Are We Creating a Reformed Celebrity Culture?

Tim Brister —  May 29, 2007 — 66 Comments

Yesterday I had the privilege of hanging out with two relatively new friends, Collin Hansen and Tim Challies.  Collin is an editor of Christianity Today (you might know him best from his article “The Young, Restless, and Reformed“), and Tim runs one of the best and most widely read Christian blogs on the Internet.  He has live-blogged almost every major Reformed conference around.  With both people, the issue of conferences in the Reformed movement came up, and it made me start thinking more about the effect such conferences are having today.

Conferences have been around for a long time.  In fact, you can go back to the beginnings of the Kewsick movement and see that conferences were quite frequent.  In the early to mid-twentieth century, conferences were particularly common among the Fundamentalist movement, especially during the summer.  These conferences developed what became know as the “Fundamentalist Celebrities” which included men like Charles Fuller, Donald Gray Barnhouse, Charles Trumbell, Harry Ironside, Bob Jones Sr. John R. Rice, J. Frank Norris, and Paul Radar.  These men, most of whom had radio shows, also appeared as keynote speakers at conferences.  The dispensationalist movement greatly benefited from the conference culture as well, having professors from various Bible schools teach their way of interpreting the Bible and reality through the dispensational lens.  The Fundamentalist and Dispensationalist movements were shaped by these celebrities through their books, conferences, radio shows, magazines, and bible institutes.  Inconspicuously missing in both movements, however, was the local church.

More recently, I was brought up in the conference culture of the Southern Baptist Convention.  Such conferences included First Baptist Jacksonville’s Pastor’s Conference, Bailey Smith’s Real Evangelism Conferences, and other annual conferences including state evangelism conferences and state pastor’s conferences.  Not included in that were other various conferences geared for specific groups, such as leadership conferences, worship conferences, and youth conferences.  Some of the Southern Baptist celebrities which came from this conference culture included men like Adrian Rogers, Jerry Vines, Stephen Olford, Jerry Falwell, Johnny Hunt, Junior Hill, Bob Pitman, Mac Brunson, and Ted Traylor.  Sometimes the conference were back-to-back.  For instance, the FBC Jax Pastor’s Conference would end on Wednesday, and the Bailey Smith REC would begin the next day in FBC Woodstock.  When I was on staff at a church, I was sometimes gone for two weeks straight, listening day after day of speakers at conferences.  I will never forget being at the front of the church to shake someone’s hand and seeing a long line of people asking these SBC celebrities to sign their Bibles.

In the last five years, we have seen the blossoming of the Reformed movement in America, and the fruit of that can be seen in the ever-growing number of Reformed conferences.  Tim Challies has made a list of Reformed conferences which gives you an idea of just how expansive it has become.  In this conference culture, the Reformed celebrities include men like John MacArthur, Mark Dever, John Piper, Al Mohler, Ligon Duncan, C. J. Mahaney, R.C. Sproul, D.A. Carson, Phil Ryken, Voddie Bachum, and Steve Lawson.  A recent trend now has been to perpetuate the conference by putting the messages together and sale them in book format. 

I must first say that I am not against conferences per say.  I think conferences can serve several good purposes, not the least of which is bringing encouragement and camaraderie to those like-minded in their calling.  I also believe that conference with a specific theme or topic can be particularly helpful.  Ministers who rarely get to sit under someone else’s preaching can go to a conference and be refreshed while listening to some of the best preaching in the country.  However, my concern with the Reformed movement is two-fold.  First, I do not want to see the Reformed movement become defined by the conference culture as the Keswick and Fundamentalist movement were.  They were by and large parasitic of the local church and did not emphasize or place priority on the local church.  As a result, both movements died when their celebrities and conferences died.  Second, I don’t want to see these godly men who have become so influential in so many lives becomed elevated to a celebrity status.  They should not be asked to sign anyone’s bibles nor should they be considered anything more than mere human.  Though I have been at several conferences and personally been able to meet several of these men aforementioned, I have refrained from doing so because of the euphoria of the environment that seemed to surround me at that moment. 

Perhaps we should have a conference to deal with all the Reformed conferences.  I’m being serious here.  Ministers and lay people only have so much time to take off during the year, and some of that should include time with their family (also, how much time do the speakers have to be away from their churches or schools?).  If we are going to see long-term effect from the Reformed resurgence, it must transcend the conference culture and progress into the local churches.  The other movements at best were parachurch movements, and the outcome followed that format.  The influence and enthusiasm spawned from the conferences and books are great, and it is personally excited to see our generation swept into a God-centered, God-entranced vision of missions and ministry.  But therein also lies my concern.  It could end up only a generational thing. 

As I think about the work of God in the early church, I recall specific times when people wanted to elevate the apostles to a celebrity status.  When Peter healed the lame beggar, he asked the crowd, “Men of Israel, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk?” (Acts 3:12).  When Paul and Barnabas were at Lystra, and the crowds saw that Paul had healed him, they cried out, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” (Acts 14:11).  Luke goes into detail to show that Barnabas had been called Zeus and Paul Hermes, and the priest of Zeus brought oxen and garlands to offer sacrifices with the crowds.  I’d say that they thought pretty highly of ole’ Paul and Barney.  But what was their response?  They cried out, “Men, why are you doing these things?  We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them” (Acts 14:15).

While I am quite certain that none of the men aforementioned leading the Reformed resurgence would respond any differently than Peter, Paul, or Barnabas, my concern is the danger of us not responding any differently than the crowds who wanted to turn them into celebrities.  We, like Peter’s crowd, have the tendency to sit back and stare at those on stage or on the big screens.  We may not bring our oxen and garland and offer sacrifices like those in Lystra, but we will bring our sharpies, cameras, and Bibles to sign.  We know that we should have no other gods before us, and the very notion sounds absurd.  But let us be sober enough to realize that anything or anyone who merits our attention or appreciation more than Christ turns them into nothing less than idols in our own hearts.  I love and appreciate John Piper, but he did not die for me.  I am grateful for Al Mohler, but he did not give me eternal life. 

So let us lift our hearts to whom praise, worship, and adoration is due, and let these men who have led us find their place alongside us in glorying in our great God and King.  And may we see the work of God through the Reformed movement bring revival to our churches and a renewal to radical God-centeredness where we devote our time, attention, and focus on Jesus Christ.

