Apr 1, 2010
FEATHER RUFFLING: Church Celebrity
Today I did something I have not done in the years since I joined Facebook. I actually unfriended someone. I didn't just unfriend him, I also removed myself from his fan page and stopped following him on Twitter. Why? Did he do something horrible? Was it a moral failure that caused such a response? No, to be honest, it was because I got sick and tired of his relentless self-promotion. Multiple times a day, I was subjected to his opinions, teachings, and thoughts about everything from fatherhood to manhood to church building to sports. And in every single case, without fail, he portrayed himself as the bringer and dispenser of correct knowledge. His suggestion were put down as law. It was as if God Himself had come down, spoken with that pastor, and told him that UFC was the only real sport for real men to watch. And if they didn't, then they were not following the Biblical rules for manhood and womanhood. This was one of his favorite areas to bloviate on - questioning the manhood of men who didn't do exactly what he did. If you didn't have your ten kids signed up for twenty sports, while also racing across the country to speak at every single church available, you weren't a real man.
I put up with much of that. But I finally just got tired of hearing about all the big shot people he knew and the crazy places he went. Instead of being known for breaking down the Bible, like he built his reputation on, he know became a spokesman for the modern church. He was everywhere - preaching seven times a weekend, going to launch churches in his self-created denomination, hobnobbing with "mega church" pastors, appearing on television and in magazines. I used to think it was great that he had those platforms. But I soon realized that it was actually all platforms, under the guise of being a pastor for one church. The final statement I got from him was a justification of his huge site church on the grounds that it saved gasoline. Good bye.
Some of you may know who I am talking about. This isn't intended to target him - but he is an example to me of what is wrong with this modern day Church cult of personality. We are drawn to these big shot pastors and speakers. Our churches desperately want to reach their level of success, so like puppies our ministers follow them around - hoping to pick up some scrap that will launch their church into the stratosphere. They go to their conferences. They buy their books. They get the identical $300 haircuts. They practice the cadence. They grown their chin hair down to their belly button. Whatever it takes to be just like these guys.
If you don't believe this is true, just go on the Twitter accounts of some of these celebrities. Andy Stanley, John Piper, Matt Chandler, Mark Driscoll, Carlos Whittaker, Rob Bell, Ed Young, Joel O'Steen, Rick Warren. They will let you know how important they are. Go to register for their conferences. Better yet, to get a true understanding, apply to be a vendor at their conferences. That is when you truly understand the truth of the money these guys generate. To be an exhibitor at Andy Stanley's Catalyst conference costs over $2000 - just for a table! (That doesn't include putting ads in the program or having add-ons at the table. The most expensive one we've seen at another conference was $700.)
Celebrity is a dangerous game. There are some good things about having someone to look up to. It can drive us to be better. It can encourage and inspire us. But, there is a line that gets crossed. We can see how unhealthy it is to put anyone on a pedestal. Just examine the ways our regular celebrities routinely crash and burn. Tiger Woods was seen as this amazing sports idol. He was good looking, well spoken, talented beyond belief, a family man. And he had a strong sense of giving back to the community. Now? Well, you would think the world of sports journalists were made up with eight year old boys - with how devastated they were to find out the truth. We constantly hear stories about how our teenagers put ridiculous demands on themselves while trying to live up to the image or body style or fashion of some television star or singer. What they don't see is the army of stylists and lawyers and publicists and fake romances. They see some famous sixteen year old in public, but they don't see those same people destructing behind the scenes.
In the Church world, celebrity is even more dangerous. Our pastors try desperately to replicate these mega ministers. They try to implement their exact programs. They even copy their sermons (yes, that does happen more than you think). But, what they don't think about is that each situation is different. Each church is unique. It has its own staff, membership, locale, neighborhood, history. Just because First Church of the Flamethrower in Hell's Bend, Arizona can institute a "Dragon of Death Men's Event" with huge numbers does not mean that every church can or - more importantly - SHOULD do it. I remember a few years back a big Baptist church had ridonkulous success with an evangelism program. Massive number of salvations, pretty big number of baptisms. So, naturally, churches everywhere tried to replicate the same program. It got so big, the entire denomination ditched its old training methods and went with this one. What happened? Huge flop. Churches everywhere saw their numbers plummet - fewer members going on visitation, fewer people accepting Christ, fewer baptisms. The creators blamed those churches, saying they did not put it into practice "exactly the way it was designed." My argument was that they could NOT do it exactly the same - because they were not the same. These churches across the country were not located in a tourist-heavy Florida city that revolved every single church program around this strategy. So, by being somewhere else, they had already changed the variables. Little wonder it didn't work.
So, just because Mark Driscoll caught lightning in a bottle in one of the most unchurched areas of the country (Seattle) and now has a monstrous multi-site church up there, it does not mean that First United Methodist Church in Woolly Boolly, Kansas needs to follow exactly the same model. They aren't in Seattle. They don't have the same staff or same structure or same history. So, trying to mimic that style isn't going to have the same outcome. That is in addition to the fact that the pastor IS NOT MARK DRISCOLL. He shouldn't try to be. He should try to minister to his church in his style as led by God. (The seminaries are terrible at forcing their graduates to fit a mold. Many a good pastor has been ruined by being seminarified.)
