Celebrities, Heroes, and Slanderous Jealousy
My recent article on celebrity pastors led to a number of good questions and challenges. I'd like to clarify a few points and further develop some others.
Many of the questions centered on my statement that celebrity status should be a secondary goal. Here's my original comment:
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.
Several readers took issue with the idea that celebrity status should be a goal---secondary or otherwise. I had hoped to qualify the statement by pointing out that living for the acclaim of others is always sinful and dangerous, but that seems to have been insufficient. The very word celebrity is so loaded as to be utterly distracting.
That said, I would like to pose a different question: Is it ever appropriate for a Christian leader to pursue a larger platform or broader audience? Is it possible for someone to be motivated to pursue this goal with humility and conviction, believing that God has gifted him with skills, experience, and insights that can be a blessing to the broader church?
If this pursuit is successful, it will almost inevitably lead to celebrity status. Merriam-Webster defines a celebrity as a "famous or celebrated person." Excellent work in any field will lead to celebration, both of the work and also the person. The shape of that response is (to some degree) out of the celebrity's control. Not even retreating to a hermit's life can prevent it altogether. Some celebration could be described as showing proper honor for preachers and teachers of the word (1 Tim. 5:17), and some could be called hero worship. The latter is a misplaced longing that marks the worst examples we see. But the former refers to influential leaders who have shaped much of the history of the church and continue to shape the life of the church in our day.
Pastoring, preaching, teaching, contextualizing, and leadership are skills, and the level of skill distributed amongst pastors in not egalitarian. This is why we use the word gifts to describe them. Some will open the Scriptures with the ability to make cultural, historical, and personal connections and applications with mind-boggling ease. Some men and women have skills with theology and poetry that result in hymns that will be sung for hundreds of years. Some can effortlessly inspire people to follow them to the ends of the earth. Because these gifts aren't distributed evenly, these folks---the "top of the heap," as I described them last week---will always be pacesetters for the rest of us. When combined with opportunity and hard work, such gifting will result in recognition and acclaim.
Consider the heroes of church history. Their work set them apart and influenced the mission of the church for generations to come. In our media-saturated day and age, the pacesetters have a different kind of visibility easily associated with less reputable celebrities, and it takes wisdom to discern the differences.
The moral tone our conversations take on this subject is not unlike the discussions around church size. There's a tendency to moralize our preferences, taking the benefits of a certain size culture to be moral priorities. Some advocates of small churches treat the intimacy and depths of community to be the most important issue in church life. Similarly, some advocates for large churches treat the evangelistic fruit and excellence of services, or the increased resources for missions or community outreach, to be the most important issue.
The tendency to moralize celebrity status is in the same vein. While some would condemn any celebrity pastor for fostering a cult of personality, others would see such status as a sign of God's blessing or anointing. In reality, the ministry of a pastor in a small country church may be just as spiritually blessed and anointed as the ministry of a pastor at a multi-campus megachurch. Yet for some reason, God has gifted and called one to have a broader audience. Much like the size of a church, the size of an individual's influence and the pursuit of such influence is a matter that requires discernment, wisdom, and careful judgment.
In an ideal world, the only people who'd have such a platform would be humble Christians with the insight, experience, dedication, and wisdom to be a blessing to the broader church. For someone who fits that description, it's not just a matter of liberty ("I'm free to pursue this") but of good stewardship ("I'm obligated to share what God has taught me"). Humility does not exclude the self-awareness of giftedness or wisdom to offer; it holds such knowledge loosely, gently, and with a clear acknowledgment that these are gifts of grace. There is such a thing as humble confidence, or humble boldness---it's a mark of almost any great leader. So is hard work. We should be careful not to idealize the lives of well-known pastors, who devote extraordinarily long hours to meeting their many obligations, often at great physical and emotional cost.
We don't live in an ideal world. For every Christian leader who meets the description above, there is another who takes advantage of every marketing opportunity, every chance for exposure, every chance to attach himself to other celebrity names and personalities. Between those two poles lies a spectrum of mixed motives. Over the whole messy scene, God somehow builds his church, using all kinds of messy people who are covered in his marvelous grace.
While most of us aren't likely to end up on The New York Times bestseller list, or headlining arena-sized conferences, we will nonetheless face the temptation to pose as an omni-competent authority (especially with other pastors). Consider the white lies pastors tell:
- "I've read that book."
- "I know that pastor."
- "I used to struggle with that."
In ways both small and large, we pretend to be something we're not. Some do it on a conference stage, others do it in blogs and hotel lobbies, often while mocking the men on the conference stage.
TMZ Dipped in Holy Water
Which brings me to my final thought on the topic of celebrity pastors, and this applies to celebrities generally. Let us all strive for character in the way we talk about them. Unfortunately, much of what passes for blogging is just character assassination and gossip---TMZ dipped in holy water. We love to attack celebrity pastors for the same reason we love to attack celebrities generally: it makes us feel superior and self-righteous.
It's one thing to thoughtfully and critically respond to the ideas of a celebrity pastor (see, for example, Kevin DeYoung's exemplary interactions with Rob Bell's Love Wins). It's another to pile on all kinds of ad hominem, snarky, sarcastic attacks. Celebrities have a huge target on them, and what passes for "news" and "commentary" is often the worst kind of slander.
Instead of slander, we should thank God for the ways we can learn from them, while being discerning about the ways we might disagree with them philosophically or theologically. We should also recognize that jealousy is an ugly beast, and it inevitably (and tragically) colors our view of others' success. Instead of giving that jealousy roots in a critical spirit, we should pray for these leaders, that God would protect them from inevitable attacks and from sin that would bring shame on the church.
We're not going to get rid of a celebrity culture. The age of social media has heightened something that was already prevalent, making self-promotion easier, more abundant, and often more obnoxious. It hasn't made our hearts more eager to look for heroes, though. That desire is much deeper, and the best Christian leaders, the best Christian celebrities are going to point to Christ as the only one who truly satisfies that deeper longing.