Calling Out Celebrity Christianity [& Counterfeit Justice]

image: instagram

A major reality TV producer and a record-breaking Bible miniseries involving famous evangelical leaders.

A live televised highwire stunt starring an evangelical daredevil with a famous pastor cameo.

A charismatic Seattle pastor posting random hangz with Bieber.

And (brace yourself) THIS:

Ugh.

These are just a few recent blips on the Celebrity Christianity radar. But the love affair between American Christianity and celebrity culture is not new. Ever since the first well-known actor or musician or athlete “accepted Jesus” and went on Christian TV or released a Christian album or movie or praised Jesus in a press conference after a game or became a pastor of some kind, the American church has been obsessed with endorsing and imitating God-talking celebs.

Yet, it does seem that things have ramped up a bit recently, doesn’t it? I mean, Survivor creator Mark Burnett’s The Bible miniseries was the most-watched show on cable in 2013 and garnered a total of 95 million viewers. 95. MILLION. 13 million tuned in for thank-you-Jesus-ing wire walker Nik Wallenda and his big-time Texas prayer partner. And the Biebs? The BIEBS?

This is getting real.

Celebrity Christianity is at an all-time high, boasting surprising popularity and numbers in the midst of a North American Church in decline.

So what gives? Why does this thing need to be called out if it’s on the rise? And what exactly is “Celebrity Christianity” anyway?

I think Bishop Ron Gibson answers that last question pretty well in the video above:

P. Diddy. Jay-Z. They’re not the only ones who should be driving Ferrari’s and living in large houses.

Celebrity Christianity is, specifically, the idea that the marks of celebrity culture – fame, fashion, wealth, and ease – ought to be adopted and adapted, in some “sanctified” way, among Christian people and especially Christian leaders.

In fact, Celebrity Christianity says that these marks are also the marks of a successful, prosperous, favored, victorious Christian life and Christian church.

To be clear, Celebrity Christianity is not merely notoriety or prominence, because it is possible for people who are sincerely and deeply following Jesus or leading in the church to attain a level of notoriety. Churches may grow. Book deals, record deals, speaking engagements, and interviews may come. A platform may develop. A platform, in and of itself, is not Celebrity Christianity. But a platform becomes Celebrity Christianity as soon as it begins to deny the substance of the subversive gospel of the kingdom by an adherence to the systemic, superficial, self-indulgent values of celebrity culture.

As soon as it becomes TMZ Christianity.

As soon as it becomes Kardashian Christianity.

As soon as it becomes Real Pastors of Orange County Christianity.

As soon as it becomes Bieber fever or NBA courtside seats Christianity.

The trend that I’m seeing, and that I hereby CALL OUT, is toward a prosperity gospel upgraded to a radical-looking concern for justice and evangelism, and repackaged in a kind of ultra-hipness that doesn’t overtly shout “wealth.” Nonetheless, it is egregiously wealthy, enthusiastically superficial, materially excessive, and theologically bankrupt. Moreover, though it uses some different language than its prosperity gospel forebears, it is fundamentally the same perversion of the gospel, equating indulgent material success with God’s favor on a faithful life. And, its apparent fervor for justice among the poor is flawed at the root as it perpetuates a system which only serves to widen the systemic social gap between the have’s and the have not’s, thereby continuing to oppress, enslave, and ignore the realities of those without privilege.

In short, the leaders continue to live unbelievably privileged lives, jetsetting to exotic events and hobnobbing with the famous, while the people who pay them in droves (via megachurch offerings), never see anything remotely resembling that life, though they may “believe” for it and feel charmed by it as they experience it vicariously through their leaders.

It’s the age-old prosperity gospel bait and switch.

And really, it’s “We wanna be the 1%!” Christianity, with the cheering crowd ironically widening the economic gap between themselves and their leaders even as they strive to obtain their celebrity status.

I’ll never forget the time my family attended a charismatic Christian conference when I was a teen, to see a visiting speaker we admired for his prophetic holiness preaching. One of the themes of this guy’s core message, present in all of his books and tapes (’cause it was the 90′s, people), was repentance from excess and ease in the charismatic church. As an underprivileged kid with a serious love for Jesus, I was totally thrilled by this because I hated that happy-slappy, good-time, word-of-faith gospel that said God was just gonna bless ya’ll exceedingly, abundantly, (materially) more than you could ever ask or imagine, with increase in your finances and your friends and your ministry! – because, you know, he didn’t usually bless people that way. He definitely didn’t bless me that way. And the gospel that Jesus preached seemed to point to a different kind of blessing entirely. I was starved for a prophet in the midst of that madness.

