men who can take any text and make something good come from it. John Piper is such a gifted preacher and powerful communicator that his worst sermon on a given text is better than my best sermon on my best day on that same text. But he is not necessarily an authority on that book or on the theme of that conference.

These conferences are good and helpful. Listening to these big-name preachers will almost certainly never be a waste of time. I’ve never heard Piper speak at a conference and grumbled, “That was a waste of time!” In many cases, though, the draw of the conference is not growing in knowledge of a theme or a book of the Bible, but hearing celebrity preachers speak on that theme or that book of the Bible. When it comes right down to it, the celebrity, not the theme, is the draw. Quick, without looking: What is the theme of this year’s Together for the Gospel conference? You probably don’t know. And really, it probably doesn’t matter to you a whole lot, because the bigness of the event and the bigness of the speakers are the draw.

Could we consider it a sign of health and growth in the New Calvinism if we had the same level of excitement to learn a book of the Bible from a no-name authority on that book, or to learn about a topic of great theological importance from a no-name authority on that topic? Wouldn’t it be interesting if the situation was reversed? “I don’t know who is speaking, but I am excited to learn about this book or this theme!” This would show that our foremost desire is not to see and hear celebrity preachers, but to have the best opportunity to see and hear God speak to us through his Word.

I am going to enjoy Together for the Gospel completely guilt-free. I will enjoy the bigness of the event and am still looking forward to being blessed by those godly men who will be preaching God’s Word there. But let’s continue to think about this one…


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