An Open Letter to Blockbuster Sermon Church

(Editor’s Note: This post is a response to an actual job listing for a pastoral position. I chose for the headline a nickname for the church (from a website they referenced and/or created) rather than the actual stated church name. I did this in the hopes that, should they abandon this particular branding experiment, my post will not be the first thing people read about their church when they search for it online.)

To Brad and the good people at Blockbuster Sermon Church:

I hear you’re looking for a pastor! How’s that going?

I’m not available or anything, I was just curious. I saw your job listing for a pastor when a friend of mine posted it to Facebook, and — okay, in the interests of full disclosure, I did laugh at it. Several times.

I’m not proud of that, I’m just admitting it because it’s truth. My friends and I, we often use Facebook as a form of entertainment, and sometimes that entertainment comes at the expense of others, especially others in churches.  You might’ve done this yourself. Sadly, the combination of smartphones, social media, and churches has created an ever-flowing stream of cringeworthy content.

(If you’ve ever laughed at the “Jesus Is A Friend of Mine” video, you know what I’m talking about.)

Anyway, this section of the job listing is what caught the eye of my friend, and it’s what I want to talk to you about (yes, I know you’ve since changed some of the wording here, but I think your first draft was more honest, so I’m going with that):

Here is our concept. If a worship leader can take a song from Chris Tomlin and play it just like the album and that is 100% accepted in the church why can’t you, as a pastor, copy or do word per word of a sermon from Craig Groeschel and add 10% of your own style to it just like the band does. This concept would work great mixed with your own sermons about 20% of the time.
Meaning let’s give Blockbuster Sermons to the people. Proven messages or hit sermons then add 20% to 50% of your personal sermons based on a mutual agreement and or the congregation response. Test it out and see how it goes.

So Brad… can I call you Brad? … I salute you for being willing to experiment and try things that other churches aren’t doing. Being a West coast guy myself, I salute your sense of adventure and what I think could a willingness to move in whatever direction the Spirit of God is leading.

Nevertheless, I need to object.

 

I’m concerned for you — both for your church as a whole (whoever might be involved at this point … more on this later), and for whatever pastor may end up serving at your church. Either way, I think there are several dynamics at play here, and unfortunately, I think they’re all working against you.

And I’m not sure what I’m more concerned about, the idea that you might not find a pastor who could meet your expectations by ministering in this manner… or the possibility that you could.

So let’s break this down a bit further.

Here is our concept. If a worship leader can take a song from Chris Tomlin and play it just like the album and that is 100% accepted in the church–

I’m gonna stop you right there, Brad.

Because I currently work as a pastor, but I also have several decades worth of experience as a worship leader, and I can tell you right now — that is not 100% accepted in the church. Or, at least not in the big-C Church overall, and that’s because, well, frankly, there’s almost nothing that is 100% accepted in the Church as a whole, other than the basic idea that Jesus is God and died for our sins (and even that idea, in some circles, is troubling.)

The church of Jesus Christ is a broad, worldwide movement of people that spans continents, ethnic groups and sovereign nations, to say nothing of the various denominational, theological and ecclesial branches that exist solely in the United States. All those different church groups have differing priorities, values, and ways of expressing their faith.

Now what is true is that many of these churches — maybe even most of them? — end up singing songs by Chris Tomlin, and while there are good things about that (it’s helpful, for example, to be able to be in an unfamiliar environment and hear a familiar song, so it’s good that there are songs that feel somewhat universally accepted), it’s also pretty indicative of the hegemony that whiteness has in evangelical culture. I myself like many Chris Tomlin songs, but his songs are only a small part of my worship repertoire, because I value diversity and inclusion, and want to make sure I’m also singing songs from people who tend to exist in the margins of evangelicalism.

You probably didn’t read this to talk about racism, though… so let me get to the heart of what I think your concept is.

If a worship leader can take a song from Chris Tomlin and play it just like the album and that is 100% accepted in the church why can’t you, as a pastor, copy or do word per word of a sermon from Craig Groeschel and add 10% of your own style to it just like the band does.

The fundamental disconnect we’re having here is this:

The church isn’t a plug-and-play, transactional kind of thing. The church is not an iPad or an Xbox. It’s not like, all I have to do is download the content and my experience should be the same. 

