Pastors in the spotlight

There’s a tension between James’ warning in chapter 3, verse 1 of his epistle that not many of us should aspire to be teachers, and Peter’s encouragement (1 Peter 3:15) that we should always be ready to give an answer for the hope within us. Maybe we could see the middle way as a discouragement to “pick a fight for Jesus” but also acknowledgement that sometimes we must stick out our necks and thoughtfully speak for God’s people.

We could all give examples of those who missed the middle way. Some seek the office of gospel provocateur and others are unprepared when plainly asked to explain the good news. I can think of times when I have run afoul of both scriptural admonitions. Rather than dwell on occasions when someone has done it wrong, I’d like to highlight those who’ve been exemplars of godly and articulate humility when called into the spotlight.

Some national figures have a reputation for doing it right. I was always impressed by the way Jerry Falwell handled the spotlight. He never seemed all that impressed or fearful to be on camera. That allowed him to be winsome and clearheaded when asked about one thing or another. There was an aspect of natural poise at work here—not all of us have that—but also a perspective that helped him focus on the person asking questions. In a different way, Albert Mohler of Southern Seminary does an excellent job of answering every interviewer with the gospel message. Ask him about the decline of marriage and he’ll answer with something pertinent and clear, but he’ll also bring the discussion back to the gospel. Clearly, sharing the gospel is why he’s on TV; the other subject is often a mere entrée. Richard Land is also notable as an effective spokesman for biblical truth, including the main message of biblical revelation. Being smart doesn’t hurt, but intentionally focusing on the main thing seems to be what separates those who should be on camera from those who shouldn’t.

Right before Christmas, a group of East Texas pastors had a chance to give an answer for the hope within them. This was occasioned when a media-hungry group of radicals from the North decided to mess with Texas—particularly the nativity scene on the lawn of the Henderson County courthouse. In response, the Henderson County judge, the Texas attorney general, and 5,000 residents who attended a rally on Dec. 17 politely disagreed with the atheist agitators. A political rally or an angry response to outside meddlers is too easy, though. Pastor Robert Welch of Rock Hill Baptist Church in Brownsboro led rally attenders to understand that the baby in the manger was also the Lamb of God then and the Lamb of God now. He shared the gospel with the crowd while he had their attention. So did Pastor Erick Graham of Sand Springs Baptist in Athens. After decrying various significant problems faced by county residents, Pastor Graham pointed to Jesus as the answer to the needs of all men and women. Pastor Nathan Lorick of First Baptist Malakoff had multiple opportunities to share with the media. In the interview I heard, he approached the situation with humility and confidence, never forgetting that his call is to the lift up the Lord.

Perhaps you saw a startling photo of Pastor Robert Jeffress on the cover of D Magazine recently. I’ll admit that I dreaded reading the article because I assumed the magazine that once referred to W.A. Criswell as Dallas’ “best 19th century man” (in a bad way) would attempt a hatchet job on the current pastor of the famous First Baptist Dallas. And perhaps the writer meant to do a hatchet job when he began a few days of shadowing Pastor Jeffress. The result, however, was an article the church could hand out as a promotional piece. The article was very positive. In the author’s own testimony, the fact that Pastor Jeffress was kind and caring and genuine won him over on a personal level. Clearly the writer and the pastor did not change one another’s minds regarding hot button issues of the day but the article portrayed a pastor who believed God’s Word and cared very much about the eternal destinies of people, including the magazine writer. Robert Jeffress has on several occasions found himself at the center of media attention and he has acquitted himself well. I’m most impressed, though, that a writer who may have begun with some negative assumptions about the subject of his article came away days later convinced that the pastor is the real deal. There aren’t many finer things we might have said about us.  

From the example of these men, I offer a couple of suggestions that you should have in the back of your mind if the unexpected should happen.

First, remember your message. Pundits are everywhere. People who know a little about a lot of things are useful but not crucial at most points. Men who spend their days and nights listening to God and preaching his Word are irreplaceable. Regardless of what has attracted a reporter to your message, direct his attention to your main point. I pray that this point is always the gospel.

Second, remember your calling. This is a little different from the first point. It is very tempting to make your time on camera or in print about how people perceive you. It’s natural to want to avoid embarrassing ourselves just as it is natural to want people to like us. Put those away. Vanity is a common way that good interviewers get people to say more than they intend. Your calling is always higher and more important than your reviews. That perspective will set you free.

Finally, remember your audience. You’re talking to people—reporters, photographers, technicians, any number of people in the room with you who will edit the footage or copy later. Genuine concern for them will likely be refreshing and rare in their experience. Sometimes God gives you a few minutes of fame for the sake of one or two people you wouldn’t have otherwise met.

So listen to Peter; gentleness and respect will win your message a hearing. Listen to James; don’t be overly eager to take on added accountability. But also listen to those who’ve been good examples as they had a few moments on the public stage. When your moment comes, you’ll understand how challenging and significant those few moments can be.

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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