Editor's Note: This op-ed orginally appeared as a blog post at PajamaPages.com. It is reprinted with permission from the author.
What would you think of a pastor who preached to his church in front of billboards advertising the newest Cadillac or Monster Energy drinks? Would you find it acceptable for a pastor to paste advertising all over the stage, filling the space with branded messages in the finest traditions of NASCAR?
Would it make it any better if the pastor was pocketing money from these ads?
The thought is disgusting, but it is happening all the time, and it's time we started pointing it out and objecting to the commercial corruption of the pulpit. While a lot of deserved attention is being paid these days to the deceptive marketing behind many celebrity pastors' books, another aspect of the whole endeavor reveals the primacy of commercial interests. Not only are pastors not telling the truth about how they're earning money, they're not proclaiming the truth until and unless they're earning money.
It takes a long time to write a book, and even longer to get the manuscript into readers' hands. From the genesis of an idea, it can easily take a year for a book to go on sale. For example, Perry Noble wrote his final chapter for his Unleash book in early December 2009, but the book didn't go on sale until late September 2010. Judging by the book blurbs and breathless celebrity endorsements, these books contain Big Important Ideas that every Christian needs to read Right Now!
Fair enough, but why do these writers keep their Big Important Ideas hidden from their own congregations until they have the privilege of paying $19.99 at the church gift shop for their pastors' wisdom? Why not offer the results of their church-funded research to God's people as soon as they were confident enough to put it to paper? The scheduling of branded sermon series with book releases is so common that it's almost unremarkable, and while they preach, they routinely plaster their stages and church websites with what are essentially ads for products being sold by secular publishing companies.
Consider the following celebrities, sermons and publication dates.
This list could easily get much longer, but you get the idea. One particularly jarring aspect of this is the appeal to the reader's readiness. Rick Warren promises that we can immediately apply Noble's teachings to achieve impossible breakthroughs. Perhaps, though Noble held out on his congregation for a year before teaching them those useful promises. In his own blurb for Driscoll, Perry Noble worries about the church sitting on the sidelines and not teaching about marriage, while Driscoll does exactly that, sitting on the sidelines waiting for his book to hit stores. Warren also tells us that Noble's forthcoming book will help us overcome difficult days, though Noble is content to leave his own congregation struggling with their problems until April Fools Day (no kidding).
One interesting aspect of Noble's new book is his recent revelation about taking antidepressant medications, an admission for which he was widely praised for his transparency. Noble says he realized while writing his new book that he couldn't fight his mental illness (his characterization) without medication:
"After a lot of prayer I decided to write a book about my battle and what I learned about Jesus and His faithfulness. However, as I began the writing process the feelings of anxiety and worry began to slowly slither back into my life like a snake sneaking up on it's prey.
"I remember writing a chapter in the book, driving home and having a panic attack in my living room.
"About three days later I took my daughter to a restaurant for lunch and found myself feeling like I could not breathe and that the walls were closing in on me."
I sympathize with Noble and think no less of him as a person for taking medication, and admitting that he does so might help a lot of people in similar situations. What made Perry decide to tell us this important and helpful news now, though? There was certainly no hint of it in the updates he gave us while he was actually writing the book. Contrast these messages from the writing process with what he now tells us happened as he wrote:
"Sitting down to write chapter one in the new book coming out next year, prayers appreciated! :-)
"Chapter one done! Yes!!!!!!!!
"Thanks so much for your prayers, another chapter done! I'm pumped!
"Hey tweets, could use your prayers today, writing the last chapter in my new book!!! Excited!!!"
It will be interesting to see what, if anything, he says about his panic attack and medications in the book, but if he decided back then that taking medication was not something to be embarrassed about, why did he sit on the information from at least last May until now? He is a minister, after all. How many people in his congregation have endured unnecessarily unmedicated misery thinking they were following the brave example of their pastor? The reason for Noble's transparency is quite obvious when you consider it in light of the marketing effort now ramping up for the book.
- Feb 5. Tweets with #overwhelmedbook start appearing on Twitter, including one by a NewSpring staff member who posts a photo of a highlighted page of the book. Noble describes him as a member of his dream team, which may be a reference to his group of personal assistants.
- Feb 5. Noble starts promoting his book on Twitter.
- Feb 20. Noble tweets an unsettling photo of him with his new book.
- Feb 24. Noble tweets the link to his antidepressant blog post.
- Feb 26. The Huffington Post and The Christian Post report on Noble's antidepressants, with links to or videos from the Overwhelmed book.
I am not criticizing Noble for taking helpful medicine, but the way that he timed his announcement for maximum marketing effect makes his bravery and transparency considerably less noble than if he'd told us last year when there was no financial payoff tied to it. The only benefit of an announcement back then would have been to suffering souls in his congregation, but that doesn't pay as handsomely as book sales do.
What we are seeing, now that we're all getting a glimpse into the unsavory world of celebrity pastoral publishing, is that book publishing matters to these guys more than preaching. The profitability of Scriptural teaching in 2 Timothy comes second to the profitability that can be created from flashy marketing.
The common practice of delaying preaching for the sake of publishing has a couple of disadvantages and one important advantage:
Disadvantage: It abandons the sheep
Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep. Paul told Timothy to preach the Word. Multnomah Books told Pastor Steven to do neither until bookstores started counting sales for the New York Times. (It happens so consistently that I wonder if preaching a sermon series on a new book is a contractual obligation.) For all the insistence that the blurb writers press on us that we must read these books Right Now, the authors are willing to wait for a year or so before preaching this essential wisdom to their own people.
Pastors ought to write books, but they should fulfill the role of pastor first. Shouldn't books come from things that have already been taught profitably in the church? A good shepherd does not hide useful teaching from his church until the week that the teaching becomes financially and personally profitable to him.
Disadvantage: It's ethically conflicted
Sermon series are postponed until a book's commercial release to drive sales by members of the author's congregation. Pastor-authors are earning money from the church's regular tithes and offerings, then supplementing that with the royalties that flow to them from book sales. We know that churches are careful not to overpay their pastors with tax-exempt charitable donations, so they use the profits from book sales to boost the pastor's total compensation package without drawing unnecessary scrutiny from the IRS.
Where this gets especially murky is when the churches participate in the marketing process itself, apparently spending tithe money on the books, essentially laundering charitable giving into commercial profit. The difference is that the pastor can only be paid a limited — though still very high — amount of charitable money, but an unlimited amount of commercial money. Money given to a tax-free entity is being used to purchase commercial goods from the person in charge of that charity/church. It looks and smells bad.
Advantage: It reveals priorities
Preaching on topics only when they know they'll get royalty payments does tell us what's important to these pastors and brings into question whether they are qualified for church leadership. Paul tells Titus that a ruler in the church must not be greedy for gain (Titus 1:8) and tells Timothy that he must not be a lover of money (2 Tim. 3:3). In 1 Cor. 9 and 2 Cor. 12 Paul was able to boast to the Corinthian church that he had not used them to his financial advantage.
Could Driscoll or Noble or Furtick say that, or could they pass the test for elders in Timothy and Titus?
But these preachers probably aren't going to pay much attention to those standards and Paul's example now, otherwise they wouldn't be doing what they're doing. Perhaps, though, they'll pay attention to what one of their own says about them.
Perry Noble has, before he became a best-selling author himself, spoken harshly of preachers who put the profit motive above the plain and honest teaching of God's Word. That person is "a mere preaching whore," Noble once said. "One who is paid for a service for the pleasure of another person."
A topic for his next book, perhaps?