Is Your Pastor a Celebrity?.

THABITI ANYABWILE|1:01 AM CT

Is Your Pastor a Celebrity?

We’ve worked our way through some basic definitions and we’ve attempted to estimate the scope of the problem. We’ve also worked through a basic framework for understanding how “celebrity” develops, and how even appropriate notoriety may morph into celebrity status. In all of that we’re attempting to establish some working first principles as we think about this issue using the work of others who have for some time written and thought about “celebrity” as a cultural phenomenon.

Here’s what I’ve contended in a nutshell:

  • We need definitions that distinguish the pejorative “celebrity pastor” from a biblical and appropriate “honor.”
  • We need to identify the scope of the problem: Is it pandemic or is it isolated? I’ve argued that the problem is not isolated, but nor is it pandemic. I’m making a purely anecdotal guess that 10-15 percent of conference goers exhibit “celebrity infatuation.”
  • We’ve discussed the various pathways to celebrity status, including “the noble path to notoriety” and “the corrupt corridor to celebrity.” When people who should be known for their God-glorifying achievements are censored as “celebrities,” confusing honor with “celebrity,” we may see at least three unintended consequences: undermine godly ambition and hard work, undermine godly gratitude, and rob ourselves of godly examples to follow.
  • We’ve seen the need to also identify the various “players” contributing to the problem. We’ve suggested three: the pastor(s), the media, and the audience.
  • Finally, we’re in need of identifying the respective roles and responsibilities each sector plays. While most commenters have argued the pastor plays the most important role and bears the greatest responsibility, I’ve argued that each sector has its responsibility but the public has the greatest role since ultimately the public confers “celebrity status.”

But this issue of role and responsibility deserves a closer look. I hope in the next three posts take each sector in turn and offer some thoughts about how they contribute to celebrity culture and what concrete responsibilities they may take. We begin where we must: the pastor.

Moving from Notoriety to Celebrity

Neal Gabler in his work on the development of celebrity identified something he thought was missing in earlier critiques of celebrity culture: story or narrative. Gabler argues that compelling narrative is the defining element that moves a person from notoriety to celebrity by garnering publicity and audience attention.

Most evangelical Christians would readily admit that faithful pastors and preachers of God’s word deserve honor for their work (1 Tim. 5:17, for ex.). Such pastors, whether only in their congregations or in their cities or nationally or internationally, gain notoriety for their labors. We’ve represented the flow to notoriety and honor as follows:

How does a pastor go from simply being known to be a faithful teacher and shepherd to being a “celebrity pastor”? Here’s where I find Gabler’s thinking about narrative so intriguing. Gabler rightly points out that every celebrity must be famous, but not every famous  person is a celebrity. The difference is that the celebrity has a narrative or story that (a) gets publicity and (b) the public enjoys or finds compelling. A simply well-known man—perhaps deservedly so—now becomes larger than life with a public that over-identifies with him. If we expressed as a formula it might be something like this:

(Notoriety + Narrative) * Publicity * Audience = Celebrity

Or building on our earlier diagram, we might represent the move to celebrity as:

Evangelicals—A Narrative-Driven People

There’s a rich irony in all of this. Stories make celebrities. We love stories.   But, what we love to do (tell and hear good stories) often results in what we love to hate (“celebrity”).

If there are a people almost defined by story, it’s Evangelicals. Ours is a culture and view of life built inseparably on layers of story.

1. The gospel itself is a story. The familiar creation, fall, redemption, consummation framework attempts to put the message of salvation in a biblical theological (storied) framework. The events of the gospel—the Incarnation, perfect righteousness, crucifixion, resurrection, and Second Coming—relay a story about how God intervenes in time and space to purchase for himself rebellious sinners, making them new. There’s no way for Evangelicals (any Christian variety) to be “Christian” in any meaningful sense without story.

2. Moreover, our personal testimonies of conversion are stories. We were not Christians lost in sin. Then a friend began to share the gospel, or we visited a church where we heard the gospel story shared. Perhaps we wrestled with the implications. But at some point the overarching story of the Gospel—and the Person it features, Jesus Christ—intercepts our story and we’re radically changed. When someone asks, “Are you a Christian?” we hear an invitation to “tell our story.”

