arts, movies, music, pop culture · faith

celebrity pastors and the cult of personality

You could probably argue that it started with Paul. you know, Saint Paul? That dude who traveled all over the known Roman world to talk to church gatherings and give them what for. The one who reprimanded everybody and sent letters like they were going out of style. Yea, that Paul. He thought he was all that, like you listen to me now, hear!

It makes me smile, thinking about how groups of Christians would gather around a letter to hear what Paul had to say – something akin to centuries later when Winston Churchill announced something or other about war and such, and everyone would huddle up and cling to every word. I mean, the letters we have in the Canon were certainly not the only ones he sent that we know of and he always seemed to have a lot to say.

Fast forward to modern day preacher/teachers and you have people gaining popularity in the hundreds of thousands coming from all over and all walks of life to listen – I went to Urbana one year (1993-4 I think?) and Ravi Zacharias spoke. The place was packed. i mean Urbana is always packed, but people were lined up out the doors, standing room only to hear him. Just last year he came to Williamsburg. Same thing. Standing room only. And I swear he said almost all the same exact things. No disrespect intended whatsoever. No really. He was great and he is an amazing person with an incredible mind and I love his books. that said, I felt like his talk was… well, left something to be desired. Don’t get me wrong, I will probably go to every talk he ever gives in my general vicinity.

But that begs the question about these “celebrity pastors.” Zacharias, Tim Keller, John MacArthur, Chuck Swindoll, Mark Driscoll, the list goes on and on with every passing year. When I was living in Los Angeles, I briefly went to John MacArthur’s church. it was a zoo. SO many people. I went late every Sunday just in time for the sermon – didn’t care a whole lot for the rest of the service (just not my style) and I wasn’t the only one. I parked like what felt a mile away. And then he spoke on Wednesday nights. Same thing. Parking nightmare and you may not get a seat. Why? Well, MacArthur’s teachings were incredible. And he talked like he was just sitting with you at dinner or on the couch in your living room. he was awesome, direct, clear, concise. Just a truly gifted teacher. And people respond to that.

When I lived in NYC, I went to see Tim Keller every now and then. Also, didn’t really attend for the service, just wanted to hear what Keller had to say. When he spoke at General Assembly in Virginia Beach last year, I have the feeling that was the highest attendance of the whole conference. People came out of the woodwork to hear him, and I had no idea there were that many Presbyterians in Hampton Roads. We just loooove our pastors, right?

And this is where we get into trouble. I’m going to say something here – the higher they climb, the longer the fall. Celebrity is a dangerous thing. When everyone is looking at you, EVERYONE is looking at you. It becomes easy for us as human beings, in our culture, to put people on pedestals where they don’t belong. We look to these men for advice for our lives and while they are solid and Biblically based, right now, I think we tend to get sidetracked from what we need to be listening to. And what happens when they fall?

When I was in college, a pastor who came to Intervarsity and spoke a few times, a very gifted and fun pastor I will add, ended up getting caught in an affair and having to step down and move away. It was devastating to all of us. He would come and talk about honesty and integrity and standing your ground. And while in my heart I knew better than to think anyone is above temptation, when I heard about his choices, I felt completely cheated and lied to.

Years later, and what feels like several lifetimes later, I had a pastor friend do his own version of a “fall from grace” but this time, I would understand completely and find myself empathizing. For me, my whole life has pointed to one thing and one alone – God Almighty. When we start looking to anyone and everyone but Him, the picture gets jacked up. Everything is out of focus. We obsess over other people and what’s that one doing, and what’s this one thinking about X, Y, and Zed subject (you know, in case he’s British because so many great thinkers are) and we start to miss out on the commonness of us all.

We need leaders, sure. God appointed leaders and he put pretty rigid standards on them. Notably pastors and teachers who should be called to something higher and bigger and amazing. Absolutely should be seen through a tough lens and held to the highest expectations. But so should you. And so should I. and so should anyone who names the Name of Christ.

