The Pros and Cons of a Celebrity Pastor Culture

Without a doubt, we live in a celebrity culture.

It’s interesting that we can be fascinated with people we’ll never meet and who likely have little desire to meet us. But we are.

And in the last decade, celebrity culture has taken hold in the church.

The burning question: is it good for us?

 

This is So First Century

Well, actually, before we get too far into the conversation, realize that none of this is truly new.

The Apostle Paul struggled with a first century version of a celebrity culture.  Self-admittedly, Paul wasn’t the best speaker, and it seems the early Christians were eager to declare their loyalties to the apostles that they considered the best leaders/speakers—even to those who hadn’t invested nearly as much in the local church as Paul had.

A brimming popularity contest among church leaders is written all over 1 Corinthians 1-3 and significant sections of 2 Corinthians.

As long as there have been people, there has been the desire to assign loyalty to whomever you ‘like’ best.

 

How the Interwebs Changed Things

Fast forward to our day. Not only have we become a consumer culture, but we’re able to access media and personalities instantly and constantly.

Remember that just over a decade ago—back in the 1990s—you used to have to work to hear another pastor preach.

You’d have to drive to his or her church. Or buy a CD (or cassette…gotta love those tape ministries) and wait for the product to be delivered in the mail.  Few people bothered.

But with the rise of broadband, wifi, podcasting and smartphones, suddenly it became possible to listen to both your local pastor (or worship leader) and the best preachers (or worship leaders) on the planet. For free. Anytime of the day or night. Any week. Every week.

And millions of people have.

The unspoken reality is that almost every local church leader is now being evaluated not against last week, but against the best communicators on the planet.

 

Don’t Shoot Your Phone (or the Preacher)

Now don’t blame technology. Technology isn’t good or evil; it just reveals and amplifies what’s already there.

Paul and the early church managed to struggle with this issue almost 2000 years before anyone even thought of dial-up.

I also happen to know a few people who might be considered ‘celebrity’ pastors today. Here’s what’s true about the people I know:

None of them set out to be famous.

None of them really like being ‘famous’.

They have influence simply because they happen to be very good at what they do.

They realize there are lots of local leaders who are also skilled and gifted at what they do but for whatever reason don’t receive the same attention.

While I’m sure you can find celebrity pastors who love the attention, who flaunt it and fuel it, the ‘famous’ or influential people I’ve met are just trying to steward the gift God has given them. They’re remarkably down to earth and are genuinely interested in other people and advancing the mission of the church.

As much as we shouldn’t, people will always put other people on pedestals.

The best leaders use whatever influence they have to advance a cause, not themselves.

So where does all this land?

3 Pros

Are there any pros to a celebrity church culture?

I want to offer 3:

1. It makes the sharing of great ideas possible. Hey, all these free messages and free ideas aren’t bad. I get to learn more from others faster. So do you. So does your church. Leverage it.

2. It makes us all work a little harder. One of the challenges historically for the church is that pastors tend to either be workaholics or (honestly) a bit lazy. Few of us are balanced. If it makes us all a little more diligent in fulfilling our calling, so be it. I know that I am working more diligently than ever to make series and messages count. Not for the sake of podcast-surfing Christians, but for the sake of the unchurched in our region. It’s made me a better leader and communicator.

3. Unchurched people never compare preachers.  Don’t miss this. Comparing preachers is something churched people do, not unchurched people. Trust me, the average unchurched person is not sitting around evaluating preachers. If your mission truly is to reach unchurched people, this problem almost becomes irrelevant.And it can make you a better, clearer communicator. So just keep advancing your mission.

3 Cons

And naturally, there are some cons. Here are 3:

1. Too many local leaders want to be famous, not effective. More than a few leaders want influence before they’ve done anything to earn influence. And even then, influence isn’t the goal and should never be. Being an effective, humble church leader who helps your congregation achieve its mission is the goal.

 2. Too many leaders are more interested in the details of the lives of celebrity pastors than their own people. Seriously, when you know more about Mark Driscoll or Andy Stanley than you people who actually attend your church, there’s a problem.

3. Church members place unrealistic expectations on local leaders. If you attend a church, one of the best things you can do is love and support local church leaders. Don’t place unrealistic expectations on them. Sure, they may not be as compelling/good looking/funny/charming/convicting/brilliant as your favourite podcast preacher, but chances are they are trying to faithfully live out their calling in your community. A community, by the way, which you favourite podcast preacher will probably never visit. Talk to the Apostle Paul about that one.

