For whatever reason, we always find a way to enamor ourselves with celebrities. People of virtually all backgrounds, ethnicities, age, gender, or religious affiliation gravitate towards at least a few famous people. But have you ever stopped to think about the cult of celebrity on the local church? On society in general?
You may not ever actually meet that person, but you probably open 80% of the new articles you see about them social media or at the bottom of a news website. And your interest might not be openly apparent. You probably don’t drive around with a Justin Bieber sticker on your car; nor do you wear clothes from the most recent Kim Kardashian line; nor do you engage in Tebow-ing after a good meeting or your children’s sports event. I think that relatively few of us announce to the world our interest in celebrities, but my guess is that our internet browser history would tell us how much we actually are in fact interested in these people.
S0 why is it that we keep watching the news shows, reading the latest news article on the web, or watching a video that pops up on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter? What keeps us coming back for more? Why in the world do we stay interested in people that we will never know?
The Cult of Celebrity in the American Church: 4 Considerations
The major reason we look to these people with keen interest is that on some level they connect to who we are. They have something about them that we can relate to.
One of the more polarizing figures of the past few years in the world of sports has been Tim Tebow. Ironically, he isn’t near as polarizing as the people that like to speak about him. Most people would probably find Tebow to be generally enjoyable to spend time with if they had the chance to interact with him (even if they disagreed with him on a slew of issues). Tebow, however, became a sort of lightning rod celebrity who found himself trapped in the middle of a national discussion about the role of religion in the world of professional sports.
Tebow has and certainly will make innumerable mistakes now and in the future. He’s human. He’s a sinner. He knows it and admits it. But I remain concerned by the way that many want to see him fail (or at least that is the perception…). My impression is that his winsome character and authentic faith, although imperfect, has made him someone that is easy to love and easy to hate — depending on how you feel about his beliefs, the way he communicates them, and other factors. For some who detests Florida at the same level a UNC fan hates Duke or an Alabama fan hates Auburn, Tebow will likely never impress you (loyalty runs deep in the world of sports!).
But don’t you find it interesting that to this point, I’ve discussed almost nothing related to his ability on the football field? You see, as one of the greatest football players to ever play at Florida, (i.e. Heisman trophy winner, national championship, and holder of all sorts of records) he is easily utilized by people as a figurehead that represents larger issues that we like to disagree about. He and many others have become pawns in our games of ideals.
Celebrities connect to who we are. They normalize who we are and remind us as well of who we are not. They mobilize us to pick sides in debates. Then those individual sides become communities in which we get engrossed with passion, frustration, and excitement. They allow us to escape the reality of our busy lives and focus on something greater, something bigger, something more famous, and something that in some way attaches to some sort of ideal in our lives.
As you think about the community aspect of the cult of celebrity in the American church (and in society in general), it becomes increasingly striking to see all the groups, movements, societies, fan clubs, etc, that we have created around these public personalities. Whether you want to look at the way the American church (particularly Evangelicals) have come out in support of Tebow, or how churches like Hillsong have supported Justin Bieber in his journey of faith, or how others have supported notable celebrities like Russell Wilson, the fact of the matter is that we create community around a common affiliation with those who are famous. We like to believe we are on the right side of things. We want to cause others to stand with us. We want others to believe as we do.
There is an obvious concern in all of this…notably, that we would become so engrossed in celebrities that we would forget about the mission of the church or our own personal responsibilities to take care of our families and our own spiritual growth. But you can’t ignore the chance to ask some very helpful questions about our faith and the church that come out of the discussion of communities created around celebrities.
What if we were to become as adamant about sharing our faith as we are about convincing others to think the way we do about a certain celebrity?
What if we cared as much about growing in our faith as we do about who the next president of the United States will be?
What if we resolved to take 6 months off from politics, in favor of cultivating our own personal spiritual life and time in God’s Word? Can you imagine how different some of our lives would be? It makes me sick to think about how much time, energy, money, and words are wasted discussing politics on a regular basis. This is especially true during an election year when every other conversation seems to focus on election coverage.
In one sense you could say that the cult of celebrity in the America church has reduced the hope we have for the future. I get that. It is sad to see how people track every single last move of famous people like the Kardashians and Justin Bieber. I worry not only about those being tracked, but also those who are doing the tracking. But there is also another group that I worry about even more…Guess who?
All of us.
I don’t think the paparazzi are the ones who are driving the need to track celebrities and know their every move. It is you and I. It is the news channel that has learned that their ratings go up every time you and I see certain names on the television, laptop, or iPhone.
