We Want a Celebrity, Not a Savior
In October of 2014 the most influential pastor of his generation was compelled to write a letter of resignation amidst mounting claims of purchasing bestseller status and domineering leadership. In August of 2018 the most influential pastor of his generation was also forced to resign prematurely amidst mounting allegation of sexual misconduct and abuse of power. In February of this year another pastor was fired for a barrage of sinful leadership patterns including financial impropriety and domineering leadership.
Each of these men are bestselling authors, each has spoken widely at the biggest Christian conferences in the county and world. Each of their churches was comprised of multiple campuses and boasted tens of thousands in weekly attendance. They are primary examples of what Skye Jethani calls the Evangelical Industrial Complex—a machine of commerce which utilizes and even produces popular pulpiters for the sake of financial gain. After all, the evangelical Christian market is a seven billion-dollar industry (see Tyler Wigg Stevenson’s book, Brand Jesus).
Many historians acknowledge the first true modern celebrity was actually a pastor. His name was George Whitefield—an English preacher who was the heart behind the Great Awakening. According to pastor and historian Steven Lawson, "more people saw George Whitefiled face-to-face than ever saw George Washington.” Whitefield would regularly preach up and down the thirteen colonies and crowds would follow him from city to city on horseback. Once preaching in Boston around 1740, he preached to over 23,000 people. At the time the population in Boston was only about 17,000. Yet despite the girth of Whitefiled’s persona and ministry, we are more prone to ecclesiastic exaltation today than ever before.
Now at this point we may be tempted to point the finger outside the walls of the church toward the godlike worship of musicians, actors, politicians and YouTube stars of the world. However we must admit, as the Church we have welcomed this same toxic affection for personality. Not only so, but the real issue behind our affection for personality is not the size of a ministry, nor the masculinity of their leaders—though each of these certainly can contribute. The real issue however lies within a belief of specialness. When a church leader believes he is special and a people either validates that belief or are merely passive in their observation of such self-aggrandizement, this always leads to the demise of that church and that leader.
How does this happen? Well, we perhaps have no better look at the epidemic we face today than in a city called Lystra in the first century when two of Jesus’ apostles—Paul and Barnabas—came to town.
Paul and Barnabas have just fled Iconium. In response to attempts both by Jews and Gentiles to kill the apostles, they made their way to Lystra. Lystra was a Roman providence in the region of Galatia. It was a Roman colony since 6 B.C and about 100 miles southeast of Pisidian Antioch, and just south of Iconium where they had just fled.
Acts is the story of the Church on the surface, but more subversively it is the story of Jesus' kingly reign invading this world. Paul demonstrates this through preaching in Lystra and the miracle of healing a man, crippled from birth. This was a work of Jesus. Luke explains this miracle came about due to the faith of the man. And it is not a stretch to presume that the faith demonstrated by this man was a result of hearing Paul preach the gospel earlier in the verse.
Many in the city heard Paul speak and saw the powerful miracle. Unlike every other city Paul has been to at this point on his first missionary journey, he doesn’t enter into the synagogue in Lystra. That’s because there was no synagogue. Lystra was a deeply pagan city and so the apostles face new challenges like Greek mythology and a language barrier. You see, the Lycaonian people would have had zero context for the God of Israel. Additionally we have no reason to believe Paul or Barnabas knew Lycaonian. That means the people didn’t know the apostle’s God, and the apostles didn’t understand the people’s language.
What was unclear with words was made plain through action. Though the Lyconian crowd had shouted,“the gods have come down … in the likeness of men” Paul and Barnabas didn’t understand. This is not simply a loving encouragement—good word today pastor—this was a specific observation and idolatrous belief that Barnabas was Zeus and Paul was Hermes. Their flippancy to immediately exalt the apostles was based upon a legend, a cautionary tale of sorts told by the Latin poet Ovid. As the story goes, Zeus and Hermes visited a Phrygian hill country village. They were disguised as human beings and were looking for a place to stay. In their search they were denied entry over a thousand times until a poor elderly couple invited them into their home and cared for them for the night. As a result the two gods transformed the couple’s home into a palace. Every other home in town who did not receive them was destroyed. Knowing this legend, the people of Lystra were not taking any chances.