3. Then there are the stories of church growth. Some pastors retell this narrative in their bios. Others share “what’s going on at my church” in conversation. We look for best practices or to learn how others developed this or that practice. We listen to the experiences (i.e., stories or narratives) of others with the hope of benefitting in some way. Our churches have a history and a vision. We’re communities in the midst of drama (narrative).

4. Finally, Evangelicals love accounts of suffering, perseverance, and heroism. Think of the many missionary biographies, public confessions, and interviews we’ve enjoyed. Some of it becomes hagiography, to be sure. But we love a compelling story of overcoming some odds. How many of us marvel and give praise to God at the faithfulness of an Adoniram Judson in Burma, or a Joni Erickson Tada, and so on?

Evangelical culture is in many ways a culture of layered stories. That, in part, is what makes us particularly vulnerable to “celebrity culture” concerns. It’s part of what creates the blind spot for many people. For what some see as “celebrity” appears only as interesting narrative to others.

Elements Contributing to Celebrity, or Celebrity-Seeking

So how does a notable pastor become a “celebrity pastor”? Or, to put it in accusatory terms, what might “celebrity-seeking” look like in a notable pastor? Applying Gabler’s work and insight about narratives, I’d suggest five things. You can spot a “celebrity-seeking” pastor when:

1. He Plays Up a Success Story. Gaebler: “[S]tars by virtue of being stars come equipped with the first two prerequisites for celebrity: Publicity and what might be called a “foundation narrative.” They all have the story of their success, always a good tale and the subplot of everything else they are likely to do in their lives.” Gabler’s “foundation narrative” is the “self-made man” or “rags to riches” archetypal story. The hero who comes from nowhere. The one-time “Mr. Anonymous” who becomes an Evangelical “Adonis.” We might be on the scent of “celebrity-seeking” when we see a man tell and re-tell that narrative—especially when it’s told in such a way that lionizes the man rather than glorifies God.

2. He Seeks to Create Publicity Focused on Himself. Here, I simply mean a mean attempts to stay in the media in story after story. Perhaps he appends an interesting twist or a new update to an existing narrative that brought him celebrity status. Or, sensing the old narrative has waned, he goes about telling a new story that focuses on himself. He’s not busily keeping his nose to grind; he’s stalking the paparazzi rather than being stalked.

3. He Conflates ‘Roles’ and His Real Life. Gabler writes: “Conventional stars also have the advantage over other potential celebrities of being able to draw on the roles they play which their fans often conflate with the stars’ real lives, allowing the actors, in effect, to borrow the narratives from their movies or television shows.” Remember the John Wayne example. John Wayne, a legendary ‘tough guy’ in the movies, actually received awards for courage following WWII even though he never served in the war. The roles Wayne played on the big screen were confused with the life of the man. One can scarcely entertain such confusion when it’s made by a cheering audience; it’s inexcusable when a pastor sets out to do it for himself. How does a pastor do this? Chiefly by preaching himself. He’s the hero of all his personal anecdotes—of which there are many. He never confesses his own sins—of which there are many. He creates the impression that his life is near perfect, while, of course, offering the obligatory, “I’m not perfect.” Interestingly, like John Wayne, one of the most prevalent instances of conflation happen to be ‘tough guy’ images among some evangelical pastors. But their real lives bear no scars from brawls, nor should they.

4. He Exploits Congruence.  Again from the pen of Gabler: “Of course movies and television shows have tangible stars, too and, as noted, people do confuse the person with the part. But one of the things that generates the excitement of celebrity, one of the things that distinguishes celebrity narratives from the fictional or even fact-based narratives of conventional media, is the congruence between the person and the narrative he is living.” In other words, celebrity also results when the person we see depicted in media and advertisements really is like that in real life. Congruence or integrity sometimes generates a compelling narrative. Whether it’s Simon Cowell really is that sharp-tongued, or Denzel Washington really is that humble and laid back. The congruence or integrity of character may become attractive to media and the public. Celebrity-seekers may reveal themselves by attempting to exploit that congruence.

5. He Exploits His Position. Gabler: “[S]tars of conventional media benefit from the fact that they are more likely to generate a narrative because they are much more likely to be at the center of the action….” We might discern celebrity-seeking wherever a pastor looks to direct all attention and action around himself. We know this problem all too well from local congregations. Many churches feature pastors that micro-manage every detail, protect authority and power for themselves, and cultivate in the congregation a dependence upon their presence. The pastor becomes the “star of the show.” It can happen in “celebrity cultures” as small as the local congregation of 50 or conference events of 5,000. Looking to be at the center of everything is celebrity behavior.

