Over the past few years, we’ve witnessed wave after wave of high-profile Christian scandals—from Mark Driscoll to Ravi Zacharias to Carl Lentz and beyond. Then there are the prospering but all-too-commercialized, slick megachurch hipster pastors with expensive designer outfits (see PreachersNSneakers on Instagram). At a certain point one is justified in asking: Is something drastically wrong with our expectations for popular Christian leaders?
One of the answers is that the broader American church has fostered the same celebrity culture as the rest of society—and with it, all its ills.
Katelyn Beaty dedicated her 2022 book, Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits are Hurting the Church to those who (in the words of George Eliot) “lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Over the past couple of years, I’ve increasingly come to believe that if you want to find faithful, godly Christians, you should primarily find the hidden lives and visit the unvisited tombs.
Anabaptists are often a few steps behind broader Christian cultural trends. My hope is that we can learn from the mistakes of Christian celebrity culture without having to be swept into it ourselves. In this post I’ll be sharing insights from Beaty’s book.
What Is Christian Celebrity?
Fame itself is not intrinsically bad. Beaty writes that “the right kind of fame arises from a life well lived, not a brand well cultivated” (8). We have been blessed with faithful high-profile Christian leaders (see my post on Tim Keller for one example). I have learned much from them, and they have powerfully impacted American Christians (our circles included) for good. We ought to respect and learn from such individuals, and this post is not to be used as an excuse for discounting their ministries. But in general these are the ones who have tried to avoid the things that “celebrities” run toward. (A good example, again, is Tim Keller.)
“Celebrity,” Beaty writes, “is fame’s shinier, slightly obnoxious cousin” (11). In fact, it is often “a shortcut to greatness,” a being well known “for their well-knownness” (13). One of the ways in which celebrity differs from fame is in how it “feeds on mass media” (12), especially visual media such as television. Since “the primary functions of mass media are to entertain us and to get us to buy things,” celebrity Christian leaders’ on-air presence will often become subtly tainted (12). Mark Driscoll is a case-in-point—what started out as a local church reaching punk-rock types eventually became a consumable “brand,” largely as Driscoll’s focus drifted to his online and video audience over his local flock.
Mass media also “gives us the illusion of intimacy while drawing our attention away from the true intimacy available within a physical community” (15). Beaty continues, “What humans of the past have found in traditional worship, fraternal organizations, and family and local community, we now seek in part by consuming images of people we don’t and can’t know” (16–17). Especially now in a social-media saturated age, ordinary people can feel a part of “important people’s” lives by following them on Instagram and Twitter (I’m still calling it Twitter). They can see pictures of their celebrities in “everyday” environments, read their “hot takes” on issues as they arise, and respond in comments. But they do not really know them. Having a celebrity is no substitute for having a community.
The second way in which celebrity differs from simple fame is its tendency to idolize. “Celebrity worship” is a well-known phenomenon in popular culture, but Christians are not immune. There’s a line we can cross between honoring great women and men of God and placing “superhuman expectations” on them (17), of giving undue allegiance to them because of their popularity or exploits, of not being willing to acknowledge their feet of clay.
Beaty defines celebrity is “social power without proximity” (17). Part of what makes them celebrities is the mystique of their other-ness, their famousness. We want to feel like they’re relatable, but we don’t want them to actually be regular people. A culture of celebrity breeds loneliness both for fans and for the famous, and exalts exaltation instead of faithfulness.
There are many pitfalls of Christian celebrity, but power, platforms, and persona are three that Beaty discusses.
One of the early megachurch “megapastors” in the US was the now-disgraced Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church. Hybels started out with a passion for the local church based off Acts 2. But as Willow Creek grew, so did Hybels’s ego and his unhealthy control. At the same time, Hybels became inaccessible to ordinary church attendees: separate entrance and exit, a security guard following him around, private boat and plane. He also used a private email server which church leadership couldn’t access. Hybels became a pastor of pastors with his Willow Creek Association and his Global Leadership Summit (conferences featuring star-studded speaker lineups including a former US president and UK prime minister). If “a warning sign for any lead pastor and their church is to be increasingly important and increasingly unknown” (55), then Hybels had warning signs all over.
