I was having some difficulty determining where to start, so I’ll just come right out with it. We live in a Christian culture that has largely turned pastors into celebrities and made celebrities their pastors, and it is landing us in cultural hot water. Recent headlines in the news, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram expose this. On one end, it seems that whenever a famous personality, no matter how worldly they may be, says the name “Jesus,” it’s automatically promoted by many Christians as though Jesus Himself was speaking. On the other end, if a pastor can motivate, inspire, and humor an audience all while maintaining relevance and a cutting edge style, he becomes the next big Christian star, often amassing for himself wealth and reputation all in the name of the work of Christ’s kingdom. Celebrities seem to consume us. This isn’t shocking seeing that we are natural followers. We tend to follow the people that appear on the surface to be who we want to become. For the Christian, this makes a strong case that Jesus should be the only one who reaches true celebrity status in our hearts.
Before I go any further, please hear this. I take no issue with celebrities that are following Christ or leaders within the church that have a significant, public influence. I believe God desires to be represented well at every level within a culture. Thankfully, He disperses His disciples within every sphere of human society. There is, however, a difference between fame that is self-made and influence that is God-given. The first is frequently accompanied by pride and arrogance, the second by genuine humility. A self-inflated ego marks one, and a sincere trembling under the weight of that which God has entrusted characterizes the other.
There is, however, a difference between fame that is self-made and influence that is God-given.
It saddens me that the title “celebrity pastor” is even a thing, as though fame is preferable to being unknown. Over the past 13 years of being a pastor, I have had the joy of ministry opportunities that some would consider large, epic, and significant. Those opportunities, as beautiful and exciting as they were, have often paled in comparison to moments I’ve had in hospital rooms, next to deathbeds, and in the homes of precious saints where no one else was watching. Leading a young man to Jesus in my office has been no less significant or rewarding than leading multitudes to Christ in a crusade. Peter preached to thousands, Phillip preached to one, and no one was asking either of them for an autograph.
There was one instance in Acts 14 when Paul and Barnabas healed a lame man in Lystra. The ministry the Lord did through them immediately catapulted them to celebrity status in the eyes of the people. What was their response as the multitudes thronged them and sought to worship them? Did they revel in the glory? Did they accept the people’s praise in the name of “glorifying God” or “doing the ministry?” No. Sickened to their core by the thought of being magnified above measure, they tore their clothing and declared, “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men with the same nature as you, and preach to you that you should turn from these useless things to the living God.” Next thing you know, they were getting dragged outside the city and stoned. Does this sound anything like the modern day celebritized Christian culture we’ve created?
To me, this is not an issue of big churches versus small churches. I believe God builds large congregations of believers to communicate vision and build mass unity for specific works of the kingdom. God develops wealthy congregations to supply the needs of the saints and the cause of the gospel around the world. He builds small churches to enhance community and relationship, and even poor churches to be a shining example of faith and endurance. He gives some churches influence in the world, and to others, He grants influence that doesn’t exceed their local community. Despite their differences, they have the same Lord and the same Spirit. Together they comprise one flock, under one shepherd (John 10), with one mission.
This reality automatically implies that God also calls and raises pastors and leaders to shepherd all those churches, small and large, poor and rich. He gives men and women varying degrees of influence, reach, and resources to humbly steward. Jesus taught us this principle in the parable of the three stewards found in Matthew 25. Just as the master delivered different amounts of money to each of his three servants to manage, so He has given each of us differing talents, gifts, and responsibilities to steward for His kingdom. We must always realize however that the amount God has given each person doesn’t define that person’s value or significance in His kingdom. The servant with more is not greater, more important, or of higher worth than the servant with less. Biblically, it appears that the opposite is the case. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another.” Perhaps the true Christian celebrity is not the dynamic leader, but the dedicated usher, not the famous athlete but the faithful missionary, not the prosperous evangelist but the persecuted pastor.
We must always realize however that the amount God has given each person doesn’t define that person’s value or significance in His kingdom.
The overarching principle of Jesus’ parable is that each of us is called to steward what God has entrusted us with faithfulness and obedience, seeking to please the Lord and Him alone. Harry Ironside stated it well when he wrote, “We need to realize that in all things our first duty and responsibility is to God Himself.” When we stand before the judgment seat of Christ, it is our faithfulness, not our status or success that will matter. I have personally fought through this balance. I have had people tell me that my social media posts have been just what they needed from the Lord to help them through a difficult season. I’ve had others tell me that the same posts came across to them as egotistical and self-serving. Even in writing this article I MUST wrestle with my motives. Do I want to bring light to what I believe is an important issue for the church to address, or do I want to be recognized for the very thing I am condemning? At the end of the day, I must answer to the Lord. That is a fearful thing—and it should be. If a person doesn’t wrestle with that, they have entered into a dangerous place. When one inflates himself or herself out of selfishly derived motives or allows others to inflate them based on their apparent successes, they set themselves up for failure and stricter judgment. This is why Paul warns us in Romans 12:3, “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.”