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  • Timmy,
    First a disclosure – I met you at the Desiring God conference in October:)

    Now to my quibble. You make some good points but maybe too strongly. You are living and learning in an area that give you access to lots of good preaching and teaching on a regular basis. You have seminary fellowship, your thinking is sharpened by your dialogues through blogging, you are a man interested in ministry and seeking all you can learn to prepare for full-time ministry. You live in the south (this will be explained).

    My husband and I live in Massachusetts. We attend a small PCA church (80 people), we’ve been without a pastor for many years until just recently. Other than church I can count on one hand the number of Christians we know in New England. Our church has one adult Sunday School for late teens to Seniors, new Christians and long-time Christians, reformed and new to reformed thinking. We have a wonderful Worship Service – and that’s it. We live in an environment that is openly hostile to the gospel – our son has a youth group of 4. You get the idea.

    To go to Desiring God and hear John Piper, David Wells (also from MA), Voddie, Mark Driscoll etc. brought tears to our eyes. To look around and worship with several thousand believers – mostly younger than ourselves was deeply encouraging. Surely God is working through these young, reformed, men and women. To be challenged at a level that we don’t hear at home, to talk with others at the conference, to see God working as we saw so many struggle on how to reach this Postmodern world was thought provoking. A highlight was to hear D.A. Carson talk about his father’s outwardly fruitless years planting churches, see him tear up as he spoke, and in turn feel encouraged as we struggle in a cold, often fruitless New England, was worth every penny of plane fare, lodging and conference fees.

    I value these men who take the time to prepare and speak at these conferences. This is beyond anything we can get at Sunday School and is certainly not meant to replace Sunday Worship. These conference minister to those of us who are laboring in the field, struggling to understand how to reach our neighbors and friends with the gospel. We came home, shared with our church what we learned, were challenged to read and think and pray more. I’m glad that even though I don’t go to seminary – I can get just a taste of seminary level teaching – once in awhile. We would really like to go to one conference a year, Lord willing.

    It was nice to meet you at the Desiring God conference. I’m envious (must repent) of you, Tim Challies and others who are soooo blessed. Chris

  • Chris,

    First it was great to meet you. Second, you have a sweet looking blog/website!

    Now to the comment . . .

    You quibble is well-received, and I thank you for sharing your heart through our comment. You are right. I have no way of understanding your context where I am, though I have preached and traveled in areas where most people were unchurched. Honestly, I don’t know what’s worse: living in a Christianized culture of nominal Christianity or a secularized culture where there are much fewer Christians but it really means something.

    I think the DGNC is an exception to many conferences today. First, there is a specific theme driving the conference (Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World). In the SBC and in the South, it seems like what attracts people is not a theme, truth, or topic, but a name or names of persons who are their “favorite preachers.” The earlier SBC conference culture which I mentioned had no purpose, no direction, no application of truth other than to have their favorite preacher preach their favorite message in order to encourage other ministers. Another conference I found unique was the one I just live-blogged called True Church Conference which focused on the dotrine of conversion. It was incredibly helpful and God-centered.

    Perhaps there is such a market for conferences out there that the demand exceeds the supply. But either way, the Reformed conference culture should not be determined by the surplus or lack of demand (at least in my mind). We should develop conferences that will specifically equip, encourage, and empower ministers like you who are laboring in the shadowlands of obscurity to fight the good fight with a sharpened sword.

    In no way am I trying to discourage having Reformed confernces. What I am trying to say is that the movement should not be characterized by conferences, and the conferences we do have need to be intended to strengthen the local church and her ministers with truth and passion for the gospel. I haven’t developed a theology or philosophy of conferences, but after having reflected on the past couple of years, I am concerned (in a good way) that we be good stewards of the work of God we see around us. Is having dozens of Reformed conferences good stewwardship of our time and money? I don’t know.

    But what I do know is what history has taught us. I have a longing to see churches strengthed, the gospel treasured, and Christ glorified in our children’s generation and their children’s generation. And for that to happen, we must be thinking of how to transcend the moment and chart a course that will not find a dead end with the passing of this generation.

    Does that make sense?

  • Troy Perry


    Could you email me sometime? Thanks.

  • “If we are going to see long-term effect from the Reformed resurgence, it must transcend the conference culture and progress into the local churches.”

    This, to me, is the heart of your piece. I, too, love and appreciate the tapes and books and blog posts that have come out of the excellent conferences of recent years, but unless and until that teaching and commitment reaches into the local churches, we stand to follow in the way of other “movements.”

  • Kim,

    Exactly. And there’s practically no immediate way of guaging that. Perhaps one way we will know is when the greatest moments of the year in a minister’s life will take place in his church and not a convention hall.

    I am not trying to sound harsh or put a damper on everything, but having these conferences and packing in 3,000 marks a resurgence, not a reformation. And a resurgence without a reformation is like a banqueting table without a buffet.

  • Timmy,

    Good word, bro. I love Piper, but was a bit irritated with the behavior of some of our students, especially when they ditched class or left early to get a good seat in chapel when he was here.

  • matt

    Was there really a line of people waiting to have these ‘celebrities’ sign their Bibles? Surely that was a joke? It’s late and my sense of humor is off, so I apologize if it was way obvious……?



  • Matt,

    No, I was not joking. I’ve seen Bibles with dozens of men’s signatures on them. I believe those requesting the signatures were innocent in nature, but it is nonetheless indicative of the culture we have created.

    As far as my sense of humor, I am really bad at trying to communicate on a blog, so by default take me as being sincere unless it looks so obvious and lame that you wish I was actually funny.


    I have oft wondered what Piper thinks about the way others think about him. No doubt, there isn’t another man alive today who has done more to briing our generation ot prize Christ and cherish the doctrines of grace (I had a friend tell me yesterday that he found out that “John Piper” is googled some 38,000 times a month). However, I have heard of him rebuking others for cultivating an evangelical rock star mentality, and he would be the last in my mind to tolerate a celebrity culture. I wonder if he has addressed this either on his radio show or in a sermon . . .

  • Excellent post, Timmy! I applaud your willingness to go out on a limb for the greater good of the body of Christ, by speaking to this issue.

    I attended the very first Founders Conference in 1983 when I was a student at Mid-America Baptist Seminary. The only other Reformed conference that I knew about was The Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology, held annually at four or five venues around the country and featuring theologians like James Montgomery Boice, J. I. Packer, Robert Godfrey. I mention this only to give you a bit of historical context for what I’m about to say.

