Union University
Union University Dept of Language


The Mediation of Pastoral Ministry

Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship

February 3, 2010 - Despite the incisive criticism of polling by social critic Neil Postman in his book, Technopoly, polling data continues to fascinate. According to a recent poll of Protestant pastors conducted by the research division of LifeWay, Billy Graham tops the list of the most influential living preachers. (Betcha didn’t see that coming!)

The study apparently asked pastors to “name the top three living Christian preachers that most influence you.” On the face of it, the question seems simple enough. But the results of the survey as a whole suggested that a deeper analysis is warranted.

Postman pointed out that “the technique of polling promotes the assumption that an opinion is a thing inside people that can be exactly located and extracted by the pollster’s questions.” This, Postman believed, is false. He explains, “An opinion is not a momentary thing but a process of thinking, shaped by the continuous acquisition of knowledge and the activity of questioning, discussion, and debate … we might better say that people do not exactly ‘have’ opinions but are, rather, involved in ‘opinioning.’ That an opinion is conceived of as a measurable thing falsifies the process by which people, in fact, do their opinioning.”

Consider the question that LifeWay pollsters asked the pastors. “Name the top three living Christian preachers that most influence you.” Properly interpreted, the injunction requires a complex conjunctive intellectual task. In the first place, the pastor polled must think about who, in his opinion, is one of the top three living Christian preachers. (How does one begin to evaluate such a matter?) Beyond this, the pastor must reflect on whether said preacher is, in his opinion, among those who “most influenced” him. (How does one begin to measure this kind of influence?) Thus, it could turn out that those preachers who have had the most influence are not among those that the pastor considers the “top three.” After all, it’s at least possible for a pastor to think that “Preacher X” is the greatest living preacher ever, even though “Preacher X” has had little to no influence in his life.

All of this, of course, depends upon what is meant by “influence” and “top.” And there’s a good chance that most who responded to the poll weren’t such sticklers about the ambiguities inherent in the question. Responding to such an inquiry doesn’t require this much reflection in our day and age. Polls are ubiquitous. And it is our virtual civic duty to set aside such Scholastic quibbles in order to respond to the pollster’s desire to solicit what is perhaps mostly an emotive response. In the end, all such questions amount to this: “Tell me who (or what) you like the most.” (Think of the American Idol phenom.)

Herein lies the cause for the greatest concern about the results of LifeWay’s polling data. After Billy Graham, those figures who round out the top 10 as being among the top Christian preachers who have most influenced today’s Protestant pastors are, one and all, mediated personae. Each is, in his or her own right, a towering figure on the national, and more importantly, mediated landscape.

The causes of concern are these. First, if we assume that responses indicate genuine influence (as opposed to mere affection), then a statistically significant number of Protestant pastors are being shaped by an increasingly narrow range of influences. Since Protestants in general and evangelicals in particular self-consciously reject the centralization of religious authority in Rome, it would be odd to see it voluntarily coalesce around a rather small subset of Christian leaders within evangelicalism.

Second, the poll results create an unsustainable model for the transmission of pastoral leadership. Young pastors may unwittingly begin to think such results normative. A young pastor might be tempted to think: “Since these Christian preachers have had the ‘most influence’ on pastors today, I ought to look to them as models for my own ministry.” The realities of Christian ministry are, for the vast majority of pastors, not remotely like the orbits within which these 10 celebrities dwell. Thus, teaching young pastors to envision their own ministries in such terms creates the risk of both covetousness and despair, neither of which produce the faithfulness needed most.

Finally, the poll results arguably suggest that a statistically significant number of Protestant pastors are, in fact, most influenced neither by Billy Graham nor Charles Stanley nor Rick Warren nor John MacArthur nor any other of the top 10 living preachers. Instead, the results suggest that the greatest “living” preacher of our time is “Reverend Medium.” Reverend Medium is more about form than content. One might argue (as did Marshall McLuhan) that his media are his message. Wherever content is broadcast (e.g., tv, radio, books, internet, etc.) Reverend Medium is sure to make an appearance. Thus, when asked to name the top three living Christian preachers who have most influenced them, a significant number of Protestant pastors cannot help but think of figures who are themselves members of Reverend Medium’s “church.”

In writing to Timothy, the apostle Paul provided the model for the transmission of pastoral leadership: “. . . what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” Real pastoral influence requires a context of “presence” in which the deposit of faith (“what you have heard from me”) can be “entrusted to faithful” followers. If when we think of the greatest living preachers what comes to mind are mediated personae – with whom we may or may not have ever had the contact of personal presence, then we are not thinking of living presences surrounded by many witnesses capable of entrusting anything to us. Instead, we are potentially thinking of mere images of our own making, also known as idols.