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.

Moralized Preferences

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.

  • Steve Cooper

    My thoughts just touch the surface, but I want to think about this more. In the meantime, lift the model of Dr. Graham out of the typical or average. Maybe being an itinerant evangelist makes it different, but Billy and his organization have always been a class act and a worthy role model. We agree, presenting the claims of Jesus on each life stands as the goal. Methodology becomes the question.

  • Nick Fitzkee

    I agree with everything you’re saying, and I’ve had the privilege to benefit from the teaching of several “famous” pastors. The tricky thing is that, practically, fame tends to tempt us to believing that we’re somehow better than those we serve. It’s subtle, and it certainly isn’t true for all pastors. However, when you combine that with the fact that most pastors (famous or not) have very little accountability to begin with, it’s a really tough situation to be in.

  • http://www.newcovenantliving.blogspot.com Jack Brooks

    Critics seem to think that all well-known pastors sought that status. Sometimes attention just descends on an unsuspecting man, because of an unusual combination of talent, timing, circumstance, and God’s providence over all. From what I’ve heard, fame of any kind isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Obscurity means you influence a lot fewer people, but on the other hand you don’t receive e-mails from weirdos, you don’t need to travel with a bodyguard, and so on.

  • http://thesidos.blogspot.com/ Arthur Sido

    It is interesting that the “wrong” kind of celebrity pastors are fair game but the same people who mock them borderline worship “famous” pastors of the “right” kind.

  • David LaChance

    Thanks for the clarification Mike.

    You asked: “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?”

    I would say the answer is, “No.” For the gifted Christian, it’s as simple as doing your best where you are at, fighting to be content in a culture that says, “In light of your great gift, you are wasting your life.” If God chooses to give the increase then, as you wrote in your previous post, we should view it as a burden first and a blessing second. Celebrity for the Christian should be a reaction to our action but never an autonomous goal, whether secondary or even in the realm of consideration. “They esteemed Him not” … who are we to pursue esteem?

    Jesus said, “My Father does not bless in the way the world blesses.” So, right away we have a dilemma when we equate worldly blessing or success with Godly blessing/success. “Blessing” in the context of ‘success due to gifts’ is strictly a technicality.

    God gives the increase, but satan offers it:

    “Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. ‘All this I will give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’”

    So, we must be discerning and decide whether we need to run away as Christ did in John 6, receiving the same invitation from His followers as Satan offered in the former example, or either go to or stay for the opportunity as Paul did:

    “Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me” AND “But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.”

    Things like Twitter, Facebook and the like do not help ministers dealing with this temptation as these platforms tend to be bragging forums. We generally don’t post our failures or losses and we get a skewed view of the way life works, I often wonder what is really at the heart of all this self-promotion. It’s easy to dismiss it as being a “steward”… being a “steward” could also be defined as the inverse action … avoiding the temptation and letting others promote us as God sees fit: “So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he may lift you up in honor.”

    And on the other hand we have: “Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will serve before kings; he will not serve before obscure men.” Proverbs

    The point is that for the Christian, the latter verse is true but the former verse is our goal.

    Blessings bro.

  • Jeffrey W Baldwin

    I think that most American pastors (celebrities and those who make them celebrities) need a massive dose of the mission field in order to see what the celebrity culture looks like from afar. While the tendency of people to put certain individuals on a pedestal or of some leaders to promote themselves is universal, in the U.S. it has become “canonical” and part of the system. In other words, it does not infuriate you because you have lived in it for so long. Seminaries, mega-churches, book publishers, foundations, marketing, funding (things that for the most part don’t exist in other countries where believers are serving the Lord) can all be used to promote certain individuals. There are brilliant, able, talented, gifted etc etc people who simply have no access to the platforms that are used to promote (and protect?) Christian celebrities. The fact of the matter is that those who chose the mission field also chose to bury their name for the sake of the Gospel, even though in many cases they could compete with the best of them. “Jealousy,” can be an issue as your essay suggests, but give some credit to those who chose to serve in places where they knew that their “names” would inevitably be lost. Televangelists are the ultimate proof that spiritual depth and celebrity status are in no way correlated. Those who somehow made a name for themselves in the U.S. should realize that it was not merely their giftedness that brought them to this point, but also an underlying structure/system that gave a significant boost. Had they lived in another country they would have likely had to pay from their own pockets to publish their books. They should honor their status, not only by pointing to Christ (as you say in your essay), but also by doing something more practical and more radical: emphasizing that they are nothing, and that the real heroes are out there somewhere. In fact, they should actively use their status to promote mission, and proactively “sacrifice” the funding that would enhance their self-promotion, so that the Gospel gets promoted in other parts of the world. They should not regard celebrity as something to be grasped, but must empty themselves and take on the forms of servants, placing themselves on an equal footing with the true nameless heroes of the Gospel. After all, the creation groans for the revealing of the sons of God.