In the end, while celebrity culture may or may not be good for us, it probably is inevitable for us (we live on this side of heaven).

What do you think about celebrity culture? Any other way you can think of to leverage it for good?

32 Comments

  1. ADALBARON GARRETT IPB RECIFE on October 1, 2014 at 4:13 am

    ADALBARON GARRETT IGREJA PRSEBITARIANA DO BRASIL RECIFE – LADRAO.
    PSICOPATA.

  2. Links I Like | JoshuaReich.org on November 2, 2013 at 5:07 pm

    […] Nieuwhof on Is the pastor celebrity culture a positive or negative thing. Interesting thoughts on this […]

  3. Dave D on November 1, 2013 at 10:33 am

    Thanks again for a good blog that provokes thought. Any possibility of garment tearing and running around in the crowd such as Paul and Barnabas in Acts 14?J

  4. Mikey Ligon on November 1, 2013 at 6:03 am

    As an intense thinker, lover of God and lover of people, I do not spend as much time critiquing the man as I do testing the doctrines, theology, and overall message of the preacher. That is why I constantly strive to remain hidden behind the cross so that you truly see my attempted work to glorify God. Great read and thank you immensely for what you do for the Kingdom!

  5. Paul Pastor on October 31, 2013 at 10:20 am

    Thanks for posting on this. It’s important. Fame is a byproduct that brings both blessings and curses. I think that you’ve made a causation mistake here, though. The “pros” listed above are not the result of celebrity culture, they just attend it.

    To engage your first point, celebrity culture doesn’t make the sharing of great ideas possible. It inhibits it. The way we do celebrity is too closely tied to money, to book deals, to becoming “cultural architects” instead of disciples who disciple, to “tribes,” to a quite broken definition of success. Bad ideas sell as easily as good ones. Terrible ideas sometimes sell best of all.

    As an aside, there’s a reason that Leadership Journal has never had any pastor’s face on their front cover in the 30 years we’ve been publishing. It’s because we believe that even though fame sells, it gets in the way of pastoral craft, of Christian simplicity, and of discipleship. At best it is a dangerous byproduct that can be used to good ends by mature people.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 1, 2013 at 10:24 am

      I really have learned much from Leadership Journal over the years Paul. Appreciate your insight into the cover philosophy. I agree that bad ideas can sell, but I would caution against an inherent suspicion against success. It’s just too easy to knock down people who have accomplished something significant.

      • Paul Pastor on November 1, 2013 at 10:52 am

        Hear, hear! I’d caution against that too, and am grateful for the distinction. Usually people are famous for a good reason. But that’s not “celebrity culture,” in my view.

        • Dane Gressett on November 7, 2013 at 8:41 am

          Carey and Paul,

          Enjoying the conversation. Was just thinking of Spurgeon. Definitely a celebrity pastor. A few good ideas there, I’d say! And I am quite sure he wasn’t seeking fame. He had his thorn(s) in the flesh to keep him humble.

          Maybe that’s a way to discern the celebrities who are of God and who aren’t. Those who admit and boast in their weaknesses and struggles…are of God. Those who hide them are looking in the mirror too much and will likely end up embarrassing themselves and the church.

  6. Notable Voices – October 31, 2013 on October 31, 2013 at 10:04 am

    […] The Pros and Cons of a Celebrity Pastor Culture — Carey Nieuwhof […]

  7. Barry Clermont on October 31, 2013 at 5:46 am

    Hi Carey,

    Great blog!

    As a non secular person, I just want to make an observation about succession planning for celebrity based organizations whether Church, Public services or business.

    I have been attending Connexus with my wife for about three years now. A friend had introduced Denise and after a few months, I agreed to go with her. It was wonderful to see her finding her way back to Church. You, in particular, were the draw. We both enjoy your style. The series with Andy Stanley are great but not nearly as enjoyable. In this case, you are the celebrity pastor.

    My observation with other organizations is that when something happens that the celebrity leadership hits a bump or that they are no longer available to the group, the group loses direction and eventually disperses. There was no succession plan and being focused on only one celebrity, lead to failure.

    I believe it’s up to the celebrity leader to have a succession plan and be constantly identifying and developing that next celebrity leader. Effectively, always have at least two options so that someone can pick up the ball when there is a hiccup.

