Book Review: Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits Are Hurting The Church

There is much in the past decade or so that has left me uneasy about what I might call simply “modern evangelical culture”: the emphasis on megachurches and metrics, the concept of church “franchises,” the deliberate emphasis on marketing churches and their offerings in a manner that feels distinctly secular.

But it wasn’t until Celebrities for Jesus that I really understood what was bothering me about all of it.

The book is Katelyn Beaty’s incisive effort to examine the impact of celebrity on the modern evangelical church—and how it is, in many ways, eating the church alive from the inside out. Tracing the evolution of the “celebrity pastor” from Billy Graham to the present day, she offers a strong account of why so many prominent Christians seem to tumble from grace at the top—and how the church’s obsession with celebrity and all that goes with it may indeed be antithetical to what the church is intended to represent.

To be clear, Beaty approaches the subject with nuance.  She acknowledges that fame need not be evil, and that God has granted great renown to some individuals who have chosen to do his will.  She also acknowledges and admires the Christian celebrities who value God over platform—who accept that they have become famous for what they do, but who deliberately hold that fame lightly. But the bulk of her work addresses how deeply pernicious celebrity can be.

With Billy Graham and his influences as a starting point, Beaty identifies the characteristics of “the celebrity pastor” in evangelical culture: generally male, deeply charismatic, popular, and effective.  Identifying celebrity as “social power without proximity,” she seems particularly interested in how these pastors, following in Graham’s footsteps, take advantage of mass media to reach a large audience that they never really know intimately (and who, conversely, can never really know them intimately). 

Beaty is not interested in takedowns here.  She acknowledges Graham in particular as a flawed but deeply godlike man with  a genuine desire to know God and make him known—and points to his transparency in financial matters, his desire to keep himself accountable to others, and his willingness to invest in institutions (to essentially resist where he could the cult of personality) as hallmarks of how to resist the pitfalls of celebrity.

But Billy Graham is an anomaly, and Beaty’s account follows celebrity pastors and ministries (Willow Creek, Mars Hill, RZIM, and Hillsong all make appearances) characterized not by accountability but the lack of it.  Tracing the scandals in these ministries, she identifies red flags acknowledged by all after the fact but never addressed prior to the eruption of scandal: Mark Driscoll’s anger and arrogance, Hybels’ grip on church governance, Ravi Zacharias’ ability to elude accountability. 

What enables church boards, church members, and accountability structures to look the other way, points out Beaty, is celebrity and all it represents to the Christian: accountability, financial prosperity, and—perhaps most important of all—influence.  She traces this out as far as the Christian publishing industry and its questionable practices, shining light on a strong section of Christian influence that, as she archly points out, forms Christians’ spiritual lives often more than their pastors do.

And that is the part of Beaty’s argument that hits home with me the most.  Churches and believers often want to be influential, believing that influence can win followers for Christ.  As the thinking goes, Beaty says, isn’t more people hearing about Jesus a good thing?  And so the broader the reach the better the pastor, the better the church.  The result is that pursuing a spot on a New York Times best-seller list, or getting real celebrities like Kanye or Justin Bieber to come to your church, or growing your population 150% in two years, seems laudable.  Can start to seem Christlike.

I see this even in my own home congregation, where the emphasis is on more, more, more: what will bring in more people?  High-end video equipment?  Positive sermons?  Festivals and events?  Anything that produces more should receive the stamp of approval if we live in a world where the formula is “reach the most people for Jesus.”

The power of Beaty’s argument in the book is that this isn’t the way (or the Way), and was never the way.  Jesus kept a close circle, and then sent those disciples out.  The communities of the ancient church cared for each other, lived in community intimately and together.  Christ courts obscurity, and asks that his followers do the same.  And the crux of kingdom work occurs not in a megachurch podcast about God’s awesomeness that reaches 10,000 listeners a day, but in the ordinary lives of quiet people who engage in the work of love in their communities.

I was moved by the pity Beaty seems to have here not just for the churches left in ruins after the fall of the celebrity pastors, but by the grief she seems to hold for the pastors themselves.  Discussing Ravi Zacharias’ posthumous fall from grace, where he was discovered after his death to have been a sexual abuser who eluded accountability for an astonishingly long time, Beaty points out that the lack of accountability harmed Zacharias more than anyone else.  Yes, the discovery of his sins left the ministry he founded in shambles. But because he was never held to account, she asserts, he never received the opportunity from his own ministry to truly repent.

There are no easy answers here.  Beaty doesn’t seem inclined to offer any.  But she does emphasize, over and over again, the importance of the institution.  Billy Graham to some degree avoided the pitfalls of those who followed him because he set up rigid institutional accountability structures and submitted himself to them.  He created institutions outside himself that didn’t rely solely on his personality or input to reach others for Christ.  To be embedded in a church, to be held accountable to it and within it, and to know that church and be known in it, seems the antidote.

And it is the opposite of being a celebrity: being isolated, unaccountable, and deeply influential, but disconnected from the body of Christ.

This book is most certainly worth a read. It solidified much of what I’ve instinctively distrusted and some of the evolution of evangelical culture—even within my own church—that has left me cold.  And it left me thinking about how the pursuit of the quiet and unremarkable life marked by love, in a world where media holds up the concept of “influence” as a god, might be the most radical act of all.


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