There has been a lot of handwringing about the cult of Christian celebrity and its pernicious effects, on the church and on the celebrities themselves. Jonathan is interested in this issue because he's a preacher who is weekly on a stage preaching to a +1,000 congregation and he speaks to large audiences across the country.
Me? I'm not much of a celebrity. I'm generally invited to speak to academic audiences. I've never been in front of a Christian conference crowd over 500. Still, I do speak a lot. So I'd say I'm a B-list celebrity.
Anyway, Jonathan and I were talking about this subject and I made the following observations.
I don't think there is anything wrong or worrisome for someone to be in the spotlight talking to thousands and thousands of people.
In my opinion, standing on the stage in front of thousands--or selling a lot of books, or having a lot of social media followers--doesn't make you a celebrity, it just makes you popular. And there's nothing wrong with popularity.
Because, generally, people are popular because they are talented. They are charismatic speakers or great writers. Consequently, we want to hear them speak or read what they write. But there's nothing wrong with talent. Talent doesn't make you a celebrity.
The point I was making to Jonathan is that we shouldn't get all neurotic about a person stepping out into the limelight to speak to thousands of people. The speaker shouldn't worry about it nor should the audience.
Speaking to huge, exited crowds just means you are popular, it doesn't make you a celebrity.
So what does make one a celebrity?
In my estimation what makes one a celebrity is when one begins to separate themselves from the crowds they are speaking to or writing for. Celebrity involves a sense of distance, elite distance, from "the common person." And this, creating distance and separation from the crowd listening to you, is the toxic part of Christian celebrity. Because, at root, creating and maintaining this interpersonal distance is anti-Christian and anti-Christ.
In short, the diagnostic test that you are dealing with a Christian celebrity isn't the fact that the person is in a spotlight speaking to thousands. Because that might just be a talented and popular person up there. And there's no shame or elitism in that. What makes the person a celebrity or not isn't the size of the crowd.
What makes the person a celebrity is where the person is before and after the talk.
Let me repeat that.
The test of Christian celebrity is where the person is before and after the talk.
If the person giving the talk is in the audience before and/or after the talk then that's not a Christian celebrity. That's just a talented and popular speaker. By coming "down from the stage" to be with the crowd--it's an Incarnational move here--the speaker is erasing any elite distance or distinction between themselves and their audience. Connecting with the crowd before and after is an act of solidarity, hospitality, humility and service. The speaker is making themselves available. And that availability is the exact opposite of celebrity.
Here's another test. If there are other speakers on the program does the person stay and listen to others? Is the speaker willing to be educated and challenged by others?
If a popular speaker stays and listens to others that's not a celebrity. Because that person is both willing to talk and willing to listen.
By contrast, a speaker who doesn't stick around to sit in the audience to listen to others is a celebrity. That is a person who only likes to listen to themselves. That is a person whose behavior tells us that they think they are the only person worth listening to.
In short, to not listen to other speakers is a disdainful, scornful act of pride and inhospitality.
Now the response you'll often hear in reaction to all this is introversion.
Specifically, you'll often hear speakers say that the reason they don't go into the crowd before or after talks, or the reason they don't listen to others speak, is that they are introverted. They need their alone time.
Listen, introversion is no excuse for being an asshole.
As an introvert myself I'm fully aware how effortful and taxing it can be to interact with others before and after talks. It can be hard, hard work.
But so what?
Think of all the hard, backbreaking work being done in the world. You were just paid hundreds or thousands of dollars for talking for 30-60 minutes and you can't talk to people for another 30-60 minutes? Because you're too tired? Because you're too introverted?
And beyond whining about being tired after giving a speech as compared, say, to picking fruit as a migrant worker in Florida or laying shingle for eight hours in the Texas summer heat, there's the Christian aspect of this as well. Wouldn't Jesus make himself available to the crowd?
To be sure, the crowds exhausted Jesus. And my best guess is that Jesus was an introvert. So yes, as we see with Jesus going off alone, there will be times to be alone and recharge the batteries. But that time isn't after your talk. That time will be later. After the talk it is time to work. There is a time for solitude and time to be available. After you give a talk is the time to be available.
