Maybe it’s unavoidable that churches become microcosms of their eras. The early American church—in those strict, mean times—was a lean, sparse affair. Around the 1970s, the American church looked more like a business, with pastors acting like CEOs of small companies, focusing on delivering a weekly product.

In recent years, as the entertainment industry became the focal point of American culture, a growing number of churches began operating like a brand, with the pastor acting as the focal celebrity while a team around him (it’s almost always a him) streamlined his content for maximum impact and ran interference on potential scandals.

This has led to a phenomenon we call “celebrity pastors,” a phrase that should ring alien, yet doesn’t in the American church of 2019. If the label applies to anyone, it applied to James MacDonald, the recently fired senior pastor and founder of the immense and influential Harvest Bible Chapel. MacDonald’s lengthy series of scandals unspooled over several years, as allegations of bullying, intimidation, dishonesty and financial mismanagement surfaced and were buried one after the other. A 2019 investigation from Julie Roys at WORLD Magazine forced a slightly more honest reckoning before a series of tapes from Chicago shock-jock Mancow Muller, in which MacDonald was heard making vulgar threats toward the journalists covering the scandal, got the senior pastor fired.

The entire executive committee at Harvest has pledged to resign over their mismanagement of the various allegations against MacDonald. Victims have continued to come forward with new allegations (a former Harvest worship pastor went on Mancow’s show to say MacDonald touched her inappropriately a number of years ago), and it’s probably impossible to determine how many lives have been disrupted by MacDonald’s actions, how many people’s emotional and mental wellbeing could have been protected if countermeasures had been taken earlier.

That’s the thing about a celebrity pastor: A celebrity pastor is a brand, and a brand doesn’t take action against itself. That would be antithetical to its entire existence. Brands survive because they deflect damage, control the narrative, protect talent and promote new successes over recent failures. Accountability is bad for brands. For them to listen and respond to people they’ve hurt is a liability.

This construct was apparent in the Houston Chronicle’s devastating report of abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention, or in Mark Driscoll’s laborious attempts to weather, in vain, the crumbling of his empire. It took an avalanche of accusations from the Willow Creek Church community before Bill Hybels was ousted from leadership. There are many, many other examples. And unless the American Church course corrects here, there will be more in the future.

The Celebrity Pastor is a failed experiment, though it never stood a chance at success. It began benignly enough, with radio ministers like S. Parkes Cadman in the 20s and Reverend Ralph Sockman in the 40s gaining massive followings, but it was the advent of televangelism when the concept took on an uncomfortable sheen, shepherded by people like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and Jerry Falwell. Those sordid legacies speak for themselves, but their influence remains today, the pinstripe suits and poofy hair replaced by All Saints and undercuts.

The biblical model for a pastor could not have less in common with the modern celebrity. As Paul tells Timothy, pastors are to be  “temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.” None of these things are particularly compatible with the entitlements and hubris that accompany fame.

There is not a large enough sample size of famous people for a robust study of the psychological effects of celebrity, but the examples we have are not encouraging. The biblical injunctions against inflating yourself are fairly straightforward. “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled,” Jesus says in Luke 14. Or, to quote an anonymous American folk writer some years later, “Sooner or later God’ll cut you down.”

Any rise necessitates leaving others on the ground, and that is an alienating thing for those in power. Isolation emboldens our worst impulses. The more people who affirm us, the more likely we are to believe them, and the more we believe them, the less likely we are to listen to other voices telling us less gratifying things. With this comes a dismissal of accountability—often in tiny increments—until you find yourself on a pedestal high above anyone who could give you an honest assessment of your life. It’s a dark place for anyone to be. It’s untenable for a pastor. It’s ideal for a brand.

None of this is unique to the American Church. Even King David, not a pastor but certainly a spiritual leader, found himself brought low after his power and authority calcified into a poisonous permission for him to force a woman into his bed.

But since America has prioritized celebrity in a way many other cultures haven’t, the American Church might be the first sector to have duped itself into believing a celebrity pastor could ever be a good thing for itself. For this country, the bitter fruit of celebrity has been a hollow, image-obsessed society that confuses size for success and wealth for wisdom. It’s been more or less the same for our churches, but with an extra, bitter undercurrent of torment. When a celebrity falls into scandal, it’s tabloid fodder, an object lesson for the rest of us to tut-tut over. But when a celebrity pastor falls, it sends shockwaves through the spiritual journeys of the people who’d looked up to him.

While it may be unavoidable for our churches to acquire the look and feel of their cultural context, we don’t have to be thoughtless or enthusiastic about that influence. In this, as in all things, we must “hate what is evil; cling to what is good” (Romans 12). Being a pastor is an immense responsibility, and any models for the job outside the church—kings, corporate bosses, Instagram stars—are doomed to bring disaster. The first and finest model for pastors will always be Jesus, whose words in Mark 9:35 only grow more radical with time:  “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

18 comments
  1. I agree with your post for the most part. Very well put together. I have a couple critiques:

    I do not believe celebrity (famous people) in the church is a bad thing within itself. There are countless examples of men and women throughout church history who were well known and had tons of influence in their times. Luther, Edwards, Spurgeon, Billy Graham, CS Lewis, MLK, Lottie Moon, are just to name a few. Also, scandal has not been absent from the church, one glance at church history will bust that myth.

    The problem is not that people are famous, the problem is (and you correctly pointed this out) that people building a brand of fame without really doing a whole lot. Our metrics for success is skewed towards the numbers of people who you can gather and the amount of money you can make (book sales, conference attendance, etc). In addition, the rise of social media, online videos, and podcasting make it easier to gather an audience.