    The fears and reservations you expressed in this post have already been realized. We’re not “creating” a celebrity culture; it’s been well established for years now! In the past five years alone, these conferences have proliferated at an absurd rate and—guess what?—the same Reformed superstars appear on every platform! I certainly agree that these men would be appalled to think of themselves as celebrities—far from it—but in many respects we have become what we once despised.

    I do sympathize with Chris’ dilemma, but she’s living in the real world where it’s cold, dark, and hostile to Christianity. While she sees you and Tim Challies as “blessed” to have access to these conferences, I believe she’s the one who is truly experiencing what it means to be a community of faith in an environment where Christ is not known. I can imagine how refreshing the DGNC must have been to her and the family, but I can also picture the “Reformed conference groupies” getting their conference “fix” at the very same event. Been there, done that, got the “Dead Theologians T-Shirt” to prove it. Is there an answer?

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  • Bill,

    First, wow. You were there in 1983? I was riding my first big-wheel in 1983 and celebrating my four birthday with a Dukes of Hazard birthday cake. 🙂

    After writing this, I have this really awkward feeling because it’s one of those things that might rub people the wrong way and miss my point. I have this problem of taking a long time of trying to make my point, well, sometimes never actually getting there.

    We all approach this from various perspectives, young and old, north and south, churched and unchurched. But what I think we can all agree upon is our desire to see God build His Church more than merely maxing out an auditorium.

    I was thinking earlier of the time when Jesus’ earthly ministry was most popular. John writes that the people “were about come and take him by force to make him king” (John 6:15). This occurred right after he fed the 5,000+. The next words in John’s narrative says, “Jesus withdrew to the mountain by himself.” His mountain top experience did not come surrounded by 5,000 who wanted to make him king, but it was with His Father, alone, in prayer. Can we say this for ourselves today?

    Jesus knew what was in the hearts of those in the crowds, and certainly he knows our hearts. I pray he finds me more anticipating the time alone with him prayer than anticipating being anywhere else – including conferences where I have the opportunity to hear the greatest preachers in the world. Surely He’s got a word for me. I just need to be close enough to hear His voice.

  • I’ll be a second witness to the Bible signing. It was definitely weird seeing that at T4G, as though the signatures were making the Bibles a bit more valuable.

    And, while I will note what Chris D. wrote above (it tore me up and gave me a better perspective), we need to watch what we’re doing. It is definitely easier to be excited about a conference where big names in Reformed preaching come together, rather than the local church where the vasty majority of ministry is going to happen.

  • I think the tendency to create celebrities is always present. If you watch the movie “Luther,” I think that there is a fairly accurate portrayal of how the Reformer was revered in certain circumstances. Also, we read about the massive crowds that would gather for the chance to ‘hear Mr. Whitefield’ during the first great awakening.

    I do think that the attitude of conference speakers can be helpful in this matter. As much as we respect C.J. Mahaney, it is hard to really put him on a pedastal as a celebrity (in any kind of idolatrous way) when he is so self-abasing and when he, for example, spends time with students at LifeWay or playing basketball with other students (along with John MacArthur) when he visits Southern.

  • Brandon,

    Exactly, One thing I hope to do more is look for opportunities to meet and encourage brothers and sisters like Chris. I have been so selfish when it comes to conferences. I come to get without a thought of giving. I say this to my shame.


    I think that could also be said of Spurgeon as well. And I think if God allows us to sit down and talk with our grandchildren, we can tell them that we met or listened to ____________ who will go down in church history as one of 21st century’s greats.

    But I am still wrestling with the effects of the Reformed conference culture, moreso on the effect of the attendees than the speakers. A celebrity does not become one because he deems himself so, but because others attribute that status. So I am trying to put the focus on us rather than them, though I think it would be worthwhile should the leaders address this sometime in the future.

  • Timmy, Thanks for your gracious response here and by email. I pray that more young, reformed men feel pulled to New England. Until then, how about proposing a New England conference? It would be small (very small) – no conference groupies – and we don’t care if the speakers are famous (just good!!!) When Reformed conferences come to New England – than you’ll know that we are truly conference saturated.

    Of course – you’d have to find speakers that are willing to come for 150 people. Guess until than – we’ll continue to save for gas money and plane fare.


    P.S. Of course – we have the excellent Bolton Conference – bet you never heard of that? But, if you check it out — you’ll find there is still a need for other – dare I say a more approachable conference.

  • Timmy,

    Brother, if you’re gonna blog, you can’t be worried about rubbing people the wrong way. Continue to be a useful member of the body by sharing your insights, wisdom, experience, and even your criticisms (there’s something in the NT about reproof and rebuke, isn’t there?). The Lord will use you in the strengthening of the church, even in those times when offering a word of reproof seems a bit awkward.

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  • I’m wondering WHO actually SIGNED the bibles. It’s one thing to be a follower, dazzled by the sight of your idol. It’s entirely another that someone who is supposed to be mature enough to SPEAK and LEAD and TEACH large groups of people who deems himself important enough to offer autographs… “Yes I’m a celeb. Sure I’ll sign your bible.”

    I don’t mind book signings, I suppose, but this just sounds weird. What’s next? Christian Cards? We could trade them, save them, resell them when they are worth big bucks. What would Billy Graham get? Now that Jerry Falwell is dead, I bet his sig. would bring in a lot of cash.

    When I am rich and famous and speaking at conferences around the world, I will take the moral high ground and refuse to sign bibles. Bookmarks, maybe. Of course, you did say only men were being invited to sign the bibles… perhaps there women aren’t allowed to sign bibles?

    Oh dear, now I’m afraid I sound bitter. I’m not, really. Just freaked out by conferences.

  • Timmy,

    I really think you’ve hit it on the head. It seems like the Reformed community is somewhat mirroring the larger, secular celebrity culture. It’s obvious that it’s an issue. Dever, Mohler, Mahaney, and Duncan address it on the newest T4G video, saying, “We’re not celebrities.” But they are, or they wouldn’t have to say anything.

    Looking up to great men is a good thing, but the whole conference/celebrity culture seems a lot like a rock star tour. For example, when Piper preached at Southern this past semester people were ditching classes and asking to leave early so that they could get a good seat in chapel.