The conference was great. Good, challenging, prophetic words were spoken. I felt encouraged and energized.

Until I walked out the wrong door.

There was an exit that you were supposed to take – in the front, through the mall, past the bookstore, to the huge parking lot with golf-cart taxi service – but I wanted to look at the other side of the building. There was a coffee shop for the youth group, and a huge gym. Offices and stairs to more offices surrounded the space. And then, a single glass door to the outside. Disoriented from exploring, I walked through it.

As it turned out, it was the staff exit. A private carport hugged the building kitty-corner to the right. In it, a shining vintage red Corvette and a black Cadillac. Straight ahead, the pastor, his wife, and the guest preacher and his wife piled into a brand new Mercedes SUV. There was a glistening Porsche next to that car, a giant Suburban next to that (when Suburbans were all the rage), and additional leaders were getting in. Other luxury cars dotted the small, hidden lot.

I don’t even want to think about the size of the houses they were all going to.

Years later, I went to see a renowned worship band play at a church in Arizona. The Sunday morning before the concert, the pastor connected to the band preached a message based on his newly released book. The title of the book and the message? You Need More Money.

The title was a little bit tongue-in-cheek, since the thrust of the message was that you need more money so that you can give more freely and help more people, amirite! But, in the middle of the sermon, the pastor broke off into an anecdote to flesh out his philosophy. He enthusiastically expressed how, after his time in Phoenix was done, he would be meeting his wife in L.A. and they would be spending at least a day shopping on Rodeo Drive. He quipped that religious people probably would have an issue with that, but that God had blessed he and his wife abundantly, that they gave to the church and to people in need freely, and therefore God was pleased to spoil them with lots of high-end fashion, amirite!

It was kind of amazing to watch so many people, who clearly would never be able to afford shopping sprees on Rodeo, amen-ing this rich man – rich because of their money – with gusto.

Growing up in the charismatic church, I came face to face with the sheer hypocrisy of Celebrity Christianity. It is that which postures in all kinds of amazingly spiritual ways from the stage, but then piles into $100,000 cars and buys $7,000 tickets and dons designers downtown. It comes with prophetic words of repentance and transformation and deliverance, followed by a huge payday. It comes with news of mind-boggling donations to missions or clean water or ministries that got tens of thousands saved in ONE NIGHT, followed by a half hour drive to mansions on the edge of town or penthouses in the best buildings uptown.

For those leading the Celebrity Christianity charge, evangelical faith really becomes an empty external signifier to shield them from taking responsibility for their enormous power and privilege. That’s not to say these folks aren’t sincere, or that they don’t believe what they are saying – they mostly do – but the substance of their lives actually becomes the opposite of the gospel they claim to believe. Thus, the logic becomes, “I am a Christian! I love Jesus! I am on the right side, and I am favored by God! Plus, I love people – and I help others! Therefore, it’s ok for me to possess this exorbitant  amount of wealth and power, to horde and store up treasures on earth, and to use it lavishly on myself and indulge in that which fundamentally, systemically harms and oppresses others.” In the end, there’s no substantially different way of life that they are promoting than what is coming from your average Kardashian, except for a couple externally “sanctifying” elements.

God then becomes something like a mascot to justify and validate the ways that Celebrity Christianity is completely at odds with the gospel itself. 

There will doubtless be a couple of quick objections to my argument here. The first is, simply, Isn’t it ok for some Christians to be rich? But if the gospel of the kingdom is subversive and upside-down, then this the wrong question to be asking. The question is not, Can a Christian be rich? but rather, How can a rich Christian divest her/himself of the identity of “rich” and empty themselves to stand in solidarity with those who are on the margins, as Jesus did? I’m not suggesting that there is a mold for how this is to be done legalistically, but it certainly must be the direction of a Christian’s heart if they find themselves in a position of power and privilege. (Also note: Celebrity Christianity is precisely a paradigm that promotes material wealth as the normative goal for Christians who are blessed, favored, and victorious.)