    The solution then is not the removal or shooting down of “famous people” but the elevation of authenticity and godly character. Character > Competency. This is a discipleship problem, and we are in need of men and women to hold pastors accountable to be people of integrity.

    I could go on and on, but those are a few of my thoughts.

  2. OK on almost all accounts – except celebrity or not – pastors are human. And in the Word we read about the short comings of even the best God chose to eat His people. But – their followers did benefit from their leadership and their flaws. I believe that this is also the case with Pastor James, yes flaws, but also good along with that. Yes, his congregation may feel duped, or maybe would look to the teachings they heard and understand that forgiveness is a Godly virtue. Meanwhile, the search for the perfect church and the perfect Pastor continues…

  3. Excellent article, and a much-needed corrective for the abuses within the church. So sad over all of this. I would simply like to suggest that Jerry Falwell does not belong in your list. He went through a public moral failing, as has the rest of your list, and his only legacy is the largest, and most biblically faithful, Christian college in the country. You may disagree with his political position, but I think that would weaken your argument. Thanks again.

  4. It is a rare person who is not destroyed by holding a position of power and influence. This article is disheartening. Christian’s flock to the celebrity pastor’s churches. Has no one discernment? If we are a spiritual person we will be able to have a spiritual sense that something is wrong at the top. I think it speaks of the failure of the Church to nurture new believers regarding both the spiritual realm and the ability to go beyond what we see physically happening around us. This is why Paul said, “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware.” (1 Cor. 12:1 or Ephesians 6:12, or 2 Cor 10:4) Unfortunately for those called celebrity pastors in this article are more spiritually stunted than many they are supposed to be nurturing.

  5. Very good. The judgement of the Lords house which brings purity is continuing and is necessary and is wonderful to behold as are all things of Him. Days of ever increasing unity and relationship are already upon us and the old must die away. His Grace is continuing to shift and as the old things aren’t covered any more, they can’t continue to function. His next great move in the earth which includes more of every aspect of Him is upon us and things that aren’t allowed in are being shaken to help people let go so they can enter in. There will be more successive moves, and in each one, there will be successively more of Him which is very good and very necessary and is an expression of His Great Love for Us

  6. I’m not disputing any of this as I’m completely unfamiliar with the MacDonald situation. I just tend to be a little skeptical of the development of scandals like these whether the center is a pastor, politician or what have you. Without a doubt, there are celebrities who abuse their power, but just as often there are wannabes who jump on the me too wagon when these things break – suddenly we start hearing about those times many years ago when the person currently under fire did something terrible. Really? You never said word one at the time but for some reason decided the time is now right… I can’t wait to see YOUR interview on CNN or read YOUR tell-all book… I’m sure that has nothing to do with it, right?

  7. Awesome article brother. As a pastor of 30 years I have watched intently the pathology of Christian celebrity. It is a a crowd driven phenomenon. Remember that it was said that “people will gather unto themselves teachers”. Millions of Christians want a King like all the other nations have don’t they? The vanity of vicarious victory that we derive from our sports celebrities seems to bleed over into religious leaders. We want to be identified with winning figures and winning organizations sometimes more than we want to be identified with the crucified Christ.
    Whats so tragic is that many of the fallen celebrity ministers have transformed the way many churches do ministry by advocating thier approach in conferences and curriculum. The pioneers fall and we are all left holding thier mantles in our hands thinking, “What have we really been receiving from them all this time?” Fads and fashion or faith and fruit?

  8. Great Article, it has become positional idolatry, the worshipping of their own brand and view of their influence. Would highly recommend leaders read Insight by Tasha Eurich, she says the higher leaders go in an organization the less feedback they receive. People are afraid to speak against the leader and the brand.

  9. There has only been One Celebrity Pastor and His name is Jesus. He is the same Yesterday, Today and Forever. So keep your eyes on Him and upon no man. Live in the fear of the Lord and always expect His soon arrival.

    Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. 3 And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure. – 1John 3:2-3

  10. A bit simplistic for my taste. Jesus had celebrity status as did John the Baptist and it could be argued the Apostle Paul. Think of the cloth he had touched. While celebrity can and may inevitably be a foundation or substrate for corruption it is also a necessary vehicle for service or for being a servant. However being a servant does not mean servitude just as celebrity does not necessarily entail excess. Setvanthood also does not exempt us from the use of poeer and the exercise of authority. Also celebrity as in the case of our Lord and later the Apostles created the difficulty of endless expectation and work and from those for whom competing celebrity was a threat the threat that ended with crucifixion. Among the examples of those mentioned it could be argued that the judge adjudicating the Jim Bakker prosecution thought to make him an example that went beyond the reasonable. I think the Graham’s who enjoyed or endured celebrity reached out to Bakker with compassion and ultimate restoration.
    .

  11. As an evangelical pastor I humbly take to heart the clear relevance of this article. Humility is always God’s call to us.
    However I would like to ask why Falwell was mentioned with Jim Baker and jimmy Swaggert. I felt it was a bit careless placing with men who were involved in immorality and sought to cover it. As far as I understand, Falwell was always a man of integrity and the continued health of the ministries he left behind would suggest he did not build them on himself.

  12. The religions of man are deceivers, using false Sabbaths, unclean feast days and pagan holidays on pagan calendars to keep the believer living in sin. Though they demand to be treated with kid gloves and showered with soft words of love, the religious are the first to turn vicious when their religion is proven to be nothing more than deceit. The pride and self righteousness of these agents of satan won’t allow themselves to be proven wrong or corrected. To their own peril they ignore the warning of James 3 that states they will be held responsible for the souls they corrupt with false doctrine and greed. To coddle the religions of man and their leadership with esteem is the will of satan not the will of our Father. Our Father rebukes satan.

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