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Moving On From Christian Celebrity Culture

Moving On From Christian Celebrity Culture

While Katelyn Beaty was working at the evangelical publication Christianity Today, she noticed an unfortunate trend. Through her work as an editor, she would hear scandalous rumors about powerful, influential Christian pastors — and encounter a great deal of fear and hesitation around pursuing any accountability.

In several high profile cases, those rumors turned out to be credible, and the ensuing fallout left a mark on Beaty. She started wondering why we even bother to put these Christians on pedestals that eventually get so high it’s difficult to bring them down. As she puts it, “Does celebrity itself work to shield leaders from proper accountability because we’re really afraid to ask hard questions about heroes of the faith?”

Beaty’s thoughts led to her recent book, Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits Are Hurting the Church. The book not only seeks to answer just how the American Church succumbed to a celebrity mentality, but how we’re getting out of it and what might be next.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

We’re so immersed in celebrity culture that it’s a little hard to recognize it when we see it, but you feel that we’re in a unique moment right now, as an American Church, right?

There are two strands to the answer. One is that I believe evangelicalism in particular, over the last 100, 150 years, has prized individuals over institutions. The most famous evangelical of the last century, Billy Graham, was never formally connected to a local church. He helped to start lots of ministries and institutions, but most of his ministry was lived on the road, in front of crowds of millions, broadcasting his messages using the tools of mass media like radio and television. That’s how most people know of him, is hearing something that he said on the radio or said on television.

Because of the spiritual emphases of the evangelical movement, there tends to be a distrust of institutions. The idea is that institutions are dead or rote or dusty, or “just because you go to a church doesn’t mean you’re a real Christian.” You have to have this born again, highly individualistic experience of salvation, and that often comes through the preaching of a specific evangelist or writer. So I think it is something in the water in American evangelicalism, that we are suspicious of institutions because we don’t really believe they do dynamic work for the Kingdom.

But also, the privileging of individuals over institutions is seen across segments of society over the last 50 years. Even in contemporary politics, the work of Congress often gets subsumed under individual political leaders’ thinking of Congress as a platform for their personal brand and their persona. We see this on the left and the right. The boring, gritty detail work of enacting legislation is much less sexy than tweeting something that deserves a flame emoji.

So obviously, there’s been a significant decline in trust in institutions. And in their place, I think many Americans are predisposed to attach themselves to individual figures, most of whom they’ve never encountered in any personal way. But these individuals come to not only symbolize some kind of value or aspiration or political ideology, but also a theological flavor.

When I became an evangelical Christian as a young teenager, I was never, ever told anything about what it meant to be a Methodist or the history of this denomination going back to the Wesleys. My own self understanding as a Christian was all about the music I was listening to, the books that I was reading and attaching to specific figures in the evangelical world as a way of shoring up my own Christian identity.

This is the culture that raised me. This is the faith orientation that I was raised in. This is not a takedown. This is a really deep diagnosis of something that seems sick in the Church, so that the Church can get better and heal.

Your book highlights some early examples of “Christian Celebrities” like Billy Sunday, D.L. Moody and Billy Graham, and what I admire about it is that you illustrate why the decisions they made that led to their fame made sense. To put it crassly, they weren’t necessarily trying to elevate themselves above the local church. They just recognized what — to them — looked like an effective strategy for the spreading the gospel.

All three of those men — Moody, Sunday and Graham — took a very pragmatic, and some might say naive, approach to the use of mass media. Obviously with Moody and Sunday, that was mostly the newspapers. But with Graham, each new medium was thought of as a neutral tool to be used to share the gospel with as many people as possible. So there was a highly pragmatic embrace of mass media, without asking how the medium affects how people receive the message.

The fact that most Americans would have heard Graham preaching on a television special and then could click over to the next channel and watch The Price Is Right — how does that change how we receive the gospel message as a form of consumption and entertainment that is primarily received in a very individualistic context, apart from a broader community?

All of them, to one degree or another, thought of media as neutral tools that could maximize the number of people who might receive this message without thinking about how the medium changes the message, and also whether true discipleship is lived out in individualistic contexts, or whether it only makes sense in a local body of believers.

And we see this most clearly with Graham, he sought to befriend mainstream celebrities. Billy Sunday had been a popular baseball player before he entered into ministry. So he entered in already having some mainstream celebrity appeal. Graham was very adept at forming relationships with Hollywood stars and political leaders, and implanted himself among mainstream celebrities as a form of credibility. Like, “If even this evangelical Christian, who actually believes in a literal Hell, can be friends with Katharine Hepburn, maybe this faith isn’t so weird after all. He’s so likable, he’s so attractive, he’s so easy to listen to.” So many Christians attached themselves to the Billy Graham brand because he seemed to lend cultural credibility to a faith that a lot of evangelicals felt was increasingly misunderstood or out of political favor or being marginalized in mainstream society.

Obviously, pastor friendships with mainstream celebrities is a subject of a lot of discussion and debate in certain church cultures today. Certain non-church cultures too. 

Yeah. And I don’t want to say there was nothing pure in these intentions to minister. Celebrities need Jesus too, so I’m sure there are very good things about these friendships.

For example, you have Chris Pratt, who became famous acting on TV and in movies, and then also is public about his faith. But it is interesting to see how then everyday Christians attached to him and to other celebrities who publicly profess faith in Christ, as a cultural win. Like, “Isn’t it significant that we have someone who believes Jesus is Lord and believes scripture is inerrant, also making multimillion dollar films and appearing on the red carpet and marrying very hot women?” We attach to them, in part because we like that it lends credibility to a faith that seems weird to a lot of our neighbors.

Well, the pushback is: Isn’t it good that these people are using their huge platforms to talk about God in ways that are winsome, appealing and, hopefully, biblical?

Of course. It is not bad for celebrities with huge platforms to authentically speak about their faith. I think that there should be room for anybody with that level of platform to speak more personally about their faith. I like that Chance the Rapper is a Christian who talks about his faith publicly.

But I also want to ask, at what point is it dangerous for me to over-attach to someone who I don’t really know? Am I attaching to them more than I am to normal Christians, who I actually know quite well and am in relationship with and worship with? Am I prioritizing or giving someone who has celebrity power higher spiritual status than I am everyday Christians, and what does that reveal about what I think is important? Am I just buying into a worldly understanding of power?

So what’s the solution then? I think we’ve seen the fruit of this kind of thinking with various scandals — especially in the Hillsong sphere. What do we replace this sort of “worldly understanding of power” with?

I would challenge the notion that bigger is better. So much of the American Church has mimicked secular business principles to evaluate success. And what we are after, as people attesting to the reality of God in our lives, is not a number of butts in the pews. The metric of discipleship is that you’re actually becoming a community where people are being formed into the likeness of Christ. We need to get out of the numbers metric. I absolutely believe it is not true that what it means to be blessed by God is to be growing numerically. You can grow numerically for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with God or blessing.

I wonder if we are actually in a time when the Church is going to have to accept becoming smaller and more obscure. It’s not going to feel successful. It’s going to feel scary and like maybe God isn’t blessing us. But what if the smaller church and the more localized understanding of Christian discipleship is a way that we are being refined, so that the gospel that we attest to actually has staying power and real credibility among our neighbors?

You can order Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits Are Hurting the Church now.

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