Written by 12:09 pm LIFE

The Celebrity Pastor Problem: From Mars Hill To Me

It’s not about popularity, this celebrity thing. If that was the case, then Jesus himself could have been censured for having a public ministry with mass appeal, capped by fans waving palm leaves and laying their cloaks before him. Personally, I hope the folks in our church listen to certain popular pastors like Keller, or DeYoung, or Chandler, or Piper. Especially Piper. Popular spells available, so I’m glad they’re popular.

Popularity is not the problem.

Skye Jethani wrote a very insightful blog post in which he blames the celebrity pastor culture on the Evangelical Industrial Complex (EIC). Don’t be put off by the term; it’s just a creative way to describe some economic and sociological forces within evangelicalism which contribute to the “celebrity” pastor phenomenon. It’s a good read, but it’s not the whole picture. Skye addressed the broader evangelical environment, but I want to look elsewhere.

The latest round of discussion on celebrity pastors, or, for brevity ‘CP’s’, is coming compliments of Mark Driscoll and the maladies of Mars Hill. But if some virus is circulating out there, then one should be content that it’s already been isolated, spread on a slide, and put under the microscope of public scrutiny. I’ve already tossed out some ideas on what Mark Driscoll needs from most of us, and little has happened to amend my view.

No, my interests here lie in examining what causes a pastor to move from simply being a popular pastor, to being a celebrity pastor. I want to move beyond big personalities to me, you, and the local church.

But first, some definitions:

A celebrity is one who seeks fame. A popular leader is one who has fame thrust upon him. For the former, fame is a goal. To the latter, fame is an undesirable but understandable effect of faithfulness. Celebrity pastors seek platforms. Popular pastors know platforms collapse easily under the weight of human glory, so they build their local church, one soul at a time. Sure, a little fame may visit the popular pastor, I mean, that’s implied by the word “popular”. But faithfulness (1 Corinthians 4:2) is his passion. Fame is the by-product (1 Peter 5:6).

These are simple distinctions, to be sure, but they ultimately reveal a fault line that divides the human heart. Also, there is a vast gray area between the poles separating the popular pastor from the celebrity pastor. Most pastors (myself included) have a colorful assortment of mixed motives (Jeremiah 17:9). Only God really knows the pastor’s heart (Jeremiah 17:10).

Lest the reader be tempted to think I have any particular person in my crosshairs with these observations, let me be quick to say that I most certainly do….Me! That’s not to say I’m even at risk of being popular. In my case, becoming a celebrity pastor would require the transplant of several gifts that I do not presently possess, including a humongous church, a sizable intellect, and a good set of white teeth. But I need look no further than the mirror to see a popular wanna-be. And a popular wanna-be is nothing more than a celebrity who lacks opportunity.

So where should I give my attention? How do I know, or how does anyone know, if he is carrying the celebrity-virus? Are there perhaps some kind of early warning signs? Here are just a few.

1) A love of distinction

Leaders want distinction; it’s part of the reason they are drawn to lead.  Toss a rock in any direction, and you’ll hit a guy who feels ‘set apart’ to lead. The desire for distinction is simply a person saying, “I’m an individual, created and called by God ‘to go and bear fruit’” (John 15:16). The desire for distinction arms leaders with a sense of destiny and purpose. So far so good. But distinction spoils the soul when it is elevated to the singular passion of love. It’s love of distinction that triggers the coup within. Timothy Dwight warned of the beast 200 years ago in a speech addressing young leaders. He said, “No passion and no pursuits are more absolutely selfish than the love of distinction. One’s self is here the sole object; and in this object all the labors, pursuits, and wishes terminate.”   

When the impulse for distinction becomes a love of distinction, a celebrity is conceived. And few people are more dangerous than a fame-stalking pastor. I know, because I’ve seen that enemy within my own soul. To me, this proves that even modestly gifted men can be seduced by the love of distinction.

2) UN-accountability groups

Strong leaders need to be surrounded by other strong leaders. In other words, they need to be circled by a cadre of courageous men who are willing to name the BS when they smell something funny. CP’s often have relational networks or small groups that create the illusion of accountability, with little actual accountability. They group with an entourage of friends or family who are enamored with the pastor’s gifts, fruit, or leadership instincts. But an enamored entourage easily become enablers – people who have something stroked in them by cutting the CP slack. Every leader must eventually realize that if a team member has an idol satisfied by accommodating him, the team member becomes a great encourager but a poor corrector. Together they become an UN-accountable group.