Here’s the thing: It’s not just notoriety or even some media attention that makes a well-known person a celebrity. Nor is it merely the creative or edgy use of media and social technology. Lights don’t make a celebrity.  Aesthetics don’t make celebrity, even if they reflect it on some level.  Narrative, story, drama moves a man from notoriety or carnal fame to celebrity status. There must be some compelling plot line to drive the adulation. When that plot line meets media exposure and audience approval, then, at least for a season, you have a celebrity. Therefore, the thing to watch out for is the use and misuse of certain narrative elements in speech, communication, and media. At the most fundamental level, that’s where we’ll see “celebrity-seeking.” Other things, imo, though important, tend to be symptoms or tend to be debatable matters of taste and preference.

Some Homework for Us Pastors

Well, what should pastors do to avoid as much as possible the tendency for others to confer celebrity status, and to crucify the tendency toward celebrity-seeking in themselves?

1. Attribute everything to God. That’s a no-brainer but it needs to be said. Our hearts are idol factories and we do act like glory thieves. Our flesh wants attention, affirmation, and applause. There’s no denying that. The antidote—Colossians 3:23-24.

But let me illustrate the difficulty of this. Sometimes John Piper finds himself in the cross-hairs of those who decry “celebrity pastors.” At first glance, we might not understand this reaction to John. After all, his entire life and ministry has been dedicated to the supremacy and glory of Christ in everything. He disdains public adulation. He ends his sermons with quick move to prayer in order to avoid applause. He’s difficult to compliment—intentionally so. I remember observing the sheer nervousness of Sam Storms and Justin Taylor as they unveiled the festschrift in honor of John. They seemed to fret, How would he respond to public honor? At one level, John Piper works against celebrity status more than any Evangelical pastor I know. So, why does he get the label? Some people mistake notoriety for celebrity and celebrity-seeking. But at a deeper level, perhaps John gets tagged this way because of congruence. He is rather consistent in seeking God’s glory both in and outside the pulpit. That’s compelling narrative because we see so little of it, honestly. So, try as he might to attribute all the glory to God, some confer celebrity status on him for that very reason. A pickle, no?

2. Don’t tell a bunch of intimate personal stories. Keep your private life private, pastor. Telling personal details creates “tangibility,” that sense that the audience “knows” you when they really don’t. This is more art than science, and a man isn’t necessarily in sin if he shares some personal detail. But learning the judicious use of personal anecdote can be the difference between staying away from celebrity tendencies and creating cult following.

But this has its difficulties, too. As a public, we might be tempted to see celebrity-seeking through personal story where it’s not there. Might I use another example? How many of us watched and prayed as Matt Chandler shared the stunning news of his brain tumor and fight with it? How did we learn of this? It was through Matt’s brief video updates to his church. He used the opportunity to further teach his people about suffering, how to think about it like Christians, and to invite their prayer and concern. Many of us eavesdropped and prayed. National press took interest and Matt’s “celebrity” increased. He wasn’t celebrity-seeking, but a compelling narrative developed around his illness.

Now, should he have remained silent? Of course not; the Scripture calls us to bear one another’s burdens. Should he have used video to share with others (keeping in mind some skepticism about video and its celebrity-making tendency)? Well, given his depleted physical state, how else could his people hear from him without taxing him even more? Seems the video was an appropriate and efficient medium. But what happened? Tangibility. Increased exposure. In the eyes of some, celebrity. In Matt’s eyes, I’d guess he was simply pastoring his church and the rest of us either joined in and benefitted, or have now become critics who think of this as some celebrity-seeking tactic.  It’s an interesting example of how personal information may be appropriately used and simultaneously result in “celebrity” for some people.

3. Resist being type cast, especially if the “role” is sensational or controversial. High-profile pastors need to work against becoming “that guy.” You know. Like Josh Harris had to fight against becoming “the dating guy.” That meant turning down some writing and speaking opportunities that might have put him in a singular role and further wed him to a sometimes controversial issue. If he wanted to seek celebrity, all he needed to do was focus on being “that guy” for the rest of us.

