The Irony of Christian Celebrity
By glenn packiam
July 13, 2010
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 our quest for influence is actually another way of chasing fame?
What if, in the name of building platforms to proclaim the Gospel, we have elevated people into Christian celebrities?
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.
The two large cities in Galilee of Jesus’ day were Sepphoris and Tiberias. Sepphoris, Galilee’s capital, was only a few miles from Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. Both cities were centers of activity and influence. Both were within view of the places Jesus frequented. Yet neither is mentioned in the stories of Jesus. (Tiberias gets a passing mention when people came in boats from Tiberias to look for Jesus.)
Instead, according to Eugene Peterson, Jesus worked out “His way of life in the intensely personal and God-oriented small towns of Capernaum, Chorazin and Bethsaida.”Could it be that Jesus chose these more personal settings on purpose? 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.
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.
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.
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.
In our quest for fame and success, we have simply added God to an already-crowded house of idols. Our devotion to Christ is only one on a long list of loyalties. Self and Self’s goals are largely intact. It’s just that now, God is squeezed into the mix.
In moments of difficulty, when we see how quickly we can lose what we’ve gained, we are given the gift of perspective. The one role we play that we are truly irreplaceable in, is our role as a son or daughter of God. Everything else—the churches we build, the ministries we lead, the causes we propel—will all one day be gone.
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. 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.
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.
This article originally appeared in Neue magazine.