On Christian Celebrity

A had a recent conversation with my preacher, Jonathan Storment, about the nature of "Christian celebrity."

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.

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37 thoughts on “On Christian Celebrity”

  1. Great post Richard, that every popular person should read.

    "The test of Christian celebrity is where the person is before and after the talk."

    A preacher friend of mine one time said, "The test of servant-hood is how you act when you are treated like a servant."

  2. Great post. I think this discussion ties very closely to your discussion of cultural hero systems in Slavery of Death. When a man/woman places his/her identity in the role of leader/pastor/teacher and fills the internal yearning for immortality and significance through their success and standing in the Christian community, the perils of "celebrity" can follow regardless of the size of the audience.

    I have noticed many Christian celebrities eagerly doing what you say by "coming down from the stage" to be among the people. However, I think that this can actually contribute to the celebrity ethos if done incorrectly. The admiration and respect just grows and grows as the reputation becomes that this is a great/godly/talented person who can descend and incarnate with the masses. Perhaps, a better goal would be that when the teacher stand on the podium, he sees himself as a fellow brother (sister) who has been called to the front of the table. There seems to be a big difference between a great man who descends to the people, and ordinary man who gets called upfront. I think this is more than semantics. Of course, the comparison to Christ's incarnation falls short, but in this area perhaps a distinction between Christ and us is appropriate.

  3. Wonderful post. I am thankful for children of God who have the gift and the call to speak to large crowds, who use their short time on this earth to stretch minds and hearts beyond what the people believed possible. I thank God for those who can send them home thinking.

    As far as celebrities, I have witnessed speakers who stand before an assembly of forty or fifty act the part. I recall one young man, a graduate of Preaching School, who would stroll around the front of the auditorium as worshipers arrived, with one hand tucked halfway in his coat side picket, holding his large Bible high with the other hand. As he walked he would be a bit stooped with his head slightly cocked to one side; he was trying to appear older. He was in his early twenties. That was thirty years ago. Hopefully, he has since looked back at that time with a bit of of embarrassment...like we all have had to do because of one thing or another.

  4. That's a great point, as I've seen this done poorly as well, the person who seems hyperaware of their "greatness" and how lucky you are that they are giving you some attention.

  5. Good stuff as usual.

    When our former church was building its new box in the 'burbs, and the new sheriff arrived in the midst of it, somehow the architect's original design was changed to remove all of the steps from the floor to the stage. Predictably, the so-called "pastor" enters from the wings of the stage and leaves the same way. I remember thinking, "who precisely does he think he is?" And now the multi-campus thing accentuates the distance between parishioner and "pastor" by beaming the sermon across town as a video feed.

    That's not a critique of the video feed per se, BTW. The main piont is: caveat emptor.

    Then there's the security thing, they'll say. "We can't mix and mingle, there are too many crazies." Whatever.

  6. Greatest line in the piece (made me truly laugh out loud) "Listen, introversion is no excuse for being an asshole."

    My layman's view also wants to talk about how tightly someone holds on to their popularity/celebrity. How much does that become central to who they are? And that is the risk, right? When adored by hundreds or thousands of people, the risk that you succumb to the drug of celebrity is all the more present. I mean, I don't care if someone is a celebrity for a minute, if they are willing to walk away from it at the very moment it starts becoming a problem. But most don't have that fortitude. I think the real problem with celebrity, like the problem with all forms of power, is the defense and perpetuation of celebrity.

    As I read of all this hand-wringing over Christian celebrity, I would also like to see more discussion of our role in creating and perpetuating celebrity. Do they follow Jesus or ________! As long as people are willing to join in on the cult of personality and exalt talented human beings uber alles, this problem will exist. (So that means, it will probably exist forever). Yet we exalt people, they become addicted to it, then we all relish in their eventual fall. They are just as frail and human as the rest of us and most of us, if suddenly thrown into the limelight with hundred or thousands of people clamoring just to listen to us speak unchallenged, would fare little better. The true asshole is the person who doesn't have anyone around them calling them an asshole that they will listen to. This, consequently, is why I can't go to church. I cannot perpetuate a structure that to me allows a person to speak for however long s/he decides to speak without challenge. This would require the recognition of a level authority that I cannot grant to any human being. This is probably TMI into my own personal pathology, but I have seen very little positive created in the current power structures of the church, Christian celebrity is just one result.

