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Dr. Haddon Robinson (1931-2017)

Haddon Robinson passed away this morning. He was the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and author of one of the most influential books on preaching, Biblical Preaching. His article on “The Heresy of Application” is one which still marks my preaching today. I salute you, Dr. Robinson! I’m grateful for God’s work in you for making those who preach his word better in the calling they have. I know that’s been true for me.


*UPDATE – July 13, 2017: Peterson has now offered a retraction of his statements in the Merritt interview.

Recently, well-known author and pastor Eugene Peterson made waves in Christian circles when, in an interview with Jonathan Merritt, he spoke of his newfound support for same-sex marriage and homosexuality in general.* The response was quick from the evangelical community. Most were sad. Some weren’t surprised given Peterson’s denominational background. But the interview had several other parts. One segment dealt with Peterson’s view of the American megachurch. In lamenting the consumer mentality in American congregations overall, Peterson singled out megachurches:

I think the thing that’s most disturbing is the megachurch because megachurches are not churches. My feeling is that when you’re a pastor, you know the people’s names. When 5,000 people come into the church, you don’t know anybody’s name. I don’t think you can be a pastor with just a bunch of anonymous people out there. In the megachurch, well, there’s no relationship with anybody. I think the nature of the church is relational. If you don’t know these people that you’re praying with and talking with and listening to, what do you have? I feel pretty strongly about that.

Now, there’s a lot of innovation in the church, and overall, I can’t say I’m disheartened. I’m just upset by the fad-ism of the megachurch, but I just don’t think they’re churches. They’re entertainment places.

For the record, I like Eugene Peterson. A lot. His pastoral heart, literary giftedness, and anti-celebrity persona are incredibly endearing to me and instructive for me.1 His latest revelations on sexual issues notwithstanding, I have found myself resonating with much of what he’s written and said over the years. I felt like he was a needed voice in American Evangelicalism.

Now, among other targets, Peterson has set his sights on the megachurch. As one who pastors in a megachurch, I think it’s easy to get defensive when critique arises. My experience over the years is that diatribes against the megachurch are a mixed bag. They can be full of straw men, false equivalences, and over-generalizations as well as proper rebukes, accurate assessments, and necessary correctives. I quite remember when the tune of critique for one famous megachurch was, “They never preach the gospel there, but just some watered-down Jesus in order to draw a crowd.” These critical publications were met with cheers by those with an axe to grind while it sowed seeds of doubt in the mind of neutrals. What angered me was not that the church in question was above critique2, but that the critique given wasn’t true of what I knew of the church. I had attended that congregation over the years and had yet to hear some curtailed, gospel-lite presentation of Jesus. Maybe they only “beefed it up” when I was there, but I doubt that was the case.

But I also know churches of any stripe can easily become blind to their own shortcomings. Megachurches included. And I absolutely concur that megachurches need to be critiqued when that critique is merited (and there are many places where it surely is). That’s why I think it’s good to ask questions about Peterson’s critique. It’s also good to address his assumptions.

As to the high number of people in a church:

  • Is Peterson working under the assumption that a church should have a solitary pastor?
  • In Peterson’s view, if a church grows, should it only grow to the degree where the pastor knows everyone and is able to minister personally (pray, talk with, listen) to each and every one of them?
  • If the church grows beyond the pastor’s relational quotient (say, for the sake of argument, 250 people), would it be wrong to add pastoral staff? Or does that kind of growth necessitate the planting of another church? If another so, where would you plant it?
  • If you can’t pastor a church where 5,000 people come into it because you, as the solitary pastor(?) cannot relationally minister to all of them, what would Peterson say of the first collection of Christians in Jerusalem when “there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Ac. 2:41)?3 Is that not a church as well?
  • Is it fair to say “in the megachurch there’s no relationship with anybody”? What of arrangments where the larger group is broken into smaller ones (cf., Ac. 2:42-46)?
  • Would Peterson say Charles Haddon Spurgeon wasn’t a pastor because he led a church of 5,311 people, at that time the largest independent congregation in the world?4

As to entertainment in the megachurch:

  • What practices on Sunday morning would lead Peterson to call megachurches “entertainment places”? What activities or accoutrements associated with entertainment find themselves in megachurch services?
  • How has consumerism infected American churches? Are megachurches the embodiment of this malady? How so?
  • How do megachurches address the relational dynamics needed in the local church as Peterson describes?
  • When is something innovative and when is something regressive or unbiblical?
  • What would make a service less about entertainment and more about being biblical?

