Church, Who Are We Celebrating?
I saw a post on X a while back (I wish I had saved it) where the poster lamented for the future of Evangelicalism because he felt that no great leaders were stepping up to replace men like John Piper, R.C. Sproul, and John MacArthur. I thought, “Evangelicalism is in a pretty sorry state if we’re measuring health by the existence of famous leaders. Should we not prefer to have no big names in Evangelicalism?”
It’s a deeply debatable topic, with good points on both sides. I’m not wholly convinced either way, but overall I think the church in the US (and us in Canada are gravitating in that direction) has been aping the culture of the world too much in this area. The church shouldn’t have celebrities.
In Celebrities for Jesus: How Platforms, Personas, and Profits are Hurting the Church, Katelyn Beaty defines celebrity in a helpfully obvious way: “Simply put, a celebrity is someone who is widely celebrated.” Simple enough, but in the church should we celebrate anyone other than Jesus? Are we flirting with spiritual danger in elevating leaders to a level that turns them into idols that compete for loyalty and love with God?
While the Twentieth century has uniquely exacerbated this problem, it’s far from new. Indeed, the Apostle Paul was beset with division in the Corinthian church caused by people elevating different church leaders to unhealthy proportions: “What I am saying is this: One of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in Paul’s name?” (1 Cor. 1:12-13). While the main issue facing the Corinthians was divisiveness, notice how the parties congregate around leaders, rather than beliefs or positions. The people were looking to leaders for their sense of identity in the church. This drive leads to the issue of celebrity we see flaring up in our present.
While the issue is perennial, there are problematic conditions today that make the rise of celebrity Christian leaders all the more prevalent and worrisome. The first is technology. It’s no question that the advent of radio and television propelled Christian leaders, particularly evangelists, into stratospheric levels of popularity and fame. Billy Graham is just the most notable example. If radio and television brought in millions of followers to individual leaders, what is the present effect of social media? I honestly have much to learn here, as I am ignorant of the social media scene of other Evangelical ‘tribes’ not my own, but what I do see is alarming. There is a democratizing effect of fame and celebrity being spread out among many new influencers and leaders. While we may not be rallying around a few particularly famous leaders, we are splintering into smaller groups, yet still attaching ourselves to personalities. 1
The other big issue is the fall of denominations and the rise of non-denominational churches. Trevin Wax’s podcast, Reconstructing Faith, recently puts this issue under the microscope and remarks that Non-denominational church growth has grown consistently among Evangelicals since the 1970s and now outnumber mainline Protestants. I worry about this. Denominations provide us with a sense of rootedness and transcendence as we connect to a particular Christian tradition practiced in community. It reminds us that our faith, and the unique expression of it in our denomination is greater than us. I believe Rootedness and transcendence are spiritual needs, and in the Non-denominational church, the go-to answer for meeting these needs is often met by the church leader. Sure, tradition can also become an idol, but our Protestant traditions are uniquely built into the primacy of Scripture (Sola Scriptura), and I believe are better suited to point us back to God than a charismatic leader is. Denominations which act as guard rails or guide posts, help concretize our spiritual lives in tried and tested tradition that nourishes us in Biblical truth. The Non-denominational leader cannot replicate this, and has us looking at either him or ourselves.
Looking beyond spiritual health, we also must confront the physical danger as well. The past decade brought us a storm of revelations regarding abusive church leadership. Abuse of all kinds — psychological, physical, and sexual — has run rampant, hidden and excused in many ministries. It shouldn’t need to be said, but this is behaviour that should never see the inside of the church. As many do point out, abusers are found in all walks of life; however it must be noted with alarm how many stories of abusive leadership consist of long-term patterns of behaviour that are excused leading to a trail of victims in the wake. People are all too willing to slavishly follow charismatic celebrity leaders through all kinds of questionable and immoral behviour, often believing in some special mission or gifting that, for some reason, makes their leader exceptional.
None of us are exceptional, though. Only Jesus. Maybe we have left the era of mega leaders, but the cultural attachment to celebrity is still with us, and I worry that social media will keep us as a church distracted — distracted following the latest church growth leader, evangelist, apologist, culture warrior, preacher, or influencer. Distracted from Christ.
¹ Katelyn Beaty, Celebrities for Jesus: How Platforms, Personas, and Profits are Hurting the Church, (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2022), 22.
² Trevin Wax, host, “Better Together: Denominations and the Hope of Evangelical Renewal,” Reconstructing Faith (podcast), December 21, 2023, https://www.namb.net/podcasts/reconstructing-faith/season-2-episode-10-better-together-denominations-and-the-hope-of-evangelical-renewal/.