Another objection might be: Don’t celebrities need Jesus, too? And the answer is, Of course.

But what they don’t need is a Celebrity Jesus.

What they don’t need is a gospel that is as superficial as the world they already inhabit.

Instead, what they need is a demonstration of the kingdom of God that subverts the whole system of celebrity under the Lordship of Christ.

They need a countersign – a prophetic witness – that confronts their participation in hideous inequity with glorious kingdom humility that breeds equality.

Really, they need to see a Jesus just as underprivileged as the kid in the pew that day, and then some, not a Jesus who climbs into a Porsche in the secret parking lot out back.

Modesty is a smokin’ hot topic in blog conversation these days, and when reduced to harebrained debates about the exact cut of nylon in which women choose to swim, it becomes a rather icky one. But check out the emphasis in the Bible’s hottest modesty prooftext:

I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God…

“Expensive” clothes? Not…I don’t know…”bikini” clothes?

Huh.

The same Greek word for modesty is used right in the next chapter, in reference to dudes:

Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach…

The modest life to which followers of Jesus are called is precisely that which undercuts the counterfeit justice of Celebrity Christianity. The modest life militates against the values of celebrity culture – fame, fashion, wealth, and ease – with a posture of solidarity with those on the margins. And that solidarity is personal; it has to do with local, rooted, everyday life, relationships, and decisions more than big missions initiatives and from the stage evangelistic ministries.

Really, it has to do with a quietly powerful kind of life, not an arrogant on-blast kind of life.

We need leaders like this – culture leaders, thought leaders, arts leaders, faith leaders – whose platform does not afford them the right to deny the substance of the gospel by caving in to the superficiality of celebrity. We need modest leaders who, though they may attain notoriety, do so with the conscious commitment to maintaining a modest level of living that connects them to those on the margins (which is, economically, the majority). We need modest leaders who, though they may find themselves graced with a degree of privilege or power, divest themselves of that every chance they get in order to stand with those who have none.

And we need these kinds of leaders to call out Celebrity Christianity, prophetically speaking the truth in love to those participating in a superficial counterfeit of God’s deep kingdom justice.

Because no matter how popular or successful it may seem, Celebrity Christianity is not the gospel.

It is a cult of rich young rulers who never even got the chance to walk away sad.

And that, of course, is the saddest thing of all.

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This post is a part of The Despised Ones synchroblog for July on the topic of Social Justice, Solidarity, and the American Dream. Check out the Facebook Page to see all the other posts this week!

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About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is a writer and missional minister from notoriously non-religious New England. His book, Nothing but the Blood: The Gospel According to Dexter was released in 2012. Twitter & Facebook.

  • lisamamula

    Fantastic post, Zach.  Thank you for lending your voice to this issue.
    In my little church, we’ve recently begun to ask ourselves and one another what, exactly, church should be like, and in my analyzing and pondering, I keep coming back to the consumerist-mentality of churchgoers in America, and I think this post brings out another component of that mindset.  
    I particularly love this: “The question is not, Can a Christian be rich? but rather,How can a rich Christian divest her/himself of the identity of “rich” and empty themselves to stand in solidarity with those who are on the margins, as Jesus did?”  I have this idea that maybe it isn’t about the money, so much, as it is about the power that the money brings, and in the last few years, I’ve come to see the Gospel as an upending of this kind of power, a pouring-out of this power for the betterment of the powerless.

    • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

      lisamamula an “upending kind of power” – yes! good stuff, lisa.

  • uponacloud

    I kinda support luxury goods if not the result of exploited work not because God blessed me with the money to afford them (even if I buy them discounted because I don’t like to pay surplus on brands and care little about the season anyway) but because they provide the daily bread to the people who work on them. The idea that a pastor can say that God is OK spoiling them because they give freely is revolting. 
    I’m gonna link you the sermon of a reverend at my church on this issue sometime this evening.

