It might seem like a strange idea. Gather seven influential pastors in one room and set up debates so they can slug out their differences. People will pay to see it. In fact, they will pay to watch it on a simulcast. They will even drive in the wee hours of the morning to get to the simulcast. Well, at least I did.

The Elephant Room consisted of James MacDonald, Greg Laurie, Mark Driscoll, Matt Chandler, David Platt, Perry Noble, and Steven Furtick. Conversations were arranged that would include two of them and a moderator (MacDonald or Driscoll), with the other four voicing their opinions with thumbs up/down lights and just plain interjecting. The conversations were light sometimes, but very heated at others. There was plenty of jesting, but some very hard words between these pastors as well. All in all, it was a great look at some difficult subject with an eye toward understanding. Here’s a review:

Conversation #1: The Weekend Service: evangelism vs sanctification. Steven Furtick and Matt Chandler.

Furtick began by stating that Jesus’ mission was to seek and save the lost; that the physician comes for the sick and not the healthy. Chandler replied that an infant breastfeeding is cute. A 19 year old breastfeeding is disturbing. He pointed out that the Ephesian church grew big but Paul instructed Timothy to guard doctrine.

Both agreed that the caricature of the debate is “You don’t care about Content/You puff people up with knowledge”

Chandler took issue with Furtick rebuking his congregation for wanting to grow deeper when their were lost people to reach. Furtick explained that by “deeper” he meant people coming to fulfill a selfish desire to know more or be more spiritual. Driscoll interjected that Furtick’s church is very young and is still “All wedding and no funerals.” Naturally, everyone agreed that evangelism is important. “If a church will not evangelize, it will fossilize” was Greg Laurie’s comment. Furtick and Noble (both known for pastoring more seeker-oriented churches) both argued that evangelism is not contrary to preaching the word. Platt offered some great wisdom when he said that it is much more effective to send Christians out than to expect to draw thousands of unbelievers to hear him preach.

In the end, both “sides” realized that they were caricaturizing the other and offered the better definition of “preaching to Christians with a mind to the lost” (Chandler) vs preaching the word in order to win the lost.

Conversation #2: Culture in the church vs Church in the culture. Perry Noble and Mark Driscoll.

This conversation was not initially very polarizing, as both pastors are known for embracing culture beyond what a normal church might. Noble argued, “the church is answering questions that nobody is asking.” He pointed to scriptural examples of Paul using the idol of the unknown god and God using astrology to speak to the wise men as examples of using culture to speak truth.

Driscoll said that the question of culture in the church comes down to where do you contextualize and where do you contend? He said that culture fits into three categories: what should be rejected, what should be received, and what should be redeemed.

However, the conversation did get a bit heated when it was mentioned that Noble’s church played the AC/DC song, “Highway to Hell” as an opening to their Easter service. MacDonald pulled no punches in giving his opinion that it was way over the line and said that Noble had sinned in doing so. MacDonald said he had no question as to Noble’s Godly motives, but that the action was wrong. All but Furtick said that they would not have made that choice (with Platt saying “absolutely not”). Dricoll, however made one point in defense of Noble:

“We hammer guys who go too far. Why not hammer the guys who don’t go far enough? John Coward would never have “highway to hell” played in his church, but he’s got a highway to hell in his church.”

Noble continued to defend the service by stating that it works. “Were those salvations real? If you get to heaven, I guess you can ask them.” Chandler replied, “I know someone who came to Christ when his mother was run over by a car, but I don’t want to start that ministry.”

Though this conversation will most likely be remembered for “Highway to Hell” the real gold was Driscoll explaining how to properly evaluate culture. The categories of reject, receive, and redeem provide much room for though, beyond the normal response of “the lowest IQ on the internet simply saying, “it’s worldly!”

Conversation #3: Do Compassion Ministries help or hinder the Gospel? David Platt and Greg Laurie

There was not a lot of disagreement in this conversation. All agreed that compassion ministries are important and all agreed that churches must be careful that they never hinder telling the Gospel. Laurie warned of churches calling compassion ministries “evangelism” when they never share the Gospel. Noble mentioned that compassion ministries often turn in to social justice ministries “which save people from hell on earth but damns them to hell for eternity.”

The most controversial statement was MacDonald who said that compassion ministries were for the body of Christ and evangelism was for those outside the body of Christ. This statement did not get near enough attention. One of the irritating things about the day was that MacDonald could make statements like this and not get a lot of heat for them. His house, his rules. He was also good at misrepresenting some of the others’ ideas for the sake of argument, but I’ll address that in a later conversation.

Platt said it best when he said that he does compassion ministries globally “simply because of the overflow of Christ in us.”

Conversation #4: Can’t we all just get along vs My way or the highway. Steven Furtick and James MacDonald.

“You listen to Joel Olsteen and John Piper? That’s like saying ‘I’m a meat-eating vegetarian!’” (Driscoll)

Furtick recently posted a blog in which he named off the preachers he enjoyed listening to. Some were those common to people in the Elephant Room and others (such as T.D. Jakes, Joyce Meyers, and Joel Olsteen) were of questionable doctrine. Furtick defended himself by stating that he was a “big boy” and could eat the fish and leave the bones. MacDonald’s frank reply was “I wish you would grow up.” The problem for most seem to be that Furtick may be able to discern, but his followers may not. This lead to quite a discussion regarding how pastors should handle false doctrines and teachers of false doctrines that seem to be so popular today.

