North American Christian culture is obsessed with celebrity pastors and leaders. We watch their videos on YouTube, read their books, and will only attend the concerts or conferences they are speaking at. Our consumerism feeds into a machine that needs to keep getting bigger and better – but more on that a little later. We too easily lose sight of the reality these people are just that … people.
As I write this post, it is the first day of the 2018 Global Leadership Summit. The historical leader and first speaker of the Summit is Bill Hybels. Today, he will be absent because he has lost his position due to abuses of his power – particularly against women. The domino effect of his sin has been significant:
- Ten women (that we know of) have had their lives wounded in deeper ways than we can describe or fully understand.
- Their families and friends who are hurting for the women they love while having a sense of betrayal from the leader they trusted.
- The Global Leadership Summit who has lost over one hundred host sites this year.
- The staff of Willow Creek Church and the Willow Creek Association who are left to pick up the pieces while also battling their own hurt and betrayal.
- Willow Creek Church. A community trying to come to grips with what has happened while also facing the reality of their entire Elders Board, Teaching Pastor, and Lead Pastor resigning this week.
- The broader body of Christ who are hurting and lose out in multiple ways through this.
Inside the Machine
I would love to say I am surprised by all of this – but I am not. Over the last several years there have been so many similar stories. It is all very sad to see.
Since 1995, I have personally been very close to the Christian celebrity machine. The ministry I lead hosts large conferences, and I also spent a season as the primary organizer for these events. I have experienced dozens of times when celebrity Christian speakers do not exhibit the fruit of the Spirit. There have been times when men go on and on about how great a certain speaker is, and I listen to them while considering the different person I experienced backstage.
Much of the problem revolves around pride and money. Many Christian leaders, including myself, battle the sin of pride. We love when people tell us how great we are. We want more of it and we need to keep feeding our ego.
Money is also a big challenge. I remember organizing large events that were growing, and feeling the pressure to top that event the following year. Inside an organization, you have the pressure to pay for staff and other bills that are increasing. Attendees will only pay to see certain people, and you feel the temptation to compromise values in order to keep the momentum and money advancing. Even the Christian celebrity has the financial pressure to speak more and sell more.
Along the way, the Christian celebrity becomes more isolated and more powerful. They are isolated in the sense of not being able to be fully open about every part of their heart and life for fear it will compromise the machine that has been built. They become more powerful because they know they are in demand and can demand certain things of others in return.
A Better Way
I will always remember the day when I knew something needed to change for myself and our team. While I will not explain all of the circumstances involved, I knew I needed to repent of my obsession. Our ministry needed to change its approach – for our own health personally and organizationally.
Christian leaders and organizations need to recalibrate themselves. We had to learn again to focus first on God and second on mission. Our primary focus shifted from finding the biggest name possible to knowing the message God has called us to give and finding the right messenger to give that message. Yes, it has come at a cost. We have lost money because of these decisions, but we have found our soul. We don’t always get it right, but we are learning to be better.
I am not opposed to a Christian having a large platform. The Bible has many stories of individual people who had a broader influence than most other people did. I am grateful for the many well known people I have met who have incredible character and integrity. These people will be the first to tell you that Christians with a celebrity status need to be viewed first as simply a brother or sister in Christ; a gifted member of the body of Christ. They are not more important or less important than you or me. 1 Corinthians 12:21-24 tells us we need them, and they also need us.
Dealing with Our Obsession
Here are some ideas to help all of us address our obsession with Christian celebrity:
- Confess and repent of the ways we hold some people as being more important than others in the Body of Christ.
- Submit yourself to spiritual leadership. Remember, the Christian celebrity does not know you and cannot care for you the same way your pastor can. Hebrews 13:7, 17 teaches us these are the people who keep watch over our souls.
- Allow God to show you the places you need to grow more like Jesus. Decide to read a book, attend a conference, etc not because of the celebrity who is writing/speaking but because of the ways this message will help you grow in Christ.
The Christian celebrity culture is real. We can have a healthy or unhealthy mindset and attitude towards this. Take some time to evaluate how you are contributing to this culture.
I pray we will all be conformed to the image of Jesus more than the image of our favourite Christian celebrity.