    • http://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org Collin Hansen

      You make some good points, Jeffrey. And I agree with what you recommend about money and missions. I think that’s what John Piper and David Platt, to cite just two “celebrity” examples, have been doing to a large extent. Ironically this self-denial leads to further adulation among Christians who appreciate their efforts. I think that’s what Mike is getting at in his article with differentiating between heroes and celebrities. It’s probably true that Platt and Piper would little-known if they serves as missionaries in Cameroon, but I’m thankful for how the Lord has used their writing and speaking gifts, along with the communications media of our age, to spread the gospel, draw many to himself, and reform churches.

      • Jeffrey W Baldwin

        Fair enough Colin, I am certainly not trying to deny that writings of brilliant scholars are not useful to the church. To the contrary. But as you say, Piper would not have been known if he was a missionary in Cameroon, so his writings would be largely unknown as well, because the system would have been actively promoting the writings of others who have better contacts or funding. I wonder if there are other Pipers out there whose “writing and speaking gifts” are simply unknown and buried, even though they might have been of great benefit to the church. So, my argument would be that a person like Piper (who is indeed a model of mission-mindedness) should actively be seeking out and promoting the hidden other Pipers of the world (i.e., those who would have had Piper’s success had they had Piper’s resources and platform) and promoting them “to spread the gospel, draw many to himself, and reform churches.”

        • http://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org Collin Hansen

          Oh that it would be so! Seriously, if you or anyone else knows someone like this in Cameroon or anywhere else, please let me know.

          • Brad

            The two that come to mind are Mark Driscoll and Rick Warren. I am actually being serious here. They seem to encourage other Pastor’s and give “lesser known pastors” a platform to spread the gospel.

          • http://www.ryanpeterwrites.com Ryan Peter

            I think Jeffrey makes a great point. Not to come across as racist in any way, but celebrity culture in America is probably worse than anywhere else. The influence of it on the rest of the world, due to the large resources publishers from the country have etc. is quite crazy.

            Why I say this is simply to highlight that sometimes teaching that’s relevant for American problems (let’s say, Mark Driscol’s teaching on being manly men) isn’t relevant for the rest of the world. But it’s almost pushed as if it should be. It’s like telling Africans that they have to behave like American lumberjacks to be manly men. You can see what I mean.

            For an example of someone many people don’t know but who is excellent and the best theologian I have read and heard teach (and met :) ) try Michael Eaton from Kenya. See http://www.michael-eaton.de/.

  • Ellen Bell

    Amen, Jeffrey. The idea of “Christian celebrity” makes me nauseous. It clearly flies in the face of the Apostle Paul’s teachings in 1 Cor. 1:10-17 and especially, 1 Cor. 4:6-7. Yes, there are some who are gifted in the ways that promote “big ministries” but often those same ministries will dilute and distort orthodoxy in order to remain at the “top of the heap”. Simply put, the notion of “Christian celebrity” is worldliness invading the church. Not any good thing can come from it. I would submit that the huge current crop of apostasy is directly correlated to the rise of “Christian celebrity”. Whether it is a cause or effect is not easy to determine but the Bride’s reputation has certainly not been enhanced by the spectacle of such pastors living in expensive and luxurious homes (in guarded communities, no less)–with some even flying around the world in private jets! Is it any wonder that our efforts at evangelizing the lost in our culture have been hampered by the news reports of such pastors?