With international reputation, success, and a celebrity profile comes immense power, in part due to the people around the celebrity feeling unable or unwilling to hold the figure accountable. Hybels could be harsh, domineering, and egocentric, but his elder board failed to take him to task. They initially defended him even after affair allegations surfaced.
Unchecked Christian celebrity power is often excused by the “fruit” the ministry yields (70). This was the case with Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church. And since the ministry is tied far more closely to the celebrity than to the community or an institution, the celebrity becomes the ministry. This was the case with Ravi Zacharias. It was also true of Driscoll, who once infamously declared “I am the brand” (70). To hold the celebrity accountable risks destroying the ministry.
Celebrity “attracts” a following, but it also “deceives” the celebrity into thinking they are above the rules. Celebrity “shields” from critique or accountability. But it also “isolates”: it is a lonely place without a close community, with “many adoring followers but no real friends.” This “creates a breeding ground for deception and abuse” (87–89).
Every aspiring influencer today seeks a “platform.” Beaty, who works in Christian publishing, notes that authors “are told they must have platforms (102). In fact, someone with a “large social media following” who “can’t write or doesn’t have much to say, will find plenty of publishers and agents who want to publish their book,” while an objectively better book proposal may fail because its author doesn’t have a platform. “Numbers rule” (103).
The chasing of “platforms” in Christian celebrity culture can lead to unethical extremes, such as plagiarism scandals or the use of shady methods (e.g. ResultSource) to propel a book onto the New York Times’s bestseller list; or, even, fake social media followers can be used to “boost” an online presence (107–114). Even when such excesses are avoided, platform chasing represents a focus on mass popularity over local faithfulness.
Historian Kate Bowler (quoted by Beaty) defines a celebrity as “one who actively chases the public eye, wooing the media and cultivating a network of supporting agencies and fellow stars that manufactures mass recognition” (109). This is often couched in spiritual language (making a bigger kingdom impact), but the results often make a greater impact for the celebrity’s kingdom than for God’s. It implies a misunderstanding of what real church and real discipleship should be focused on: ordinary life, with friends, in person.
“Celebrity exacts a price. The feelings of love that it offers, over time, crowd out the actual love that requires proximity…” (119). “One common theme of superstardom is the paradox of loneliness: that the more that people know of you, the less that people can know you (122).
“Many famous people cope by using… ‘character-splitting.’ They craft a ‘celebrity entity,’ a presentation of the self, while the true self is hidden away” (123). None of us are celebrities, but social media allows all of us to be celebrity-wannabees who adopt a persona for the sake of likes, followers, and fans. It’s true that all of us project something of a persona in our various life roles; this is not always a bad thing. But when fostered unnecessarily, it can lead to a “divided self,” a “lack of integrity” (123). The risk, even for “micro-celebrities” on social media, is that life becomes all about performance (125). The narcissist, Beaty writes, is someone who “doesn’t know who they are apart from what others reflect back to them” (126).
Early in Beaty’s book, she mentions a study showing that fame is among the highest value for young people in the US today. The dangers of “persona,” narcissism, and the “divided self” are on the rise because the potential for fame (even micro-fame) is more than ever within reach.
But while we love adoration and crave fans (at least, some of us do), “we all need communities that promise to love us instead of adore us” (123). And these need to be in-person, not virtual, communities. As Beaty writes, as believers in the incarnation—God coming in-person to us—“Christians should be the first to insist on the primacy of in-person relationship” (135).
Celebrity and Social Power
Another temptation for American Christians is to use celebrities to bolster our cultural / societal power. Beaty writes: “With celebrity conversions [e.g. Kanye West], many Christians feel that their faith is being validated in realms that otherwise appear hostile or indifferent to their deepest beliefs. If Christians perceive that they are embattled in a secular culture, then celebrity conversions suggest that God’s side might be winning… Besides, celebrity conversions make Christianity cool again” (142). But of course, “Looking to any celebrity to represent the faith comes with the risk of them representing the faith poorly” (154). And it also comes with a risk of adopting values antithetical to Jesus’—privileging the wealthy over the poor, embracing worldly norms of success, perhaps treating church as a corporation that exists to create slick productions.
As conservative Anabaptists we’ve largely avoided this dead end. But as a group prone to political conservatism and persecution expectations, we do need to keep on guard. “An overwhelming sense of losing power leads many Christians to align with strongmen” (148). Perhaps in the political realm (ironically) is where we have been the most guilty of “hoping to find a celebrity icon in our likeness” (148).
