The Pretender in the Pulpit

In his excellent book, “The Courage to be Protestant”, David Wells opens chapter two with a startling account of an Easter worship service.  Wells writes, “It’s Easter morning 2006. And there lurking in the shadows, is a figure rarely seen in church. It’s Superman. Yes, Superman! He who leaps tall buildings in a single bound as he pursues evildoers.  No, wait a minute. It’s not him. Actually it’s only the senior pastor all decked out as Superman ready to communicate the gospel to a new generation…”  If this were playing on my MP3 player I’d hit stop at this point.  Does that really occur anymore? Seriously?  I think enough critique has happened by now that people have told their senior pastor to take off the Superman mask.  Aren’t we done now with the superficial, ear-tickling pastor? 
I have for some time been concerned that many churchgoers view the megachurch practices as so far out there that ignorance now prevails among Christians as to how subtle Satan is working in churches that claim to hold fast the truth.  More needs to be said of what I have observed as artificial imitation or, as Martyn Lloyd Jones used to call it, pulpiteering, in churches that are proud of their doctrinal heritage.  Did you know that a preacher could be nothing more than a good actor? I’m hoping this brief write-up will help the churchgoer to be able to distinguish between those ministries that are sincere from those that are artificial imitations.  There is a great difference between preaching and pretending to preach. 

Who Was That Masked Man?
Philip Doddridge in his work “On the Delivery of Sermons” provides an extensive warning against theatrical preaching and its destructive consequences in the life of the church. Theatrical preaching occurs when a preacher attempts to “transport into the views, the feelings, and the circumstances of the person represented.”  Theatrical preaching is the practice of acting what one is saying. It’s extremely detrimental to the spiritual life of the church. 

Many a pastor has fallen into the trap of becoming an artificial reproducer of another man's ministry. As the pastor surveys the broad spectrum of our American church landscape, he witnesses certain pastors who have received great attention in their ministries. These “successes” function as a sort of landmark that many pastors study and then begin to emulate.  If it’s worked over there, why wouldn’t it work over here?  

The pastor cherry-picks the truth of God’s revealed Word, and then runs that truth through the personality traits that he has attempted to adopt with the goal of achieving the same praise. When this sinful desire is left unchecked, the pastor can easily compromise by attempting to reproduce in himself the ministry of the man who has most inspired him—how it feels, sounds, and functions. It's a slippery slope. I don’t know how many times I’ve said to myself after listening to a sermon: “that man sounded just like______ (fill in the blank).” It’s remarkable what’s been achieved.  The pauses are attention getting, the hand gestures are mesmerizing, and the use of vocal expressions are dramatic and overtly expressive. The imitation has been remarkably accomplished by the pastor.

It’s important to say that none of these practices are evil in and of themselves, nor is it wrong for young pastors to learn from godly mentors in their development.  But when a pastor adopts the traits of another man for the goal of self-admiration and success, his preaching becomes nothing more than performance-driven.  The pastor has been able to achieve an external copy of the ministry and the pastor he is imitating.  Doddridge observes that this “genuine effect of nature” happens all the time in the work of art, music, painting, designing and the like.  Doddridge writes, “A bad man may be a good actor, for the same reason that he may be a good artist…for the professed object is to please by the art of imitation.”  There are many artists who live to reproduce the original to be admired for the work, but it’s only an imitation. As everyone knows, the imitation of a thing, no matter how spot on that imitation may be, never holds the same value as the original. 
Does the reader remember Simon Cowell trashing American Idol contestants for sounding just like the original artist, without bringing any of their own person into the music?  All the “contestant” achieved was to become the best imitation of the original.  They had become American Idol’s best pretenders. When this phenomenon shows itself in Christ's church, you’ve just met Simon the Sorcerer, the man who coveted Peter’s "successes" so badly that he tried to buy them with money. Simon is alive and well in many churches today, especially in those that care about God's truth.
We’ve Been Duped

The consequences of this kind of artificial conformity in Christian ministry are much greater than people realize. To the extent that the imitation of another successful and familiar ministry is accomplished, a level of excitement will follow among what Doddridge designates as worship “spectators.”  The churchgoer's excitement is blindly tied to the ability and familiarity of what has been imitated.  “Wow” they say, “where did he get abilities like that so quickly?” Doddridge appropriately cautions pastors to guard their use of voice expression, pauses, etc., as these things call the sincerity of the ministry into question. Abuse of the pulpit in this way has manipulated a response centered around the abilities of the pastor.

This, of course, raises the question as to whether this kind of artificial imitation can bring any lasting change in the life of the hearer.  According to Doddridge, when the ministry is driven by this kind of artificial imitation, it will never produce any genuine lasting spiritual or moral effect in the lives of the people. This makes sense.  Doddridge uses Whitefield as an example, “A good theatrical representation of Whitefield on a stage would be extremely different from the reality as to moral effect.” The pastor is merely playing a role, effectively creating a radical inconsistency between his life and doctrine.  No one is certain if they have ever really met their pastor.  His private life remains a mystery and often in question as the people become accustomed to knowing their pastor only through an artificial imitation of someone else. In fact, if he can so easily play the role of another man in this kind of public way, one begins to wonder what the real pastor is like in his private life.  

If our goal is to present a “real” Jesus Christ as the savior of our sins, the presentation must be just as authentic or “real” in the life of the one who is delivering the message.  How could a “real” Jesus twice removed be genuinely presented through the artificial imitation of another mere man?  The only way to present Jesus directly and authentically requires that such a message come from the heart of one who has been genuinely born again by the Spirit. 
This is why many have written on the dangers of an unconverted ministry.  A man can become a master in theatrical preaching and “wowing” the people with pulpiteering, and yet, in himself, that message has yet to take hold of his own heart.

Pulpiteers are preachers of style.  They are imitators of form. They see something they like in another man, and they build their own artificial platform around those desired traits. But they have yet to know themselves preaching done in the demonstration of the Spirit and of power. Again, as Doddridge observes, "the one affects by a persuasion we have that he really is what he appears to be, the other by appearing to what he really is not. The one speaks from the heart, the other from artificial conformity…Nature speaks from conviction, but an actor assumes what he may, at heart, even detest." The pulpiteer is willing to imitate and say whatever he deems necessary to gain a favorable response from those who are “pleasured” by the theatrics, even if he, in its most radical form, doesn’t accept himself what he is saying. 
In this way, the artificial preacher will create a church of artificial, uncoverted hearers.  A sincere preacher, however, who is genuinely taken in his heart by the gospel, will, from that heart, deliver messages blessed by the Spirit to genuinely convict the hearts of his hearers, not of his own pulpit eloquence, but of a desire for Christ and his gospel.

Maybe the Platters said it best? Circa 1956:

Oh-oh, yes I'm the great pretender
Pretending that I'm doing well
My need is such I pretend too much
I'm lonely but no one can tell

Oh-oh, yes I'm the great pretender
Adrift in a world of my own
 I've played the game but to my real shame
You've left me to grieve all alone

Too real is this feeling of make-believe
Too real when I feel what my heart can't conceal

Yes I'm the great pretender
Just laughin' and gay like a clown
I seem to be what I'm not, you see
I'm wearing my heart like a crown
 Pretending that you're still around

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