A Better Way to Discern
I come from a very conservative theological background and I maintain many of those same convictions. But one thing that has changed in my heart over the years is my attitude toward people from different ministry contexts and denominations. I used to think that if their bullet points didn't line up with mine, then I was right and they were wrong.
I no longer think this way. That's not to be confused with doctrinal slippage. I feel very strongly that doctrine is vital for the life of the church and that the attempts to weaken orthodoxy by some will hurt the cause of Christ going forward. But, quite often conservatives have a "guilty until proven innocent" outlook about Christian leaders. Some self-appointed watch-bloggers view any big, successful church movement with sarcastic skepticism, as if every mega-church pastor is out to fill seats, fill coffers, and build buildings. Sure, there are charlatans on the evangelical scene. There are prosperity pastors who have watered down faith in order to find Christian fame. But unless we are God (which we are most definitely not) we are not in the position to judge their hearts. We can discern the output (teaching, books, etc). But it should be done with a humble heart, not the sort of sarcastic one-up-manship that characterizes so many self-appointed watchdogs of truth.
The truth is that there are many evangelical "celebrities" who are famous because God has blessed their teaching ministries. They are solid preachers and teachers, selfless servants. We shouldn't begrudge them their blessing. We shouldn't mask our jealousy and contempt behind a facade of fake discernment. Let's not assume the worst about our brothers and sisters in the Lord.
On the flip side, some measure orthodoxy only by numbers. I've heard a few mega-church pastors who, when garnering criticism for a particular approach, have no other defense except to say something like "It worked, people came." And they push away anyone with a helpful critique as a small-minded, unevangelistic doubter. This too is wrong and prideful. Numbers cannot be the only measure of spiritual purity, otherwise we'd be able to say that a fast-growing religion like Mormonism or Islam is God's chosen instrument of grace in this age. And I don't think orthodox Christians are prepared to do that.
Lastly, I think we have to look at successful mega-pastors as humans. This goes two ways. First, they are humans in that they will make mistakes of methodology and associations and wording and when they do, publicly, let's give them the benefit of the doubt and forgive them and move on. Let's assume their hearts are right, critique their methods, but not castigate them as the the next great heretic. Secondly, let's affirm their humanity by acknowledging that some of what a pastor offers is good and wholesome and some may not be. What I mean by this is that simply because we disagree with a pastor or speaker or leader in one area doesn't mean we should throw out all of his teaching on every area. He's human. I'm human. Some of what I write will be spiritually beneficial. Some may not. Eat the meat, throw away the bones.
Lastly, our discernment could be more balanced and less triumphant and snarky. I personally appreciate the work of guys like Trevin Wax and Kevin DeYoung. They are men who critique with humility, love and a biblical focus. They also rarely take on a subject that they don't know. I never detect mean-spiritedness or a sense of gotcha in their work. I may not always agree with Trevin or Kevin (sounds like a new oldies radio show), but I wish more bloggers would adopt their pastoral tone.
One more thing: We would all do well to speak with grace and clarity online. We will give account one day for every word spoken or written. Even those anonymous snarky comments left on articles with which we disagree.