Here’s the other possibility (one I’ve seen from the inside): Through any number of methods-powerful gifting, shrewd marketing, dumb luck-a pastor leads a congregation to megachurch status. Publishers eager for a guaranteed sales win offer the megachurch pastor a book deal knowing that if only a third of the pastor’s own congregation buys a copy, it’s still a profitable deal. The book is published on the basis of the leader’s market platform, not necessarily the strength of his ideas or the book’s quality. Sometimes, the pastor will actually write the book, and other times, a ghostwriter hired by the publisher will do the hard work of transforming his sermon notes into 180 pages with something resembling a coherent idea.
Wanting to maximize the return on their investment, the publisher will then promote the pastor at the publisher-sponsored ministry conference or other events. As a result of the pastor’s own megachurch customer base and the publisher’s conference platform, the book becomes a best-seller. Or if that doesn’t work, sometimes sugar daddies purchase thousands of copies of the book to literally buy the pastor onto the bestseller’s list where the perception of popularity results in more sales. (Yes, it happens. Not a lot, but it does happen.)
This market-driven cycle of megachurches, conferences, and publishers results in an echo chamber where the same voices, espousing the same values create an atmosphere where ministry success becomes equated with audience aggregation. (Thankfully, there are outliers like the Epic Fail Conference and the Q Gathering that defy these trends by platforming important, non-celebrity voices.) But there’s a reason you won’t see a flashy conference for the house church movement. And there’s a reason a brilliant, godly, wise, 50-year-old pastor with a gift for communicating, carrying a timely message, and leading a church of 200 in Montana is highly unlikely to get a publishing contract. And even if he does, good luck getting the stage at a conference or any marketing energy from the publisher; their efforts will be poured into the handful of megachurch pastors in their lineup whose book sales pay their salaries. It is exceedingly difficult to break into the club without a large customer base (a.k.a. a megachurch).
Are the publishers evil for focusing on sales potential more than quality? Of course not. They’re businesses that have to sustain themselves. They are simply reacting to the realities of the market. But sometimes, they fail to see how they also shape the market by their decisions. And am I saying all megachurch pastors’ books are sub par? Not at all. Some of them are my friends, and I’ve deeply appreciated their writings (Dave Gibbons and Tim Keller immediately come to mind.) But we mustn’t be naive-the system is rigged to favor a writer/speaker’s market platform rather than his/her content, maturity, or message. Yes, there are exceptions, but they generally prove the rule. And we’ve all been to ministry conferences where we’ve scratched our heads wondering why that yahoo is on the platform…oh yeah, he’s got a big church and a book to sell, just like the guy before him, and the one before him. It’s a system that rewards sizzle whether or not there’s any steak.