    Carey, I really appreciate the great work that you do and see the signs of great leadership. You have an amazing team!

    Make it a great day,

    Barry

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 31, 2013 at 9:00 am

      Barry…thank you. We are so glad you and Denise are part of what God’s doing at Connexus.

      I agree with you 100% (except the part about me being a celebrity). Succession is key…so is a great team. I’ve spent several years building an all star team. “If I get hit by the bus” is a regular part of the conversation….as is pushing others into leadership. Our team has never been better positioned to lead, and I’m doing less and less directly all the time (notice how little I host anymore?). If it all depends on one guy, problems show up at multiple levels. Thank you!

  8. Ron on October 30, 2013 at 9:43 am

    I think it is GREAT to point out that a “celebrity” preacher can be a Godly man… IF he sincerely cares for the people around him, and IF his intention is not to become famous, and IF he realizes he has nothing to do with it, and that there are many others around him that should be famous.

    I continue to struggle with the notion of celebrity preachers. I’m not sure “pastor” and “celebrity” can coexist, which is why I use the word preacher.

    I think an aspect missing in this conversation is that our structure for church has shifted quite a bit from the 1st century: where in the Bible does it say the local church shall be driven by one man, one preacher? If there is only one good communicator in a church of 1,000… or 500… or even 20 people… I think there is a problem with discipleship and development.

    I could be way off here, but I think things that are inevitable or part of our culture are not always things we should accept as the best. I think we should recognize the inevitable and work harder to be culture shifters.

    Please don’t take this the wrong way. I would really LOVE to hear some feedback on this as I am often way off target!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 30, 2013 at 10:45 am

      There’s a constant discussion about leader v. team, and I think the reality is it’s both. The early church was hundreds (thousands) of people who were committed to a common cause but led by a few like Peter, Paul, Timothy and the like. Individuals play a key role. Consider Moses. At certain points he was the only one listening to God. God uses individuals and teams.

      • Ron on October 30, 2013 at 1:47 pm

        Great point, thanks Carey!

  9. Brian VA on October 29, 2013 at 2:56 pm

    Carey, thank you for addressing this. My 17 year old son told me just yesterday as I was listening to Northpoint tv that I had a “mancrush” on Andy Stanley and then he quickly added Reggie Joiner. He had me rolling with laughter in his mockery of his dad. Yet, both men have a profound influence on him, some directly because I ask him to listen to sermons or video clips, or through the influence those men have had in my thinking and relationships that affect my parenting and relationships.
    I suspect that their influence is like everything in life, an opportunity for them to assess their maturity in Christ. Motives no matter how pure our desire is a mixed venture, and requires great honesty, accountability and ultimately, humility. I like Henry Cloud’s talk on “Wakes”, what is left behind us because of our actions/influence?
    Thanks for the great influence you have had on my life.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 30, 2013 at 11:47 am

      Brian…great to hear from you. And that’s a great distinction. Influence is wonderful and appropriate. I love how it trickles (positively) through families as well to the next generation. Thank you!

  10. Rev. Kate on October 29, 2013 at 12:17 pm

    I come from an entirely different tradition, but one that prizes preaching. I think that a key problem of an over focus on looking for a charismatic pastor is that too often the relationship of the membership to the pastor becomes idolizing the preacher rather than getting closer to the holy. Looking back in history both religious and secular, charismatic leaders face temptations that they too often don’t resist to cross the line, abuse their power, and make their leadership about loyalty to themselves rather than to the larger mission. I have come to believe that our churches are better served by leaders who communicate through how they live and what they do.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 30, 2013 at 11:48 am

      Thanks for this Kate. Such a good point – that our message is affirmed or denied by our lives and actions. Thank you!

  11. Paul on October 29, 2013 at 10:33 am

    Celebrity preachers featured in the early Church (Chrysostom,) the 13th century (rise of the Dominicans,) the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Oxford Movement, and today, it’s not a new phenomenon. I think that for the Church it is a distraction. Whereas the respect and the loyalty of my people give me a stronger voice with them and I should always strive to be the best I can be, the popularity of celebrity preachers fosters a shopping-mall approach to the faith that caters to people “with itching ears,” seeking people who will tell them what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear. It gives people one more way to avoid growing up as Christians.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 30, 2013 at 11:49 am

      Paul…I think that’s true. But much of what the more influential preachers have to say is worth hearing. Many are influential because what they have to say is worth hearing.