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  • ryanlrobinson

    The day of my wedding rehearsal provided an interesting snippet somewhat like the story of the fancy cars you tell. I was walking in with my mom, practicing mainline Christian from a small town, and my sister, disillusioned and doesn’t care anymore although would still refer to herself as a Christian. There were two cars side-by-side, one nice, new, in good shape (not particularly fancy, though) and one absolute beater Ford that was falling apart. My sister sneers “must be the pastor’s car,” thinking of the nice one. My mom thought that she was clearly referring to the Ford and made a comment about poor pastors. It is quite possible that the nicer car was the pastor of that church who would be officiating the wedding – I don’t know for sure but I’m guessing it was – but the beater for sure was the car of my one of my groomsmen who is also a pastor. It provides an interesting contrast.

    • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

      ryanlrobinson yeah man. and it really does matter – most wealthy leaders will just snap back with reports of how many people they’re helping, but the point is that stewardship and lifestyle matter greatly for those who rep the gospel. funny about your mom though – that’s a great response from a mainliner! (that’s one reason i love the mainline.)

  • http://www.delightfully-tacky.com/ Elizabeth | Delightfully tacky

    The church I grew up in back home is probably in the “Megachurch” category, and while I know the pastor (who certainly isn’t a celebrity type and is extremely modest), the way the church itself spends money has bothered me.  They built a huge children’s ministry area with walls adorned with airbrushed murals, and play areas designed by the likes of those who design Disneyland attractions.  I have never been able to let that go.  I think the people at the church are fine and lovely, but it has always bothered me that money was spent making a excessively fancy children’s ministry area, rather than putting it back into our community or into missions.  I know that they do give tons of money to those ministries, but… it just seemed incongruous with the gospel.  I mean kids are happy playing with a ball of tin foil and a scrap of paper with a crayon.  They don’t need a million dollar play area to be entertained for an hour while mom & dad learn about Jesus.  I can only guess it was intended to attract parents to the church by offering them a great place to drop off their kids while they are in church.

    • uponacloud

      Elizabeth | Delightfully tacky I don’t really get this whole play area thing. When I was a child we would have a less serious and boring service dedicated to families and we would all go to church with the adults. We all survived. The idea that so much money would be spent to have not only one but a fancy one is really incomprehensible.

    • tg24

      Elizabeth | Delightfully tacky 
      Hey Elizabeth, appreciate your thought here.  Just for the sake of conversation, I wanted to push back if I could.  
      Recently, I attended a gigantic church in CA and I remember a friend a who had attended  earlier  telling me that he hated how all the sidewalks, the grounds, tram cars and they looked like they were all stolen from Disneyland.  I agreed.
      Then when I was there and saw the thousands of people I thought, well, I’m not sure borrowing the sidewalks from a smaller place actually makes sense.  Some of this is civil engineering and moving people safely from one space to another (worship center to vehicle).  
      I do sympathize with you on the million dollar children’s ministry wing.  I too have seen some over-the-top places too.  I have a high threshold on making something be functional for large numbers and look appealing or attractive (even though I love the missional conversation) but I find that it’s too easy to go too far too.  Tracking with you here.

  • andrewmook

    a few quick things:
    1. i had a chance to meet burnett in LA. a deeply genuine man with a huge heart for the lost and seeing renewal happening hollywood.
    2. same goes for judah smith. he has a deep commitment along with carl lentz (hillsong nyc) to the homeless and forgotten as well as for those with celebrity and influence. i have been blessed by their ministry and see them as playing a powerful role in engaging the celebrity culture  i would argue they are trying to meet them where they are at – and pull them forward. 
    i know you’re not attacking these peoples hearts (at least i’m assuming that), but along with the solid warnings you offer, i would like to send a loving warning your way:
    be careful how you critique other brothers and sisters who are doing some beautiful work. remember the outside world is watching how we treat and engage each other.
    love,
    andrew (a small church planter) ;)
    PS. i’m not looking forward to the anti megachurch tirade that is sure to come your comment section

    • andrewmook

      i should also proof read before i submit. :) 
      grateful for your blog!

    • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

      andrewmook hey bro, thanks for engaging. the beauty of the blog format is that i can tell my story and speak my mind, and those who see things differently or experience things differently can bring their perspective. that’s appreciated from my end!
      i’m familiar with both judah and carl and wrote from the perspective of what i know. what i am really arguing for is something that is more ‘beneath the surface’ than the defenses you offer – it has to do with a culture that promotes wealth among leadership (and others) at the expense of those who, on the surface, the movement is claiming to serve. 
      as for the warning, thanks – i understand. but i feel an equally strong calling to communicate to those watching the excesses and abuses committed in the name of Jesus by prosperity/celebrity oriented movements. i want those folks to know that not all that goes under the banner of “church” is gospel. the prophetic voice has always been willing to stir the pot in front of the watching world.
      oh yeah, and don’t diss my readers/commenters – i love them :).
      peace to you bro!

      • andrewmook

        zachhoag agreed.
        you said “a culture that promotes wealth among leadership (and others) at the expense of those who, on the surface, the movement is claiming to serve.” i guess i wonder how judah and burnett would respond to that.

        • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

          andrewmook sure. the flow of my argument is also from the specific to the general. in other words, my interest is not to call out individual people/ministries so much as to see evidences of a general problem/trend. that trend is not necessarily definitive, but it may be indicative of excesses and abuses. and i think, for instance, that the ‘pastors of la’ thing is inarguably problematic and may be an extreme example of the trend. likewise, note that i did not say “the Bible miniseries or mark burnett is not the gospel” but “celebrity christianity (the trend) is not the gospel.” etc.

  • http://www.twitter.com/brandoneloy brandoneloy

    My brother, I just saw this trailer for the first time and I can honestly say I’m pretty disgusted by the content and conversation in that tv show. But other than that…Very, very, VERY well written pastor! I love the heart God has given you for His truth.
    While I will say that ministries like Judah’s and Carl’s have blessed me enormously through the years, I think there is such a danger of not only having church members seeing their lifestyles, but also having other young church planters coveting the ministries of others. I don’t think that these leaders’ relationships with the famous are wrong, but the publicity and attention they bring is so clearly flaunting one aspect of their ministry as more significant than the others. As a member at a church with a leader like this, would you be wrong in feeling that your pastor values those aspects of the ministry over the sweat and tears that you’ve put in for so long? I would probably feel slighted as a volunteer or even an attendee somewhere like that.
    Pastor Zach, both your ministry and passion for the Kingdom have truly blessed me over the past few months. In the past year, God has been moving in me as I feel more and more called into missional and incarnational ministry, and your words and convictions have helped me tackle and pursue that call. Thank you, and be encouraged through a time that may be of struggle or pain for you, His work in you hasn’t stopped. 
    Much Love from Boston,
    Brandon

    • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

      brandoneloy dude! thanks for that. and i like your perspective, bro.

  • tg24

    Love your post, love your writing as usual Zach.  
    For the sake of discussion, the Christian celebrity thing is a bit weird for sure but that Real Preacher of LA show is going to be quite the straw man. They’re not celebrities outside their congregations and will really only be known (for 15 minutes) because of their role on a show whose true focus is to expose them (yeah, they’ll try to tie some little cute bow with a golden cross ;) on the end at of it but by then the damage will have been done.).
    They could be Exhibit A in your definition:
    “But a platform becomes Celebrity Christianity as soon as it begins to deny the substance of the subversive gospel of the kingdom by an adherence to the systemic, superficial, self-indulgent values of celebrity culture.”
    In a different way from your definition, NT Wright is a Christian celebrity.  We treat C.S. Lewis as one even though we have had more Elvis sightings than Lewis.  Rob Bell, Tim Keller maybe, and the list of course when we consider tradition, ideology and context. I personally have a deep respect for these people and appreciate your caution of “As you say, “To be clear, Celebrity Christianity is not merely notoriety or prominence, because it is possible for people who are sincerely and deeply following Jesus or leading in the church to attain a level of notoriety.” but I suspect their back stages may have a few things in common with Real Preachers of LA.  Maybe not the $100,000 SUV, but they’re not always tooling around in a used Civic either. 
    As much as I like your thought on modesty and this line: “We need leaders like this – culture leaders, thought leaders, arts leaders, faith leaders – whose platform does not afford them the right to deny the substance of the gospel by caving in to the superficiality of celebrity.” I’m not sure it gets us off the hook.  This might be helpful in determining whether or not this person is a “good/bad’ celebrity but I think Jesus might say, “The celebrity will always be among you.”
    Like it or not, Celebrity is a notoriety of prominence.  Jesus was a first-century celebrity.  Crowds followed him, camera-less paparazzi stalked him and reported his every move to his rivals, disciples had boats and donkeys ready for his exits and entrances and I bet you had he would have hung out with Justin Bieber backstage and shown him mercy too (not so Bieber would accept him but because the poor kid was in need). 
    This isn’t to say I’m comfortable with the trappings of celebrity, nor do I want to be known as their defender, but I don’t want to create a new legalism of trying to avoid celebrity culture and thinking that is a holy thing (when it might only add up to one less idol) and second I just wanted to add even further nuance here.

    • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

      tg24 yeah i hear you, and that’s why i wanted to make a distinction between celebrity culture (the values of self-indulgence, etc.) and notoriety/prominence/platform. the folks you mention are examples, i believe, of the latter. and i agree pastors of la is extreme, but i don’t think it’s a strawman. i’ve seen that culture in person. i’ve seen all the people mentioned in this article connected to that very same culture. not that guilt is automatic by association, but it is indicative of the trend.

      • tg24

        zachhoag I think you articulated the distinction well, I just think “celebrity” even if we soften its definition with anchors like notoriety and influence is something that cannot really be escaped.  So even if the specific individual, say  Shane Claiborne does so much to avoid the celebrity thing, he ironically can still become one solely based on the perception and reaction of others.  
        I guess I’ll wait to watch the show to see which of us is right  but just because there is an entire culture of wealthy, influential preacher types in a particular sub-culture doesn’t disqualify them from being a bunch of strawmen (even if they are self-made).  The size of their congregations and the wealth they’ve accumulated could reflect how easy it is to become one in a culture such as ours.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

    To all, just have to add this. Miroslav Volf gets to the heart of my argument (better than I did probably):
    “Our coziness with the surrounding culture has made us blind to many of its evils that, instead of calling them into question, we offer our own versions of them – in God’s name and with a good conscience.”

    • Matthew Yoder

      zachhoag Really good blog and a really good quote too. For those who are interested in reading where it came from – Exclusion and Embrace.

      • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

        It actually came from YOU – thanks for posting that today, bro!

  • drewsumrall

    Zach,
    This is one the best blog posts I’ve read in some time. Your analysis is spot on. I’ve seen ‘charismatic’ excesses my whole life, quite up close and personal (unfortunately). 
    I could name many names, but it’s not worth it. 
    This is a problem that will only be solved at the ‘ground floor’. 
    The charlatans will always remain…the people in the pew must be freed from the ideology such ‘leaders’ peddle.
    To go a step further, as I say, pure difference is not difference from ‘culture’ but difference from one’s own self (i.e. pure difference isn’t the gap between two objects but rather the gap separating one and the same object from itself).  
    Cheers.
    Good work.

    • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

      Wow, thanks drew. And I will be contemplating that past point for sure.

  • Lydia

    As one who comes from the belly of the beast with the seeker mega movement, the SOP for the ministers was to never drive expensive cars. They drove the best Toyotas but could afford expensive cars. They had nice upper middle class homes on golf courses in gated communities that were not overtly exclusive. They worked hard not to show their true wealth but lived above the cut just enough to fit in with their audience.
    But since few saw the inside of their homes, they might be astonished at how well they really lived and in what comfort. And vacations were almost always paid by those in the church who had vacation homes in Vail or condo’s on Marcos Island.
    They live in a different world from most Christians and they were amassing lots of wealth but since it was not “showy” it was never a problem for them. They actually seemed “humble” and many of the pew sitters would brag about what average guys they were. Those of us who worked there knew quite differently.

    • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

      @Lydia that is needed insight. it is possible, i suppose, to feign a modest standard of living while the church is still being used to make people rich. thanks for adding this to the conversation, lydia.

    • http://hyattregency.wordpress.com/ Sarah

      yes, yes, yes. This. It’s not as blatant, because nothing looks more average than driving a Honda and shopping at Target. But there’s a whole attitude/culture behind it. To limit it to materialism ignores how prevalent it is in middle-class churches.

