When Jesus Meets TMZ

Why celebrity culture is overtaking our pulpits.

Much has been said in recent years about the rise of so-called “celebrity pastors” within Christianity, particularly within evangelicalism. Just mention names like Ted Haggard, Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll, Joel Osteen, John Piper, Francis Chan, Bill Hybels and Joyce Meyer, and you’re guaranteed to get a fair share of impassioned praise or heated criticism.

But students of Scripture will know this is not a new phenomenon, that even the early Church developed something of a "celebrity apostle" culture in which Christians were aligning themselves with famous apostles like Paul, Apollos and Cephas. While there is no record of what Paul may have written to Apollos or Cephas about this situation, there is a record of what he wrote to the Corinthians—a healthy reminder of the fact that celebrities can only thrive in cultures that create and nurture them, that those of us concerned with celebrity pastors are often culpable in creating the environments that sustain them.

How has the Church gone from honoring leaders to idolizing them?

We make celebrity pastors when we believe they can do no right or do no wrong.

Everyone has Christian friends who speak about their favorite pastors with the same reverence and awe generally reserved for Jesus or Apple products. These folks hang on every word the pastor writes, preaches or tweets, and can seem incapable of forming opinions of their own without first consulting the person behind the pulpit. This reveals an unhealthy dependency that elevates celebrity pastors to near idols.

On the other hand, there are cynical Christians who like to find one or two outspoken pastors on whom to continually focus their anger. I really struggle with this in my own life, as I tend to vilify those celebrity pastors with whom I disagree. This may seem like an entirely different problem than the idolization of celebrity pastors, but these attitudes actually represent two sides of the same coin. Both flatten and objectify the pastors in question. While one group sees a pastor as wholly good, the other sees the pastor as wholly evil. But neither sees the leader for who he or she actually is—a person: fallen yet redeemed, imperfect and in need of our grace.

“What, after all, is Apollos?” Paul asks the Corinthians. “And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task” (1 Corinthians 3:5).

Like the stars on the covers of tabloid magazines, Christians make celebrity pastors into little more than characters in a detached story played out for their entertainment, characters onto which people project their own hopes, dreams, insecurities, fears and frustrations. To restore a Kingdom-perspective, Christians must remember the humanity of their pastors. Believers must manage their expectations for those they love—and pray for those with whom they disagree.

We make celebrity pastors when we become their disciples rather than Christ’s.

When Christians look to pastors for wisdom on how to better love God and love one another, they become better disciples of Jesus and better lights of hope in a dark world. 

When Christians look to pastors to tell them how to dress, what to eat, what hobbies to have, what systematic theologies to prefer, how to vote and what personality to adopt, they become creepy, unthinking clones of broken people—and big red warning flags to a culture that has grown increasingly suspicious of authority figures.

The apostle Paul wrote often about the importance of learning from Christian mentors. “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” he told the Corinthians. “Join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have put in us,” he instructed the Philippians (3:17). Insofar as our pastors imitate Christ by loving God and loving their neighbors, Christians should indeed look to them for wisdom and guidance. But when believers become their unquestioning disciples in every area of life, including matters of preference, they have taken our eyes off of Jesus.

This appears to be what happened in the church at Corinth. Paul accuses the Corinthians of worldliness because they had allowed their preferences for various apostles to divide them. “One says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’” Paul laments. “But since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly?”

Pastors that divide the Church by turning non-essential issues into fundamentals contribute enormously to the Christian celebrity culture. But the Church buys right into it when it allows these pastors to divide people into teams, turned against one another. Amidst all the posturing, it’s easy to forget believers are all supposed to be following Jesus.

We make celebrity pastors when we measure success by numbers.

It has become popular for pastors and their followers to imitate the world by bragging about “fruitfulness” in terms of numbers.

"One hundred people were baptized today!" "I sold 100,000 copies of my book!" "This sermon was downloaded 1 million times!"

But neither Jesus nor His earliest followers ever taught that fruitfulness should be measured in numbers. In fact, like many who labor for Christ around the world today, most of the early disciples were dismissed, marginalized, imprisoned or killed. Rather than attracting big-shot Roman officials and important Jewish scholars, the earliest churches were overwhelmed with the poor, women, widows and slaves. That is because Jesus established an upside-down kingdom, a kingdom in which the last are first and the first are last, a kingdom in which the poor, the meek, the humble and the downtrodden are blessed, while the rich, powerful and elite often walk away scratching their heads.

There is nothing inherently wrong with popularity or success, but one has to keep in mind that God’s definition of fruitfulness is not big numbers. God’s definition of fruitfulness is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. This is the fruit of the Spirit, and one can observe it in big churches and small, among the rich and the poor, in homeless shelters and mega-churches, on mission trips and around the street corner—in famous pastors and in pastors who have labored for many, many years in obscurity. As Mother Teresa taught, “We are called upon not to be successful, but to be faithful.”

Paul spoke directly to this issue in 1 Corinthians 3 when he told the celebrity-crazed Corinthians: “By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work” (1 Corinthians 3:10).

It’s not about being dazzled by pastors who simply boast big congregations and impressive book sales. Honor should be reserved for pastors whose teachings and whose lives exhibit the fruit of the spirit.

We make celebrity pastors when we think we need them.

Paul concludes his instructions regarding celebrity apostles by saying: “So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God” (1 Corinthians 3:21).

I’m no psychologist, but I suspect a big part of what drives celebrity-pastor culture is insecurity. It is part of human nature to long for an authority figure to tell you what to do and how to think, someone to lead the kind of life you might not think you’re strong enough to lead. But Christians, of all people, should be different. For inside each one of us lives the Holy Spirit, who convicts us, guides us, teaches us and reminds us of the things Jesus taught.

Perhaps the first step to moving past a celebrity pastor culture is to listen to that voice, to remember we are all followers of Jesus, all heirs to Christ’s Kingdom, all part of the priesthood of believers, and all capable of bearing the sort of fruit that comes from the stubborn, everyday faithfulness of regular people who  have been transformed by an amazing God.

Rachel Held Evans is the author of Evolving in Monkey Town: How A Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions (Zondervan, 2010). She blogs at rachelheldevans.com