Community, Accountability, and Faithfulness
Even though we ourselves aren’t celebrities, there are ways we should be intentional to avoid the traps of celebrity culture.
First, make sure your Christianity is a genuine following of Christ. Beaty writes that for some who leave the faith, “Christianity never went deeper than a brand identity” (158). If that’s all your Christianity is, you’re liable to all the market forces associated with brands—including advertising and competition.
Second, be committed to a local church. Beaty warns against celebrities who are “ecclesiastical loners.” Celebrities often find themselves in positions of such power and isolation that nobody can truly challenge them or stop them, and very few people truly know them. Church accountability “should hurt a little” (128–9): there should be people in our lives who aren’t afraid of us or enamored by us, but who do genuinely love us and care about us. These are real, small, in-person relationships, not the “parasocial” relationship between celebrity and fans. And it is often here, in the small, mundane realm, that we see the fruit of the Spirit genuinely evidenced. Beaty writes: “If I could point to a defining factor that has made Christian faith alluring, plausible, and real to me, it is this: other Christians… I mean ordinary, flawed, messy fellow humans, working out what it means to love God and neighbor, day in and day out, without fanfare or praise” (159).
Third, foster friendship. How do we guard against celebrity culture, especially in an age of social media where each of us can be a micro-celebrity-wannabee? Beaty writes, “I was struck by the simplicity of what [Andy] Crouch told me: friendship. None of us need another fan. We all need another friend” (172). Crouch adds, “We’re meant to have people in our lives who are so close to us that nothing can impress them and nothing can shock them” (172).
Finally, reject worldly standards of success. Celebrity culture is indeed alluring. But it is a “worldly form of power” (168) that measures success in numbers of fans, profit figures, image, and achievement. But as we know from the Gospels, Jesus’ definition of success, and the path he himself pursued, were very different from the world’s standard. Drawing on Henri Nouwen, Beaty thinks about Jesus’ three temptations as the temptation to be “relevant” (stones to bread), “spectacular” (jumping from the temple), and “powerful” (gaining the kingdoms of the world) (166). But Jesus “refuses to do good things in the wrong way” (167). And in fact, “as an antidote to the temptation to worldly power, Jesus frequently chose obscurity” (167).
Nouwen, an acclaimed philosopher and thriving academic, reflected on a time when “everyone was saying that I was doing really well, but something inside me was telling me that my success was putting my own soul in danger” (131). So Nouwen spent the next years in an obscure community serving people with intellectual disabilities. He was paired with a man named Adam, a person unable to walk or speak. Nouwen exchanged his celebrity for community, his acclaim for obscure service. God calls us all to different paths; some of us are called to very public roles. A few of us are even called to be famous. But none of us are called to lose our soul for the sake of celebrity.
The conservative Anabaptist world has largely avoided the trappings of celebrity culture. We have valued small churches, close communities, and in-person interaction. While at times our relative isolation has made us overly suspicious of the broader evangelical world, in this area it has served us well. With increased access to broader cultural trends in a smartphone age, we must guard against the pull toward worldly pursuit of fame, of craving “social power without proximity.” We must resist the impulse to exalt people who help our social or political “cause” but who do not exemplify faithfulness. We must embrace our tradition of small, close, and faithful, and seek to foster it.
Our churches should continue to point people toward “the obscure Messiah and ordinary faithfulness” (157). I’ll leave you with Beaty’s conclusion to Celebrities for Jesus:
Maybe recovering from celebrity’s toxic effects means accepting that our lives will be mostly a series of “unhistoric acts” whose final effects remain unknown to the world. Maybe it means casting off the big ideals of living big lives for God and accepting that our greatest moments of faithfulness may be achieved in complete obscurity. Maybe it means getting back down to the roots—to something as small as a mustard seed. To a faith that is hidden and unnoticed, barely visible to the human eye. The kingdom of God is not coming through bright lights and loudspeakers and impressive buildings and multimedia teaching series and PR specialists and strategic partnerships and viral content. It is not coming through entertaining anecdotes and polished talks and bestselling books. It is not coming through any strategy. It’s not even coming through you and me. We don’t build or usher in the kingdom of God. We merely attest to its reality in our lives. If only we would get out of the way. (175)