  12. Bryan Begley on October 29, 2013 at 8:34 am

    Had the opportunity to work closely with 2 such “celebrities” and they were both solid men of God. Their celebrity is a good thing and good for the kingdom. I will agree with the con that it can cause congregations to set unrealistic expectations on their preachers but that is not the fault of the “celebrity.” but a con none-the-less. The largest con is when a said “celebrity” is proven to be a fraud or has a huge fall from grace – the whole Church suffers the ripple effects then.

  13. John Waldo on October 28, 2013 at 7:40 pm

    I’ll let you know once my “Carey tatt” is finished…. 🙂

    Actually, I think the celebrity culture & availability of resources is great a way to help develop and train leaders for a local church. If you have a fairly inexperienced pastor or staff (or ones where their particular gifts / strengths may not match a current need or issue), you can leverage those to bridge that gap. It might be to “take it, learn it, teach it” OR show it, pass it along and study it together.

    The caution I might have would be to make sure that there’s consistency of philosophy or strategy: If you’re using Orange strategy for some things, but then use a New Spring or LifeChurch or Willow strategy for others, it might actually create competing systems.

    Possibly a second caution: Don’t jump from model to model too quickly; it may create a ministry “flavor of the month” perception, resulting in confusion or even a “We’ll wait this one through… it will pass like all the rest” mentality among the people.

    (BTW- Love, love, love the quote about technology revealing and amplifying what’s already there. )

    • John Waldo on October 28, 2013 at 7:43 pm

      And then, when you see an online article about one of the new, young, celebrity pastors who recently built a 16,000 sq ft home at the price of $1.7 million, it’s really easy to question some motives, as well as credibility.

      • Carey Nieuwhof on October 30, 2013 at 11:51 am

        Thanks John…on all fronts. Some great points. I did a series a few years ago on technology and that was my bottom line. (It’s called “Like Me” if you ever want to drill down on more in the Connexus message archives.)

        Appreciate your points!

  14. Chris Shumate on October 28, 2013 at 12:27 pm

    I think what so many people really miss about the “celebrity pastor” is that many of them have a group of close companions with them for accountability purposes. All senior (or “celebrity) pastor’s of a church large enough needs a board of elders that will ask the hard questions of them.

    No one but those closest to the pastor sincerely knows what that pastor is like. It is easy, using your examples above, Carey, to see and know what Mark Driscoll, Andy Stanley, etc. do and make unfair assumptions about them. I bet their inner circle, if they could do so, would tell you they struggle with the same things others do. I bet they stay up, losing sleep on how to better communicate the Gospel of Christ. They may not live a life like George Muller, but God doesn’t call everyone to the same mission field.

    Churches (maybe “celebrity churches”) need a leadership team to keep the church accountable for its resources. For example, if a goal of the church is to raise 5 million for missions, then once that 5 million is raised, it had better go to missions unless the church administration and the leadership team decides it is better to be used on campus expansion. Will people be mad? You bet. Will people leave? Um-huh! Sure will. But if the church is held accountable for its resources it will fare much better.

    Unless a “celebrity” pastor preaches something that is clearly not the Gospel, it is best to let them lead.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 30, 2013 at 11:52 am

      That is very very true. Thank you Chris!

  15. Mary DeMuth on October 28, 2013 at 12:00 pm

    Patsy Clairmont said, “The human heart isn’t created for fame.” I agree. Fame distorts and messes with our hearts.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 30, 2013 at 11:51 am

      I think we were created to worship God. And when we worship other things, it distorts not only us but them. Thank you Mary!

  16. Lawrence W. Wilson on October 28, 2013 at 9:40 am

    Pro #3 is the key factor here for me. If we’re about reaching unchurched people, then anything that drives me to that–or helps me in it–is a bonus. My own reputation with insiders has to be secondary. I wonder how many “celebrity preachers” are driven by that value, and how many by Con #1, wanting to be famous. Second thought … no, I don’t care to know the answer to that.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 28, 2013 at 9:53 am

      Lawrence, so good. Thank you!

      • Mary DeMuth on October 28, 2013 at 11:59 am

        Do you two know each other? 🙂

        • Lawrence W. Wilson on October 29, 2013 at 8:17 am

          Mary, we mostly hang out on Carey’s blog, where I’m learning so much! We did meet up at Orange Tour in Indy this month.

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