We live in a culture of celebrity, a culture where fame and greatness have little to do with heroism and accomplishment. The people who influence us, the people who dominate the headlines and the covers of magazines, are so often people who are famous for being famous rather than being people who have contributed anything profound and lasting to the human experience.
I have been finding myself thinking a lot about Christian celebrity–not the people as much as the phenomenon itself. It’s undeniable that there is a celebrity culture in Christianity and it is equally undeniable that we New Calvinists like our celebs as much as anyone else.
Now let’s be clear: The fact that we esteem some people is not necessarily wrong. The Lord has gifted certain people to such an extent that we admire them for who they are and what they have contributed to the church, usually through the written word or the spoken word. There are others who may have less natural gifting or talent, but who have been consistently faithful with the remarkable opportunities they have been given and we admire these people for what they have contributed through words or through example. As we honor them, we honor God who has so gifted them. Well and good.
So where do we cross a line into some kind of celebrity culture? This has consumed my mind for some time now. It feels like a celebrity culture exists in the church, but what makes it so? Can I prove it?
Here is where my thinking has led me. We cross into a culture of celebrity when we assume that merit in one field or one discipline necessarily carries that merit to other fields or disciplines. More particularly, it comes when we transfer the authority of one field into another, so that we assume the guy with the popular blog must be a great expositor of the Bible (thus transferring the authority of his success in social media into authority the pulpit). Christian celebrity comes when we assume that the songwriter must be a noteworthy teacher, that the YouTube phenom is worthy of our pulpit, and that the guy who sells so many books must be able to craft a sermon on any topic or any text. Merit in one isolated field convinces us that this person has earned the right to every other platform. When we do this we have elevated not on the basis of merit, but of celebrity.
Thus we have men who have never preached a sermon in their lives standing before hundreds or thousands who have been told that this man will necessarily bless them. We put these celebrities in the difficult position of raising them to a platform they are just not equipped to handle well. We do them, and we do ourselves, a disservice. This leads to books written by authors who are well-known rather than authors who are truly equipped; it leads to conferences that boast a-list celebrity speakers even though there are other men who could be much more faithful and much more skillful in expositing those texts or preaching on those topics.
I believe I can speak to this topic because in some ways I have been the recipient of this transfer of authority. I have had to reconcile myself to the indisputable fact that many of the opportunities I have been given have come not by way of merit, but by way of transfer of merit (which is to say, by way of celebrity). There have been times where I’ve been asked to stand before a large crowd and speak on a topic that is near and dear to me and which I have studied deeply; I love to do that and can do that with a measure of boldness and confidence. But there have been many other times I’ve been asked to stand before a large crowd and to speak on a topic on which I really have no business speaking and where I bring so little authority. I have sat on panels and been in way over my head, put at the front of that room because of a measure of success in an entirely different field.
What I have come to see plainly and simply in my own life is that achieving a level of social media success does not make me a theologian, but that people may begin to treat me like one. Writing thousands of blog posts and collecting millions of page views will open up many opportunities to speak on an endless variety of topics, but it will do very little to equip me to do this well. There is no necessary correlation between social media success and the ability to understand and exposit God’s Word, but there is a definite correlation between social media success and the assumption that I must be a gifted preacher. So many of the opportunities I have been offered have far exceeded any kind of legitimate merit. Yet both I and others have bought into the belief that success in one area equips me for success in others.
I am still grappling with these things, still trying to understand the implications in my own life. There are two measures I’ve quietly tried to put into place. The first is that whatever ministry I have in the wider Christian world ought to grow out of ministry in my local church. The authority to speak on a topic will grow outward from here to there. I would never want to travel to a conference and speak on a topic for which the people closest to me see no authority and no growth. The second measure is that I have tried to narrow the scope of the topics I speak on to those few where I have expended a lot of effort, where I have studied the Bible closely, where I have emphasized personal application, and where I believe that by God’s grace I may have something to say.