I think what we lose in putting our pastors on pedestals is the responsibility of ALL of us, in this together, to uphold EACH OTHER, to take care of each other, to pray unceasingly, to be REAL with each other, to struggle together, to wrestle out whatever bogs us down, and to serve each other. Not to put undue pressure on each other, make people accountable for things that we ourselves aren’t accountable for, or not let our “celeb” pastors have their shortcomings.

One of my most respected speakers is Louie Giglio. I mean he’s a great, gifted speaker and all, but for me the very best talk I’ve ever heard him give was about his depression and anxiety. How he struggled to get out of bed, how he had huge doubts and questioned what God was doing. It was so real and true and heavy and awesome. It was like the best of the Psalms in a nutshell. (“Help! I’m in a nutshell!”) And while it’s very post modern of me to think so, I do believe that Saint Paul the Well Traveled was much the same. “I am the worst of all sinners” and “I asked the Lord to heal my thorn in the flesh” and “I glory in my weakness” and “look at me! Look at me!” and “no, no don’t look at me” – it’s all there. Celebrity affects everyone in different ways. He may or may not have owned a jaguar but we know he was a name dropper.

Anyway, my point, I guess if I have to actually have a point, is to do away with our concept of celebrity status and treat all men equally. They have the same thing you have and are the same thing you are… nothing without the Providential Hand of God.

Epilogue: Except that I did gush a bit when I met a pastor I admire recently. But it was mostly because I was so excited to see him in our church. It was crazy to me that he was even there and I was super nervous because he is a musician and a songwriter and I get hypersensitive about screwing up. Which I totally shouldn’t. But I do. Like if Chris Tomlin ever walked in… oh celebrity worship leaders is another blog altogether… haha

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4 thoughts on “celebrity pastors and the cult of personality

  1. As someone who has attended mega-churches, and attended high-church liturgical churches, I certianly prefer the latter because it helps curb the celebrity pastor mentality.

    I do not need to connect to God primarily through some minister, who stand like a rock star under a spotlight, and speaks with the eloquence of politician who -alleges- to be expositing the word on my behalf. I have felt to often that their success is more to their speaking ability (human power) than the work of the Holy Spirit or scripture. Likewise, I feel that the values they expound are “right” because they are popular. I mean, if a Church is so big, the preacher can’t be wrong right?

    In traditions I’m in the, the Minister speaks for a short period of time. He usually does so off -center stage. The word is important, and that’s why read passages of it publicly. Additionally, the sacrament is important. So there is more to just “that popular guy” preaching to attract us to Church. It’s a lot harder for there to ever be an excess of celebrity when you run church that way.

  2. Thanks for the comments! I agree and I do love those pastors who have a true humility about them, they remain approachable, and they know that they rely fully on the Bible and the Gospel.

    And there is this idea that there is safety in numbers in the church. And that simply isn’t true. Majority rule has never made something “right” – in fact, I tend to wonder about churches that get that large 🙂

  3. Yeah, it always tickles me how protestants go on about “not needing someone to mediate between them and God” and then they flock en masse to watch a guy on a jumbo tron and take his word as the Word.

    Pastors shouldn’t be saying anything new or clever – though they can repackage it how they like, the message ought to be the same. They should be just repeating the same old thing. It’s when they start saying new things you’ve got to wonder.

  4. Good post, Robin. While you joke about the post-modern mindset, I think there’s something to that. I won’t go so far as to say that modernism is to blame for the elevation of leaders, but it sure played a large part in it. I honestly fear for the future of satellite churches where one pastor is “piped in” via video feed to a number of different churches. Talk about the ripple effect should anything go awry.

    Surprisingly, Gordon McDonald was in favor of this for the future of the church. Not having read many of his comments in support of it, I can’t speak too much to it, but it’s surprising considering his history.

    I’ve seen in my own life, pastors who have done their best to hide who they really are from their congregations. The surprising thing is, what they were hiding was not all that “evil.” Usually, some bad experience of being transparent and getting burned for it led them to go into their shell, like a turtle.

    As I’ve thought about this, Protestants have a tendency to wax pharisaical and claim that they are not guilty of idolatry like Catholics seem to be, but if you widen your viewpoint, you see that Protestants are guilty of idolatry every time that they elevate a pastor or leader up to God-like status.

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