    I see it in the way I react as well. When I see someone who gets to speak at a big conference, I almost instinctively think, “Wow, they made it. They’re really big time now.” And, as an aspiring pastor, it makes me crave the same notoriety and success.

    I appreciate your emphasis on the local church, which is something all of the Reformed “celebrities” would affirm. But, my question (which is, I think, what you’re getting at) is how do we keep the local church central, in the midst of the whole thing?


  • Jeff

    I don’t think I have much more to add to what has already been said but this whole issue is someting that has bothered me for a long time. I too saw the reaction at SBTS when Piper came to chapel and was extremely saddened to see it. (Actually I was more ticked off than sad.) The T4G group is another example of “rock stars” that are exalted more than they should be. I appreciate their minisitries and have been blessed by the books, lectures, sermons, etc. these men have put forth but the aura surrounding these guys is wrong. Thanks for bringing this up brother, kudos to you.

  • Timmy….

    I’ve wanted to blog about this for a long time. One reformed web site even has a “Hall of Contemporary Reformers.”

    I have to wonder how some pastors are available to their people when they are at a difference conference every month. I’ve worked for some large churches and I didn’t have this kind of time.

    And btw, could I have your autograph….and a picture?


    Michael Spencer

  • How to identify cult personalities:

    Write or say something critical about them. Be honest, and demonstrate what you believe to be their error. If the response is a rebuke for challenging the authority of the personality, and not the substance of the dispute, the response is from a cult follower. If you repeatedly find the same response, you can begin to question the intentions of the cult figure. Contact the figure by some means. Explain the situation that is in violation of 1 Corinthians, and that that teacher has followers of him not Christ. If there is positive response and remedial action, that person is not a cult leader.

    Strange to be taling about cults within the church. Makes one shudder.

    The bloggosphere is a good place to test this. Go to a well respected blog. Criticize the “pop” figure(s) errors or at least what you believe to be error. Everyone has error. If there is a defence of the person and not a defence of the position, you are dealing with cult follower(s) and/or a cult figure. Weigh the results. The phenomenon will exist in every ministry situation. If it is pervasive, there is a serious problem on behalf of the minister who should be discerning this error in his followers and defusing it.

    Calvin was critical of other church leaders, Paul too. And so should we all be. They were also quick to point out that quoting church leaders, present age and ancient is okay, but only to point out that they are to be trusted only as far as the Scriptures allow. Luther also to Erasmus, criticized his references to the Church fathers, not just because Erasmus had promised to keep his defence Scriptural, but that the fathers are men prone to error. Luther said of commentaries, which is what all preaching and teaching is, that it is all good and fine for a short season, but we must return to the Scripture at the end of it. Unfortunately, too much time is spent in the commentary, and not enough in study. But, study is the point of conferences. They are to issue forth calls to points of interest in currency or sound alarms of warning.

    Back to conferences, then. The problem of cult followings resides in the leadership. Sheep are sheep. You cannot expect sheep to defend themselves against their defenders. It is up to the defenders to zealously protect the sheep from getting led by other voices simply because those voices sound good and are followed by numerous other sheep.

    Paul handled this with Timothy by exhorting him to pass on to faithful men the Truth who would in turn be able to pass it along to others. The more this is the case the less likely that any one leader has more than anyone else. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians, if we do not go beyond what is written, and since what we have has been given to us, and noone has been made any better than another, envying one against the other should not happen, ideally.

    Conferences should target the local congregations!? That is good, they should. How? I live in Wyoming, an isolated square in the mild of somewhat square states of inconsequential population and name. When was the last time any of you attended a conference in Cheyenne? I appreciate the multi-venue conferences, but they are hundreds of miles or thousands and might as well be a million, away. And, it does not really matter what the location of origin of the traveler is, if the prospective attendees are too poor to go, or their flocks aretoo poor to send them. I have never attended one. My pastor has, but none of our other leadship. (Note: my pastor has never attended a reformed conference).

    Even if the leadership goes and returns to the local congregation. What gaurantee is there that the themes of the attended conferences will ever be widely disceminated? Getting ahold of conference produced material usually lags considerably behind the end of such meetings, if they can be found at all. And, then it is usually at cost that can be prohibitive.

    What I would like to see is a national colloquium which would then be regionalized, and then localized. There are ample skilled speakers and ministers of the Gospel to go around. The way things stand now, conferences tend to isoloate them from the masses.

    It’s a dream, but a good one. I was noting the time line of the resurgence. You know if this was the 1800’s, the news of the resurgence would not have reached here yet. That is what I am referring to about isolation and segregation. Becoming aware and remaining informed would be much expedited if there was a diffusion of the resources. And while I am saying this I must thank God of the internet. It has closed the gap.

    If you want an example of a cult type followings. Suggest that any major organization hold its annual conference in Chugwater, Wyoming. Then see how many big names want to present, and how many are willing to attend when there are no big city bright lights, nor fine entertainment and dining, and the best you could expect for sleeping would be a camp ground. Can anyone say big tent instead of conference hall?

  • iMonk:

    Timmy can’t send his picture through the mail- if he does he’ll get flagged on FBI watchlists, as he looks too much like the president of Iran.

  • Hutch

    I also live in a geographically isolated area, and I think it would be poor stewardship of my money to travel to Reformed conferences (I used to enjoy attending them in the 1990s when I was in college and seminary). I do appreciate the fact that Reformed guys like Piper and Dever make so many mp3 sermons and conference messages available for free download (church growth pragmatists charge a ton of money for sermon and conference audio and video, so I usually never listen to them). I have listened to hundreds of hours of Piper, Dever, and others for free. Conference audio is particularly fun for road trips – it makes the miles go by a lot faster and enables me to learn something while driving.

    I have usually pastored SBC churches where nobody in the congregation has ever heard of any of the “Reformed rock stars.” References to Joel Osteen, John Hagee, and Beth Moore outnumber references to “Reformed rock stars” by about 1000 to 0. Louisville and Southern Seminary have become one of the epicenters of the Reformed rock star phenomenon, but things are much different in other parts of the country.

  • I have never heard any of the reformed superstars in person, but years ago heard many of the evangelical superstars of the day. Yes, it’s the same mentality. I remember hearing my very favorite pastor speak at a particular conference, and getting next to nothing out of it. I remember hearing another famous preacher speak, and getting absolutely nothing out of it. That helped a little (only a little) to break me of my idolatry of men.