Furtick emphatically called for pastors to be known for what they are for rather than what they are against. Driscoll warned that both wolves and shepherds love sheep. “It’s a shepherd’s job to shoot the wolf for the love of the sheep.”

“Everyone claps at ‘shoot the wolf’ until someone says you’re a wolf “ (Furtick)

Perry Noble offered the most practical advice when he said that calling a wolf should be done by the elders of the church and based on doctrine.

How do they all distinguish the wolves? The metaphor was brought up that some issues are national borders while others are state borders. They were all in agreement: Inerrancy of scripture, Christ is the only way of salvation, man is sinful, and more are national borders while speaking in tongues, modes of church leadership, etc are state borders. What about hell (with someone saying “love wins)? All agreed, that topic is a national border.

Conversation #5: Multi-Site: Personality Cult or God’s Greater Glory? Matt Chandler and Perry Noble.

This conversation was a bit one sided. 6 of the 7 pastors have mult-site churches. (Multi-site churches are churches that have several locations but still have one primary teaching pastor). I appreciated hearing Matt Chandlers reservations and ultimately his reasons for going to the mult-site format, and I gained some new insight as to why this might be a good idea. Driscoll mentioned that satellite locations are more successful than church plants. Furtick mentioned that satellite locations tend to teach the congregation be less consumerist.

Still, what came across the most was ego. It just seemed to me that many of these pastors think they are irreplaceable. MacDonald even said, “why do I need to give the most fruitful years of my ministry for someone else?” As a pastor of a small church (the average church in America, by the way) I could only think that some of these guys are out of touch with how most churches function. Of course, what do I know about a mega-church? All in all, it was interesting to hear their thought processes.

Conversation #6: Prosperity Gospel or Poverty Gospel? James MacDonald and David Platt.

If people are not remembering the Elephant Room for “Highway to Hell” then they are talking about goldfish crackers: the subject of a heated debate in conversation number six.

David Platt began by giving many of the arguments of his best-selling book, Radical. “Any approach to money must be a look at the world through the lens of the word.” “Money is not inherently evil but it is very dangerous in the hands of sinful man”

MacDonald was very aggressive from the outset, but he was arguing against the idea that poverty is inherently spiritual; a stance David Platt was not taking. This misrepresentation or misunderstanding of Platt framed the entire argument. Platt even said:

“I don’t tell my people not to make money. I tell them to make a lot of money. Use your God-given gifts, but your standard of living doesn’t have to increase. Your standard of giving does.”

MacDonald continued to argue against the idea that poverty is spiritual. He claimed that people are jumping on a poverty bandwagon, and that pulpit committees are using Radical to beat down pastors and force them into poverty. (I pastor in one of the most impoverished counties in the country. I have encouraged my congregation to read Radical. I have not been beaten down about it.)

The conversation hit its lowest point when MacDonald mentioned that he heard that the kids at Platt’s church were not allowed to have Cheez-its so that more money could go toward missions. Platt said that was “close” and began to explain how every department in the church had given certain things up in order to advance the Gospel overseas. The pre-school kids chose to forgo their Goldfish Crackers. I say began to explain because at that point, Driscoll and MacDonald would hardly let Platt speak. I respect all three pastors, but I have to admit, Platt’s humility was the example to follow.

Conversation #7: Love the Gospel vs Share the Gospel. Mark Driscoll and Greg Laurie.

The final conversation centered on the competing priorities of evangelism and doctrine. There was essentially no disagreement here. Everyone agreed that doctrine is important as is reaching the lost. Laurie challenged pastors to be personally involved in evangelism. Driscoll compared those who focus too much on doctrine this way:

We’re gun collectors not soldiers. We have this nice, beautiful antique gun collection that we’re proud of. We spend lots of time and effort keeping it clean and showing it off. Shoot something!

Conclusion

The Elephant Room ended with a quick Q and A that basically answered questions pertaining to famous pastors (eg. How do you deal with celebrity?)

All in all, it was a great event. I really enjoyed hearing theses pastors discuss so many different issues in an atmosphere that allowed for their genuine personalities. In most of the conversations, I had my mind made up going in and probably did not change it, yet I left with more understanding and a few challenges. If anyone were listening to me (they are not) I would suggest the following for the future:

*Widen the scope and include some more differences in the selection of pastors. I’m not saying bring in the wolves, but it would be interesting to hear a wider range of opinions.

*Widen the scope of topics. If its supposed to be a debate, don’t include topics where everyone will agree.

*Have a neutral moderator. There were times for moderation and MacDonald wasn’t the man for the job (nor was Driscoll good at moderating MacDonald).

*Include some unknowns. Fight the celebrity pastor culture by bringing in some unknown, “smaller” pastors. Surely in that vast array of church planting networks and campus pastors, there are some guys with a lot to offer.

In the meantime, pastors, don’t just watch other pastors debate in a healthy manner. Surround yourself with other pastors and let iron sharpen iron.

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