You know that stuff I said about the danger of following celebrities? It is just as true with Christian celebs - if not more so. You see, if you hear about Jesse James cavorting and cheating on Sandra Bullock - are you honestly that shocked? Yes, they may have appeared to have a great marriage, blah blah blah. But, at the core, they are celebrities - Hollywood celebrities. And those people live by different rules. Both parties have been divorced before. Their has been substance abuse reports. Celebrities are just like us, with all our dumb fights and arguments. Except they also have millions of people telling them they are important. So, that colors their behavior, enhances their worst elements. The same is true of celebrities in the Church world. They are the same as us - with all the same weaknesses. They have egos and anger issues and greed and poor self esteem and vanity and selfishness and lustful hearts. They just have a whole congregation (and sometimes a publisher, agent, editor, and denomination) that are telling them they are special.
So, it is little wonder that these people have developed attitudes and behaviors that are less than Christ-like. I hear all kinds of horror stories about the behaviors and opinions of this class of celebrity pastor or musician. And it isn't just hearsay - I have actually witnessed and heard some of these things for myself. There are pastors who have so isolated themselves from their own church and staff that they only talk to a handful of "chosen people." They have special microphones that they insist on using - or they will refuse to speak. They want a certain brand of water. They have line items in the budget that they have complete control over - sometimes tens of thousands of dollars. They use church resources, personnel, and funds to create their own videos, books, CDs - and then keep the profits. They have the same kind of demands as a concert act. And the money? Some of these guys require $20,000 or more to speak at a conference! $20,000?!? To preach? And, let's not forget, they still are earning their church salary - which is almost always over $150,000 in a church that size (not including book allowance, personal discretionary fund, housing allowance, and gifts from church members). That isn't even to mention that a good number of these guys are just plain hateful and vicious to their staff members. Every problem is blamed on someone else. Every credit is stolen. I've personally heard some of the most hateful comments I've ever heard in my life come out of the mouths of pastors. But, on stage, they never have a problem. They are not beset by any sin. They don't ever struggle. They have the perfect marriage with the wife who is in agreement with everything they do, and who stays out of their way. Their kids can do no wrong (even when they do soooo much wrong). They put themselves up on that pedestal - and then the people around them make it get even higher.
What I think is the most grievous problem with the class of church celebrities is that it then causes the people who look up to them to miss what should be the goal - to be like Christ. It isn't about being like Christ. It becomes about being like these Christian big shots. I don't care how godly a person is, how amazing they are - they still are human. And they still are not who we should be emulating. By holding someone in that much regard, we become a respecter of persons. We create an idol out of these guys. In essence, we worship them instead of God. If you don't believe it is true, go to some of these churches and try to point out something the leader has done. The church members will respond with such anger and defensiveness. "There is no way he did that. And if he did, he had a good reason!" He had a good reason to act hateful and evil? I don't think that exists.
The modern techno age makes this problem even bigger. We can get podcasts and twitter feeds and facebook updates. We can go online and watch the sermons live for big churches. We can buy CDs of the choirs and DVDs of the minister. They all have books for us to purchase. And eventually they will start on the conference circuit - which people will flock to, just like a fan chasing a band. So, it is very easy to become a groupie. We pledge allegiance to the person. There are even dueling groups out there. There are the fans of Al Mohler who don't get along with the fans of Ergun Caner. And the Joel Osteen disciples get ridiculed by the Mark Driscoll apostles. Doesn't that sound like the Early Church? Go read 1 Corinthians (especially Chapter 3). Paul was dealing with this group of Christians who had split allegiances - Paul and Apollos and Christ. Paul couldn't believe it. "Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul?" He sums up his three chapter argument against this behavior with "you are of Christ, and Christ is of God. The End." (I added "the end." It just seemed to fit.)
I know this is slippery ground - especially for a guy who has spoken at conferences and has his share of followers on Facebook from events and who subscribes to a bunch of podcasts. I think that finding people who communicate Scripture in an enlightening way is a good thing. Sometimes that gifted delivery is exactly what launches someone into the limelight. But it doesn't mean that the only people worth following are big shots. Nor does it mean that because they are big shots they are worth following. That is why I listen to certain guys with a smaller sphere of influence - like David Tarkington in Orange Park and Jeff Williams in Temple Terrace. And that is why I also listen to some bigger names like Tommy Nelson in Denton, TX. But I try to be careful about who I follow to closely - and I judge each one of their sermons biblically. As far as my own ministry, I know that when we go to an event we try to do everything we can to make it as affordable as possible - and as easy for the host. We provide stuff to them to help and try to make any situation work - and trust me we have had some problems that we have had to deal with. That is one reason we never have created a contract or anything for engagements (although we will have to create one thanks to late date cancellations that really messed us up.) And being completely honest here, if I ever get to the point where I act the same as the stuff I mentioned in this post, I pray that God shuts me down right there.
So what do we do about it? Well, I think the responsibility falls on each one of us. We need to stop putting people in a position where they should not be. We need to be careful about how much we worship those people in authority positions within the Church world. And we need to pray for them - that God will humble them, that they will be able to let go of the status and power. It is unhealthy and ungodly to have this level of celebrity in our churches. And if you are one of those people, well, let me just say what an honor it is that you are reading my little blog. I mean, wow. Can I have your autograph? Sorry, I forgot myself for a second. Seriously, if you are one of those people, you need to go read one of the most haunting verses in the Bible for any pastor. 1 Corinthians 9:27. "But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified." It would be horrible if, after spending a lifetime in service to God - preaching, teaching, and trying to do what is right. It would be horrible to then give in to our own hype and become selfish and arrogant and hateful and demanding. And then to face God and have Him shake His head at us - disgusted by what we had become. I don't think celebrity status will get you out of that.