The Celebrity Pastor Problem: From Mars Hill to Me

The seed of celebrity lies within us all and waits to be watered by our own stupidity.

A celebrity is one who seeks fame. A popular leader is one who has fame thrust upon him. For the former, fame is a goal. To the latter, fame is an undesirable but understandable effect of faithfulness. Celebrity pastors seek platforms. Popular pastors know platforms collapse easily under the weight of human glory, so they build their local church, one soul at a time. Sure, a little fame may visit the popular pastor, I mean, that’s implied by the word “popular”. But faithfulness (1 Corinthians 4:2) is his passion. Fame is the by-product (1 Peter 5:6).

 

It’s not about popularity, this celebrity thing. If that was the case, then Jesus himself could have been censured for having a public ministry with mass appeal, capped by fans waving palm leaves and laying their cloaks before him. Personally, I hope the folks in our church listen to certain popular pastors like Keller, or DeYoung, or Chandler, or Piper. Especially Piper. Popular spells available, so I’m glad they’re popular.

Popularity is not the problem.

Skye Jethani wrote a very insightful blog post in which he blames the celebrity pastor culture on the Evangelical Industrial Complex (EIC). Don’t be put off by the term; it’s just a creative way to describe some economic and sociological forces within evangelicalism which contribute to the “celebrity” pastor phenomenon. It’s a good read, but it’s not the whole picture. Skye addressed the broader evangelical environment, but I want to look elsewhere.

The latest round of discussion on celebrity pastors, or, for brevity ‘CP’s’, is coming compliments of Mark Driscoll and the maladies of Mars Hill. But if some virus is circulating out there, then one should be content that it’s already been isolated, spread on a slide, and put under the microscope of public scrutiny. I’ve already tossed out some ideas on what Mark Driscoll needs from most of us, and little has happened to amend my view.

No, my interests here lie in examining what causes a pastor to move from simply being a popular pastor, to being a celebrity pastor. I want to move beyond big personalities to me, you, and the local church.

But first, some definitions:

A celebrity is one who seeks fame. A popular leader is one who has fame thrust upon him. For the former, fame is a goal. To the latter, fame is an undesirable but understandable effect of faithfulness. Celebrity pastors seek platforms. Popular pastors know platforms collapse easily under the weight of human glory, so they build their local church, one soul at a time. Sure, a little fame may visit the popular pastor, I mean, that’s implied by the word “popular”. But faithfulness (1 Corinthians 4:2) is his passion. Fame is the by-product (1 Peter 5:6).

These are simple distinctions, to be sure, but they ultimately reveal a fault line that divides the human heart. Also, there is a vast gray area between the poles separating the popular pastor from the celebrity pastor. Most pastors (myself included) have a colorful assortment of mixed motives (Jeremiah 17:9). Only God really knows the pastor’s heart (Jeremiah 17:10).

Lest the reader be tempted to think I have any particular person in my crosshairs with these observations, let me be quick to say that I most certainly do….Me! That’s not to say I’m even at risk of being popular. In my case, becoming a celebrity pastor would require the transplant of several gifts that I do not presently possess, including a humongous church, a sizable intellect, and a good set of white teeth. But I need look no further than the mirror to see a popular wanna-be. And a popular wanna-be is nothing more than a celebrity who lacks opportunity.

So where should I give my attention? How do I know, or how does anyone know, if he is carrying the celebrity-virus? Are there perhaps some kind of early warning signs? Here are just a few.

1) A love of distinction

Leaders want distinction; it’s part of the reason they are drawn to lead.  Toss a rock in any direction, and you’ll hit a guy who feels ‘set apart’ to lead. The desire for distinction is simply a person saying, “I’m an individual, created and called by God ‘to go and bear fruit’” (John 15:16). The desire for distinction arms leaders with a sense of destiny and purpose. So far so good. But distinction spoils the soul when it is elevated to the singular passion of love. It’s love of distinction that triggers the coup within. Timothy Dwight warned of the beast 200 years ago in a speech addressing young leaders. He said, “No passion and no pursuits are more absolutely selfish than the love of distinction. One’s self is here the sole object; and in this object all the labors, pursuits, and wishes terminate.”   

When the impulse for distinction becomes a love of distinction, a celebrity is conceived. And few people are more dangerous than a fame-stalking pastor. I know, because I’ve seen that enemy within my own soul. To me, this proves that even modestly gifted men can be seduced by the love of distinction.

2) UN-accountability groups

Strong leaders need to be surrounded by other strong leaders. In other words, they need to be circled by a cadre of courageous men who are willing to name the BS when they smell something funny. CP’s often have relational networks or small groups that create the illusion of accountability, with little actual accountability. They group with an entourage of friends or family who are enamored with the pastor’s gifts, fruit, or leadership instincts. But an enamored entourage easily become enablers – people who have something stroked in them by cutting the CP slack. Every leader must eventually realize that if a team member has an idol satisfied by accommodating him, the team member becomes a great encourager but a poor corrector. Together they become an UN-accountable group.

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