Even if my church sang nothing but Chris Tomlin songs, as a worship leader I have a responsibility to know the people of my congregation, to know their needs and likes and priorities and values enough to be able to sing those songs in a way that the congregation can receive and enter into worship along with me.  So no, I will not play those songs just like they appear on the album, in part because what you hear on the album is a highly-produced recording with professional musicians playing to an arrangement that’s tight enough to be memorable but also fit into commercial radio formats. I might need to take a slow song and make it faster, I might need to repeat the first verse because people are walking in late and they need to be reminded of that truth, I might want to reprise the chorus and just have the congregation sing without me once so they can hear the power of their own voices, etc.

And so, Brad, if you’re still with me, you can probably see where I’m going with this.

Preaching is different from leading worship in some key ways, but it’s still a form of ministry, and I believe that God calls both pastors and worship leaders to minister in accordance with their context. There are cultural cues and pieces of shared understanding that help people come to a collective sense of understanding God’s word and following God’s will. If I’m preaching a sermon on repentance, I might preach that sermon very differently to a group of twentysomething grad students and young professionals compared to how I might preach it to a group of retirees trying to define their final season of life, to say nothing about differences in race or ethnicity or socioeconomic class.

Now, you might be reading this and thinking, okay, but if that’s true, then why do all those videos by Craig Groeschel and Andy Stanley and Steven Furtick get so many millions of views? And why have video sermons in multisite churches become an accepted practice?

These are good questions, (too many to answer in any one letter, to be honest), but let me answer it in this way:

Whatever preaching gifts God has given to Craig Groeschel, Andy Stanley, and Steven Furtick, I’m sure that their preaching didn’t rise to its currently level primarily by trying to copy other successful preachers.

Preaching is not like basketball or baseball where if you watch enough video and practice the form, you can eventually mimick the swing or jumpshot of a famous athlete enough to do it yourself. Yes, it helps to take tips and ideas from others, and there’s nothing wrong with being influenced by others in the ministry, but that shouldn’t be where you start.

If God calls someone to preach, and that man or woman is pursuing their ministry calling with pure motives (and not just trying to get famous by growing a large organization), then one of the first and primary questions should be, what is God saying to me, and how can I share that to the benefit of God’s church?

I have no formal connection to any of these pastors (okay well fine, technically speaking, Craig Groeschel and I are in the same denomination, but I’ve never met him and I’m sure he has no idea who I am),  but I’m SURE if you asked each of them what makes for a successful sermon, they wouldn’t frame their answer in the way that prioritizes popularity. I’m pretty sure the word “blockbuster” would not appear as part of their answer, in part because sometimes being a good pastor requires telling people prophetic truths that they don’t want to hear.

I’m concerned for you and your church, Brad, because, well…

I think you or some of your people have bought into the lie that the only way a pastor can be successful is to become a charismatic celebrity.

As the son of a highly-respected, somewhat charismatic preacher, let me tell you — that’s just not true. For years, I mentally disqualified myself from pastoral ministry because I didn’t think I had that it quality, and I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as someone I’m not. As a result, I prevented myself from stepping into leadership roles that I felt I was unqualified for.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s good to have a sober assessment of your skills and abilities, and not think too highly of yourself. Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder. Reading through the job listing again, and also perusing the church website, I see that you guys already have a logo, a target community, a praise team, so that leads me to wonder… who’s leading this church plant right now?

Because if that’s you, Brad… why can’t you be the pastor?  I know, I know… that’s crazy talk. I don’t even know you.

But I do know this.

When Moses was arguing with God in the middle of the Sinai desert, God asked Moses a simple question: “What’s in your hand?”

It was an invitation for Moses to examine, with fresh eyes, the tool that God had already provided. Moses was so preoccupied with what he didn’t have (a conquering army, an articulate manner of speaking, tons of resources, etc.), he had forgotten what he did have.

I wish you well on your pastoral search, but while that’s going on, it may be worth asking — what has God already provided your church? You may not have someone capable of preaching dynamic, blockbuster-style sermons, but maybe you have someone who is equipped in a different way.

I mean, the last time I checked, there are plenty of pastors who aren’t celebrities, faithfully serving congregations all over the United States.

But when was the last time you saw a Blockbuster?

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