The Danger of Idolizing 'Christian Celebrities'
In the age of social media.
We live in the world of followers, likes and commenters. Status, if we’re honest, is determined by numbers of shares and how many people cyber “like” us. It seems that one can actually determine how valuable they are based off the number of blue thumbs-ups they receive. A legitimate measure of success is going viral.
This social media celebrity culture has pervaded our world for a while now; it’s nothing too new. But it has begun to define the Christian world as well.
We can “follow” the daily happenings of any person we’d like, and because of that feel as if we have permission to comment on their lives. We watch twitter fights between pastors from different denominations like tennis matches, as the unity of the Church dissolves. When we disagree with one thing someone shares, we question everything they’ve ever said or done. When did someone’s worth to the Church and the Kingdom become based off their ability to navigate the murky waters of social media?
This celebrity culture that gives us the false belief that we can comment on people’s worth and lifestyle also puts these people on an unreachable pedestal of perfection. We have seen for decades the way celebrities come under scrutiny, on television and in the checkout line at the grocery store. We have begun to do this to our fellow Christians as well. With Christian leaders we not only judge their outfits, but their theology. We need to reconsider both why they are on a pedestal, and how we treat them while they are up there.
We have seen the rise and fall in popularity of many Christian celebrities. They develop a following because of books or blog posts they’ve written, funny tweets they have shared or profound Instagram posts amassing a multitude of likes. But when fame becomes equivalent to holiness, we set them up to fail.
We should be concerned when our expectation of a Christian leader becomes more about what they can provide for us and less about who they are leading us towards. We base our faith off of a celebrity, rather than our actual God. We have created false gods in His place.
We have watched people like Rob Bell and the Gungors be ostracized from the Church that had originally elevated them. We have observed the devastating collapse of Christian leaders like Mark Driscoll. Regardless of the why, we need to remember that we were never given a hall pass to speak of them in the negative way we so often do.
Christian “celebrity” culture has always been a reality; from the rabbis to priests to preachers, throughout Church history we have seen the way Christians tend to elevate leaders into a position of influence and power. Of course, leaders are important and their voices need to be heard above the static of the secular world. The danger comes when we idolize these leaders, placing them in a high position with unreasonably high expectations.
We also want them to be normal, everyday people. We cannot have it both ways. Celebrity gossip magazines often boast, “Stars, they’re just like us!” We want to feel like celebrities are normal, everyday people, yet when they show us their normal brokenness, we skewer them for having vulnerabilities and making mistakes. We build Christian leaders their platform and then light it on fire.
I recently heard a speaker talk about the most popular reasons people leave the Church today. He made the point that all of the reasons are simply symptoms of humanity. We are much more willing to offer grace to people outside the Church, but inside the Church we are stingy with it. There is something to be said for holding our leaders to a higher standard; the Bible tells us that from those who have been entrusted with much, much will be required. (Luke 12:48)
However, we have to remember the humanity of our leaders and be willing to offer them the grace that we so generously offer to others. We unfairly assume that people possess a level of holiness that is equal to the height of their platform.
So what is the answer? What do we do when our leaders fail us? Christian leadership has always been a tricky course to navigate, lined with broken people and needy communities. When we view a Christian as a “celebrity” and feel the right to criticize and threaten them based on what they have said, we are taking a chainsaw to the pillars of the Church. We cannot treat each other this way. Celebrity or not, we cannot put our faith or hope in a human.
We need to re-evaluate our definition of “follower.” Jesus told us that He came to serve, not to be served. Nothing about His ministry was related to fame, though fame definitely did come his way. He experienced the highs of people loving Him and coming to see Him from miles away, and the horrible treatment of people turning their backs on him and ultimately crucifying Him for His claims.
Jesus called us to give up everything to follow him. This is a very different “following” than the way we follow people online. His kind of following requires sacrifice, it demands “dying to self.” In our culture today, following involves clicking a button and sharing opinions and memes. Jesus wasn’t after His own fame or fortune, which is why it never derailed Him when people disagreed or walked away. Jesus calls us to a different way of living. He uproots our understanding of what it means to “follow.” He led by service. He was never after his own glory, but worked for the “will of Him who sent me.” (John 6:38)
Here’s an important question for us to ask: Have we become a society of cowardly soldiers, sharing our heartless opinions behind computer screens?
Sure, we claim we want vulnerability, but often we condemn people when they actually practice it. We write someone off as no use to the Kingdom based off of one controversial post. I am certainly not saying that we always have to agree with one another; Jesus called out false teachers with great passion. There has to be a place for healthy discourse, an avenue for disagreeing and searching for truth.
What I wish would happen is instead of public crucifixion, we would extend an invitation to the table. We would be people who welcome others into a Christian community where conversations happen face to face. We are called to be people of the resurrection, reconcilers of brokenness—and that doesn’t usually happen by writing and posting 140 characters of criticism with no visible Christian character behind it.
There are a lot of conversations today about the world around us trying to put out the fire of Christianity. In what I have seen, we are often destroying ourselves from the inside out. The watching world can sit back with a bag of popcorn and watch Christians devalue and destroy one another, until no one will be left. The way we treat one another, celebrity or not, determines the way an observing world will feel about Jesus. We need to step away from our screens and be the hands and feet of Jesus. We cannot measure the “success” of our ministry or calling based on the number of likes or followers we have on social media.
When we find ourselves disappointed in Christian leaders, which we inevitably will, we need to ask ourselves who we are actually following. Maybe we need to own the fact that we may have placed them in a position that they were never meant to hold. What if we took literally that “follow” button, and paid attention to the ways we are replacing God with His people?
We cannot follow the gospel of Matt Walsh or the gospel of Jen Hatmaker or any other Christian “celebrity,” we need to follow the gospel of Jesus Christ. Anything else will certainly fail us.