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FIRST-PERSON: Reality TV meets the local church

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–The casting call might as well read, “Evangelical Christian ministers need not apply.” Oh, it doesn’t, but the warning issued by the producers of a new reality show means just that.

In what is billed as potentially groundbreaking television, the producers of “Pulpit Masters” will host a 10-week preaching competition to ferret out the next Billy Graham, or at least the nation’s next inspirational guru. You need not be a Christian preacher to participate in this contest. Welcome imams. Welcome rabbis. Welcome Krishnas. Welcome secularists and Scientologists.

Just bring your smile, your motivational melting pot of ideas about the spiritual and you, too, can be the next big thing — the person the American people look to for guidance on matters eternal. All you have to do is avoid preaching a message of “hate” and “superiority.” If you can’t comply, just climb up into your favorite recliner and watch the show like the rest of America. Watch as syncretistic religion at its finest is rammed down the nation’s throat.

The concept for the show is tragically amusing, and a virtual guarantee that people will watch. (The show’s producers are searching for a network home.) People will look for the tension between the proponents of different faiths. They’ll side with their favorite contestants. They’ll applaud when the winner is announced. They might stay up late to see their favored orator land a spot next to Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show.”

But let’s hope that “Pulpit Masters” implodes within its first few episodes. Why, you ask? Won’t this type of show be insightful? Won’t it measure the pulse of Americans’ faith in “God” — as they see Him — and the “great beyond?” Better yet, might this program possibly be a good thing?

A reporter asked me similar questions only a few days ago. He was interested in my response because I was one of the few people he’d spoken to who wasn’t enthralled with the idea of ministers competing for votes from viewers who know little or nothing about the Bible. The entire time we spoke I imagined judges similar to American Idol’s Simon, Paula and Randy “giving props” on “hot” messages, and labeling contestants part of the ministerial “dawg pound.”

Note to reader: “Dawg pound,” while it may seem derogatory as most pounds are filled with mangy, flea-infested critters, is actually an accolade. Never mind that the animals that don’t get picked up are … er, well, “removed.”

My objections to the program are simple. First, I believe this type of television show cheapens the call of God to preach the Gospel. People don’t — well, shouldn’t — enter the ministry out of a desire to impress people with eloquent speech or their appearance behind the pulpit. They preach because they are sure of God’s call and can and would do nothing else.

One of the plagues of American Christianity is that people often are attracted to the glitz and glamour of television preachers. In a way, it’s comical — men with blinding smiles in $2,000 Hickey Freeman suits, their hair and/or toupees slicked back and wearing the finest jewelry. Their performances in the strictest sense are a departure from reality because they appeal considerably more to the camera than to those whom they serve.

Consider the great preachers of American history, such as George Whitefield, Dwight L. Moody, Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, and others. They did not rise to prominence because of their eloquent delivery or appearance, though none could argue that these men were not great orators. They were given their platforms by God to preach the message God wanted preached — Christ and Christ crucified.

Further proof for this goes back some 2,000 years. Paul admitted in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 that he was a very poor speaker. He said, in fact, that he approached the church at Corinth “in weakness and in fear and trembling.” His preaching, he said, was not even “persuasive” by human standards.

The people of Corinth, however, accepted Paul’s message because the power of the Gospel was evident in his life. He had been changed and they wanted to be changed likewise — evidence that the greatest testimony a minister can offer is a contrite and gracious spirit.

This is not to say that delivery of the message isn’t important. I have heard on numerous occasions from one of Southern Baptists’ most skilled orators that “it is a sin to be boring.” But words that drip with honey and are sweet to the ear are in no way as important as the content of the message itself. God moves in the message, and His word does not return to him without having accomplished His purpose (Is. 55:11).

Second, preaching Christ and Christ crucified, and other messages from the content of Scripture, is all that can be considered reliable and trustworthy preaching. All else is preached in vain. And this is why it concerns me that this “contest” is open to people of other “faiths.”

I am not ready to allow my children — the little sponges that they are — to soak up messages based on the Koran or L. Ron Hubbard’s “Dianetics,” because I know those who preach Christ are the only preachers with a reliable, consistent and abiding message. I know that the Gospel is the only hope for the salvation of any and every human being.

Such a comment, you might guess, would get an evangelical Christian “voted off the island” just about as quickly as the contestants could gather up their tiki torches and head off to tribal council. Why? Because the nature of the Christian message, by itself, excludes all other mediators, methods and modes for salvation. And as you’ve been made aware, contestants, messages that are exclusive have an air of “superiority” and “negativity” (read “hate”) that the producers just won’t tolerate.

Thinking back over the reporter’s question of whether a televised preaching contest could possibly -— possibly -— be a good thing, I must confess that I would have to say “yes,” but only on one condition: that it is a message of hope in Jesus Christ that is proclaimed.

The Apostle Paul dealt with a similar question in his day. In Philippians 1:15-18, Paul cited several people who were preaching the Gospel out of strife and envy, and some who were preaching out of love. Both means of delivery were considered valid by Paul as long as the message was authentic and point by point a description of the glories of Christ Jesus and his ability to save sinful man.

We do not need, as Roy Fish stated at the Southern Baptist Convention recently, more “doses of psychological uplift” from smiling faces. I’m afraid that’s about all America will receive from “Pulpit Masters.”

One of the last questions my reporter friend asked about the program was whether or not I would encourage seminary students to be involved in the program. Should they heed the casting call and give their all in a three-minute audition before a panel of judges? I don’t believe so.

God does not call young men to seminary to become television stars. He calls them to learn how to exercise the gifts he has given them for use in the local church. Those local churches will extend their ministries into communities around the country and touch people the way a 30-minute or one-hour television program never could.

    About the Author

  • Gregory Tomlin