Thabiti Anyabwile|9:01 am CT

Let’s Talk about “Celebrity” and “Rock Star” Pastors

Increasingly we’re seeing the terms “rock star pastor” and “celebrity pastor” tossed about. Even though most people acceptably follow and patronize their favorite celebrity actors and performers, and a good number of us grew up idolizing “rock stars” (although, for me, it would have been rap–not rock), the terms in an Evangelical context are pejoratives, derogatory terms of abuse, expressions of contempt. In fact, there’s a good case to be made that most uses of the terms “celebrity pastors” or “rock star pastor” amount to uncharitable slurs.

I hate the terms.  I really do.  They tar and feather good men.

The increasing use of the terms does suggest a need to address an increasing problem.  Now, please don’t rush in judgment to conclude that the problem is the “celebrification” of pastors.  That’s only one potential problem.  The other potential problems have to do with the hearts of those who would use expressions of contempt and uncharitable slurs in the first place–particularly without knowledge of the person they’re so labeling.

So, it seems a good review of these terms is in order.  I’m feeling particularly interested in taking up this issue because in the last week the terms have come home to roost.  Following my post on multi-site churches, a couple dear brothers wrote to me privately to push back on the rhetoric, tone, and substance of the post.  Those were wounds of friends.  Both brothers in some way intimated that I might be a “celebrity pastor,” or at least face some of the same challenges as those I criticized in the post.  That was alarming, and the suggestion has by God’s grace been working good fruit of reflection in my own soul.  It immediately revealed that my own sinful pride came to the foreground in that post.  At the very least, I should have confessed more fully that everything in the post regarding pride and the temptation to idolizing self or others is true of my own heart.  I don’t need to leave the bed in the morning before I’m confronted with the corruptions of my own heart.  While I do think there’s a difference of degree created by some forms of the multi-site strategy, I should have made it more clearly known in the post itself (not just in the comments) that there is no difference in kindall of our hearts are idol factories–beginning with my own heart.

But there’s a second way the terms have come home to roost following the multi-site post.  Some people read the post and instantly concluded that I would happily use those pejorative terms or accept without critique the very concept itself.  Some even assumed I was taking aim at a particular “celebrity pastor.”  They were wrong on both counts.

I did not even use the terms in the post, and I was not attempting to tag anyone with the labels.  I hate the labels.  The one name appearing in the post is that of James MacDonald.  I named him, not to label him, but as I say in the opening sentence to pay “homage” in borrowing a similar title from an earlier post of his.  Lest there be further misunderstanding, “homage” is a show of respect and admiration or dedication by a remark or gesture.  By borrowing the title, I was paying tribute to James’ way with words and use of provocation in service to good causes.  There was no attack of MacDonald in that post.  That the critique of his invitation of Jakes to the ER followed a day of so later was simply the providence of God, for that’s when I learned of the invitation, read the series of remarks being made elsewhere, and decided to share a perspective I thought missing in the discussion.  So, I want to allay concerns and quiet Evangelical conspiracy theorists trying to connect the dots between posts and read any animosity between the lines.  Those who know me tend to think I try to say what I mean and mean what I say.  As far as I’m concerned, there’s no personal animosity to observe in any of this–even where I seriously disagree with the ER decisions.  I’ve never intentionally slandered MacDonald with either of these labels.

Apart from possibly unthinkingly using the term during a recent panel discussion, I don’t think I’ve ever used the term to describe anyone.  And even during that panel, when a couple brothers objected to the use of the term, I immediately asked if I were the one who introduced the term because I was mortified with such a potential slip and ready to instantly apologize.  I was told during the panel discussion that I had not been the one who introduced the term.  But, after the panel, still feeling uneasy in spirit with the discussion, I approached two brothers to offer apologies for any offensive thing I said.  Again, after the panel I was told no offense had occurred.

But there seems to be some continuing misunderstanding about both what happened on the panel and what or who I criticized in the multi-site post.  When we come to interpreting someone’s writing–whether the Bible or blog posts–one controlling issue is “authorial intent.”  What did the author mean when they wrote the document?  We can’t understand any writing properly until we understand something about authorial intent.  Nonetheless, it’s incumbent upon the author to make their writing clear.  I think it was C.S. Lewis who counseled writers to be sure to choose words and write in such a way that the reader’s understanding and conclusion can only be what the author meant.  That’s a tall order, but it’s necessary.  My failure to write with that kind of specificity and clarity has left some people with the wrong conclusions and impressions, including some people who thought the post was “a personal attack” or “about them” when it was not.  That’s my fault.  So even though the post was not intended as a personal attack against anyone, I offer my apologies to everyone who felt in some measure–great or small–as if they were being personally and inappropriately assailed or labeled “celebrity pastor” or “rock star pastor” by what I’ve written.  I sincerely regret my lack of clarity and our misunderstanding.

So, if I can, I’d like to try in a series of posts to clarify a few things regarding what I think (as if anyone needs to care) about the use and abuse of the terms “rock star” and “celebrity” pastor.  As I said earlier, I hate the terms.  I look forward to explaining–hopefully with clarity–why.

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