By Lucas Kitchen
From Eternal Life! Believe to Be Alive (forthcoming)
Celebrity Pastors May Not Know
A few years ago, I attended a massive four-day conference at one of the largest churches in the nation. Its focus was to encourage and train church staff. Pastors and ministers from thousands of churches throughout the country come to this conference and soak up all there is to learn. The pastor of the hosting church is one of those celebrity-level preachers. If I told you his name, you’d likely know about him. In fact, you have probably heard him teach on the radio, TV, or internet. He’s an incredibly talented speaker. He is not only the pastor of the church that hosted the conference, but he’s the main speaker for the conference itself.
Night three of the conference was impressive as always. The worship band was flawless. The lights were mesmerizing. The service was intense. The pastor began his talk with a round of funny illustrations. As he settled into the meat of his presentation, I became transfixed by his powerful rhetorical style. Though, about three-quarters of the way through the talk, he made a reference that clung to my mind for the rest of the night.
Love Your Brother
He read a few verses from 1 John. The way he explained the passage gave me an uncomfortable feeling. The impression I got was that he believed a person might not be saved if he doesn’t love his brother. He didn’t explicitly say that, but it was a possible implication. He left it vague enough that no one seemed to be bothered, except me.
As the service came to an end and the enormous crowd began filing out, I was swept up in the flow. Though I couldn’t shake the internal tension I was feeling. Was the pastor saying a person might not be saved if they don’t love, or wasn’t he? I had settled the theological matter for myself years earlier, and as much as anything I wanted to know what this famous pastor thought.
I stood along the curb at the front of the sanctuary when I remembered a man that could help. I had met a staff member named Todd before the service had begun. We had conversed for a few seconds as the lights dimmed. I knew there was no hope of getting a meeting with the celebrity pastor to discuss this issue. As far as I knew he didn’t field questions from random attendees after his sermons. However, I thought I might be able to catch Todd for a quick talk. I turned and headed back into the building trying to spot my earlier acquaintance. I returned to the sanctuary and was surprised.
Standing in front of the stage was the pastor, the head cheese, the big kahuna. I totally forgot about Todd and set my sights on the main man. He had a crowd of people around getting selfies and chatting him up. I sped down to the front and began squeezing my way through the crowd of feverish fans. I waited my turn as the pastor’s bodyguard eyed me. He sized me up, apparently determining that I was no threat.
A middle-aged couple snapped a selfie with #bestpreacher, and then my time came. My heart was beating fast because I knew I had only a few seconds to get my question answered. I didn’t want to bumble or maim my intent. I turned the question over in my mind a dozen times in the seconds before I shook his hand and thanked him for his talk. Then I plied my inquiry.
“Based on your sermon, I’m wondering: Can a person have eternal life even if they don’t do a good job of loving one another?”
I’m guessing he wasn’t excited about receiving a semi-barbed theological question from a stranger as dozens of selfie seekers watched expectantly. I did not mean the question as a trap. I merely wanted to know what the most successful pastor in America thought on the subject.
He replied with a surprisingly honest answer. He said, “I don’t know.” I was stunned. Here was the pastor of the largest church in the nation (at the time), trained at one of the most respected Evangelicals seminaries, speaking to forty thousand congregants a week, and thousands more online, and he can say, “I don’t know.”
I found his honesty refreshing, but at the same time, the admission was disturbing.
He went on by saying, “I believe in eternal security, but 1 John is brutal to those who don’t love their brothers. So, I don’t know the answer to that.”
The conversation lasted for another 18 seconds as I thanked him and stepped out of the way for the next person to grab a selfie. His bodyguard finally removed his burning stare from the side of my smoking head. I stepped away trying to take in what I had just experienced. I had received an answer which made sense of the sermon. The pastor had been intentionally vague on the subject because he wasn’t sure whether a person who habitually misbehaves could actually be saved. He was admitting some confusion on this incredibly vital subject. I went back to the hotel that night trying to digest what this meant.
The Staff Is Confused
The conference’s work-force was made up of the 600 staff members of the host church. They worked for the church where this famous pastor regularly spoke. One of the things that I had noticed was how consistent the conference staff used specific terminology. Clearly, they had been trained to use the same words when talking about the operation of the church. For instance, words like irresistible, inviting, environments, and a few dozen other terms were used continuously in every session. There was meticulous attention to detail in how the staff talked about their church. Even their celebrity pastor used the same terminology. They had a consistent way of explaining things.
As I considered this back in my hotel room, I decided to run a little experiment the following day.
The staff was consistent in the terminology they used to describe the church, but would they be as consistent when they discussed the gospel. As the morning approached, I developed a method for testing this research question.
The last day of the conference, rather than go to sessions and listen to talks, I wandered around and surveyed the church staff. I wanted to poll a wide range of people in various positions. All of the staff had conference themed shirts, so it was not difficult to stop and harass—oops I mean survey—them in the corridors. I wanted to keep the survey simple, so I devised a single question. Obviously, each conversation went beyond the single question because I’m not a robot, but I was particularly focused on the answer to this basic question.
