Nobodies for Jesus: Popularity and the Proclamation of the Gospel

By Cade Campbell

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us – don’t tell!
They’d banish – you know!

How dreary to be somebody!
How public like a frog
To tell one’s name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
-Emily Dickinson

Fame is a fickle food
Upon a shifting plate
Whose table once a
Guest but not
The second time is set.
Whose crumbs the crows inspect
And with ironic caw
Flap past it to the Farmer’s Corn –
Men eat of it and die.
– Emily Dickinson

I love Westerns, and I’ve always liked the Young Guns movies. If you recall, they recount the rise (and supposed) fall of Billy the Kid and his band of regulators in the land wars of New Mexico during the closing decades of the nineteenth century. One of the best known lines from those movies is a statement that Billy (played by Emilio Estevez) would sometimes say just before finishing an opponent off with one of his six-shooters. He’d flash his charming smile and say to the guy he was about to kill, “I’ll make you famous.” What he meant was clear. He was an outlaw, but more importantly, he was a celebrity and his victims would be recorded for history for one simple reason: They had been gunned down by the (in)famous Kid.

That’s a brilliant line in the movie. The problem is that far too often I want to believe Jesus said those words right after he called me to follow him. I mean, wasn’t that part of the “disciple-deal” that was running the week I believed the gospel? Didn’t Jesus say to “go and make disciples of all the nations…and I’m gonna make you famous sometime in the process?” Didn’t he hint at a book deal and a conference tour? No? Did I misunderstand something?

There really is a nasty little insatiable egotist in all of us, isn’t there? We like to shine, and not just as lights to the world. We like the limelight. We enjoy being known. We like being thought well of. We like to be praised. We hoard compliments. At least I do. Seriously…feel free to tell me how wonderful I am in the comments section! Somewhere deep down in us is a Satanic whisper that suggests that maybe the Trinity would really be improved if it were a quartet, with ourselves, of course, singing the fourth and lead part.

I’ll confess that I’m no different. Not long after the town where I pastor (Henryville, Indiana) suffered a direct hit from a powerful EF-4 tornado back in March 2012, in our own small way we were catapulted to attention. I was interviewed by news stations. We had stories written and published in journals, papers, and denominational magazines. We were invited to meet some of our heroes (like John Piper). And when I walked around the campus of Southern Seminary, where I was working on my Master’s degree, suddenly a whole lot of people knew who I was. Professors would stop and talk. People I’d only seen around the hallways suddenly became friends. Overnight I went from being nobody to still being a nobody who felt like a somebody some of the time. And I liked it.

But I don’t think I’m unique to the temptation to revel in a spotlight (however small that spotlight may be). It’s a snare that can snap our souls. It’s a landmine hiding just beneath the sandy surface of all pastoral ministry. Pastors, those of us who spend our lives publicly preaching and teaching God’s word, are especially vulnerable to the poisoned diet of praise. It’s easy to rationalize it after all. We want to be effective communicators. We want people to enjoy, long for, and verbalize their love for hearing God’s word preached and taught. It just happens to be an added bonus if in the process they particularly enjoy hearing us preach and teach God’s word. When your bread and butter, what you spend your life doing for a living, is proclaiming the Kingdom of God, there is always the tendency to go ahead and pad our own kingdoms (and résumés) as part of the package deal.

We might want to think this would only be a trap for those vague “celebrity pastors,” and by that I mean well known pastors of very large churches who are influential beyond their immediate sphere of ministry. We might want to sit back and smugly assure ourselves that this is a poison that only church leaders connected to mega churches are threatened by. But that’s not the truth. Our Napoleon Complexes can flex out of control whether our local church has a membership of twenty or twenty thousand. Our names don’t have to be on the cover of a bestselling book for our egos to expand. Having our names on the inside of a worship bulletin will do just fine.

Paul understood how ministry in a local church could destroy us, and he worked with all his might to counteract the hero-worship and preacher-centered addictions that could ensnare believers (whether those addicted are pastors or not). No wonder he warned churches not to appoint elders who were recent converts. He knew that it was still a struggle for mature believers to not become “puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil” (1 Timothy 3:6 ).

We especially see him fighting this cancer of conceit, this disease of distinction, in the local church at Corinth. It seems they had a dangerous tendency to dance far too close to the edge of emphasizing the messenger in place of the message. They had their lists of favorite podcasts, their list of preachers that had influenced them the most, and they unabashedly wanted to see “their guy” at the top, invited in for the next Corinth Conference. If Paul was said to not be ashamed of the gospel, then Corinth was not ashamed of preachers of the gospel, the good ones anyway. The thing is, though, it wasn’t quite clear whether that was because they loved the gospel or just the sound of the applause echoing from a good line. He came out of the gate in 1 Corinthians by beating back the blasphemy of fan-boys who too eagerly celebrated Apollos, or Peter, or Paul, while regulating Jesus to an “also-appearing” billing on the promotional posters (1 Corinthians 1:10-17 ).

Paul had his work cut out for him. So he gave the Corinthians a beautiful (but intentionally understated) example to follow. When Paul got around to writing 2 Corinthians the church was still battling that rank-infestation of a celebrity Christian-culture. So he started again emphasizing what real gospel ministry looks like when he wrote that “what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants…” (2 Corinthians 4:5 ). Then as he begins to segue to the upcoming fundraiser for the Jerusalem believers he informs the Corinthians that he’s sending some of his associates to collect their contributions, and he’s also sending them a little something extra. He’s sending them a bona-fide preaching rock-star!