Do you see? Ultimately they treated the apostle like gods because they wanted something from them—or at least they didn’t want them to hurt them. This is the foundation of celebritism.
The language of the incarnation is unavoidable. Their pagan theology and simple thinking was a response to two ideas—the power demonstrated and the eloquence spoken. Paul’s power over the physical realm as well as his skill verbally caused these hearers to deify the preacher (after all, Hermes is the god of oratory). The tragic irony of course is that the true incarnation is the story of the Son of God becoming man and this idolatrous worship service is the attempt to make men into gods. It’s the exact opposite. All false worship is the opposite of the incarnation—the attempted deification of flesh.
Paul and Barnabas still don’t know what’s going on. Remember, there’s an impossible language barrier. But ignorance evaporates when words solidify to action. The priest of Zeus brings oxen and garlands to the gates preparing to make sacrifices to the apostle. In other words the people of Lystra are taking their worship beyond merely lip service and are now consciously taking action to honor Paul and Barnabas as special, as divine and supreme.
The ecclesiastic issues of our day are anchored in an identical deception. To be sure we may not pronounce pastors, priests and Christian celebrities explicitly as gods … we may not kill animals to praise them … but we do regularly want something from them. It might be special access to God. It might be a feeling of specialness; being at their church, one of their followers, or even more, being followed by them.
This is very fertile soil of idolatry which leads to both the demise of Christians leaders as well as churches and people who esteem them as their supreme spiritual connection.
American theologian Dr. Marva Dawn calls out this deceptive phenomenon,
“Many evil powers are tempting the church today. Number one is the power of personality. I call that an evil power because many pastors depend on their own personality to attract people. It’s an evil power that pits personality against the force of the gospel in Jesus alone.”
Personality is the specific qualities, characteristics and proclivities that make an individual unique. And so what Dr. Dawn is saying is that in our churches we are more interested in the uniquenesses of our human leaders than the uniqueness of Jesus. Christian leaders (especial pastors) often look to the ministry to make them special, and we as a people grant them their request because we are looking to our leaders to make us special too.
This is what happened in the blink of an eye in Lystra. Paul preached once. Paul performed one miracle. And the crowd began to worship him. The crowd thought Paul and Barnabas were special and looked to them to make them feel special. This allure to praise our leaders and receive blessing directly from them is beyond any human’s deserving and yet it has crept within every denomination and tradition of Christianity. This “evil power” lurks within my heart and my church too.
This was not the first time a human being had been worshipped for powerful oration in Acts. Herod spoke to his people in Acts 12 and they said, “the voice of a god”. In short, he did not give God the glory and he died nearly immediately. This cautionary tale makes it clear what happens when we receive false worship. We die. It kills us. We can’t take it. We are not made for, nor deserving of worship. How would Paul and Barnabas respond when similarly faced with misplaced glory from a crowd?
As the chants of the crowd materialized into animal sacrifice the apostles finally understood what was going on. And they respond by tearing their garments. The commentator, D.G. Peterson says,
“Tearing one’s clothes was a gesture suggesting that blasphemy was about to be committed. As faithful Jews, they were distressed about receiving such homage and detracting from the glory of the one true God.”
Ripping clothes was a customary response by devoted followers of God of mourning or repentance, especially of blasphemy (or heresy against God). Paul and Barnabas responded to this Lyconian idolatry with sadness, repentance and indignation … sorrowful that God’s fame and glory would be disregarded … repentant of any sin that may have solicited such a response … angered over any violation of God’s glory—personal or communal.
The substance of their response is crystalized in their words, “we are men, like you” and “turn from these vain things”. They preached—albeit quickly—to this crowd about ultimately reality. Here’s the truth, we are not gods, we are human beings. Here’s what you need to do, repentant. These were the two things that Herod did not do. He did not speak the truth nor did he dissuade his audience from falsely worshipping him. The apostles immediately speak truth and call for repentance.