    • Jeffrey W Baldwin

      Ellen, as you say, the Bible is clear. The problem is that things that are done over a long period of time begin to feel natural even though they are not. When the Bible is truly heard it changes things, it does not excuse them. This is why I said earlier that people need to visit the mission field, see the needs and get some perspective that helps them see what they have not noticed in the Scriptures

  • http://www.corinthtoday.org paul

    I wonder as well if the ‘pursuit’ of a larger platform is often the problem altogether. When Paul talks in Romans 9:21 of “some vessels for more noble and less noble purposes” it seems that the vessel doesn’t have much of a choice. Would it be improper to think that God will put you in the places He wants you to be at the times you’re supposed to be there? Or do people feel they need to “help” God along in this process?

    • http://nohappinesslikemine.blogspot.com Heather E. Carrillo

      @Paul so….you don’t share the gospel? I mean, yes, God’s purposes will come to pass, but he also predestines the means as well as the end. And He graciously allows us to be a part of that.

      • http://www.corinthtoday.org paul

        @heather ;-) not what I meant… what I meant is the “selfish ambition” part of “helping God along”. I find it funny that certain denominations kind of have “stepping stone” churches….where a pastor will preach/teach until he has “paid enough dues” to move to a bigger church with more $$ and notoriety. And he couches it in “Building the Kingdom”…though he is the one actively seeking out the “bigger and better” church, or is steeped in a system where the church is always looking for the “rising star” and caters to church hopping…at least that has been my experience in what I have seen.

  • http://nohappinesslikemine.blogspot.com Heather E. Carrillo

    Great post! I think the ditch we are in danger of falling into on one side is seeking “celebrity status” and that’s when we end up compromising the gospel seeking to appeal to mankind, whatever. The ditch on the other side however is dipping our laziness in morality. We are supposed to strive to use the gifts God gives us. Sometimes that attracts a lot of people. Sometimes it doesn’t. The key is that we focus on God despite the result. I think many Christians think if we succeed that means we’re “seeking celebrity status” so they just….don’t do anything. I think that also can be sinful.

    @David LaChance but what about seeking a larger audience when it’s for the purpose of spreading God’s word to as many people as you can? I can’t see that that would be wrong. I mean, the apostle Paul traveled all over preaching Christ. He was obviously looking for a big audience in order to spread the gospel as fast as possible.

    • Jeffrey W Baldwin

      Heather, I think Paul was trying to get the Gospel where Christ had not been preached. I am sure (he said so himself), he was happy to be in prison (talk about non-celebrity status!), because this had motivated others to preach Christ. He was seeking the “larger audience,” but not necessarily for himself. And he even got infuriated by the “I am of Paul, I am of Apollos” kind of Christians. The problem with “celebrity” pastors when they go overseas, is that it is often in promotion of their own ministry, not in order to encourage and help those who are in the place for the long haul.

    • David LaChance

      Heather, that is certainly our desire indirectly, the more the merrier, but our focus as ministers should be those sheep he has placed in our path. We can leave the flock for greener pastures in the name of “greater fruit” but this is confusing God’s priorities with the world’s. Christ leaves the flock for the one, not for the many and this should be our heart and attitude as well. If there is increase (and there will be with hard work and talent in a culture that rewards both) then we must be discerning and not rush into a role of “being made king for the good of the land.” (John 6) As I wrote in my previous comment, God gives the increase but satan offers it as well. Accurately deciding who has opened the door requires an already present clarity of calling. Being useful for God is very much a matter of understanding that He doesn’t need us or our gifts and owes us nothing in light of them. God allowing us to use our gifts to build His kingdom in any capacity IS truly our gift, blessing and success. I will say it again: American Christian ministers need to fight to think small and trust a big God. Blessings.

  • Jeffrey W Baldwin

    I should add to my post above: What about the use of “ghostwriters” by some celebrities? I guess there are various levels of involvement of a ghost writer, but it is another factor that makes you wonder if “celebrity status” is correlated completely with actual skill.

    • Anonymous

      I am finding that many celebrity pastors are giving teaching series notes to ghost writers to pen their next book. Seems like double dipping when the pastor is paid to teach and then makes untold dollars in using the same message to “write” books. The fact they need ghost writers also begs to question what it is substantively that makes them a superstar if they can’t even write well? Are we then not creating celebrities by image alone and not by gifting or by years of earned service and sacrifice in ministry? I find it all highly unhealthy and unscriptural as Jesus lived just the opposite of this. God help the American church.