In 2 Corinthians 8:16 Paul tells the church that he is sending Titus to oversee their financial collection. Then in verse 18 he (seemingly) offhandedly mentions that he is sending someone else. And notice how he refers to that other man accompanying Titus: “With him we are sending the brother who is famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel.” Paul is sending someone who is famous. What are we to make of this remark?

Well, I want you to see several things:

First, notice that the brother is genuinely the recipient of recognition and renown. He has a reputation. He is legitimately famous. Paul isn’t given to exaggeration. He isn’t being hyperbolic. We should take him at his word. The guy can “bring it” in the pulpit and people know it.

Second, observe that the mystery man’s renown is widespread. His reputation has spread “among all the churches.” He’s not just a local-yokel that made it big and has made his home church proud. Churches all over the Mediterranean world have heard about him. He’s probably being asked to write blurbs on the backs of books. He may be a repeat guest on the sold-out conference circuit.

Third, don’t overlook that his reputation is all about preaching the gospel. His reputation isn’t built on his charisma, personality, or preaching style (something the Corinthians valued greatly). He’s well known not because he can pack out an auditorium. He’s well known because of the message he proclaims so powerfully.

Fourth, look at what he is doing and who he is doing it for. He’s “famous” but he’s presented to us here as just an errand-runner. He’s one of Paul’s many associates. He’s not in charge of this envoy. He’s not on center-stage. He’s not headlining the preaching conference. He’s not even the chairman of this offering-committee. He’s taking second-place to Titus. Not only that, watch how he is so willingly submitting to the second-place position in service to the church. He’s not building a brand. He’s not out generating excitement for an “I’m Famous For Preaching the Gospel Ministries International.” He’s a servant, and he’s a servant of the local church. This brother believes that the local church is where it’s at. He’s a churchman.

Finally, be blown away at one little detail Paul doesn’t tell us. Does something jump out at you that seems to just be missing? There’s a huge flashing sign screaming for our attention: Paul doesn’t name the brother who is famous! Now, you may say, “well he didn’t have to; his fame preceded him.” That may be true, but Paul doesn’t usually shrink back from naming his associates, those he sends as messengers to the churches. In this context he’s just named Titus! The believers certainly knew who Titus was, and he was still named. No, I think Paul was being subversively intentional. He kept the man’s identity anonymous to make a point. The fame that Paul valued (and that God values) is a fame that is gospel-soaked and church-serving. He wanted to make it clear: True greatness, greatness in being passionate for the gospel, does not require us to have our name written down in an inspired book that believers will be reading for thousands of years. Our sanctification, and his, did not demand a shout-out.

This unknown brother is presented to us as a model for ministry, for pastors and for non-pastors alike. He is complimented. He is commended. But who he is isn’t allowed to overshadow the message he preaches. We know that he preached the gospel, and that’s all we need to know. We don’t have to know his name. All we need to know is that the name of Jesus was always on his lips. Later in that same passage we’re told that this unknown brother had been tested in the fires of ministry (v. 22). He isn’t an upstart. He’s a veteran of ministry, and then Paul closes by making the point even clearer. He refers to the brother (among “the brothers”) as “messengers of the churches, the glory of Christ” (v. 23). This “servant in the shadows” was of one mind with Paul. He didn’t preach himself, he preached Jesus and merely presented himself as the church’s servant for the sake of Christ. He was a servant, a servant that knew that the spotlight of God’s glory could only be enjoyed when we’re in the shadows, shadows where our egos don’t try to eclipse his excellencies, where our pride doesn’t try to embezzle his preeminence.

This famous brother, whose name we’ll never know this side of glory, understood the truth of the gospel. The gospel doesn’t exist to make us famous. Jesus’ fame is doing quite well on its own. He doesn’t need to be a part of our entourage to improve his status. True greatness is in the service of the gospel, whether anyone ever hears of us or not.

I’m reading a great little book right now titled The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks. It recounts the day to day and season to season work of a modern day shepherd living and working the fell lands of Northern England’s Lake District. Rebanks’ father and grandfather and great grandfather have worked the land and the sheep before him, and near the front of his narrative he writes this: “My grandfather was, quite simply, one of the great forgotten silent majority of people who live, work, love, and die without leaving much written trace that they were ever here. He was, and we his descendants remain, essentially nobodies as far as anyone else is concerned. But that’s the point…This is a landscape of modest hardworking people. The real history of our landscape should be the history of the nobodies.”

That sentiment is very close to the vision of Count Ludwig Von Zinzendorf, whose aim was to “preach the gospel, die, and be forgotten.” We can be forgotten and unknown so long as Jesus isn’t. Jesus isn’t Billy the Kid. He’s not in the business of making sure our name is remembered throughout the centuries. He knew (and still knows) that being united with him forever, enjoying his glory always, is more than enough for eternity.

______________________________

Cade Campbell is the Associate Pastor for Preaching and Discipleship at First Baptist Church of Henryville, Indiana. You can follow him at @DCadeCampbell.

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