    Yes, I understand the problem that Chris faces. I remember being the pastor of small, un-exciting churches with an un-exciting preacher. 🙂 Maybe the solution is that more people should simply visit those noted preachers in their own churches. Maybe other conferences should be only for pastors and their wives (though they are not immune to celebrity-awe).

    Meanwhile, I count myself blessed. My own pastor ( is of conference quality. The rest of the country just doesn’t know it yet.

  • KC

    Hey Chris,

    You should check into visiting Banner of Truth’s Conference next year (it is going on now). For live blogging check Tony Reinke’s blog or for background info, check with Steve Burlew of Banner of Truth. The conference is held in Grantham, PA.

  • Meeky

    This issue has been a thorn on my side since 2001 when I went to a NA conference. Even when I was a member of CLC some people saw CJ Manahey as a celebrity. When I first hear these reformed celebrities it’s quite surreal; but soon I realize that they are people as well.

    How are we to deal with this culture? It doesn’t help having these resources available online and having a desire to travel to be with like-minded people hearing good teaching.

    I hope reformed theology isn’t becoming a fad…

  • Thanks for all the feedback and trackbacks. FYI, when I post in the morning, I go to sleep, so if I don’t respond promptly, it is because I’m unconscious (I work 3rd shift).


    If I get a chance to interview any of the conference speakers or talk to them in person, I will try to remember to ask them if they have ever signed any Bibles, and if so, how many.


    I need to go back and what that T4G video again. It was long, so I may have missed that part. I remember listening to Piper referring to missionary biographies while calling young people to the mission field. He spoke about Christianity’s greatest servants never having a book written about them or a conference to speak of, but we will watch and see their lives in heaven. You are right. There’s a temptation to think of greatness in terms of noteriety or making it by being a conference speaker or having a book published. But what about that single lady who has left everything to live in Afghanistan to bring the gospel to those who have never heard of Jesus? We need to be careful to realize that God’s greatest generals in his Great Commission have no title or spotlight but often only have the sentence of death for treasuring Jesus.


    Good to hear from you brother. As I said somewhere else, I don’t want my post to turn into an anti-conference movement. I simply want those who attend or think of attending to think more maturely about them and the speakers and not allow the Reformed movement become defined by the conference culture. I love these men who have been considered “reformed rock stars,” and I believe in the work they are trying to do in their churches and for other ministers at large. Yet we must also recognize the negative consequences from all this, and I am hoping we can be honest and discerning with how we deal with this ethos we have created.

  • Michael,

    First, thanks for the link. As far as the PDF, I honestly don’t know much about the earlier history of Founders/Reformed Baptist relationship, so I need to be schooled by veterans who know much more than me! But I do hope at least the more recent years are adequately covered.

    Andrew is right. A picture of this bearded Assyrian will look much too like Ahmedinejad. But I do have a bunch of other pretty pictures . . .

    The church I previously served was very generous as well, probably too generous. But it was a pastor-led church where he could basically run it the way he wanted, meaning being gone as much as desired. Right now, I basically have the idea of attending two major conferences a year. That usually precludes me from attending the SBC Annual Meeting because I would rather attend a theologically/missiologically driven conference than the alternative.

  • Thomas,

    I have to take some more time to read your comment. 😉


    You are right. The MP3’s and books are a great resource, and I have certainly benefited from them. I should also say that it was at a conference where God did a great work in my own heart, especially regarding the doctrines of grace. It was in 2000 at a Christmas Conference with Campus Outreach where I first heard John Piper. His messages arrested my mind and invigorated my heart. The audio from that conference was like an excellent movie. You know, everytime you watch it, you learned something else you didn’t know. For Piper’s messages, I listened to them dozens of times and everytime learned something new and convicted to treasure Jesus. What I LOVE about DG and other Reformed ministries is that they make their stuff FREE, and if not, have a “whatever you can afford” philosophy. That stands in stark contrast to much in the church growth and charismatic movements today.


    Thanks for sharing. It’s great that you esteem your pastor the way you do. One of the dangers of the conferences which have such great speakers is that the local pastor is being compared to these conference speakers. And I would argue most often the local pastor is not as powerful, dynamic, or even biblical as the conference speakers, so the lay person prefers to listen to the conference speakers more than their pastor. Is this all bad? No. But it does show just why and where the movement needs to go – the local church.

  • Meeky,

    You said, “I hope reformed theology isn’t becoming a fad…”. Precisely. If it does, and probably is for some people, then it will fade just like the bumper sticker on our car. Let’s face it. Being Reformed is in. Jonathan Edwards is our homeboy, and Calvin is cool.

    But Reformed theology by nature is incompatible with nominalism or superficiality. While it may be possible to ride the Reformed wave, one cannot journey beyond the coastland without being anchored in an experiential knowledge of God and navigated by sovereign grace. I imagine there will be those who will hang around to build Reformed sandcastles; however there will also be those who have lost sight of the shoreline because of their vision for the glory of God.

  • Mark

    Another great topic Timmy and timely as I try to understand what nitch the “Gospel Coalition” is trying to fill while overlapping with T4G and the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (I read that on some blog today, sorry can’t remember where).

    I appreciate the perspective of the outsiders (the New Englanders), and Thomas’s suggestions of the National-to-local progression which is in line with what I was thinking. Maybe it’s time the focus of the conferences change from teaching pastors to teaching laypeople. I know several conferences invite laypeople but more could be done to target laypeople and in various regions of the country. It’s wonderful to have a local pastor faithfully providing theologically sound sermons every Sunday, but we need additional settings more conducive to interactive teaching of theology to the body of the church. Unfortunately, the primary teaching sessions in many churches are with volunteer teachers in a Sunday School settting who respectfully fear treading to deep into theology due to their own lack of full understanding (yes, I speak personally here, but I am reading and studying as much as I can to do God’s word justice every Sunday morning).

    Again, Timmy I greatly enjoy your work on this blog and at Said at Southern. You give me much to think about as well as encouragement to faithfully pursue learning more of God’s precious word.

  • Mark,

    I think one of the first goals is to recover the idea of the pastor as theologian, not as CEO, marketer, etc. As it has been stated, like priests, like people. The starting point is recovering the sacred desk and the mantle of truth-driven ministry, but it shouldn’t stop there.

