Christians would never say Billy Graham, John Piper, Joel Osteen or their own church pastors and worship leaders are God. Yet, the influence of charismatic leaders like these is producing a spiritual climate where, instead of following Jesus, some Christians settle for a leader’s personal brand of Christ, valuing the preacher more than the Word itself.
If a leader has enough charisma, a tight enough personal brand or has received endorsements from other celebrities, that’s all they need to gather a flock willing to follow them into heaven. Judah Smith, after building a megachurch across multiple campuses in Seattle, attracted the attention of stars like Justin Bieber and Seahawks Russell Wilson. As a result of these endorsements, Smith has become increasingly popular around America. And celebrities following the now-star pastor Smith maintain and expand his influence and authority.
The problem here is not admiring, being influenced by or following pastors, nor is it inherently problematic for Christian leaders to experience public success or fame. The pitfall of Christian celebrity culture is that leaders, in talking about Jesus, are often followed as if they were Jesus or as if their words are infallible or beyond critique. In a culture of quick fame through social media and the accessibility of trendy spirituality, leaders themselves are able to be well-known without necessarily being well-versed.
A particular pastor’s way of following Jesus becomes the way of Jesus.
Christian leaders’ fame becomes their authority to lead, and their authority over a congregation gives them more fame. It’s a vicious cycle. A particular pastor’s way of following Jesus becomes the way of Jesus. Given the reality that white, able-bodied and cisgendered men have the most cultural access to pulpits in the U.S., it becomes a problem when their ideas of Jesus are in turn afforded the most cultural validity. And people of color, the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalized groups aren’t given an authoritative voice within the faith.
However, to simply critique the leader is to turn a blind eye to their following who so badly need a charismatic leader to spoon-feed them a limited version of the Gospel in order to be interested in pursuing Jesus at all. The vagabond, poor, humble Jesus of the Bible just isn’t as sexy and spiritual as our celebrities.
People usually follow leaders who reflect their own ideas back to them. Within Evangelicalism in particular, networks of famous Christian leaders simply reproduce a homogenous, conservative theology; and their followers lift them up not because their leaders teach them a new way to follow Christ but because their leaders make them feel comfortable and complacent in their own limited worldview.
The rise of Evangelicals like Jerry Falwell Jr. and Franklin Graham reflect this reality. Republicans who already respect and follow the conservatism of these two men elevated their voices in the 2016 election, influencing swarths of conservative Christians through their social media platforms and campaign influence. Leaders gain authority because individuals give it to them. Thus, Christians give their leaders authority and a platform, and they become tools to push their congregation’s often problematic ideas out to the public.
The place where Jesus begins and the preacher ends has become indistinguishable.
The irony is that Christian celebrities are humans; they grow and change. But when that happens in a Christian celebrity culture built around reifying our own ideas, Christians are quick to abandon their celebrities by the wayside. Rob Bell, named one of the Times 100 in 2011, was largely influential in Evangelical spaces when he founded and pastored Mars Hill Church, which by 2005 boasted around 11,000 on a weekly basis. His books, videos and resources were at the center of many church gatherings because of his unique ability to ask real questions about the Bible and communicate ideas clearly. However, when he began publicly asking questions about hell in his NYT bestseller Love Wins, Christians began not only rejecting his book, but his work and integrity as a person. Once beloved by evangelicals, Bell was suddenly a heretic and pariah in the eyes of many influential evangelical leaders like John Piper, Mark Driscoll and Francis Chan.
It is a frail religiosity that cannot hold nuance in its leaders, but the concept of Christian celebrity allows Christians to reject any leaders (and their theology) who no longer satisfied the role the celebrity once filled. This is a fickle expression of faith, one that is based not in the Gospel, but in humans who have limitations and will change. Christian celebrity culture creates in and out groups based on the collective belief in faith leaders, as opposed a universal belief in the teachings of Christ.
There are many who are able to hold Christian celebrities in an appropriate place. Millenials in particular are looking less for an “attractional church” and more for authenticity and community. Charismatic leaders drive congregants to attractional churches, but the growing needs of young people for belonging inherently decenters the importance of Christian celebrity and refocuses the church on Jesus.
Celebrity Christianity creates a culture wherein we mistake a person’s public persona for their character and create protective cocoons around leaders that shield them from critique in their work and their personal life. When one’s experience with the divine is tied up in a fallible person, the place where Jesus begins and that person ends become indistinguishable. The church becomes anemic when it’s members are so fixated on celebrities to shape their faith that they miss out on or dismiss the many different ways to follow, believe in and live faithfully with Jesus.
Brandi Miller is a campus minister and justice program director from the Pacific Northwest.