Why aren’t unknown pastors headlining Christian conferences?


Christian conference season is in full swing once again, which means there’s inevitably going to be a flood of blog posts and tweets from various corners of the Interwebs about¬†this or that event. Some folks will be live-blogging. Others will be live-tweeting. And some will be lamenting the fact that there aren’t any “ordinary” pastors headlining anything.

I’ve wondered about this for a while. We’re all equal in Christ, after all. Those who are more obscure in their ministry have as much to say (sometimes even more) than those who are extremely well known. So why do our conferences¬†seem to focus primarily on the latter group? What’s the deal?

Why aren’t unknown¬†pastors speaking at big¬†events? The answer is actually pretty simple: it’s because¬†you wouldn’t go if they did.

Now, before anyone thinks I’m accusing any groups of propping up the so-called “Christian celebrity industrial complex,” or that I’m telling people who complain about such things to knock it off, let me tell you a story:

A few years ago, I went to a three-day conference here in Ontario, which featured several speakers (and only one of whom was fairly well-known among theology nerds like me). The location was quite accessible, located just off the 401 highway (and had free parking, even!). The word spread, sponsors and volunteers signed up… However, maybe two hundred people showed up.

A year later, a¬†big two-day men’s event was announced, again here in Ontario.¬†Three of the¬†four¬†speakers were, without question,¬†Christian celebrities (even if one of those three is anything but in his demeanor). The location was in a city’s downtown core¬†(and therefore had some challenges with parking¬†especially). Again, the word spread, sponsors and volunteers signed up‚Ķ This time, about eight thousand¬†men showed up.

Which was the more edifying event? Having attended both, the former, by far. But significantly more people went to the latter. Why? Because they wanted to hear the big name speakers.

And that’s a huge reason people go to big conferences‚ÄĒit’s not that the conference organizers are trying to perpetuate Christian celebrity-ism. It’s that people will only go if they make it worth their while. There has to be a draw.

For some people, it’s the topic. For example, TGC’s focus on the new creation in 2015¬†is really exciting to me. It’s a big¬†part of why¬†I’m going (social and personal ministry reasons aside). But some people are going, really, just because they want to hear¬†John Piper or Tim Keller speak. And that’s cool, too, as long as they’re learning.¬†If they’re¬†going only¬†to get selfies with them, though‚Ķ

But think about it: A lot of the folks who bemoan certain groups for perpetuating celebrity-ism¬†are just as guilty of it‚ÄĒthey just have different celebrities.¬†If you’ve asked John MacArthur to sign your Bible, guess what? You’re doing it because he’s Christian-famous. He is, for lack of a better term, a celebrity.

But just because MacArthur is well known doesn’t make the Shepherd’s Conference evil, any more than Tim Keller being well known makes TGC’s National Conference evil. Or Kevin DeYoung increasingly becoming well known makes T4G evil. Or‚Ķ well, you get the point.

A few bad eggs[1. See also, “peddlers of God’s Word”] aside, many of the Christian-famous Christians we know‚ÄĒwhether MacArthur, Keller, Piper, or whomever‚ÄĒare not so because they’re trying to make a name for themselves. God has simply chosen to give them a larger platform. This doesn’t mean those of us with smaller platforms don’t have anything worth contributing‚ÄĒit’s just that God has chosen to do something different in our lives compared to these other people. And that’s okay.

Also, don’t ask people to sign your Bible. It’s just weird.

5 thoughts on “Why aren’t unknown pastors headlining Christian conferences?”

  1. I agree with jpoteet2 – there is just too much mis-teaching out there to trust that someone you do not know is doctrinally correct. Also, most all the content of any conference is eventually available online. So why do we go to these big name conferences? The answer is that there is something about the fellowship and even camaraderie of like-minded Christians assembling for good sound teaching by well established, time tested, Bible teachers. We get blessed, re-charged, and re-invigorated in our Christian life.We enjoy the teaching and fellowship. We come away refreshed and hopefully we are changed and more like Christ when we leave than when we arrived.

  2. Interesting. A couple of thoughts (from a very UNknown pastor): 1) along the same lines with what jpoteet2 said, would you take vacation (if you’re a layman), hop on a plane, rent a room, rent a car, pay the fee(s), pay for the food, and sit through hours of teaching under Joe Shmoe, a guy you’ve never heard of not knowing you’re gunna get meat? I probably wouldn’t. Maybe locally, but not nationally. 2) Although I haven’t had my MSB signed, I did have a commentary signed. He’s not signing the Bible or putting his mark on God’s Word. Countless people have been blessed by the study notes and that’s why people ask him to sign it. It’s no different than signing a book or commentary.

  3. Michelle Dacus Lesley

    Does MacArthur really sign people’s Bibles? That is a little disappointing to me. I use his ESV study Bible, and noticed the other day that his signature is engraved into the leather on the front cover. It reminded me of a sitcom I saw years ago where a preacher asked a lady if she wanted him to autograph her Bible, and she said, “I don’t want anybody autographing my Bible except the One who wrote it!” I kinda feel the same way.

    1. As far as I’m aware, he does (or has). From what I understand it was a fairly common thing in more revival-y times (50s through 70s) in Baptist-ish circles. I am definitely not a big fan of even the JMac signature on the study Bible. I get why it’s there, but‚Ķ

  4. There must surely also be something to knowing what you are going to get. If a conference has speakers I don’t know, I also don’t know whether the speaker will be someone I trust, someone I know handles the Bible well, someone…well, someone WORTH listening to. There’s a lot of ‘christian’ speakers out there definitely not worth listening to. If I go hear John Piper, I know he’s trustworthy and worth the time and money to go hear.

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