The Celebrity Pastor Phenomenon

Over the last three days I ran across three articles by three different authors (Mike Breen, Skye Jethani, and Rachel Held Evans), all exploring a common phenomenon – celebrity pastors. I have to admit that I laugh a little bit even typing those words. They just seem so antithetical sitting there next to each other. Rock stars are celebrities. Movie stars are celebrities. Professional athletes are celebrities. But can pastors really be celebrities?

celebrity |səˈlebrətē|
noun ( pl. celebrities )
a famous person. the state of being well known.

Sure, pastors it seems definitely can become well-known. Jethani points out in his article, “Before Osteen, Warren, and Driscoll, there were Moody, Spurgeon, and Whitefield. Celebrity pastors are not new.” But in the technology-driven age we live in, there are more pastors who have celebrity status than ever before. So is there a problem with pastors being celebrities? Maybe.

Breen is quick to point out in his post “Obituary for the American Church” (an exploration of what he believes are the three primary sins of the American church today – celebrity, consumerism, and competition…I’m sure it’s coincidence that they are all “C” words) that Jesus himself would fit the definition of celebrity. He was a well-known figure, even in his own time. But throughout the gospels we see Jesus playing this strange dance with his followers and with his growing celebrity. When the crowds got too large he simply slipped away to be alone. Or just when it seemed his movement was reaching a tipping point and the masses were flocking to him, he would share something incredibly difficult and people would leave. Nowhere is this more evident than in John 6. The chapter begins with Jesus feeding 5000 miraculously and then following it up by walking on water. He had some serious momentum going. So what does he do with it? Jesus tells them that he is the bread of life, and the only way to have the life he offers is to eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6:53-58). The crowd’s response, “On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”…”From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” (John 6:60,66).

Breen makes the point in his article that Jesus was famous, because he was doing significant things. There is an enormous difference between being famous and being significant. Jesus’ goal was to be faithful to the work the Father had given him, even if that compromised his celebrity. He said the hard things that needed to be said, regardless of the consequences. Faithfulness was his measure of success. My question is – do pastors who achieve celebrity in large churches and leadership conferences today have that same commitment? Some do, but I think it’s a question every pastor has to ask themselves, myself included.

What concerns me most about the rise of the celebrity pastor is what Skye Jethani points out in his article, “The Evangelical Industrial Complex & the Rise of Celebrity Pastors.” Jethani points out that the flame of celebrity is fueled systematically by what he calls the “evangelical industrial complex.” This is the complex “Christian” market that sells books, small group resources, preaching resources, DVDs, CDs, and a myriad of other products based on the teachings of high-profile pastors of large churches. Jethani reveals the rather obvious tactic that if content publishers can latch onto a pastor at a large church, they have a sort of guaranteed market in that pastor’s congregation. I believe his insights are as insightful as they are disturbing. Celebrity is inflated by a system whose primary goal is to make money. So the loudest voices – the ones heard onstage at leadership conferences and who get the book deals with the most marketing – aren’t necessarily the most significant, insightful or faithful, just those who can reach the largest market.

So what is our response to all this? Good question. It is a complicated issue with disturbing implications, and I’m not sure there is an easy answer to how we respond. But for those of us who endeavor to lead God’s church, I think the question Mike Breen poses is a good one to ponder. So I’ll leave you with that:

In what ways are your decisions made by a subtle undercurrent of ambition and a hope for celebrity?

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