Churches Don’t Need Celebrities

Churches Don’t Need Celebrities

I worked once on a story about church life for a ministry-oriented magazine. Though not focused on megachurches, I needed to talk with a couple people who had stopped attending one.

Though it took awhile to connect, when I did one of them made a comment that struck me as odd: “I’m not even sure this form of church can survive much longer.”

It wasn’t until later in the day I discovered that this church was about to close. Imploding after the pastor’s forced resignation. As the old saying goes, “This changes everything.”

Celebrity Syndrome

That interview came to mind when I read a book that had released in August of 2022, but I had only become aware of recently when I saw a reference to it in a news story.

I was interested in Celebrities for Jesus since author Katelyn Beaty and I had exchanged a couple emails when she was managing editor of Christianity Today. It was at the tail end of a long freelancing stint with the magazine.

I remember how impressed I was with her being in this position while barely out of her 20s. When I finished her book’s exploration of the problems with attaching celebrity to faith leaders without corresponding accountability, I was even more taken by her abilities.

In an expert combination of insightful reporting and analysis, Beaty lays out a strong case for—as the subtitle puts it: how personas, platforms, and profits are hurting the church.

I particularly liked this observation: “Like all idols, celebrity exacts a price. The feelings of love that it offers, over time, crowd out the actual love that requires proximity—if not daily proximity in the form of marriage or friendship, then certainly the proximity that can only come through vulnerability with other people for the long haul.”

(Or, as a friend puts it: “If they can’t name all their sheep, they aren’t their pastor.”)

Burden of Celebrity

Among the issues Beaty explores is why everyday Christians have placed the burden of celebrity on others as they look to famous Christian leaders to fulfill their spiritual and psychological needs.

Churches Don’t Need Celebrities blog post by Ken Walker Writer. Pictured: An old TV set.I think that partially stems from the American habit of placing importance and status on numbers. The bigger the crowd, the more people watching the service on television or online, and the more money that flows through the online giving portal, the more important this church must be.

Not so, as evidenced by the criticism that many megachurches are a mile wide and an inch deep. One pastor I know is suspicious of the leader of any church with more than several hundred members because of the arrogance they project.

“As soon as you meet them, you can smell it,” he said.

Ironically, Beaty traces the fascination with TV preachers to the influence of Billy Graham. Though the late evangelist was never tainted by scandal, using the medium to attract huge crowds to his meetings also helped turn the gospel into another form of entertainment. You know, something you could watch while cooking dinner, doing the laundry or, today, scanning your smartphone or tablet.

Ordinary Believers

While I recommend Beaty’s book, we should avoid painting all church-goers with the brush of celebrity seekers. There are many ordinary folks in pews today who quietly live out their beliefs in faithful fashion.

As Beaty says, one reason she remains in church is other Christians: “Ordinary, flawed, messy humans, working out what it means to love God and neighbor, day in and day out, without fanfare or praise.”

I know the feeling.

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