Repentance about retuning. And so it isn’t surprising that the apostles do not simply tell the crowd to flee from something but to something. Specifically they call them to turn to the living God. All of repentance is walking away from sin and, most importantly, returning to God. We have not repented if we have merely attempted to stop doing wrong or sinful things. Full repentance requires the rekindling of affection for and the affirmation of the true God. Sin steals intimacy. Repentance restores intimacy. After all, sin is a disbelief in God’s goodness and grace. If nothing else, sin is a matter of false love. Love of things and self more than God.
Paul specifically calls God "the living God”. Throughout the Hebrew Bible God was referred to as the living God (Exodus 32:1-10, 1 Kings 18:20-40, and Joshua 3:10-14). And in every case his title as the living God always carried two meanings—he is alive unlike every other god who is dead and all of life comes from him. Therefore it is not surprising after Paul confesses that he and Barnabas have human natures like everyone else (they are mortal) he preaches through the creation storyline. (This is also in light of the fact that his audience is unfamiliar with the God of the Bible and so instead of beginning with Jesus and the gospel). Paul starts at the very beginning.
God is the living God. He alone brings life. He alone speaks life. He alone restores life. He makes and remakes all things. Though he is the unquestioned living God, we still look for life in false gods … why? Well it’s all about how we believe true life is secured.
Idolatry’s tenacity is front and center. Even though the apostles make it clear they are not worthy of divine glory they scarcely restrained the crowd from killing animals in worship to them. Even after that truth bomb of being human beings and the living God, they’re still like … whooooaaaa! What a great word about idolatry, we love you! They had a such grip on their sin that even after being told by the ones they are worshipping to stop, they barely could. What is happening here? What is going on beneath the surface of this idolatry which causes them (and us) to be so persistent in idolatry?
There is one thing we want from celebrities above all else. Consequently, it is the very thing they can’t give us. Intimacy. We want a relationship with famous and powerful people, but we can’t. This is why we say things like, I feel like I know her or I feel like he and I would be best friends. But we don’t. And we won’t. After all, screens necessarily mediate our faux celebrity relations.
Our relationship (if we can call it that) is therefore further mediated by products and services to give us the illusion of intimacy. Whereas our favorite musicians and actors give us songs and movies, our professional protestants give us sermons, churches, music, books, and (my personal favorite) community. These are the chief commodities of the Evangelical Industrial Complex.
When we consume theses good and services we feel special. We feel close to these exalted evangelicals. And because these are redeemed products (not a real thing) we trust they have brought us near to God. In actually they have simply brought us closer to self-love and self-worship. You see, in consuming such things we are trying to quiet the anxieties caused by fear and greed. Spiritual superstars create products that will deal with those things, for a small fee.
Celebrities make us feel special. And we too want to be told we are godlike. No doubt this is the greatest commodity they produce. Christian celebrities make us feel like we can save ourselves.
Near the end of her recent bestselling book, a Christian TV personality and writer summed up her prayers for her readers this way:
You have the ability to change your life. You’ve always had the power…You just have to stop waiting for someone to do it for you. There is no easy way out of this; there is no life hack. Just you and your God-given strength and how much you desire change. I hope, pray, wish, cross my fingers and my toes that you will look around and find an opportunity to be your own hero.
And that’s the point. This is the celebrity gospel! This is why we want a celebrity, not a Savior. Because a Savior tells us to repent, celebrities tell us we can and should be our own hero. Let’s be honest. We don’t want to turn from vain things. We want to pursue them. Chase them. And love them! We trust that these vain commodities will quiet our fears and satisfy our greed. In short, we believe they’ll give us life. Christian celebrities—no matter how big or small their following—make this life possible.
