The Celebrity Pastor Issue

The Celebrity Pastor Issue March 20, 2014

Two “celebrity” pastors hit the religion news in the last week. One is internationally known for hate speech and representing an angry God and leads a small church of about 100 people, primarily family. The other is also internationally known for hate speech–the angry prophet representing the angry God–and leads a multi-site church with at least 15,000 people in worship each week.

Both are famous, or infamous, for the things that come out of their mouths.

The first, Fred Phelps, apparently lays alone and dying under hospice care someplace in Kansas. HIs son, Nathan, who left Phelp’s “God Hates Fags” church some time ago (and was excommunicated), indicated he wanted to visit his father, but was being barred by family members. Further rumors suggest that Phelps himself has been excommunicated from his church because he suggested that church members treat each other with more kindness.

The second, Mark Driscoll, issued an apology for, among other things, having used church funds to buy his way onto the New York Times bestseller list for the tell-all sex book he and his wife wrote. He did not issue an apology for his well-documented plagiarism on multiple other publications or acknowledge that much of which is published under his name is actually ghost-written. Driscoll insisted he is not interested in being a “celebrity” pastor but will ensure that his sermons videos are podcast, that others keep his media presence alive and that he stays on the speaking/writing circuit–but will “cut back.”

In the midst of these news items, one very thoughtful Christian blogger, Dan Dick, has noted that for the most part, pastors have missed the point of the profession. Ideally, pastors are to do what Jesus did: forming disciples, people who have integrated the love of God and neighbor into all their daily activities.

But . . . there is no money in it, no book contracts, no powerful media presence, no adoring public, no “best-sellers,” no news outlets begging for interviews . . . just faithful, lonely, sometimes heart-breaking, often life-changing, deeply personal, unpublished and unrecognized toil. The fact that it changes the world one person at a time gains no public support.

Yet, it happens all the time and all over the place. With extreme anonymity and amazing effectiveness, in quiet places and hidden holiness, in homes, restaurants, work, religious gatherings, people make intentional growth to spiritual maturity.

They take to heart the teachings of most every religion (except those founded on hate and God’s anger at just about everyone) that what we humans do in response to our faith matters:

  • That kindness opens doors to hope.

  • That feeding the hungry and sheltering the exposed and teaching the untaught helps push back enveloping darkness and dismay.

  • That civic involvement by people of personal integrity can actually change communities for the better.

  • That loving our enemies pays off ever so much better than hating them and hoping they face the condemnation of eternal fires.

I don’t know what is going to happen to Fred Phelps, who has founded his life on hatred, when he finally comes into the presence of the Holy One. Lord willing, he will say, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Ultimately, it is all any of us can say.

What has interested me, as word of his imminent death has spread, is how many people he set out to damage are now saying, “I will respond to this man with love–no matter that he has tried to destroy me.” This is faith in action–this is real religion.

As for Mark Driscoll–successful, charismatic, with, I understand, 700,000 Twitter followers, adored and imitated by many–I think his soul is ultimately in more danger. I get the impression that he thinks people won’t come to faith unless he keeps preaching/teaching/writing etc.

The myth of indispensability had led to great harm to a great many. It is for him that we should pray.

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