I have been pondering this question ever since my meeting with four pastors in Birmingham last Sunday night. Although this topic didn't come up specifically, something was said that made me start wondering who is the most influential pastor in America. It's a fun exercise if you are into that sort of thing (and I am) because there is no right answer. Influence is a slippery term, hard to define and hard to measure, and influence changes over time. Suppose someone could make an authoritative list of the 10 most influential pastors in America in 1970. If such a list existed, I doubt that anyone on that list would be on a similar list in 2006. For one thing, most of those pastors would be retired by now--or promoted to the Home Office.
A few months ago Church Report Magazine published a list of the 50 Most Influential Churches in America. But this is really a list of the most influential pastors, which isn't surprising because influential churches always have strong, influential leaders. Here are the top ten on the list:
1) Bill Hybels
2) Rick Warren
3) Andy Stanley
4) Ed Young, Jr.
5) Joel Osteen
6) Bob Russell
7) Craig Groeschel
8) T. D. Jakes
9) Jim Cymbala
10) Larry Osborne
The whole article is well worth reading and pondering. Doing a quick check, I recognized 38 out of the 50 names. In terms of media exposure, it would hard to argue against Rick Warren's phenomenal influence. If it is possible, he may be more influential in the general culture than he is inside the evangelical movement. As a side note, neither Bill Hybels or Rick Warren has a media ministry in the typical sense of the word. The survey also shows the rise of the younger generation. A number of these pastors are hugely influential among the under-30 crowd.
Again, remembering that influence is at least partly in the eye of the beholder, I'm going to cast my own vote for John Piper (number 42 on the list) as the most influential pastor in America today. In saying that, I have to qualify my comment several ways. His name recognition with the general public could not begin to compare with Rick Warren's. For that matter, it couldn't compare with many of the other names on the list, especially those with large media ministries. But if you ask me whose name I hear talked about when pastors get together, it's John Piper. His ministry is called Desiring God. Part of his appeal to pastors is that he doesn't fit neatly into the usual categories. For instance, he is just now wrapping up a seven-and-a-half-year preaching series through Romans. Not many pastors could do that nor could their congregations endure it. But Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis has grown and flourished and expanded in all sorts of ways during these years. He is thoroughly Reformed in his theology with a heart for world missions, a passion for the inner city, a desire to care for the poor, and while he resists the modern "seeker-sensitive" trends, young people flock to his ministry because he speaks with flaming passion. Admittedly, he isn't every one's cup of tea, but neither was Jonathan Edwards, whose spirit Piper seems to embody.
Last Sunday night Piper's name came up during my meeting with four Southern Baptist pastors. When I remarked that he doesn't preach they way we were taught in seminary, one man responded, "But he preaches with passion." And he puts his sermons on the Internet--over 1500 so far--plus the full text of all his books. And it's all free. Plus he writes poetry. And he has survived prostate cancer surgery in the last year.
People used to call Martyn Lloyd-Jones the "last of the Puritans," which was a compliment unless you didn't like the Puritans. John Piper isn't exactly a Puritan, or maybe he is. He coined the term "Christian hedonism," and he has a knack for writing memorable lines such as, "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him." Seventeen syllables, perfectly balanced, summarizing an entire philosophy of life.
Not everyone looks to John Piper as a role model, but he is influencing a whole generation of younger pastors. Sometimes I read his stuff and I think, "He's not of this world," which might be the finest thing you can say about a pastor. He certainly isn't like most of the other pastors on the list, and that's why he get my vote for the most influential pastor in America.
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