To be honest, I resonate with much of Peterson’s reservations. My church isn’t perfect. Far from it. We want to honor God and his Word as faithfully as possible. I don’t want any churches, megachurches included, that don’t pastor their people or aim to entertain on Sundays. If these pitfalls are easier for larger churches to fall into, then I want to redouble my efforts for my church to be a place where the lost can hear the gospel and the those who’ve embraced Jesus can live out the gospel mission as a gospel community. However, nothing is above critique, including the critique itself. I want to engage critiques based on Scripture instead of someone’s preconceived idea of what the ideal church is. Where we have the former there should be repentance. But where we have the latter, well, it seems a brief tour through the New Testament as well as church history demonstrates congregations came in all shapes and sizes. Each have their own challenges to be sure, but let’s make sure if a church needs to repent of something it’s actually something to repent over.5

In their blog this week The Gospel Coalition commemorated John Piper’s famous 2000 Passion Conference message “Don’t Waste Your Life” (aka, the “seashells” talk). It not only fixed Piper’s influence in the hearts of the 40,000 twenty-somethings gathered in Memphis on that afternoon in May but also became, as the blog notes, “formative for a generation.” For many, Dr. Piper’s words were prophetic, arresting, and spoke to them in the deepest of ways. I call that kind of a message a life message. It’s the kind of message that ruins you for all the right reasons and boldly changes the trajectory of your life.

It got me thinking about my own life message. I heard a talk (also a conference message) that spoke to me in the deepest of ways. It was one of those rare moments when you read or hear something by someone who puts into words what you believed but couldn’t put into words yourself. You just can’t quite formulate it yet. It was like an essential code in the back of your mind (and the middle of your heart) always frustratingly suspended on the verge of being broken. But the second someone finally deciphered it and you beheld its long-awaited clarity in all its glory, it became the Aha! moment where you shouted, “That’s what I believe!”

My “seashells” message was given by Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan. This was before he had written his bestselling books or attained national notoriety. It was 2007. A friend of mine in NYC encouraged me to listen to “this Tim Keller guy” whenever I had the chance, so when I came across a video of his address to the newly minted Gospel Coalition in May of that same year with a message entitled, “Gospel-Centered Ministry,” I thought it something I needed to hear. I settled into my office, closed the door, and watched his 55-minute address.

I was spellbound almost from the word ‘go.’ Dr. Keller’s struggles in church paralleled mine. Yet his answer to those struggles was exactly what I’d thought but couldn’t put into words: a theology of gospel-centrality. My growing angst in ministry had finally found the answer. Indeed, as I heard him eloquently speak about not only what the gospel is but how it should intersect all ministry, especially the pulpit (as he also was a preaching pastor), I kept saying aloud, “Yes.” “Yes.” “Yes.” Although his address wasn’t significantly animated or charismatic like John Piper’s message, I was continuously moved to tears throughout it.

Finally, I had the clarity I was looking for. The code was deciphered in my head and heart. It was such a “moment” for me I watched it again. Another 55 minutes of me nodding my head, dabbing tears from eyes, and saying in my heart, “This is what I believe!” In author Jared Wilson’s parlance, I was experiencing a gospel awakening.1

The grace in it all was Keller’s ability to not only put into words what I couldn’t about gospel-centered ministry but to provide a framework and paradigm for it as well. Now that I had it (or better yet, it had me), I was dangerous because I knew what this meant. I knew this would define me, my ministry, and the local church I served. There was no turning back. I wanted to know everything I could from those who sought to keep the gospel central to ministry. In short, I was ruined.

I read a lot, studied a ton, and even chose my doctoral work based on a seminary that would deepen me in gospel-centered ministry. I began to dialogue with those who were way ahead of me. I couldn’t get enough! I even called up Redeemer and asked for their discipleship materials, and our executive staff spent weeks working through them.2 Needless to say, gospel-centrality would be a defining mark of CCCC. Indeed, ten years later, it has. In a survey a few years ago of our staff and small group leadership, when asked what makes CCCC “CCCC,” at the very top of the list was our commitment to the centrality of the gospel in all things.

So, for all my Passion friends who were marked by God through Piper’s words, Keller’s did the same for me with this message3: