Trevin Wax recently wrote a widely distributed post entitled "Why Your Podcast Shouldn't Be Your Pastor." He raised some important points about the proliferation of content over the Internet. Its easy today to consume the best of contemporary evangelical pastors simply by downloading them through iTunes or listening online. While this is a wonderful blessing of 21st-century technology, Trevin had some concerns about it's erosion of the local pastor's ministry and authority. He writes:
But just because we cannot and should not point fingers at each other regarding the problem of celebrity does not mean that we shouldn’t carefully consider the ramifications of pastoral influence being mediated through technology instead of the local church. I offer these thoughts not as a point of criticism but as one of concern. And I’m open to suggestions as to how to lift up local church pastors and celebrate their influence and mentoring.
Aaron Armstrong expanded on Trevin's analysis and offered some reasons why increasingly celebrity pastors and their podcasts are becoming more popular in today's America. He suggests it's a rebellious anti-authority mindset in the local church combined with a dearth of good Biblical preaching. I'm not sure I completely agree with that assessment, but it does have merit.
However, while I agree that a podcast shouldn't be a pastor, I also think a pastor shouldn't be your only podcast. Let me explain. Sure, Tim Keller or John Piper or Chuck Swindoll or Matt Chandler can't possibly serve the role that your local pastor should serve. As a local church pastor, I believe strongly in the importance of the local church and the role of a shepherd.
However, just as there is a danger in making a celebrity pastor your personal pastor, there is an equal and opposite danger in making your local pastor your only source of preaching and teaching. I have seen this danger in more legalistic contexts, where it is encouraged to listen exclusively the local pastor as the single source of Bible teaching and instruction. This can be dangerous in two ways.
First, it reduces the people's consuming of spiritual content and preaching to one, maybe two days a week. It also discourages further study of a passage. I regularly encourage my people to read good books by well-known preachers, especially on a particular subject. I encourage them to podcast preachers I recommend -- because I want them to expand in their knowledge of the Scriptures beyond what I can give them in my weakness and limitations. I want to encourage rather than discourage further study. I'm tickled pink when I hear that my people are listening to messages and growing in their faith. Yes, you have the occasional comparison (Tim Keller says this, what do you think?), but mostly I don't view other pastors as competition but as gifted instruments of teaching whose preaching only supplements my work in strengthening my local body.
Secondly, it sets up the pastor as the sole arbiter or interpreter of Scripture. Ideally, I'd like my people to be Bereans who faithfully search the Scriptures. Some areas are open to more than one interpretation. My interpretation of a particular passage may be flawed. So I like the accountability of the larger body of Christ, especially the theologically conservative mainstream. That's not to say I invite a sort of discernment ministry that feeds on nitpicky arguments and legalistic judgmentalism. But I don't want to be the only voice my people hear. At times there are pastors and teachers whose preaching may provoke life change in my people that I had no part in. I'm fine with that. I don't have to be the sole change agent. If a radio pastor, on a particular day in a particular text, causes one of my people to experience a moment of repentance and surrender and life change, that's a win for him and for me.
And consider a person who sits under false teaching for many years and because of the exalted position of his pastor, never hears biblical preaching that conflicts with the false teaching. He continues, not knowing he's not been exposed to truth.
So, in summary, I agree with my friends, Trevin Wax and Aaron Armstrong. The blessing of spiritual content in today's advanced world should never replace the faithful presence of the local church and a shepherd. Nothing is as important as faithful, biblical preaching by pastors, week in and week out.
However, well-known pastors and their podcasts can, if we allow them, be a supplement to local pastoral ministry.