I cut my teeth as a preacher and pastor in the 1970′s and 80′s. There were not many evangelical ministers in my circles who, at one time or another, did not have serious schoolboy crushes on Chuck Swindoll.
Swindoll is the pastor of Stonebriar Community Church in Frisco, Texas, the chancellor and former president of Dallas Theological Seminary, a prominent radio preacher on Insight for Living, and a prolific author. Back in the day, he was evangelicalism’s star preacher and media face. I bought almost every one of his books and referred to them often for one thingâ€”the illustrations. Guy could tell a story and make a point. “Gifted communicator” doesn’t begin to cover it. He had more charisma and talent in the nail of his little toe than I had in my whole body. He came across as warm, caring, genuine, and friendly. His Marines training showed in the confidence with which he carried himself and in the authority with which he spoke. A protegÃ© of Howard Hendricks from Dallas Theological Seminary, he shared his mentor’s wit, humor, and infectious laugh. His smile could blind and overpower an army of critics.
Along with James Dobson, Chuck Swindoll was the heavy hitter in evangelical media in those days. He was Max Lucado, Beth Moore, Joyce Meyer, and Joel Osteen all rolled into one as far as his popularity and impact. He had a radio program, audio and video series, study guides to go along with his many bestselling books and his broadcast sermon series. He was a highly sought speaker at conferences and large Christian events. A friend once told me they had visited his church in Fullerton, CA, and saw people literally running from the parking lots to make sure they would get seats in the sanctuary to hear him preach.
I hasten to add that Chuck Swindoll is much more theologically grounded than any of the folks I mentioned above (and, after all, he became a seminary president). But in another sense it must be said that Swindoll’s celebrity-preacher status in evangelicalism arose directly from his gift as a popularizer. His radio ministry is called “Insight for Living,” and that tips you off as to his emphasis. Though he calls himself a “teacher,” I always thought of Swindoll as an “encourager,” a proponent of wisdom, a motivational speaker who happens to be a good pastor with a solid Biblical and theological foundation (at least in terms of classic dispensational theology).
Back then, however, he stood apart from his Bible-expositing peers and became evangelicalism’s star preacher on the strength of his matchless charisma and communication skills. To be blunt, he was entertaining. He made you laugh. (In one famous marketing poster for a book, Chuck straddled a motorcycle, donned riding gear, and with tongue-in-cheek, called himself “The Sermonator.”) His stories hit the emotional bullseye time and time again. In the psychological terminology that was so prevalent in that era, he came across as “authentic” and “transparent.” He could speak frankly to you and make you glad he did. His emphasis was not so much on knowing the Scriptures as it was on applying the Scriptures to life, and so he talked about marriage and family, and personal integrity, and real life issues in a way that few before him had done with such passion. And in this way he became one of the main bridges between the evangelical ethos of the past and that which became popular after himâ€”the seeker-sensitive movement with its emphasis on speaking to people’s “felt needs” rather than being all “churchy.”
That’s why I found his recent interview with Skye Jethani so interesting. Leadership Journal published the piece, called, “The Problem with Pizzazz: Has entertainment replaced Scripture as the center of our worship?” Great question, and Swindoll worries that the answer is, “Yes.”
We live in a time with a lot of technology and media. We can create things virtually that look real. We have high-tech gadgets that were not available to previous generations. And we learned that we could attract a lot of people to church if we used those things. I began to see that happening about 20 years ago. It troubled me then, and it’s enormously troubling to me now because the result is an entertainment mentality that leads to biblical ignorance.
…Some time ago a group of church leaders decided that they didn’t want to be hated. They focused just on attracting more and more people.
But if we’re here to offer something the world can’t provide, why would I want to copy the world? There is plenty of television. There are plenty of talk shows. There are plenty of comedians. But there is not plenty of worship of the true and living God.