  7. I had the privilege of attending a retreat about ten years ago in which Rob Bell was the main speaker. It was about five days long and there were only about 30 people there at a camp in Northern Wisconsin. After spending 8 hours a day lecturing, Rob always took the time to sit with us at meals and eat and talk with us. He took the time to ask us about our ministries and what God was doing. At no point did you ever get the feeling that he was better than you or that he thought he was better than you. He was an incredibly humble and down to earth guy. I've always appreciated that about that experience. He could have very easily holed himself up and stayed away, but he didn't.

  8. The original post had bit more profanity. (Confession: most of my first drafts have a bit more profanity). I edited most of it out but felt I had to keep that line.

  9. The other side of this celebrity issue is, for lack of a better word, the "hater" issue. Which, I think, is just rooted in jealousy and envy. That is, we see popularity and then, out of envy/jealousy, jump to the conclusion that the person must celebrity.

    Basically, a lot of the "celebrity problem" isn't really with the people on stage. It's in the inseruristies of the audience members who then take to social media to whip celeberities. It's a form of displacement, acting out our felt inadequacies by aggressing against them. That's why we both love and hate celebrities. They are neurotic progressions of our egos.

  10. About those first drafts...and about all my many unpublished drafts.

    I have so, so many rants that I've left unpublished over the years.

    I've told Jana and a few other people that I need to have a Death Clause for this blog. That upon the event of my death all my unpublished rants would be published. Controversy would ensue, but I'd be long gone.

    Perhaps all those posts should be published after my death in anther blog entitled "Experimental Theology Unplugged."

  11. As a service to your readers who've worried about what they'll do with themselves if/when you stop blogging, please, please, please do this.

  12. Listen, introversion is no excuse for being an asshole.

    In Assholes: A Theory (2012), Aaron James submits that "a person counts as an asshole when, and only when, he systematically allows himself to enjoy special privileges in interpersonal relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people."

    A pretty good definition, I think, which this most excellent post then conflates with celebrity -- though we might want to change immunizes him against the complaints of other people to immunizes him against courteous interaction with his audience, pre- and post-performance -- such that we can say -- can we not? -- that the following assertion is true: While all asshole Christians are not celebrities, all celebrity Christians are assholes.

    Should we generalize thus: While all assholes are not celebrities, all celebrities are assholes? Not ordinary usage, perhaps, but perhaps one way of distinguishing the celebrity from the famous.

    Then there is the question of what distinguishes the asshole from the mere jerk. For James, it has to do with the asshole's "entrenched resistance to moral learning", but more he does not say. Now there's a project for you, Richard -- and one for which you could really unplug!

  13. Whew! For a second I thought you were going to have them summarily destroyed by some sort of theological shovel-buddy! Just proving that you, sir, are no asshole. ;)

  14. As an extrovert I can assure you I pay a cost for being available to people. Not all social interactions are equal. I am replenished by being out with friends, or by being an audience member or participant in a social engagement. I am depleted by engaging with an audience after I've given a presentation. It is work to listen to strangers tell me their stories or to maintain a patient active listening presence with a string of different people. Not as hard as plenty of other work, just as you say, and a good and right thing for me to do, but still - work.

    Why have extroversion and introversion been set at opposition?

  15. I finally made the connection a couple of weeks ago: that young pastor Scot McKnight features on his blog many weekends is *your* pastor! He seems to have a really good heart, as well as being very bright. May the Lord help him.


  16. What an unusually judgmental piece today! I don't see a hint of empathy for the introvert having a full-blown anxiety attack in the bathroom before a presentation. Your piece struck a nerve with me as I've just returned from leading two back-to-back full-day workshops (cultural, not religious), and each day I did leave the building during the lunch break to have some alone time. To use the language that you dislike, I needed to recharge. Bullying ("stop whining!") and name calling aren't going to change me. Sorry!

  17. As a Methodist, coffee hour is pretty much the third sacrament.

    To explain a bit more for those who may not be "in the know:" The time after the sermon where we drink coffee and chat with each other might as well be the highlight of the Sunday. In fact, in some Methodist churches where the Eucharist is seldom practiced (once a month or twice a year) coffee hour is pretty much the ONLY sacrament on offer.