Because you've just asked people to open their hearts and minds to you. You've gotten into their souls and said some things that messed them up a bit. You might have changed their lives forever. They have become very, very vulnerable for you. And you don't do that to people and just walk off. There is some residual pastoral work yet to be done. So stand there and do that work.
Again, introversion is no excuse. Yes, you are tired. But we are all tired. Single moms are tired. People working two jobs are tired. The people running your conference sitting at the registration table are tired. The night shift worker who will clean the toilet in your Green Room long after you're gone is tired. Welcome to the human race.
I don't care if you are tired or introverted. Stand there and be available.
Let me conclude with two positive examples of what I'm talking about.
A couple of years ago it was my extreme pleasure and privilege to co-present with Walter Brueggemann at Rochester College's Streaming conference.
Now I'd consider Walter Brueggemann to be one of those popular, celebrity type people. And I didn't know what to expect from Walter Brueggemann. It's hard to predict the egos of high-profile academics. A lot of elite academics--being huge nerds--have pretty poor social skills. And they tend to be introverts, a prerequisite for a life of scholarship and writing. And being used to being the smartest person in the room they can also be prima donnas.
So while I was very excited about meeting and presenting with Walter I was also a bit apprehensive. What would he be like?
My fear was that he'd behave like a Christian celebrity, that he'd do the talks he was paid to do and leave, not interacting much with the conference.
The exact opposite happened. Walter stayed for the whole conference. He worshipped with us. He listened to the other speakers, taking notes for himself. He stood in the cafeteria line with us. Took his tray to a table and sat with us. He stood around and talked like everyone else between sessions.
Listen, I don't have a huge behavioral sample of Walter Brueggemann. You might have had very different experiences with him. And maybe Walter just particularly enjoyed Streaming. Streaming is a really neat venue and experience. (BTW, Greg Boyd and I are speaking at Streaming this year. Details to follow.)
But my point is this: that weekend Walter Brueggemann showed me clearly what Christian celebrity is and isn't.
My other example here is Rachel Held Evans.
I've seen Rachel up close and in person when she visited ACU. And she was tireless, after a whole day of speaking, in standing there and giving her full attention to a line of undergraduates. Students not just wanting an autograph, but wanting to share their story or seek spiritual counsel. And I know for a fact those brief conversations with Rachel had a profound spiritual impact upon those students, especially the female students.
Rachel Held Evans is a writer and a speaker, yes, but she's also a pastor, the pastor of a large church sprinkled across the US and the world. And the reason she's become a pastor for so many--from taking confessions to weeping with the broken to giving spiritual counsel--is because she makes herself available. Even when she's exhausted.
To conclude, Christian celebrity isn't the fact that people like Rachel or Walter Brueggemann are paid to speak to a large audiences. Both are brilliant and they shouldn't be ashamed about being talented. Nor should audiences be ashamed about being so excited about hearing them or others speak. Big crowds will follow talented, charismatic people and no one needs to worry about that. It's just naturally going to happen and it's really fun and exciting.
So when that popular speaker steps into the limelight in front of thousands of people everyone--speaker and audience--should just feel really, really excited and happy. Enjoy it. Have fun.
In my estimation, the question of Christian celebrity all comes down to what happens before and afterwards. Where does the speaker go? Do they go back to the Green Room, protected by handlers and bodyguards? Do they quickly head back to the hotel? Do they take the money and run?
Or do they come out into the audience? Do they sit and listen to the next speaker?
I do think we have a Christian celebrity problem. I just think we're looking for it in the wrong places. There's nothing wrong or worrisome about popularity. That's a fun and exciting thing. The issue of celebrity boils down to availability versus elite distance, insiderism and cliquishness.
Celebrity isn't about the size of the spotlight, the stage or the crowd.
Celebrity is about the size of your ego, your heart, and the welcome you extend to others.