Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Problem of Gurus

Christianity is unique among world religions in that we believe that God does not have to be approached by a human mediator. "There is one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus," the Apostle Paul said. God has spoken clearly and sufficiently in His Word to direct His church to be and do all that He has called them to be and do. But it seems that throughout church history, there has always been a temptation to look to certain individuals as expert spiritual guides. Certainly, we do not want to suggest that all Christians have equal expertise on all matters of faith and practice, so it is wise to consult those who have more knowledge and experience on certain issues. But to do so uncritically, without a Berean discernment that examines the individual and his or her ideas against the clear propositions of Scripture is dangerous. In short, we tend to make gurus out of people and they begin to, willingly or even unknowingly, shape the state of the church for a generation. When this happens, the focus of the church and its leaders shifts from what is written in God's word to what is spoken or written by these "gurus," with a result of redefining or reshaping what the church is and what it is intended to do. Invariably, division and confusion results.

While we want to honor those who have wisdom and be open to the reality that God speaks indirectly through human servants to guide us (so long as their teaching is in line with His Word), we want to avoid giving undue "devotion" to these individuals regardless of their position or influence. Ravenous is the wolf who seeks to redirect this focus toward themselves and away from God and His Word, but more subtle are those who do not set out to do this. Subtly, they come into these positions by acclamation of the church. We often see the "rise" (for lack of a better word) of a particular Christian from a position of relatively obscure and humble service to the status of a contemporary guru. Because this is not usually intentional on the part of the individual, I am not writing to condemn those individuals. Rather, I write to warn the church of seeking, expecting, and uncritically following these who would become gurus. Moreover, I feel strongly that we should pray for them.

Some years ago, a relatively unknown Baptist missionary was invited to share some of his experiences at the Southern Baptist Convention. He was so well received, that soon he became the subject of many articles and videos, and was then being flown all over the world to speak at conferences and seminars. His prophetic voice challenged the church to be moved toward reaching the nations. It seemed that God's hand was powerfully upon him. Meanwhile, as he was being whisked across the planet for high-profile engagements, his wife and family were laboring alone in the village to which God had called them. Soon, as fast as he rose in prominence, he disappeared from the public scene. I curiously inquired of a missionary leader about this missionary and was sadly informed that his marriage had begun to collapse, his ministry had come to a screeching halt, and the entire family was now being shepherded through a process of recovery and restoration. This is but one of many similar stories I have seen unfold in similar patterns. It was this story that prompted me to be vigilant in prayer for those who are thrust into the position of a guru.

Today I have been conversing on Facebook with a dear brother in the Lord about another person who has evolved (or devolved as the case may be) from obscurity to celebrity in Christian circles. We lamented together that this well-intentioned brother seems to be enjoying the spotlight perhaps a bit too much. One does not detect the humility of John the Baptist who said, "He (Christ) must increase, but I must decrease" in this particular brother. He, and several others whom I could name and whose names would be easily recognizeable, need our prayers.

Our culture trains us to see the attainment of celebrity status as the ultimate goal. We are all to eager to pursue it and eager to help others attain it. But the platform of celebrity is a slippery pedestal, and many who have found it have fallen off of it, both inside the church and outside of it. So I try to pray for those who seem to occupy it for the moment. I pray several specific things for these individuals. I pray that God would keep them humble, that He would protect their families and their ministries, and that He would give them the wisdom to step off of the guru platform (in the spirit of John the Baptist) rather than fall off of it.

Recently, one man of God demonstrated the kind of humility that is required. John Piper is someone who I respect greatly, and perhaps moreso in light of his recent announcement than ever before. Piper recently asked his church for an eight month sabbatical "because of a growing sense that my soul, my marriage, my family, and my ministry-pattern need a reality check from the Holy Spirit." In his statement to the church, Piper acknowledged, "I see several species of pride in my soul that, while they may not rise to the level of disqualifying me for ministry, grieve me, and have taken a toll on my relationship with Noël (his wife) and others who are dear to me." I pray that others would have the wisdom and sensitivity to the Holy Spirit to recognize these things and act accordingly.

Practically speaking, how do I know who to pray for in regard to guru-ism? I have several indicators I try to be attentive to:

1) Listen for the buzz
Who's the guy you never heard of that everyone is now talking about and quoting?

2) Look at the schedule
Survey the major conferences for the past 12 months and see what name(s) occurs most often.

3) Browse the shelves
Who's got a new book? Who are people writing about and quoting heavily in other books? Who is the go-to guy for current book endorsements?
This name will often be found on the front or back cover of a book, and will be often larger than the author's own name.

I want to be clear ... in most cases, I don't dislike these guys. In most cases, I am also reading them and listening to them. And much of what they have to say is good and bears hearing. But we must remember that God is a jealous God. His glory He will not share with another. So when people thrust these individuals to a high-place of prominence in Christian sub-cultures, I believe God will begin to warn them of the danger of becoming a guru. If they do not heed those warnings, I have often seen that God will not prevent them from some kind of fall. He will not allow them to become His rival voice for the direction of His church.

So, in conclusion, several things bear stating clearly:
1) Don't try to become a guru. If God has placed you in a place of obscure service for His kingdom, be content with that.

2) Don't let others make you a guru. If you find that others are thinking more highly of you than you know they should, be very clear to them you are merely God's servant. Point them to Jesus and to His Word rather than to your own opinions.

3) Don't expect others to be your guru. Most of these guys we only "know" from a distance -- through their books, their talks, their Tweets and blog posts. We do not know their inner struggles. We may know of their successes and strengths, but we do not know of their failures and weaknesses. We know they are human however, and therefore, they must have struggles, weaknesses, and failures. Remember that they serve the same God you serve by a holy calling, and though their station may be different from yours, it is not better. Approach them as brothers on an equal plane, for to do otherwise it to overestimate them and to underestimate the God who has called you.

4) Pray for those who the world and Christian sub-culture would make gurus of. Pray for their families, their ministries, and their spiritual health.


Billy Belk said...

This subject came up last night during a small group meeting when I was asked why I never attend a certain “evangelism conference” when it comes to town each year despite its lineup containing some of the SBC’s heaviest hitters. I explained that, in my opinion, one of the SBC’s biggest problems is that we’re so personality-driven. The problem with that is, of course, obvious: People disappoint but Christ never disappoints. Thus, rather than rallying around a personality, we should obviously rally around Christ and His gospel.

That, in a nutshell, was my answer. It wasn’t until I got home that I found your latest blog article on this subject, and then this morning, I found that SBC Impact had a similar post entitled, "Heroes." It could all be just a coincidence, or the Holy Spirit is beginning to move among us showing us our error.


Russ Reaves said...

I wasn't aware of the Heroes article. I will have to check it out. I guess the thing about T4G and PCRT is that, while there is always something of personality driving the conferences, it is mostly focused on the content, and the content is usually heavy theology. It is not a Holy Ghost pep rally or a meeting where the speakers are saying, "Come and we'll teach you how to do it like we do it."