    Of course, as a pastor in a smaller church and so definitely not "popular" in the numbers you speak here, sometimes I still want to just run into my car and bang my head against the steering wheel rather than hear what exactly I did wrong on this particular Sunday. Especially when the criticisms are about things you can't change. Or at least can't change immediately. Try preaching consistently in a foreign language and culture. I'm too quiet, my accent is too foreign, my sermon examples are unknown, I don't speak up enough, I take too long to get the work done, I'm too sensitive, I don't show enough initiative, but neither should I show too MUCH initiative, and the list goes on and on... And then I end up feeling like maybe I have no word to say to these people after all.

    And, geez, this comment got depressing fast. I'm sorry.

  18. So sorry for the fundamentalism. I'm speaking to an appeal to introversion as a rationalization for being selfish. I'll always judge that.

    Also, I would make a distinction between social anxiety disorder and panic attacks from introversion.

  19. I wasn't trying to set them in opposition or to deny the hard work that anyone, even extroverts, have to put in. I was trying to talk about how some use introversion as an excuse to not put that work in. Extraverts face the same work, but I've never seen them make an appeal to their extraversion as an excuse to ignore others (e.g., "I don't want to socialize with you after my talk because I'm extraverted.").

  20. Though I think what I'm talking about could apply to preachers, that really is a different thing. When I say we should be available I'm not really talking about a preacher standing there getting hammered about a sermon afterwards. The preacher in that situation is pretty vulnerable and is likely to be defensive. In those instances I'd recommend a time between, an emotional buffer. But in that instance we aren't talking about anything I'm talking about in this post, thinking you are too good or better than others. You're putting up a buffer as a form of self-care and pastoral care.

    So, to clear, while this post has some applications to preachers and their congregations that really is a whole other ballgame.

  21. Also, Lee, if you've done two, all-day, back to back worships and need some time during lunch to take a break, of course you need to do that. But what part of that do you see reflected in the post, where I talk about big name speakers unwilling to talk to people after a 30 minute talk? It's apples and oranges.

    Again, the post isn't a criticism of introverts or their unique struggles, especially if they are spending a lot of time with people (and not 30 minutes on a stage by themselves). The post is a criticim of someone using introversion as an excuse to be selfish in the face of small and limited demands in taking a bit of time to interact with others.

  22. I think this hit a raw nerve because I do feel some guilt about walking away from the group to recharge. I often wonder if people think my claim of introversion is just an excuse. Also, I honestly feel as much anxiety preparing to give a 30-minute presentation as a full-day workshop.

    FYI: Love your blog.

  23. I think your guilt is diagnostic that you're not being selfish in stepping away, you really have to step away and you'd like to do more but you have to take care of yourself. I would never want to judge self-care. I'm judging something pretty narrow here, the popular speaker who justifies disengagement with the rationalization of "I'm introverted" when in fact they are just being dismissive of others. Introversion as a mask for snobbery.

  24. Oops. Clearly failed in my communication skills there. I didn't intend this comment as criticism of the post, but more directed at introverts who believe that they are unique in feeling that being available to strangers is hard work. I guess, I don't buy the stereotypes that extroversion makes social aspects of jobs like preaching/teaching super easy, or its parallel that writing is an inherently introverted pastime.

    For some reason these particular handles for describing human personality get a very reductive and binary treatment. Extroverts need often need and benefit from alone-time and Introverts can certainly enjoy the company of other human beings. Writing can be extroverted in that most writers really really care that people read and respond to their work, and base their work on interactions with people. While speaking can be introverted - it's as easy to retreat into your own head in front of a crowd of strangers as by yourself on your couch.

    So in conclusion - I agree that personality and temperament shouldn't become excuses for behaving poorly toward others or thinking of yourself as exceptional.

  25. You're showing up as Rachel on my end.

    Thanks so much for this. What I think you're describing here has wide applicability. Lots of us say Yes way too much and get over extended. And maybe we don't have support staff to help (and hide) but there is resultant burnout, and the ways our families and friends have to take up our slack. There is this sense where the public persona--big scale or small scale--gets too outsized and we start living a lie or working way to hard and long to keep up impressions. We can't let others see the failure and the cracks. All Brene Brown's work about vulnerability and shame comes to mind here.