What does someone have to do to receive eternal life?
I felt like recording the conversations would be awkward, so I chatted and took notes afterwards. It’s for that reason that I have very few direct quotes in the following paragraphs. I’ve changed the names in the notes so that no one is being defamed. This was what I learned from surveying the staff of the largest church in the nation.
My first conversation was with a young lady named Amy. She was stationed at the main entrance to the conference sanctuary. We talked as people filed into the building. She had been a staff intern with the church for around a year. I asked her, “How does someone get eternal life?” She said that a personal relationship with Jesus was required to be saved. She defined that relationship by “becoming broken.” She said, “It happened when I realized I couldn’t do it on my own.” She then talked about the churches’ array of small group options and Christian friendships that can happen there. It seemed that she saw a connection between Christian friends, small groups, and salvation, though, she did not explain that connection.
My next survey conversation happened with Sarah, a member of the children’s ministry staff. On asking how to receive eternal life she had a ready answer. Without hesitation, she quoted John 3:16. She specifically said, “Once they believe they are eternally saved.” I followed up by asking what it means to believe. Sarah defined it with the chair analogy. “Belief is not sitting halfway,” she said. Commitment and trust were used as synonyms for belief. As she explained and expanded upon her perspective, she used discipleship terminology. The way in which she described the requirements of salvation was very different from Amy. Maybe this was a fluke, so I continued.
Beverly was a copy editor, whom I talked with in the main hallway of the church. When asked how someone receives eternal life she said: “Most staff aren’t equipped to answer that question.” She went on to explain that most of the staff would direct a seeker (someone asking those kinds of questions) to a class for new believers that the church hosted. In this new believers class, they get in small groups and discuss issues, though I would later find out that the new believer’s class curriculum left the requirements for receiving salvation very vague. It was more of an on-boarding program for church membership. Beverly basically dodged the question, and it was clear she didn’t want to attempt an answer on behalf of the organization.
“In your ministry how do you answer the question, ‘how do I get eternal life?’” I said to Sam, the high school pastor a few minutes later. He didn’t seem all that interested in having the conversation, but he humored me. He said, “Nobody ever asks that question, ‘how do I get eternal life.’” He then explained that the student ministry shares the gospel about seven times a year from the stage, although he didn’t specify what he meant by share the gospel. Seeing that he’d dodged the question I probed further for what he felt was the answer.
He talked about sin and separation from God. He explained the requirement as “having a relationship with Christ.” He said it’s rare, but he sometimes will ask an individual if they want to “place their faith in Christ.” He then said, “but we don’t go rogue and do things that are weird or make people feel uncomfortable” (in reference to sharing the gospel). “The priority,” he explained, “is to make consistent environments that students can invite their friends to without having to worry that we are going to make their friends feel weird.” Clearly, he was connecting sharing the gospel with making students feel awkward.
James, a member of the staff, said, “I’ve never been told, ‘this is how you share the gospel.’” He confirmed that there is no training for sharing the gospel for staff or volunteers.
Jenny, another staff member, said that their new believer’s class (the seeker ministry mentioned by Beverly) doesn’t expressly focus on the plan of salvation. No attendee asks (in her memory) that question, “what does it take to be saved/have everlasting life?” She then asked me what I thought it takes to be saved. At this point, I explained what I believe to be the requirements for salvation. Then for the rest of the conversation, she used the terminology I had used. She was not the only one this occurred with.
I caught up with a man named Brian in the foyer of the church. He was over adult ministries and a graduate of a well respected Evangelical seminary. Brian gave a definitive answer when he said, “Eternal life comes by an intimate relationship with Jesus.” He didn’t mention belief or faith in his answer. He then admitted something startling. He said, “You won’t find consistency among our staff on salvation terminology.” He said. “You will get different answers based on who you ask.” He explained that there’s no training for staff on gospel presentation, evangelism, or even terminology consistency.
Soak that up for a second.
The largest church in the nation (at the time) was an Evangelical church which didn’t train its staff in how to evangelize. They were regularly trained in all kinds of areas, but this vital topic was left untouched.
My general impression was summed up well by Brian. I asked seven staff members how to have eternal life. I received seven different answers. This church, which at the time was the largest in the nation, was and still is a bastion of evangelicalism. They not only have tens of thousands of congregants weekly, but they also draw in thousands of other churches to come and learn their model. Many people are attracted by the way they structure their system. I admire the work they have done, with this one exception, and it’s a big one. A random sampling of their staff could not consistently articulate the basic requirement of the gospel.
My impression was gospel clarity is a low priority in this massive church. It made me wonder if this was a phenomenon, or if this was consistent among a more extensive sampling of Evangelical churches. As we drove home after the conference I considered how I might test a larger sampling of Christians. Surveying a hundred would be great. Surveying a thousand would be even better. So I began to devise a plan.
Lucas Kitchen (MTS, Liberty) is the author of 16 books, and a pastor at Shreveport Bible Church. He lives in Longview, TX with his wife, two kids, and his arrogant cat. Find out more about Lucas’s plan in Eternal Life! Believe to Be Alive(forthcoming).