  • GavinJohnston

    It really is quite simple, if we stopped believing that heaven is guaranteed simply through faith and belief, then we would better understand what Jesus means when he says many who thought they knew him will find out that they did not.  Justification solely through faith exposes the extreme spiritual immaturity of most Christians.  We are living the doctrines of dried up old men, the early Church Fathers, trying to ensure their position of privilege within the Church.  Christ can look into the hearts of men and know their spiritual status regardless of their external life (fans on Facebook).  With spiritual immaturity it is almost impossible to rise above the lures of a material culture.  I mean look, most of us will watch television that God hates and then go to church and feel no conflict about it, right?  We can bypass spiritual maturity and enlightenment if we base our faith on theology and belief.  Churches are disappearing because they can’t compete with the culture.  Now we have cultural men and women at the supposed pinnacle of culture professing Christ!  They are only in a position of privilege based on the relativity of our culture, they may find themselves well down the scale of privilege in the heavenly economy.  We got to start living to die, “that is why I die daily”, so that we may truly find new life.  Seek the heavenly mansion being prepared for us -or- that perhaps when we leave our Beverly Hills mansion we find we don’t have another waiting for us!

    • GavinJohnston

      What we call Christianity, or at least the hope that we try to contain in its doctrines is secretly guarded by Saints that we will never know or hear about (a la Thomas Merton).  We all continue to worship, debate, relate to each other on the surface while the real work is done quietly, but grandly behind the scenes.  As spiritual maturity deepens, the allurement of the culture disappears and unless we have a God-given mission like Jesus the Spirit does its work quietly in the temples that have become “spiritual SACRIFICES acceptable to God” (1 Peter 2:5)

      • GavinJohnston

        Nietzsche made perhaps the most brilliant statement about Christianity in the history of human thought – “There was one Christian and he died on the cross”.  The original perversion of the Gospel will always be not knowing, feeling, or becoming, the man who said ‘you will do greater things than me”  John 14:12

  • LauraKL

    Interesting. I grew up a poor preacher’s kid, so I find the whole conspicuous consumption of “celebrity” Christians revolting. I have a REALLY hard time with people who talk about ministering to the rich (have a friend who told us that) bc Jesus gave the rich young ruler a REALLY hard time. And the sermon on the mount is pretty clear about who will inherit the kingdom… I think God always calls us to the marginalized FIRST, s/he’s a good God like that. Anyways, I remember talking to my husband back when we were dating and he talked about visiting Saddleback as a kid and the tour guide BRAGGING about having these special imported palm trees that cost like $10K each and my husband (as a 16 year old) just walked away DISGUSTED and I knew then that he was guy for me. (When some of his fellow youth workers complained that this creepy dad kept hanging around youth group bc the girls were dressed too provocatively he basically told them, “Maybe someone should ask the creepy dad to leave and not the girls in our youth group.” He is pretty rad man.) 
    We both love Jesus and we respect his Church but this materialism turns my stomach. Whenever I see stuff like that I think in my head: Jesus is sure gonna give you an earful in heaven! (I like to think this about a lot of badly behaving Christians with a lot of Power). Love this verse: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” Those big leaders are gonna get a dressing down for sure.

    • andrewmook

      LauraKL the bent towards the poor and oppressed in scripture is clear. that said, you’d have to toss out much of the new testament if you think that the church has no role in engaging those with wealth and influence. i encourage you to not create a false dichotomy if that’s what you are doing.

      • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

        andrewmook LauraKL really andrew? “much” of the new testament?

        • andrewmook

          zachhoag andrewmook LauraKL jesus is funded by folks who are managing herods money
          paul is engaging and making leaders out of wealthy business owners
          you have
          Joseph of Arimathea
          Roman centurion
          Zacchaeus the tax collector 
          Cornelius the Centurion
          The Ethiopian Treasure
          of course - Lydia.
          there are more. sometimes they are called to give it all away. sometimes the spirit moves them to leverage their wealth for the kingdom.
          to reiterate – i believe the bible bends towards to poor and oppressed without question. i simply applaud those who engage the wealthy influential if they are calling them to a true Gospel of generosity and sacrifice.