In my opinion, Chuck Swindoll makes some spot-on observations as he talks with Jethani about how the church has become enamored of technology, how worship has become a “show” that an audience attends rather than a meeting that takes place between God and his people, and on the importance of church leaders asking tough questions of themselves and one another about how much our programming mentality is taking energy away from the real work of the ministryâ€”study, prayer, working with people. As an example of where we are placing our emphasis, he mentions one church that had twelve pastors, but seventeen on their media staff.
He is absolutely right, and I’m glad he has come out with these strong criticisms. We are missing the point, and Swindoll is unafraid to say it.
I try to keep it as simple as I can. I deliberately hold back. I don’t plan out every single phrase so that it’s timed exactly with a slick presentation. I deliberately leave room for the Spirit to lead.
We use video occasionally but about eight to ten times a year, no more. We’re not here to show videos. People have videos all week long. We use the screens for a song or two that we don’t know. Otherwise we’re using hymnals.
We try to keep it simple so that the pizzazz doesn’t become the reason to bring a neighbor. You have to come see the light show next week. Man, it is unbelievable! The thing will knock your socks off â€¦ Wrong. They can stay home and watch that on Friday night.
When you come Sunday, you’re going to focus on One who is eternal, and we’re all going to meet him together. And in doing so, we’re going to leave different than we came because we will have been in his awesome presence, and we will be ignited by the work of the Spirit within us.
At that point in the interview, Jethani asks a perceptive question: “You are a very engaging communicator. Philip Yancey even said that ‘Charles Swindoll doesn’t have a boring bone in his body.’ Some might even say that you are very entertaining to listen to. How do you reconcile that with what you’ve just said about the dangers of being entertainment driven? How do you ensure that people attracted to your ministry are engaging it for the right reason?“
Good query, but it doesn’t go far enough. For the question is not just how does one square preaching that may be entertaining with today’s entire culture of entertainment. We didn’t just wake up one morning and all of a sudden pastors and church leaders decided to focus on entertainment because of technology. This impulse of attracting people by giving them a good show runs deep in the veins of evangelicalism and has since the Great Awakenings. As for its present day manifestations, today’s technologies and church growth philosophies supporting their use were being formulated and developed in the very years when evangelicalism was rising and Chuck Swindoll became a “star.”
And that’s why the real question is, “Do you feel partly responsible for creating this culture of entertainment, given the way you emphasized “relevance” and held such celebrity status for your entertaining, popular-level preaching, writing, and media productions back when evangelicalism was rising as a cultural force in America?”
Chuck Swindoll was able to answer the first question pretty easily, just by saying, well yes I have gifts, but I try to be real and let people see I’m genuine and not just some slick presenter. The other question is more complex and much more difficult to address. And lest you miss my point, I am not trying to lay this whole problem at Swindoll’s feet. I am saying that it is easy to point a critical finger at current practices and at the same time fail to see that one may bear some blame for their existence and prevalence because of past actions and attitudes.
I know I do. I was part of that same evangelical system that brought James Dobson and Chuck Swindoll, contemporary Christian music, and the Christian media world into prominence. I bought Chuck’s books and if you heard me preach, you probably heard his stories and illustrations. I used his video series in church classes and small groups, and listened to his tapes and radio program in the car. Like multitudes of Christians, I thought the way of faithfulness to Jesus was to buy what the Christian market was promoting and selling. I wanted music I enjoyed, first and foremost. I wanted preachers to make me laugh as they told me how to live. I wanted everything wrapped in slick, attractive packaging. I wanted to look good, feel good, and I wanted everything I ingested to go down easy.
I confess. I helped lay some of the foundations for the Christian-industrial entertainment complex.
I’d like to give permission to some of the younger generation of leaders like Skye Jethani, who see that we have a big problem with this, to start asking even harder questions of their elders, like, “How did we get to this place, father?”
There is a whole generation of us that should hear that question and, in response, repent. But it may not happen. If repentance is real, you see, it doesn’t feel too good. And we’ve never liked that.