So far I have discussed the weight of responsibility of the person who has been given a greater public platform. While they must wrestle with the burden of their duty to God and His truth, the rest of us must also remember that greater talent, status, or popularity doesn’t ensure or equal greater spiritual maturity. Just because a person can make you cry when they sing, laugh when they speak, cheer when they pass, or swoon when they act, doesn’t mean that they should automatically be dubbed the cultural spokesperson for Christ or the immovable standard of His truth. We must measure and be measured by our substance, not our appearance—by our proven faithfulness to God and His truth, not a 140-word tweet.
One example where we’ve seen this manifested recently is within the arena of the sexual revolution taking place in our nation. The driving forces in our culture constantly push for tolerance and acceptance of all sexual identities and lifestyles. This, of course, is antithetical to the holiness of God and the clear communication of His Word on the subject. This, among many other issues, has placed Christian celebrities and celebrity pastors in a tight spot. Many of these men and women are doing what they are doing in the name of reaching people in dark places with the love of Christ. They walk a tightrope with the world with good intentions, and at times have been successful in touching areas and people that the institutionalized church would never reach. I’m thankful for that. But every Christian who seeks this kind of ministry needs to know that they will inevitably run into a significant problem and point of decision. When the continued success and acceptance of a celebrity personality becomes dependant on their willingness to align themselves with a secular worldview, they are forced to choose between standing for the truth they know or abdicating their role as God’s spokesperson to maintain the status they’ve earned. Sadly, many abdicate. They reach a risky pinnacle then fear that the world will push them back over the edge if they say one offending word.
As a pastor, I’ve found myself tempted on many occasions to reframe the truth in a way that will prevent any offense to the unbelieving world. The problem? God’s intention was never to withhold offense, but rather bring people to the knowledge of the truth. We are to be an aroma of life to those who are being saved, and of death (if necessary) to those who are perishing. I’ll put it like this. When someone waters down the truth in the name of reaching people in a lie, they both discredit the truth and strengthen the lie. It is possible for one to communicate sincere love without approving the sin that is damaging and destroying countless lives. One does not have to compromise compassion to stand in the truth. But the truth about truth remains: truth offends people who would rather stay in a lie. Let’s face it, sometimes walking in the light means that the darkness will hate you. This reality is a cost that a Christian needs to count before pursuing or embracing a place of celebrity status within their society or a position of significant influence within the church. They must ask the question, “When the time comes for me to stand in truth boldly, will I be willing to do it even if it cost me?”
When someone waters down the truth in the name of reaching people in a lie, they both discredit the truth and strengthen the lie.
Allow me to close with three exhortations to three audiences.
To our celebrities–our athletes, movie stars, musical artists, and politicians, the world is looking at you for an accurate picture of Jesus, and the church is looking to you to represent Him rightly. You have a unique and awesome opportunity to love and influence people with the truth, but it’s going to take courage, humility, and the willingness to stand on the side of God when the culture that loves you forces you to the line. Please don’t give half-truths. Season your speech with grace without adding cliche phrases and words that soften or misconstrue the truth. Please know that we are for you! We pray for you and cheer alongside you when you have an opportunity to magnify our Savior and His word to the masses. I encourage you, next time someone asks you about homosexuality, abortion, or any other hot topic cultural and biblical issue, please realize what they are typically doing. They are trying to paint you into a corner so that you will say something that will strengthen their position and weaken the cause of Christ. They are using you as a pawn. Don’t let them. Respond lovingly, answer honestly, and answer biblically.
To our “celebrity pastors,” yes, we are thankful for many of you too, but please don’t try and live up to the title. We enjoy all the sermon clips, and devotionals, and are blessed by how many of your voices have impacted our lives and relationships with God. Not every pastor gets the opportunity to encourage, disciple, and bring God’s truth to thousands upon thousands day after day. I ask you in love, speaking to myself as well, please take heed to yourselves. You didn’t make yourself who you are, that came from God, and if God didn’t do it, you may be in hotter water than you think. Remember that you are still men at best. You will frequently battle pride and the flesh, maybe even to higher degrees than others. You won’t always be able to control the platform or image people force you into, but you can control how much glory you’re willing to let go to your head. We need you, but we need you humble and self-controlled. We need you to model the servant-heart of Jesus to us and the world. Do battle against the love of money, wage war on any desire for praise and recognition, and guard against the lusts of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. Hold your spiritual disciplines tightly, preach and teach the pure word of God, and stay close to Jesus. We rejoice when you honor Christ well, but we’re embarrassed when you fall off the deep end because you refused accountability and placed yourself on an unreachable platform far above the rest of the sheep. Always remember these words of Paul, “Moreover it is required in stewards that one be found faithful.”
Finally, to all the saints who are the living representation of Christ in the world, remember that we are all in this together. When the church in Corinth started idolizing and dividing over different leaders, Paul exhorted them and said, “Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase.” When you see those serving the Lord in the public eye, pray for them, support them, encourage them, and even model after those who are living a life worth modeling, but don’t idolize them. Don’t place them on a pedestal that they can’t live up to or put a weight upon them that they can’t stand under. Hold them accountable to what they say and how they live; not from a critical spirit, but out of sincere love and hope that they will be fruitful and useful for the kingdom. May we all strive together, with one voice and one mind to make much of Christ and see His name famous.