The Church’s Celebrity Culture
As a country, we love celebrities. Some people follow celebrities around for their job and snap pictures of them doing ordinary things. Did I say that’s their job? Crazy, right? You can’t check out at the grocery store without being slapped in the face with the latest celebrity gossip.
There’s undoubtedly a celebrity culture in today’s American church as well. Just like we love our athletes and rock star, we also love our homegrown mega-church pastors. And while there’s not church paparazzi, there’s an equivalent. People who’ve made it their sole purpose to follow these church celebrities closely waiting to pounce. And let’s be honest, there’s always opportunities to pounce.
The celebrity and the paparazzi go together like Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote. It seems like you cannot have one without the other. The one is always trying to trap the other. Today I want to ask: How should the gospel change the Church’s celebrity culture?
Context Makes the Celebrity
First, we should define our terms. When I use the term celebrity I mean someone who is well known or famous. With that definition in view, the term can be either positive or negative depending on context. Paul, for instance, says, “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me” (Romans 16:7). Andronicus and Junia were well known or famous to the apostles. Paul himself was a celebrity of sorts. He was known through out the Roman empire--by churches, the Jews, and high ranking Roman officials, even the emperor. We’ve also had church celebrities through out church history--Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Jerome, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones.
It seems the only restriction placed on celebrity (in the sense of being famous or well known) is that the individual not be well known for the wrong kind of things. Paul tells Timothy, “Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil” (1 Timothy 3:7). On the flip side, Paul admonishes the Corinthians who were divided by who they followed. They each had their favorite well known preacher, and the people were more concerned with their pet pastor than with Jesus Christ. Paul by his example encourages pastors to constantly point their followers back to Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 2:2). He knew only Jesus Christ crucified.
In general most people who I’ve spoke with about this view the church celebrity culture as negative. I submit that’s because we’ve mishandled the situation. As Paul says, people well known by the church should be violently pushing and pointing their followers to Jesus Christ. They shouldn’t be concerned with their position, power, and authority. Soli deo gloria.
We’ve flipped it. Oftentimes the controversies rise up because it seems many well known Christians are more concerned with their position, power, and authority and less concerned about the integrity of the gospel.
I think someone who does a great job of managing celebrity is John Piper. He doesn’t care about the money. His eyes aren’t on the riches and fame (and let’s be honest he could probably be living quite nicely if he chose to). His eyes are on Jesus Christ. He’s constantly pointing Christians back to the glory of God found in Jesus Christ. He’s not consumed with the platform itself.
Does the Gospel Make a Difference?
With all of that laid as foundation, I return to my main question: How should the gospel change the Church’s celebrity culture?
First, the gospel tells us these well known Christians are not any different than us. They are made in the image of God. They were created with gifts and talents. They were given creative gifts--just like all of us. What you see in our celebrity culture is that some who are only concerned with the platform are coerced or chose to position themselves as someone who has gifts they may not have. You see this most readily in the practice of Christian ghostwriting. If you are a pastor of a megachurch, you almost have to write a book and go on nationwide tour--even if writing isn’t your gifting. You almost have to hold a big conference, with big names, and big lights--even if that’s not you.
But it’s not only the positioning by the celebrity Christian, it’s the pedestaling by the ordinary Christians. There’s no platform for this kind of attention seeking if ordinary Christians just didn’t go along. We’re the ones buying the books, attending the conferences, and supporting the ministries. We are all made in the image of God with specific abilities, gifts, and responsibilities. Never forget that. Be wise as serpents when supporting mega-ministries and church celebrities.
Second, the gospel tell us these well known Christians are not sinless saints. Nobody is perfect (Romans 3). Sin has infested the entire kosmos and everybody in it. The paparazzi side (discernment type ministries) of the celebrity thrives on the failure of fellow Christians. Now the beauty of the gospel, it frees us to speak openly and honestly about sin. It doesn’t hide them. It places our ugliest, most disgusting sins on display on the cross on the body of Jesus Christ.
Many of the paparazzi thrive on the sin itself, not necessarily on hope of repentance. The easiest way to tell is if the focus is on restoration and if the critique seems to be nitpicking. Paul commands Titus, “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him” (Titus 3:10). Also, when there is real sin and when real repentance is required (and this definitely happens), the celebrity culture often conceals sin. Partly because there’s a platform built and investments at stake. You often get couched apologies. You know the kind you hear on the news by politicians, “If anyone was offended, please know it wasn’t my intention” or “Oversights and mistakes were made and we want to make sure this doesn’t happen again.” The gospel frees us to speak more openly about our sins, “I lied, cheated, or stole. I was wrong. I need to ask for forgiveness and accept all consequences for my behavior.”
Third, the gospel tell us these well known Christians should be allowed redemption. God only redeems sinners. So if we could get to the point where open and honest repentance was taking place, we shouldn’t hold it over that person. I saw this just recently. A pastor had sinned. He had repented. People were talking about him online: “The pastor who did X” (negative tone). Let’s be honest. Part of the reason repentance is difficult is because some of us are jerks. We act like our sin don’t stink--like we’re above those kinds of people. But the gospel, remember, teaches us we are all on a level playing field. We all kneel in front of the cross.
As a way forward, I hope we see more people who aren’t seeking celebrity for celebrity sake. Who aren’t seeking the fame, attention, and money. But who are preaching Jesus Christ crucified faithfully. And if God in His sovereignty chooses someone like that to be famous then we should rejoice. And when sin happens (and it will), we should encourage and seek honest repentance. We should humbly accept the repentant. We should also humbly remember our sin. Today it was them, but maybe tomorrow it will be us.
None of this means that there will be no consequences. Some are so quick to “forgive” that you have gross immorality committed by pastors who are then almost immediately returning to ministry. That’s not the kind of “forgiveness” we’re talking about. The gospel demands better. We are united to Jesus Christ and have been justified by faith. Our status as sons and daughters is secure. The gospel demands better and graciously gives the Spirit to do better.