  • Michael

    I think a good question for a pastor to ask would be, ‘Why do I want to minister to people I don’t have an ongoing relationship with and whom I am not shepherding in my local church?’ I don’t intend that to sound like I’m pre-supposing an answer of ‘I should never…’ But I think you can investigate some interesting facets of your heart through that line of inquiry.

    Another line of quesitoning: Are speaking engagements at conferences, writing books, or (gasp) hosting the 700 club pastoral acts or are they something else? Perhaps it’s the same as anyone else who writes a book or does a speaking tour or hosts a TV show; perhaps it’s simply work that just happens to be about theology and the celebrity is built around that regular work and not around anything actually pastoral. Is the phrase ‘celebrity pastor’ an oxymoron? Surely some godly men are celebrities, but are they actually pastors to those admirers who aren’t part of their local body? Or are they famous in the same way Cormac McCarthy or Al Gore are famous, just their appeal is to a theologically savvy audience? If that’s the case, should you muzzle an ox while its treading grain? Conversely, should pastors be wary of these side jobs that aren’t part of their actual pastoral duties in their local congregation?

  • Lou

    Ad hominem attacks are not categorically the same as slander. Snark and sarcasm are not necessarily slander at all either. Of course any of the above “could” be slander, but typically are not.

    I do think that undue snark and sarcasm are usually inappropriate, but, again, not always. Ad hominem typcially falls into the category of logical fallacy, but not always.

    Slander is a very steep charge that gets leveled all to frequently. I do not think that most of the criticism that happens actually should be categorized slander. Again, that is very steep, disciplinable charge.

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  • http://pauljpark.wordpress.com Paul

    Thanks Mike for the post. I think some of the commentors on this post need to understand Mike’s point on celebrity as a secondary goal. I think that’s key. I like to think it in terms of sports. Those who ‘work hard’ make it into the professional leagues and celebrity status naturally follows. What is involved here is an appreciation and diligence to perfect the beauty of an activity (yes, beauty. sports can be beautiful, which is what highlight reels are). And when that beauty is achieved, people want to see, because it’s attractive.

    Also, maybe the measure of celebrity can be ‘influence’. That is, is their celebrity effecting positive gospel influence? I really hope they do, but I think this also raises an interesting limitation of celebrity status. If you think about anyone who moves you to sacrificial love (gospel influence), I bet you it ain’t a celebrity, nor a celebrity pastor. Yes, they can inspire, but that’s cause they preach Christ correctly. But those that move you, most likely are those that you know personally, ones who have shown you their deep humble sacrificial character by living life with you. That, I think cannot be captured to its entirety by the media or in celebrity status.

    Ok, this comment is too long….

  • Doug Perry

    Lou, I agree with your qualification on the slander charge. I find that some pastors will go to the slander card whenever they are questioned. Instead of searching listening and engaging, they end up shutting the dialog down. Instead, an inappropriate charge of Slander becomes a kind of a red herring.

  • http://www.thewayeverlasting.com JS Park

    The last section of this writing was perfect. The culture at large (not just American culture) has a celebrity system locked into place, and as such causes an inception of those potentially dangerous ideas into pastors. You can see this happening even inside the small local churches: the pastor who vies for popularity at the expense of discipline, the youth pastor who daydreams of being a senior pastor at the expense of his youth ministry, the aging senior pastor who clutches to his position and is reluctant to mentor younger people as successors. It is not always about exposure, but a deeper (self-inflicted) conflict of validation.

    I’m not sure there is a “good” and “bad” celebrity, as opposed to a gradual scale of motives which can get twisted in a broken culture.

  • Pam

    I think the problem is in the identity. Let’s not call something what it is not. CELEBRITY pastor. They might be a celebrity but most are just speakers and not pastors, in the true Biblical sense. Most just head for the podium and then exit as in “Elvis has left the building”. They may have a small clique but beyond that they don’t have the time to take care of their flock. They love the adulation that comes from speaking but don’t want to bother getting in the trenches and doing the work that doesn’t gain celebrity.
    But only God knows the heart.

  • gv720

    Good advice from an entertaining B-movie “Don’t try to be a great man; just be a man and let History be the judge.”

    (Prize cookies for the first to identify the film, the character who says it, who he is quoting, and who he is quoting it to)


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