        • andrewmook

          zachhoag LauraKL jesus was bankrolled by one woman who whose family was managing herods funds…

        • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

          andrewmook zachhoag LauraKL Ok, I think I see your point more clearly here. What I’m wondering is, how do we take these background narrative situations in light of the clear cost of discipleship laid out by Jesus and Paul as core to the gospel itself? The threat of wealth, prominence, arrogance, etc. to a cruciform life? The clarity of the rich young ruler account, and the New Testament’s overwhelmingly negative view of money and power?
          The issue is not whether wealthy people were called alongside the fledgling, subversive, persecuted church or Jesus himself, but whether there is a normative call to accumulate wealth as a mark of CHristian life. Whether the values of celebrity culture – success, excess, fame, popularity, ease, etc. – are in any way compatible with the values of the kingdom. What I’m seeing is a trend – and it’s among hip people, and I am in conversation with hip people (though I’m clearly less than hip myself:) – toward that kind of value, and I think it’s harmful to the cause of Jesus, not helpful.

    • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

      LauraKL Your husband sounds awesome. And I think once we receive a heart for those marginalized and oppressed by the severe inequities and excesses in the world, especially when the church is complicit, our stomach will be turned by those things. When I saw the secret lot and heard that sermon about mo’ money, I felt sick, too.

  • Joel Kessler

    Celebrities need Jesus too.

    • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

      Yep, I affirmed that.

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  • http://hyattregency.wordpress.com/ Sarah

    I love how you have given words to this. “Celebrity Christianity” is becoming my descriptor of choice lately. I think you’re hitting on something very real (psh, think — I know), that lacks words. In my own life, I’ve always just used the word “famous” disparagingly (e.g. “He only wants to be friends with them because they’re ~*~famous~*~,” and yes, it needs ironic decorative punctuation) but it doesn’t quite work, because usually the people/culture I’m referring to isn’t famous at all, at least not outside one specific megachurch or small suburb. And yet there’s something very strange, almost like fame.

    I worked for a ridiculously large church that was and is pretty celebrity/fame driven in its own away, and it is a weird, weird culture. I had friends on Facebook I’ve never met who only added me because I worked for the church. People that didn’t even work with my department, but because my name was printed in the church newsletter, I needed sought out. I was the farthest thing from being any kind of “celebrity” which is why I need this language so much. I was never on the main stage (it was a stage, let’s be honest). I worked in the youth department. I was fresh out of college and was young and stupid and boring, about as far from any idea of “fame” or “celebrity” that you can get, so I feel weird using words like “Celebrity Christianity” but that’s exactly what it was. (Of course, I never made top-tier fame… I was more like an opening act, because hey, I worked there so instacool! but not one of the big names). And we had our go-to people, our “stars,” and they were the ones that always did the workshops, conferences, etc. Their entire career and vocation was based on being known in the church. No matter how many people I tried to recruit or hand pick for workshops based on their talents and abilities, the major names in the church always got workshops, main sessions, weekend services, whatever. No questions asked. And there was no way to quantify what made someone a major name, it was just known. It was also very fickle, and it was also very present all the way down through the middle school youth group.

    It’s a weird and attainable sort of “fame” and completely invisible to the outside world but there are people who are just desperate and hoping to someday be “That Person” in the church because it looks like such a glamorous life. It’s so bizarre. It was weird when I was in it but it just gets weirder the farther I get from it (I was fired and never given a reason three years ago). I have no desire to go back to that, and I’m extremely hesitant to get near anything that looks remotely similar since then. It’s tricky because I don’t think it has anything to do with being well known outside of the church, or even with the size of the church. It’s such an internal thing and easy to dismiss as not real because these people aren’t “famous” in the traditional sense or even real celebrities. But there are names within church circles and denominational circles that do not get questioned, and that automatically get speaking engagements/workshops/etc. There are people who, as a former coworker put it, “could [crap] and it would turn to gold around here.” And it’s wrong. It’s hurtful and misleading and wrong, I don’t care what the size of your church is. This shouldn’t be perpetuated in church.

    So that’s my tl;dr comment. I’ve been loving your tweets on this for naming a thing I couldn’t quite name.

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  • http://zhoag.com Zach

    For sure, well put!

  • http://zhoag.com Zach

    Wow Sarah, this is such a good insight into the celebrity culture of modern church. I’m so sorry you had to push against it in your job, and eventually had it turn on you. Ugh. Hope you are experiencing some freedom now :).


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