Becoming “that guy” is as simple as milking that story or accomplishment. I’m often asked to share my story because people are curious about how a “Muslim convert” came to Christ. That’s part of “my story.” I can tell that story at length in ways that highlight this or that aspect of my life while leaving out specific and detailed mention of the providence and grace of God. I could become the “Muslim convert” speaker on a little chitlin’ circuit for folks interested in that kind of thing. It wouldn’t be good. It would be conflating a sensational story or role with my own life in a way that could be inaccurate. I could pretend to be the super-apologist against Islam and feed on Western fears about the spread of Islam. We’ve had university professors and presidents do exactly this, only to be exposed for exaggerations later. The media and public may clamor for the type or role, but the pastor needs to resist that narrative.

4. Leave the statistics at home. Numbers and statistics tap into the meta-narrative of all celebrity stories: rags to riches, man over environment, etc. Too many pastors use numbers as a proxy for success. They give out the numbers in their church as frequently as retirees give out their social security numbers—and their identities seem to be as connected to the numbers. But if we would avoid making ourselves celebrities or having others confer that status on us, we have responsibility for avoiding worldly measures of success and giving God all the glory (see 1 above).

5. Focus promotional materials more explicitly on the Lord, the gospel, or other biblical themes and truth—not on persons. Don’t be subtle about it. Make “the message of the gospel” the message in the advertisements. Many have commented in previous posts about the tendency of conference promotions to focus on the people. At a certain level, we’re not likely to get completely away from this, any more than we’re likely to have all authors write anonymously. In fact, the advertisement of names can be vitally important if we’re talking about topics requiring meaningful credentials and expertise. I don’t want to hear about my heart disease from my auto mechanic. Likewise, I probably won’t go through the expense of traveling internationally to hear a “regular Joe” discourse on a technical subject he hasn’t studied. At that level, we’re likely to continue hearing people with expertise promoted in materials. And pastors shouldn’t shy away from that where it’s helpful.

However, much could likely be done by pastors to make sure the message is unmistakable. For example, some have taken issue with this T4G promotional video:

T4G 2012 Teaser: The Game from Together for the Gospel (T4G) on Vimeo.

They’ve found this 47-second video objectionable because it didn’t “say gospel” to them. Now, I would offer that the video does say “friendships” and “fellowship” and “team.” At least that was the intent. And that’s what T4G is built upon. But no matter how I might explain that (a) the video isn’t the main video for the event, (b) that a host of other video advertisements speak to “The Underestimated Gospel,” (see the 16 other videos)and (c) we were just playing pick-up for fun for crying out loud, as communication we missed the mark with some of our audience. Rule #1: Be sure to communicate what you’re trying to communicate. Rule #2: Usually subtle doesn’t work. Communicating well is our responsibility and impressions of “celebrity-seeking” might be minimized with more attention on this point.

Well, that’s five things I think pastors are responsible for when it comes to minimizing celebrity culture. I’m certain there are other things, but I’m focusing on those foundational things having to do with narrative and how it creates celebrity.

Some Non-Answers

In closing, there do also seem to be some things floating around that are non-answers, imo. I think they’re non-answers because they either don’t address the fundamental issue of story or narrative in making celebrities, or they might actually cause other more serious problems. Here are three:

1. Pastors should not seek to build the church beyond their own local church. Christians have always partnered for the spread and the health of the church. From the Macedonian church’s concern for famine relief in Jerusalem to the formation of denominations and pastor fraternals to the conference movements of the last 100-plus years, cooperating for mutual encouragement, the spread of the gospel, and the strengthening of the churches seems a necessary objective. This is the baby we don’t want to toss with the bathwater.

2. Avoid all media: Don’t write books or hold conferences or podcast sermons or use videos. Suffice it to say celebrities have existed before the advent of modern electronic media. Media may speed the spread of celebrity, but it doesn’t create celebrity alone. Eschewing various forms of media won’t fix the problem.

3. Ban things like clapping. Such a recommendation may be culturally determined or derived, but it’s hardly a solution to celebrity culture. It may be a matter of taste and preference, but a ban may also be yet another way we undermine godly expressions of appreciation and gratitude.

At any rate, the basic point is that pastors have some responsibility in all of this. But the best reactions will be attempts to handle the narratives more discerningly, not just withdraw or decry any notoriety.