I love being taught, lectured or preached at. That’s one of the reasons why I’m a conference junkie! At conferences I usually get to hear the finest preachers, theologians and apologists. But now in the days of the ‘interweb’, I don’t need to attend. I can just download. And I’m not alone. I know that many in our congregations feast on the best of Keller, Piper and Driscoll, to name a few. And I’m all for it. I’ve recommended a few here.
In a Briefing article back in the summer of 2008 Nathan Walter, an old friend from Moore College days, argued that listening to MP3 sermons is a little like reading a Christian book. I think that’s a fair comparison. But he also had some concerns. I don’t want to replicate his material here. But when I dug out his article it was striking how similar our views are. Like Nathan, I want to encourage people to grow in their faith through listening to the word of God and being built up in the faith. But I share a few reservations. Let me try and articulate them.
1. We can’t see their lives
I have no idea how Don Carson treats his wife. I have no insight into the family life of Mark Dever. I don’t get to hang out in the pub with Dick Lucas. I have no reason to doubt that they are godly men. But I don’t get to see that. There are two consequences. First, I can’t hold them accountable, which they need and secondly, they can’t model godliness, which I need. Of course, even local congregational pastors can pull the wool over our eyes. We may have little idea of the secret sins that take place behind the front doors of the Vicarage. But usually our instinct picks things up through our interaction with them and their family and as a congregation we should be pastoring our pastors. In addition it’s worth remembering that godliness is caught as well as taught. I don’t just need to know what godliness looks like on the page, I need to see what godliness looks like in the flesh. And so if a man who runs his family well stands up and talks about how to discipline his children, I’m all ears. If a man who lives an evangelistic life offers a seminar on explaining the faith to others, I’m there. Many will have heard the sad news that Mark Ashton, the Rector of St Andrew the Great, in Cambridge has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. In his announcement to the church before Christmas he said he ‘counted it a great privilege to show them how to die well’. You can’t do that online. We need to see how our pastors live.
2. They don’t know our issues
As brilliant as he is, John Piper doesn’t know how my life needs to be reformed by the word of God. I’m sure he’d work it out, but he doesn’t know what it’s like to be a Dad of three small children, living in an aspirational inner city suburb in 21st Century London with a mortgage, a few mates and a church plant. And I’m not criticising him for that. He’s addressing his own church situation in Minneapolis. Nathan nails this concern when he writes, ‘A sermon is not (or at least, it shouldn’t be!) some timeless exposition of a Scriptural text that is delivered irrespective of a particular group of hearers; it is a passionate and persuasive exposition of a Scriptural text that is aimed fair and square at a particular group of people, exhorting them to mature and active faith in Christ’. And so we need to remember that God is more concerned that we listen to our local church sermon than we do to something travelling through the ether from the other side of the world. And so when we’re downloading sermons make sure that the first sermon you listen to is the last one you missed from your local church.
3. No one can compare with ‘the greats’
I’m no Tim Keller. No really, I’m not! I still harbour ambitions of becoming Mark Driscoll, but we can keep that to ourselves can’t we? I’ve got the cussing down to a fine art but just can’t bring myself to call everyone ‘dude’. I’m an average preacher. I’m not the worst but I’m not the best. There are many like me. We’re just ordinary pastors who try and understand, teach and apply the scriptures to the local congregations in which God has placed us. But if we constantly compare the average with the exceptional then we’re in danger of disparaging the pastors God has given us. Listening to ‘the greats’ do their thing is like looking at porn. It’s attractive and unrealistic. The vast majority of us will never have a pastor teacher who preaches as well as ‘the greats’. But for just a few fleeting moments we’re willing to believe that we could! If God thought that I needed Vaughan Roberts he’d have given me the brains to get an education at Oxford or made him a pioneer church planter with a predilection for getting up the nose of the Anglican authorities. But He didn’t, because I don’t. And so let’s value the pastor teacher that God has given us and not fester with dissatisfaction because we keep comparing him with ‘the greats’.
4. They can’t lead us from afar
God appoints men to lead local congregations. He calls them elders. Often one of those elders is appointed as a professional pastor teacher. In the New Testament, leading the church is compared to leading a family. No church should have anyone serving as an elder who’s unable to manage his family. We’d never ask someone who wasn’t Dad to take over the running of our family. We wouldn’t go online and ask someone on another continent to be our virtual Dad, no matter how good they were at parenting. Neither should we allow any of these terrific preachers to become our virtual pastors. That happens when we begin to be influenced by and submit to the leadership of others. They become our de facto leaders. And so we need to be wary of inadvertently seeking to undermine local church leadership with an ever growing allegiance to someone else. We shouldn’t automatically assume that because it’s online it’s alright.
5. Nothing replaces reading God’s word
When I’m tired it’s easier to listen to a sermon than it is to read the Bible and pray. Occasionally that’s fine. Trouble is, I’m often tired. And so the regular healthy habit of listening to God’s voice in the scriptures and responding in prayer can easily get ditched in favour of a much less demanding activity. That can’t be good. Somehow I need to carve out time in order to diligently study the scriptures and feed on God’s word. So if I’m going to listen to online talks I need to make sure that I do so with an open Bible and an open mind. I need to test what’s said by the scriptures and ensure, as I should with all teaching, that I believe only what can be substantiated from the text.
Generally speaking I’m enthusiastic about the wealth of online evangelical talks, sermons and theology. Of course, if you really want to have your life shaped by the brilliant men whose sermons we download then move! But just in case you miss my sermons you can find them online here!