We’re all looking for power. We’re looking for eloquence. The most important book I read in 2018 was The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb. In it Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel interview a number of spiritual fathers and mothers. And as the subtitle suggests—Searching for Jesus’ Path of Power in a Church that Has Abandoned It—they consider the Church’s love for earthly power, especially in our leaders. They write,
…the things that make leaders dangerous are the very things that earn them affirmation.
We have made good things, good gifts from God ultimate. And that’s the devastation of this sin, it replaces God with people. Broken, sinful and messy people. Us.
Idolatry always leads to death. Either the death of the worshipper or the one being worshipped. Because no one can take the weight of being God except God. And so it shouldn’t be surprising that the crowd who wanted to kill animals to honor the apostle, in the very next scene is trying to kill them.
We have replace intimacy with consumerism. And celebrities produce our most prized commodity, self-assurance. But let’s continue being honest. It’s not working. Looking at celebrities do not give me hope, it leads to despair. We have made up stories of the glamorous life they live beyond the stage … it’s not there.
Some thing that away from pulpits and posts I’m in constant conversation with God, always serving my wife with joy and teaching my kids to obey the truths of God being careful to footnote every lesson with Scripture. But that’s not true. In just the past couple weeks, I’ve cleaned up throw up in the back of my car and thought I was too good for such a job. I got angry at my children for, well, being children. I raised my voice and was very impatient. And I worried I wasn’t enough to lead our church; that someone else’s gifts and abilities would serve my community better. So hear this … celebrities and leaders give us neither the intimacy we crave, nor the salvation we need. Even Christian celebrities. Fear and greed are never satisfied and when fully grown always lead to death.
There is hope. The craving for intimacy is God-given. You see, we were never meant to make men and women into gods, rather we were meant to behold the God who became man. The one who drew near to us. His power was not of this world, and he suffered and died. His eloquence was most exemplified in his silence, like a lamb before his shearers he was silent. Jesus is the Son of God, become man. And yet his divinity is reveal through death and resurrection.
If the pathway to idolatry and deification of our leaders is fear and greed, then our fear and greed must be dealt with. Jesus does. He overwhelms our fear and greed with intimacy. Through the incarnation Jesus is not trying to wow us with spectacle. He is drawing close to us with love and grace. Paul would write to the Corinthians that perfect love drives out fear. Love calms us and comforts us in the middle of distress. Greed is also swallowed up in the grace of Jesus. Consumerism is the never-ending lust for more. Jesus gives us all we need freely out of grace.
Love and grace lead us to pure enjoyment of the living God. In him we are truly satisfied and find real, lasting life. Jesus gives us what no celebrity ever can, intimacy.
Paul and Barnabas were not special. They came rather to bring some special and good news. They brought good news, good news about the true power and word of God. Their purpose is our purpose. Not only as leaders of the church—like me and our elder team—but as a whole family we are called to bring good news. And in bringing this good news we must be so careful that the messengers of this gospel are not treated disproportionately, even sinfully. We also must be careful that elders especially do not make the error of Herod, of believing we are special or at the very least fail to correct or cultivate a culture where anything and anyone is esteemed above Jesus.
After all when we esteem men to be gods we will all be destroy. But because God became man we can find true life. Through the incarnation and cross we find power over greed and fear. We find love and grace which lead to enjoyment of the living God, which when fully bloomed flourishing in genuine satisfaction and life.
Each of these men are no longer lead the churches they started. At some point their's is a cautionary tale of what happens when we think leaders are special and we are driven by fear and greed. George Whitefiled’s story was the same. He was so revered that many turned a blind eye when he became the most outspoken advocate for slavery in the Georgia. Fear and greed only produce brokenness.
My aim is not to shame the late Whitefield. Nor to despise these three contemporaries. Rather it is to esteem Christ as the only special one. To cherish him as the only one worthy of glory and honor and praise. I am no better than any of these men. I am not freer of sin … I’m tempted by the same glory of the stage, the pen, and the microphone. What this is for us all is a caution to run to the cross. We must run to the cross and repent. Not just stop doing bad things but start running to the intimate and living God who has eternal life and power and glory in his right hand.