  26. I've worked up a sermon on "From Privilege to Servanthood," based on some ideas you presented a few days ago on Phil. 2 and kenosis. Your post today just gave me another related point. Thanks!

  27. The more I think about it, the more I think this post just plain gets the problem with celebrity wrong. The main problem of celebrity is not mainly the distance between us and them, though that can be a problem, but that you end up being led by people with more charisma than wisdom.

    There's nothing wrong with charisma; there's nothing even wrong with using charisma to propagate ideas that are not your own: the world needs good populizers. So when Mark Driscoll uses his celebrity to propagate some especially crude caricatures of masculinity, or Rachel Held Evans uses hers to propagate a particularly brain dead version of pop feminist outrage, that's a problem no matter how close they are to the people.

  28. I read something that Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove wrote about how his commitment to his community causes him to restrict how often he is away from his community. This made me happy because my heart resonates with sisters and brothers who intentionally form community in the broken places of our country and offer community with Christ to their neighbors. And I wondered how you can really do that if you are gone a lot. So I was very glad to read that Jonathan was restricting his time away from his community. I am also glad to read you are doing that. We really don't need RHE the brand. But we do need Rachel Held Evans the human Christ follower.

  29. "As a Methodist, coffee hour is pretty much the third sacrament."

    My priest says coffee is a continuation of the Eucharist, making it part of the second.

  30. I appreciate your mention of 'tech guys' as part of your support team. As an IT agent, it is nice to be noticed for the work I do. What I notice happening most often in large event type settings is a sort of token 'lets all applaud all the IT/setup crew/cooks' line tacked on to the end of the talk. While this type of thing isn't perceived negatively, it never seems like I am getting (or giving as an audience member) any real recognition or gratitude. How do you (or any other readers that have wielded the dangerous tool of notoriety) go about differing credit to the background where it is appropriate?

    Note: I am a very low level IT student worker at ACU who enjoys more recognition and gratitude than I am worth. Also, one does not get into tech support to be recognized or applauded. One gets into tech support to get paid.

  31. This is an awesome post, thank you!I think when Christian celebrities start acting awry, the "crowd" takes some responsibility as well. It is a good reminder for us all to treat those in the spotlight as very much fully human, and not strip away their humanity by idolizing them.

  32. Well put, Richard. I'm naturally an introvert, and I especially appreciated your calling out the excuses some of us make. The gospel calls us beyond the ends of our own noses, and that means doing much more than just showing up to speak.

    I also appreciated very much your comments about whether or not you're there for the other speakers present. I speak so often, I treasure the opportunity to hear someone else and be taught myself. Many times what the other speakers have shared helps make my own better, as iron sharpens iron.

  33. As someone who preaches each week (i.e. not a regular conference speaker), I make myself available afterwards by staying at the front of the room (people often come up to talk with me, thankfully!), but I intentionally do not head out into the lobby to mingle. It's a decision I've made because I grow weary of hearing "Thanks for that talk" or "What a great sermon." To put it simply, I don't want to mingle because, often, the mingling turns into a praise-fest of me and seems to get in the way of people connecting with one another (which is important in the local church; less so at conferences, I imagine). I've found that, when people come up to me after a gathering, it's because they want to ask a question or tell me that they're going to have to think about this more, etc., so I've pretty much limited myself to that.

    (I will admit, however, that, before our gathering, I do hole myself up in a "green room" of sorts. I come in for corporate worship, obviously, but I don't interact with too many people until after speaking. Whether that makes me an asshole or not, I'll leave for others to decide!)

    I appreciate the distinction you make between speaking at a conference et al. vs. preaching. I'd probably include leading worship music as well into the mix. I do wonder, however, about pastors/worship leaders who have multiple services to deal with. Back in my worship leading days, we had three services back to back to back on Sunday morning and I remember running around like a chicken with my head cut off in between them to make some changes to slides, quick edit a chart, trim a song to hit the time deadline because the sermon was a few minutes longer than we thought, and the like. It wasn't about avoiding people; in fact, had I been able to hang out with folks, I think I would've enjoyed that far more! But, I can also see how people could misinterpret that, too.

    Always good to reflect on these things!

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