We are to blame. We are the ones that are driving the cult of celebrity — not only in society, but also in the local church. Very few of us could ever live well under the microscope that celebrities are under on a daily basis…yet we are the ones fueling the fire to keep the microscope on them.
What about the pastors in our churches? What about the pastors that are fairly well known?
One of the most disheartening, and yet also inspiring, parts of my current ministry role is the opportunity to serve pastors of larger churches. It is a regular occurrence to hear them share about their isolation and lack of awareness of who they can talk to. Their staff often talk about the lead pastor’s need for development.
We all know it (development) needs to happen. But it isn’t happening as much as it should.
We’ve created elevated bubbles that trap the pastor in an artificial pressure cooker where we unwittingly burn out the pastor.
This leads to endless turnover.
It leads to rapid turnover.
It leads to congregational frustration with a lack of tenure among their pastors.
This leads to distrust between churches, leadership boards and councils, pastors, and other pastoral staff.
Everyone knows the other will be gone sooner or later. Since it is usually the pastor before the others, the church leaders can hold out longer and win the battle. So we utilize, chew up, and spit out quality pastor after quality pastor, in order to “guard the church” and ensure we “keep the pastor accountable.”
(Note: I’m fully aware that many, many pastors have abused the authority given to them. This has only fueled the fire of churches who struggle to trust pastors who desire to lead with authority and with vision. It has rightfully crippled the lay church leader who desires to trust and follow, while simultaneously instilling a conviction that the pastor will only be there for 3-6 years at most. How sad! Especially when you take into account that research shows a clear connection between ministry vibrancy/health with the length of pastoral tenure in the local church.)
Pastors are not professionals to be used and later exported. They are human. They are flawed. They struggle with sin. They, in a very broken way, are on a journey with you as you try to more closely follow and align your life with the life of Jesus.
Let’s try to create structures that allow the pastor to lead (with sufficient accountability) and stop putting them on a pedestal that they will never adequately live up to.
One of the greatest reasons we look to celebrities for entertainment is that we want to escape. Let’s face it. Life and work can get monotonous. As many have said, “That’s why they call it work!”
So we pursue outlets. We play golf. We attend concerts. We go to movies. We watch the news, read articles in the news, and look for another way to disconnect from the redundancy of daily life.
What do we find?
For some of you, we find time to spend reading the Scriptures and pursuing a deeper prayer life.
We disconnect from what is temporal to connect with what is eternal.We disconnect from what is temporal to connect with what is eternal. Click To Tweet
But we all, at one time or another, disconnect from one temporal reality in order to connect with another temporal reality. We find ourselves fascinated with public figures — whether it is a politician, an athlete, a model, or some other person that fascinates us.
The irony is that we disconnect in order to connect with something that is usually a false representation of reality. I doubt any celebrity is as glamorous, beautiful, funny, or witty on a daily basis as they may appear on the television or in some other part of life. They put on a public face for us to see so that we become enamored with them.
It’s a business.
It’s a cult.
It’s the cult of celebrity.
When we worship those we see on the screen, we get to a point that we hold them up with such regard that we nor they will ever live up to the expectations that we have falsely created.
Our fascination with them comes into play when we would prioritize our movie night or date night over our walk with God. My guess is that a large number of Christians have gone out to a movie or watched a movie at home on many occasions when during that same day they spend little or no time in prayer or in Scripture.
I’m not someone that likes to criticize Christians who like movies, music, or the arts. Not at all. I love all of those things. But I’m guilty of often prioritizing those things over my walk with God. It might be because of being tired at the end of the day; however, my lack of prioritization would have afforded me the time I needed to get the right things done.
The cult of celebrity is a fascinating one. It is one that we are all sucked into and one that we often refuse to believe is alive and well. It is one that we easily excuse as just another show or movie that we will watch. But at what expense?
It is an issue that has so pervasively infected the American church that we no longer hold the average pastor up with near the esteem that we used to. We’ve traded the average pastor for the celebrity pastor and then we wonder why the celebrity pastors struggle under the weight of that notoriety.
We’ve traded a respect for faithfulness for an adoration of celebrity.
At what cost? At what long-term price?
The next time you are tempted to grab that “entertainment” magazine, watch the supposed “news”, or fill your life with some other non-essential activity, ask yourself what the cost of the activity is to you.
Ask yourself what you could be doing instead.
Ask yourself if your knowledge of God’s word is as healthy as your grasp of current events.
I do not want to encourage anyone to separate themselves from the world. Cultural engagement is critical to living incarnationally and on mission.
But an infatuation with imperfect people should never elevate them to a place they can’t feasibly handle consistently.
Our infatuation with imperfect people shouldn’t supplant our love what is truly perfect.