    We do need conferences that appeal to lay people more than ministers. If not, isn’t there a strong possibility of an ever growing disconnect between the pulpit and the pew? This also brings up another issue I am hoping to address, and that is the local church being the center for theological education, not colleges or seminaries. Piper and Dever are some leading the way on this as they have thelogical training and education opportunities available through their respective churches. I hope to begin a series on that topic and plan on developing it throughout the summer.

    Thanks for the encouragement and for reading the blogs! Regarding Said at Southern, we are hoping to blog through the Abstract of Principles during this summer sometime as well and perhaps talk more about Baptist confessions.

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  • How to identify cult personalities:

    Write or say something critical about them. Be honest, and demonstrate what you believe to be their error. If the response is a rebuke for challenging the authority of the personality, and not the substance of the dispute, the response is from a cult follower. If you repeatedly find the same response, you can begin to question the intentions of the cult figure.

    Small problem here with this test.

    You will consider yourself (falsely) objective. You will probably not accept any disagreement with your criticism as being substantive.

  • timmyz

    Thanks for the post Tim.

    OK I admit it, I’ve got my Bible signed by speakers.

    But I did it when I was less than 10 years old, at my church’s missions conference. It was my first Bible, a KJV gift Bible they gave me at the Christian School I attended as a reward for learning to read. And it wasn’t Reformed guys, it was national missionary leaders who were relatively unknown, but they were heroes to me as my church celebrated missionaries in a big way.

    So I confess that I am guilty of Christian speaker autograph seeking, but I don’t feel too bad about it! Now if I were an adult doing it…

    In reflection on your post – I wonder if one difference today is that the conferences are attended primarily by pastors/leaders/seminary students, but the conferences of 100 years ago (Keswick Conferences, Dispensational Prophecy Conferences, for example) were attended primarily by laypeople.

  • TimmyZ,

    Just because your name is Timmy, you get out of guilt free. 😉

    Just kidding. Yeah, a lot of the conferences back then were summer substitutes for family vacation, where the parents could go hear their favorite preachers/teachers, and the kids could enjoy a nice place to have fun (like by a lake or something). I will say, however, that there are lay people attending the conferences today, though the percentage is much smaller than those in the Keswick and Dispensational conferences.

  • Timmy,

    In reading through your responses to the various comments, I can see that you have thought this through deeply and your additional points made in the comments, expanded individually, would make a very fine series of posts, as many read as thesis statements. You said that you haven’t developed a theology or philosophy of conferences, but I think that if you flesh out those thesis statements, you will!


  • You are quite right. In these times it is known as celebrity. Celebrity is always corrupting. Men and women always start believing their own publicity. Thanks for the warning. I would like to meet John Piper; I don’t think I can afford the ticket. This is the first I have heard of asking someone to sign a Bible. The book is signed by the author. Think about it.

  • Hutch

    >>> I would like to meet John Piper; I don’t think I can afford the ticket.

  • Hutch

    >>> I would like to meet John Piper; I don’t think I can afford the ticket.

    My comment on this didn’t get publiched for some reason. What I meant to say is this – Reformed conferences are usually not too expensive – it is the TRAVEL to get to the conferences that is expensive – particularly if you live in an isolated part of the country. I figured that the airplane tickets and hotel rooms would cost me at least $600-700 to go to Together for the Gospel 2008 (Plus the tickets for the conference are $200). For $900, I could buy almost 50 books for my library or pay my mortgage for two months or provide significant support to a missionary.

    Timmy, you could also talk about a CONSUMERIST aspect to the Reformed Celebrity Culture. Sometimes, I get a kind of adrenaline rush from buying a bunch of Reformed books or downloading tons of Reformed audio. And I get a kind of perverse pride – like I am a smart shopper with a much better taste than the average Christian book buyer. And I end up with a kind of second-hand spirituality – as if I could simply buy all the wisdom, knowledge, and godliness of the writers or speakers.

  • Hutch,

    Sorry about the comment issue. For about a month now, I have been having problems with various comments (including my own!) being thrown into the SPAM folder.

    You make a good point about the cost of travel. Conference is big business I guess you could say. It is hard to deny the reality that the Reformed movement is being marketed by consumer choices, but I don’t want to assign motives and determine that is the reason why they exist.

  • When John Piper was on SBTS campus, there was a rumor he might swing by LifeWay to sign books. They even had a table set out for him for a while. I likened people sitting around waiting for Piper to my childhood experience of waiting around at Adventure Land at Walt Disney World in hopes of catching a glimpse of Chip n’ Dale in their Rescue Rangers costumes. Inside informants told me they would show, so my parents waited with me for about 45 minutes (that’s an entire ride at Disney World!). Unlike Piper, they showed, and I’ve been happy ever since.

    I now resign myself to sleep on account of my inability to think like a grown man.

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  • Adam,
    So how I am to interpret your childhood story? I am not a very good deconstructionist. Are you saying that Chip n’ Dale are better than Piper? That LifeWay is not as entertaining as Disney World? I know they don’t have roller coasters and all, but that seems a little unfair. Oh wait, Piper has said that America is the “Disneyland” of the world. So as Americans we await our Rescue Rangers to satisfy our heart’s longings . . .

  • Kim,

    Thank you for your kinds words. I apologize for taking so long to respond. I don’t know if I am the person to develop a philosphy of conferences, but I do believe that we need to have an open discussion on how we can mature in our thinking with regards to conferences as well as strategic discernment on how to hold them in a way that will benefit the most people and more and equally as important build up the Church. The same critique about conferences can be made about other organizations or institutions like parachurch ministries or seminaries. While in theory the point is to strengthen the local church, but all too often it is secondary and superficial. And part of the reason of posting this is to think through ways that can be changed. Perhaps developing a series out of this whole deal would be profitable, but I am likely to drop the ball unless good people like you hold me accountable to it!

  • “So as Americans we await our Rescue Rangers to satisfy our heart’s longings . . .”

    I like it! Very insightful even though I had no intention of posing a deconstructionist riddle. Amd I think Piper would look good in Dale’s Hawaiian shirt for the record.

