The Irony of Christian Celebrity
By Glenn Packiam
March 6, 2013
Glenn Packiam is an associate pastor at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, CO, and the author of Secondhand Jesus (David C. Cook). This article originally appeared in Neue magazine.
For most Americans, idolatry is a foreign concept. Most of us don’t have bronze statues of a fat bald man sitting cross-legged on our mantles. Yet, idols are common to every culture. Idolatry often shows up in the way we take something that isn’t God and treat it like a god. Fame, success and power are gods we serve as if they are immortal and have the power to bestow that immortality on us. Our idols are “immortality symbols”—things that make us feel powerful, like we will live forever.
David Goetz, a former editor for Christianity Today, warns of how even pastors entertain these subtle idols: “For clergy, [the immortality symbol] is the 3,000-member megachurch. I often sat in the studies of both small-church pastors and megachurch pastors, listening to their stories, their hopes, their plans for significance, but when you’re 53 and serving a congregation of 250, you know, finally, you’ll never achieve the large-church immortality symbol.”
We have nicer words that cloak our pursuits, making us believe they are godly. Influence. Platform. The opportunity to reach more people. These seem noble and Christian, sanctioned—nay, commissioned—by God. But in an age when we have more megachurches than ever before but fewer people who go to church, when we have record-breaking, best-selling Christian authors and yet a majority of our culture who don’t recognize the authors’ names, we must ask ourselves a few gut-level questions:
What if a desire to “make an impact” is just a form of grasping for immortality?
What if a quest for influence is actually another way of chasing fame?
What if efforts to “expand the Kingdom” are really monuments to our entrepreneurial skills?
What if, in the name of building platforms to proclaim the Gospel, we have elevated people into Christian celebrities?
What if we’ve added God to an already crowded house of idols—the idols of fame and success?
Making Jesus Famous?
I have heard people say they want to make Jesus famous. That sounds wonderful, but I’m not sure Jesus wants the help. The irony is, while He was on earth, Jesus had plenty of opportunities to become famous, to leverage His influence for the Kingdom. And yet, He resisted. He repeatedly told the people He healed to be quiet about the miracle, or to simply present themselves to the priest for confirmation of their cleansed state.
On one occasion, when a man who was tormented by demons was set free, the man pleaded with Jesus to let him travel with Jesus. The man could have been Jesus’ opening act, the dramatic testimony that would “build faith” in the crowds before Jesus took the stage. Yet, Jesus tells the man to simply go home and tell his own people what the Lord had done.
And when Jesus did set His face toward Jerusalem, it wasn’t to perform a spectacle at the Temple, as Satan had earlier suggested He do; Jesus went to Jerusalem, to the epicenter of culture, to die.But what about the crowds?
There were still crowds of people who followed Jesus around. For all His efforts, Jesus was still, in a very real sense, famous. True, but what Jesus chose to do and say among the crowds is instructive. He fed them, taught them, often performed miracles and did everything He could to leave them or drive them away.
In John 6, Jesus does all of the above. After performing one of His greatest miracles—the feeding of the 5,000—the crowd got so excited they insisted on making Jesus king “by force.” Think of it: The people were going to make Him king by force. Isn’t that what Jesus came for? Couldn’t God “use this for His glory”?
In true counter-cultural form though, Jesus retreated to a mountain by Himself. Then, after the crowd tracked Him down, Jesus proceeded to preach His most offensive sermon—something about eating His flesh and drinking His blood—leaving Jesus with only the most devout, or desperate, of His disciples.
Mending Our Ways
It is not enough to do God’s work; we must do it in God’s way. And that way is no more evident than in Jesus. We cannot keep justifying our methods by saying so long as people are “coming to Christ,” it doesn’t matter how we do it. The division between our message and our methods is a false dichotomy.
It’s not just the methodology of lights and video and technology and rock music—but the way, the values that shape how we approach ministry. I suggest we value fame—we call it “influence”—too much. I suggest we value size and scale too much. I suggest we care more about systems and efficiency in our churches than we do about the personal and the communal. And I think it’s time to mend our ways. Here are some thoughts on how:
In the wake of a scandal at my church three years ago, I was forced to face the idols in my crowded heart. I realized how much I cared about the size of my church and the many interviews my pastor was doing on national TV and the ever-expanding influence of our worship songs.
When I had to come to grips with the possibility of losing all I had enjoyed, I realized just how much I enjoyed it. I was serving God and success, Jesus and fame. And God would not take it anymore. He began to undermine and overthrow idols in my heart. I suspect He’s up to the same subversive work in you.
Listen to Limitations
“Yes, yes,” you say. “Organizations don’t last, but people are forever. I just want to reach more people.”
Good and fine. But consider that Jesus didn’t heal everyone who was sick; remember there were times when the crowds pressed toward Jesus with their needs, and He retreated to be alone with God. To be human is to have limitations.
Psalm 90 prays we would learn our frailty and be able to “number our days,” to understand we will have an end to our efforts, a limit to our strength.
Culture will always push us to pursue more than we can handle, technology will make us believe we can reach more people than we can know or love. But I’ve watched pastors unravel because they haven’t learned to embrace their limitations. When we ignore limitations, it’s an indicator we may be giving our allegiance to the god of success.
Jesus seemed rather uninterested in a large following or in growing His fame. For Jesus, immortality—living forever, the eternal kind of life—was not in the gods of fame or success, but in knowing “the only true God” (John 17:3, TNIV). And this, more than anything else, is what Jesus wants for us, too.