Celebrity Pastors: Top of the Heap or Overexposed?
In the talk about "celebrity pastors," some have attached the phrase to both shallow, attention-seeking televangelists and also stalwart preachers and scholars with international audiences. It's a sort of polemic, a subtle insult to the pastors in question. Some suggest that the two words are mutually exclusive: a good pastor won't be a celebrity, and a celebrity won't be a good pastor.
But celebrity comes for a variety of reasons. It's worth differentiating between the kinds of celebrities generally, and between celebrity pastors in particular. You can see most celebrities in one of two categories:
- The top of the heap
- The overexposed
Top of the Heap
Recently, a new show premiered on CBS called "Once Upon a Time," starring (among others) Josh Dallas. Though I never knew Josh well, we attended the same schools from fourth grade through high school. We knew many of the same friends and had classes together. Seeing a familiar face on primetime TV is odd, but in Josh's case, it's not the least bit surprising.
Josh was always a star. I can still remember his friends' rabid campaigning when he ran for class president . . . in the sixth grade. Even then he had a persuasive and attractive presence. In high school, he was the star of our theater program. Believe it or not, the small town of New Albany, Indiana, has a fantastic theater program that regularly competes and performs at international festivals. Beginning as a sophomore, Josh won the handsome male lead in every show. There was never any controversy over this selection. Not only did he always look the part, he also performed better than anyone else. He was a classic triple-threat: singing, dancing, and acting. He commanded the stage and set the pace for other actors with his exemplary work ethic.
No one was surprised when he earned a full scholarship to one of England's elite acting academies, nor when we heard he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company. Likewise, his role in the major motion picture Thor came as no surprise, and now his role as Prince Charming seems perfectly appropriate.
Josh, and many celebrities like him, got where they are for three reasons: talent, hard work, and opportunity. It takes all three to succeed, and it's a mistake to think that success in show business (or in any business) is made of anything less than all three. I know many talented artists and musicians who don't work hard, and their skill develops slowly, or stagnates. No musician or actor (or preacher) simply explodes into the limelight based purely on talent. It takes hard work and skill development to take someone from talented to truly excellent. Similarly, I've seen many who work hard gain all kinds of opportunities, but these expose a lack of talent, and they don't advance beyond a certain level.
When those elements come together, the result is success, and for people whose work gathers crowds, the result is celebrity. This is true in politics, art, and in some ways, religion. But it doesn't necessarily mean that crowd-gathering or celebrity is the intended goal. Many artists work hard at their craft because they love it. The same can be said for pastors who pour countless hours into developing their preaching and communication skills, who study the scriptures and people around them intensely, seeking to make a connection between the gospel and the world we inhabit. Their goal is to be good shepherds, to pastor and lead well, to see the mission of God move forward. Some of these pastors will gather crowds. They become celebrities. In these cases, celebrity status is a byproduct of other, more important goals.
There is another kind of celebrity. Where someone like Josh spent much of his life developing his acting skills, others pursue an end goal that has very little to do with refining a skill or loving the arts. These celebrities fill our gossip magazines. They are famous for being famous. And their patron saint is Kim Kardashian.
Kardashian followed the trail to celebrity blazed by her friend Paris Hilton. It didn't take long for a career to materialize out of nothing. Keeping Up with the Kardashians is one of cable-television's hottest reality series, and her fame has led to a string of guest appearances on other shows and movies and endorsements for everything from cosmetics to cookie diets. Her wedding was big news in September. So was her divorce a few weeks later.
What's the difference between Kardashian and Dallas? The answer, I hope, is obvious by now. Where celebrity is the byproduct of talent, hard work, and opportunity for Dallas, it is Kardashian's goal. In the first case, all the hard work goes to refining the art of acting, music, or politicking. At the other extreme, all the effort goes towards gathering the crowd, getting recognition, and finding new outlets for exposure.
There's plenty of middle ground between these poles of celebrity. Pastors, too, are sinner-saints. Pastors whose work results in celebrity must wrestle with strong pressure to feed the ego and conform to the world of shameless self-promotion.
Notoriety and celebrity are not in themselves an evil thing (Jesus and Paul, for instance, were celebrities), but they're foolish ends. So how should pastors (and other Christians) think about celebrity? Here are a few principles:
- Celebrity should be a secondary goal. Becoming a celebrity isn't a sin, but living life for the acclaim and praise of others is. Instead, we should focus on doing our work (whatever that may be) with excellence and integrity. "And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him" (Col. 3:17). Should that result in "celebrity" status, so be it, and God have mercy.
- Be self-aware and say no to opportunities you're not ready for. I'm amazed sometimes at how easy it is to be invited to speak on panels and teach workshops at conferences. I know that I was doing so before I was ready. I often meet young, dynamic leaders who are only a few months into planting their churches or working in ministry, and they're already serving on panels, advisory boards, and speaking at conferences regularly, flying away every few weeks. These men lack the self-awareness to see the absurdity of their situation and the distraction it creates for the primary task of caring for their flock. Opportunities that "widen your audience" or "create exposure" should be taken seriously, reluctantly, and with affirmation from wise counsel.
- Count the cost. Traveling the celebrity pastor's conference circuit (and even to attend it) comes at a price. It means less energy devoted to your local congregation, and less energy given to your family. Be honest about whether or not your family or church is ready to pay that price in order to make you available to travel and speak. Side note: I'm thankful that many churches like Redeemer, Bethlehem, and The Village Church empower their pastors to use their gifts in this way. Such churches can do this because they have a size culture where it makes sense. Many churches couldn't afford to empower their pastors in this way.
- Focus on the main thing. Paul's admonitions to Timothy to guard his life and doctrine (1 Tim. 4:16) and Peter's admonition to guard the flock of Jesus' church (1 Pet. 5:2) make for good mission statements. Focus on growing in grace and leading your congregations to do likewise. It's a high but unglamorous calling. Contrasted with the conference world, it's downright grim. Instead of thousands of adoring fans hanging on your every word, this world is full of conflict, church discipline cases, deadbeat husbands, and slow-to-learn leaders. But it's profoundly important work to care for the people Jesus died for.
Something to Say
Dallas Willard often recounts how, as a young man, he struggled with wanting to gain a larger audience for his ministry. He recalls how, in prayer, he had a sense that the Lord was telling him, "Instead of focusing on gathering a crowd, focus on having something to say. If you have something to say, the crowd will take care of itself."
This example gets at the heart of the distinction between two kinds of celebrities. The work and effort that goes into successful ministry (study, prayer, and digging into the life of our communities in evangelism and disciple-making) may result in gathering a crowd, or even a national audience, but that shouldn't be the primary goal. Likewise, we shouldn't blur the lines between the kinds of celebrity pastors who are focused on the main thing and the ones who are focused on shameless self-promotion. The gap is wide.
May the Lord give us more who are celebrities for the right reasons---their focus, character, and hard work---and fewer pastoral Kardashians.