  • Dana

    Timmy, I think this string has become overly negative and unfortunate. You raised a legit question, but there hasn’t been much analysis of the answer. John Piper could leave Bethlehem and just travel and write books. But he is still the pastor of a local church, growing, reaching out. Bethlehem has a track record of sending out missionaries that is outstanding. I think that’s how John would want to be evaluated in this discussion: are pastors built up and encouraged to persevere? are people called out of their comfortable places to become missionaries? (I think of the Pastors Conference two years ago and JP and David Sisson praying and asking a tithe of the attenders to leave their posts and go to the unreached peoples of the world.) are the hurting and “ready to quit” strengthened to keep going? is the worship God-centered and Christ-exalting or man-centered and man-adoring? are resources shared which truly will make a great difference in local churches here and overseas? are ideas shared in a similar way?
    Mark Dever preaches Sunday after Sunday in a local church, steps from our nation’s capitol, training young men to be pastors. C.J. oversees a church planting movement which is firmly based in the local church (Covenant Life) and which is also touching outside the borders of the nation. R.C. was basically a scholar and para-church man (though his resources were and are being used in churches the world over) but he has now become the preaching pastor of a local church! Dr. Mohler’s leadership has led (I believe) to a true reformation in a seminary which is training literally thousands of pastors and missionaries, workers who will be God-centered, Christ-exalting, Spirit-filled and committed to the Bible. John MacArthur the same: he is pastor of a local church, under the authority of elders, training hundreds and thousands of pastors and missionaries. Name after name, I believe these are men committed to the local church, helping pastors of local churches, sharing so that the church will be reformed and committed to the Great Commission and the Great Commandment and sound doctrine. John Piper takes not one dime from any of his books. I don’t know about the others, but my guess is that rather than becoming rich, they are investing it in their church and a new generation of pastors and missionaries and lay elders the world over.
    Yes, there is a danger that the conferences become an end in themselves. But the track record of the men being mentioned in this string shouts loudly that they are committed to the gospel and the local church, and not their fame.

  • Dana,

    Thank you for your generous comment, and I agree with you (including the negative slant part). Thanks for pointing that out.

    The purpose of this post is simply to recognize something I (and it seems others) am seeing that is taking place today. It concerns me, not some much of what has been made of it be the leaders but rather by those attending. I have not (at least I don’t think I have) called into question the leaders’ commitment to the local church and their work in their respective contexts. What I have tried to address is how we think about conferences and what the conference culture is doing to us or is creating.

    Also, as I have said, I long to see the reform translate into healthy churches. As much as I love Southern Seminary and wanting reform, we aren’t seeing it in local chuches in the SBC. And a big reason is because theological education is disconnected from the local church. I know it sounds like I am coming down hard on conferences or other parachurch ministries, and I would love to be shown that the impact of these are more than indrect and superficial. That is why I don’t want the Reformed movement to be defined by the conference culture. If so, the movement will become a fad and not real reform.

    Lastly, the celebrity critique probably comes, not having to do with these men’s character or personal ministries, but because they are the same speakers at the same conferences, again and again. I think it is fair to acknowledge that and think through what implications that follow as a result.

    If the points I have made have led you or anyone else to think I am calling into qustion the integrity or commitment of these men who are leading us, then I have failed miserably in trying to communicate my concerns. These men are my heroes, and I have said that time and again here on my blog. I owe much of my spiritual growth to them, and I would tell anyone, for instance, that there is not a man alive today who has a greater impact on me than John Piper. But my love and respect for these men also require me to take a step back and discerningly look at what we are doing, and whether we can do it any better. And I think a large part of that responsibility lies not with these leaders, but with us. Therefore, the focal point is with us, not them.

    I hope that clarifies things a little bit. Thanks again for the good comment.

  • Dana

    Thanks for responding, Timmy. Just for fun, let’s keep it going. While it may seem odd that the same speakers have been just lately at a number of conferences, and that may simply have been different planning groups choosing a similar approach, let’s also consider the positive side of what’s happened. There has been a neat “coming together” of some disparate “camps” so to speak. MacArthur and Mahaney on the same platform, for example. One the author of “The Charismatics” while the other is the founder of a reformed group which grew out of the charismatic renewal. Southern Baptists, Mohler and Dever, coming forward to say “these men are our friends and we’re together for the gospel” — with Duncan (a PCA presbyterian) and Mahaney (reformed third wave…is that fair?). Hey, Timmy, there is a great coming together in these things, a uniting of different parts of the reformed movement, that I have found very thrilling. It combats the tendency of intolerance and isolation: He’s NOT Southern Baptist; he’s NOT dispensational; he’s NOT presbyterian; he’s NOT one of US which can be so common in Christian circles. Let’s rally together for the sake of our common bond in the gospel. I think that is why thousands of people have come together in so many parts of the country for these events, west coast, east coast, Minnesota (in winter!), Louisville (can you fly there?). Hallelujah!
    But you are right, in responding to this, it would be awful, and I think these speakers would all agree, if the CELEBRITY we CELEBRATE becomes a preacher and not JESUS CHRIST!

  • Yeah, I love seeing the Reformed movement unite around the gospel of Jesus Christ. I hate seeing someone like MacArthur preach at his conference why every self-respecting Calvinist is a premillennialist. There needs to be a healthy tension in the unity and diversity of the movement, one that is anchored in the gospel but allows for liberty in non-essentials. I think these guys recognize that, and they can even allow for levity with regards to the differences (as Dever often Does with Duncan on baptism).

    Your last line is key. The personalities of these men cannot, must not eclipse the glorious person of Jesus Christ who alone is worthy of all praise. I know that the profound impact these men have had on folks like us will bring about a gratefulness and appreciation that is inevitable and appropriate; however, there is in that same appreciation a measured level of caution, don’t you think? I think of what Dever preached on at T4G last year, and more pointedly what Mahaney said afterward in the discussion regarding this powerful passage,

    “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Cor. 4:7).

    I will never forget seeing Mahaney weep in humility over that verse. It was a powerful moment, and I am grateful to see that in these leaders.

  • Conferences or councils?

    Herein lies the difference. The Reformed tradition has always had its celebrities when in good health. Think of the period of High Orthodoxy from Zwingli to F. Turretin. Most of us can name lots of “celebrites” that lived back then. They certainly interacted with each other and knew each other.

    However, what set that age apart wasn’t whether or not there were “celebrities,” but the way they behaved and they way their audiences looked at them. They didn’t put them on the pedestals we tend to put our upon.