CP’s don’t typically want accountability, they want loyalty. To themselves.

To a celebrity swollen with self, hard questions feel like a personal attack; and to the sad soul bold enough to pose them, it’s a quick way to get benched in ministry. But we all need faithful brothers willing to risk a wound (Prov 27:6). Unless there are two or more people to whom a pastor can point and say, “He will be honest even if it hurts me”, he’s probably enjoying ‘UN-accountability’, regardless of his broad relational network. He’s also sliding on thin ice towards celebrity.

Beware if you find yourself increasingly preoccupied with your persona and less occupied with the mission of the gospel. When the messenger becomes more important than the mission, it’s a sign that a pastor is drifting towards celebrity mode. The popular pastor however brings a more gospel-centered vision of loyalty; one defined not by personal indebtedness to him but fidelity to the mission and ministry.

3) Bunker-Home Vs. Ministry-Home

An elder must be “…hospitable” (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8). Regardless of whether you throw the accent of this passage on friends or strangers, the outcome is the same for the elder – his call makes a claim upon his home. Popular pastors assume this passage continues to apply to them, regardless of their platform. Celebrity pastors think they have grown beyond the need for hospitality, which means they miss the grace that comes with an open door. The home is not seen as a part of the ministry, but a bunker to escape from it.

When a leader opens his home, what happens is far more than a simple meal, dessert, or whatever. He invites people into a context where he is (a) Not special, (b) Giving others a deeper look into his marriage and family, and (c) Serving by hosting. I think that’s part of the reason God puts the home into play for leaders. The CP, on the other hand, keeps the front door shut and locked primarily because (a) He’s special (and therefore exempted), (b) Unaware of his need for the deeper dive, and (c) Doesn’t tend to serve (again, exempted). For the CP, people are the tax he must pay for ministry. For most pastors, people are the point of ministry.

Over my 28 years of ministry, I’ve had long seasons of fruitful hospitality. But honestly, I’ve had a couple shorter ones where I didn’t apply myself as well. Sometimes the door began to shut in response to ministry problems or pressures, so I get that temptation. But I also noticed in working with leaders that when the home becomes a bunker rather than a place for ministry, everybody loses – the wife, the kids, the church, and them. For the celebrity, the solitude gained protects him, but it often comes at the expense of his credibility.


4) Leader-keeping

Strong leaders attract leaders – it’s part of the charm that makes them popular. But only good leaders keep leaders. When a strong leader has a revolving door for guys under him, it typically means he doesn’t play well in private. In a recent conversation with Collin Hansen, he suggested that part of what separates celebrity pastors from popular ones is their inability to retain good help. In other words, a true measure of success is not merely attracting good men, but also keeping those good men.

We’re not talking here about conflict. Build a church, or a network of churches, and you can anticipate tons of conflict. No, we’re talking here about a guy who displays an unwillingness or inability to work through conflict. We’re talking about a guy who shows people the door when they disagree with his ideas. The result? Good leaders won’t stick around.

So look closely at why leaders leave. Gifted men need to know they will be cared for and not exploited. When leaders don’t stay, it can be a sign that they feel like their gifts are being leveraged to boost an ego, rather than employed for kingdom impact. It doesn’t take long for astute leaders to figure out the difference.

What About You?

Most of us will never have to negotiate the perils of prominence. We’re not the kind of guys who can mesmerize a crowd with sparkling oratory or brilliant insights. We’re just ordinary pastors. Yet the seed of celebrity lies within us all and waits to be watered by our own stupidity. Whatever may be happening with Mark Driscoll is not my problem. I’m my problem (1 Timothy 1:15).

May God help us resist the CP temptation and reaffirm our devotion to the celebrity-slaying life of simple faithfulness. And may He inspire us by the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, an ardent-popular-ordinary pastor who said, “The church does not need brilliant personalities, but faithful servants of Jesus and the brethren.”

(Visited 16 times, 1 visits today)
Tags: Last modified: May 12, 2023