Smells Like Groupie Spirit
It kinda stinks, but I get it
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There have always been pastors with broad impact and what we might now call significant platforms. To learn from those gifted and in places of prominence is the way things are supposed to be. But to acquiesce automatically to what they say is more akin to what I call “Groupie Spirit,” and it kind of stinks.
Let’s think about that.
When Jesse1 became a pastor in my presbytery,2 he brought a refreshingly unpredictable nature with him. In speaking to one issue he would stake out a position that seemed to align with a certain theological or ecclesiastical perspective. On the next issue he would seem to be aligned elsewhere. His thoughtful independence was rare and refreshing. In a day in which the impulse to label people as “conservative” or “progressive” or, less charitably, as “racist” or “homophobic” or any of dozens of other categories runs rampant, Jesse defied categorization apart from a clear preference for Sonny’s BBQ. He stands out to me as one of a valuable tribe, those who resist the temptation to become groupies.
Groupies in pop culture, of course, are the devoted fans of a band (or singer). Groupies follow that band from concert to concert, adopt the lifestyle preferences of the band, and defend the band against critique. And Christian culture has certainly developed its own variety of groupie.
When a particular matter was being vigorously debated a number of years ago on the floor of my denomination’s General Assembly, well-known author R. C. Sproul rose to address the matter. His convictions were sincere and his arguments were relevant. His words shifted the direction of the debate. I couldn’t help but wonder, though, if whether this was because his words had changed minds or whether since his position was now clear, hundreds of others knew the position they were supposed to embrace. Like iron particles aligning themselves in the presence of a magnetic field, this is groupie spirit. And it is so, so tempting.
The Pressure to Have an Opinion
We pastors are faced with more shibboleths than we can deflect. Voting for a Democrat (or a Republican) gets you welcomed by some and excommunicated by others. To be anti-abortion and opposed to the death penalty makes people suspect you of instability. The issues thrust before us today are complex and come with great speed. On Tuesday we hear about something called “Critical Race Theory” and by Thursday we are expected to have a nuanced opinion on it. We go to sleep on Friday thinking of ourselves as mere persons and wake up on Saturday with someone asking what our enneagram number is.3 One week we are simply pastors and the next we need to be experts on epidemiology. And on it goes.
A Jesse will think through the issues, listen to many voices, and if need be say, “I don’t know.” Many of us lack the opportunity, and sometimes the courage, to follow that example.
The pressure to have a position can be intense. Gifted leaders can help us make a judgment. The insight of someone like John Piper can help us sort through the relevant questions.This is the way things are supposed to be. But to assume (or reject!) a position just because it is Piper’s is not. When we find that we are accepting what Al, Beth, or Tim says just because they are the ones saying it, we’ve fallen for groupie spirit.
It was a reality known to and repudiated by the Apostle Paul. Concerning the church in Corinth, he noted:
For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.”4
That smells like groupie spirit.
“I Don’t Know”
Groupie spirit is frequently the easier path. We often not only lack the expertise to form a well-reasoned position, we also lack the time and interest. The struggle to frame Sunday’s sermon on Ecclesiastes in a way that brings encouragement to the congregation is to many pastors far more pressing than weighing in on remote denominational battles. We may have little time or mental space to wade into the cultural battle over gender because we just spent hours with a college student assuring her that God still loves her. While we appreciate the importance of the broader issues, doing the seemingly mundane work of a pastor is what engages our hearts.
So it is understandable that pastors, when expected to step out of the trenches to speak to a cultural or denominational issue, default to being groupies. And any one of you might on occasion wave the prophetic finger at me saying, Nathan-like, “Thou art the man,” and you’d be right. But I’d rather be a Jesse than a groupie. Sometimes the wisest path for us is to have the courage to simply say “I really don’t know.”
So maybe I am, ironically, a Jesse groupie of sorts. His band of those who are slow to form an opinion or willing to take independent and unpopular stands is one that could surely use more fans.
Behind the name Jesse is a real person and a real experience. However, for several reasons, I’ve chosen to use a pseudonym. The character represents a number of courageous people I have known, as well as an ideal to which I aspire.
Presbyterian churches are organized into regional bodies called “presbyteries” which meet periodically to set policy on matters affecting them all.
When my wife, my copy editor, read this she wrote in the margin, “I have no idea what you are saying here.” The idea of the enneagram had not yet cracked her world. If it has not cracked yours, that’s okay. You can just go on labeling people with their Myers-Briggs letters.
1 Corinthians 1:11, 12