    The “conferences” like the Bailey Smith Conferences to which I’ve been have generally been little more than extended pep rallies for preachers. But where were the debates over the finer points of theology or caucusing to discuss particular issues in the churches? What seems to be missing is the “council.” I’d like to see a conference of Reformed eldership in general constructed around a “conference” or regional “conferences” where they actually get together to, perhaps, hammer out a new Reformed confession or to discuss theology like they did in the old, old days. Heck, I’d like to the associational meetings where questions were asked and answered in writing and circular letters were sent to the churches like they were in the 18th and 19th centuries. We have fallen far from where our ancestors were.

  • Gene,
    I like your ideas. I remember last summer when Drs. Mohler and Patterson had their “not-a-debate-but-a-discussion” deal at Greensboro. Granted, it was probably the highest profile discussion in recent years, but very little of substance was talked about.

    I think some of the issues I would like to see brought out are for instance Covenant vs. New Covenant theology, or a greater consensus on what are the irreducible marks of a true church. It seems like everyone is talking about church growth, but little are talking about church identity.

    Joe Thorn recently asked whether or not we need a new Reformed confession. He and I have been talking about this for some time, and we both tend to agree that we do need this as a means to communicate God’s truth to our generation.

    Perhaps we were at the same Bailey Smith Conferences. I think you summed up most Southern Baptist conferences I have attended in that they were “extended pep rallies for preachers.” I wonder what our ancestors would think about what is going on today.

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  • Jessica Vinson

    Wow, I am completely stunned about the signing of the Bible. I had hoped/thought you were joking at first!

    My husband has been to many of these conferences and learned a great deal… I guess I have never thought of it in this way. The more I think about it -and think back on conversations I have had with others there is alot of name dropping about who you know and how well you know them.

    I have to say the Bible signature thing really bothers me.

  • Chris Vinson

    I’m sure someone has already pointed to the comments by Carl Trueman over at the Reformation 21 blog where he suggests similar criticism in two different posts from last year. If not, here’s a link:

  • Chris and Jessica,

    Great to hear from you guys! I trust things are going well with you. Thanks for the link to the Trueman article. From what I understand, however, he received a lot of criticism for that post and subsequently softened his position. I do think he makes some excellent points, some of which surfaced in this conversation.

    I still think we who attend conferences need to develop a more mature and discerning attitude and perspective on conferences. They certainly can serve a great purpose, but we would be amiss to not reflect on the negative, unintended consequences from such a conference culture.

  • Timmy:

    A much needed post brother… thank you.

    It’s always concerning when sectarianism becomes normative under the guise of furthering ministry as we have in today’s evangelical climate.

    Consumerism plagues our faith today and we all feel the sting of it not only at the conference level, but also at the publishing and music levels as well.

    I fully agree with Gene’s post here. The defense of sound doctrine, and in specific today, the gospel of sola fide is much needed. Council’s rather than conferences I think would be a significant shift in the right direction if the issues of doctrine, theology pertaining to the essentials of the faith and the gospel were the chief concern.

    But there is an additional problem: when commerce becomes so tightly linked with ministry (as it is in todays evangelicalism) it is much more difficult for real change to occur on a theological level for it might mean the sacrifice of significant financial support.

    The question then would be: are we still paying John Tetzel?

    Thank you again for your excellent blog and timely article.

    Grace and peace,
    2 Cor. 4:5-7

  • I’m not sure why my previous post was entered under the Luthersrose name, but this is the correct one.

    Grace and peace,
    Col. 1:9-14

  • Steve,

    Thanks for the comment. Something you said reminded me of what Dr. Rainer, CEO of LifeWay, said earlier this year as a report on LifeWay and the local church. He argued that Broadman & Holman would publish more theological books, but they simply do not sell like the fluff and pop-Christianity books. He mentioned that B&H Academic (which is new to LifeWay) is needed, but it is coming at a financial loss since they are not able to cut even on the books they are publishing.

    Putting out solid theological books is costly in more ways than one, and having been bred through a bias of anti-intellectualism and affinity to novelty and relevancy, Christians are cultivating an inability to acquiesce to the truth which is less palatable than the cotton candy they have tasted. Indeed, as David Wells as aptly stated, there is simply no place for truth. And when there is, it does not need to be commercialized.

  • Jessica,

    The Bible-signing thing shouldn’t bother you too much, honestly. Just think of it along the same lines as someone signing a yearbook for you at the end of a school year. It doesn’t signify that you idolize the person in an unchristlike manner, but rather you seek to commemorate the moment – the same as taking a picture would serve.

    Timmy – thanks for the article. There is a very real danger with the current reformed resurgence beginning to resemble the ‘churchcianity’ prevalent in modern America and other westernized countries. I think that some of our ‘leaders’ should take note of the danger and seek to diffuse it by appearing as ‘normal people’.

    As an example from the Holy Hip Hop genre, members of groups like CHRISTcentric, the Cross Movement and folks like shai linne, Timothy Brindle and others don’t do the ‘star treatment’ when they minister and teach through their music at events. They interact with the audience and sit and talk and form real relationships with the people that they meet instead of simply standing out on stage for a few minutes and then being wisked off back into some private area and never meeting the people they serve with their music. One of my good friends often recounts meeting members of the Cross Movement at one outreach they were at in Philadelphia and then when he came across them at another outreach months later in Washington DC, not only were they just as friendly, but they actually remembered him and treated him like family. Many other folks I’ve come to know open their lives and their hearts up in the same fashion. Most of them give away more CDs than they actually sell (especially to non-Christians who attend these events), putting the promulgation of the gospel and sound teaching above selling a CD.

    Their names are ‘known’, but they conduct themselves in a manner that keeps them on the same level as those they serve with their music – much like the apostle Paul did during the course of his ministry.

    I do believe that many of the reformed ‘leaders’ of the current wave seek to do this consciously because they are familiar with the ‘celeb-status’ that can very easily develop. I do believe that some may be aware of it, but simply not taking any active steps to stop it from happening (at least not on their side). I guess my post here is simply the ‘outworking’ of what Gene mentioned earlier in regard to how past generations of reformed folk viewed their teachers.

    What may be helpful is for the ‘leaders’ of the current reformed wave/movement to begin bringing non-famous folks to the table and to the pulpit at conferences. The larger the diversity of people, the less of a tendency there is to focus on one, two, three, seven or eight people exclusively.

    In His Service,

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