The Celebrity Pastor Factory

Celebrity pastors are not a new phenomenon, nor is our human tendency to exalt our leaders to unsustainable heights.

What is new is the number of celebrity pastors and the speed at which they are being created and corrupted. Every generation has had a handful of well known pastors, but why are there now so many, and how do they achieve so much influence with so little accountability? What explains the creation of an entire celebrity-class within American evangelicalism?

There is more than a spiritual or psychological reason behind the rise of today’s pastoral pantheon. There is a systemic economic force at work as well; what I call the Evangelical Industrial Complex (EIC)—a phrase I coined in 2012.

First a little background: In 1961, in President Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation, he warned about the unintended effects of the “military industrial complex.” Many now consider Eisenhower’s warning prophetic given the exponential growth in military spending and wars over the last 50 years. (Watch a segment of his speech.)

So, what does Eisenhower and the military have to do with the rise and fall of celebrity pastors? Well, just as America’s militarism for the last half century is partially the result of systemic economic forces, so is the rise of the present clergy celebrity-class.

There is an Evangelical Industrial Complex that helps create and relies upon celebrity leaders. Have you ever wondered why you don’t see pastors from small or medium sized churches on the main stage at big conferences? Or why most of the best-selling Christian authors are megachurch leaders?

Here’s the answer we like to believe:

The most godly, intelligent, and gifted leaders naturally attract large followings, so they naturally are going to have large churches, and their ideas are so great and their writing so sharp that publishers pick their book proposals, and the books strike a nerve with so many people that they naturally become best-sellers, and these leaders become the obvious choice to speak at the biggest conferences. As a result they ascend to celebrity status.

Is this possible? Yes. Does it happen? Sometimes. Is it the norm? No.

Here’s the answer we don’t want to admit: Through any number of methods—powerful gifting, shrewd marketing, dumb luck—a pastor leads a congregation to megachurch status. Publishers eager for a guaranteed sales win offer the pastor a book contract knowing that if only one-third of his own congregations buys it, they’ll still make a profit. Sometimes the pastor will write the book, but very often a ghost writer hired by the publisher will do the hard work of transforming the pastor’s sermon notes into a book.

Wanting to maximize the return on their investment, the publisher will then promote the pastor at the publisher-sponsored ministry conference. The hope is that between the pastor’s own megachurch customer base and the publisher’s conference platform, the book becomes a best-seller. If that doesn’t work elaborate schemes can be used to purchase thousands of copies of the book to literally buy the pastor onto the best-seller’s list where the perception of popularity results in more sales. (Some people were shocked when I first mentioned this unethical practice two years ago. While one leader has now apologized for using this scheme, there are others who gladly maintain their ill-gotten “NY Times best-selling author” status without remorse.)

We must remember that the Evangelical Industrial Complex is comprised of businesses seeking to sustain themselves. They are simply reacting to the realities of the market, but they often fail to see how they also shape the evangelical church by their decisions. In other church traditions there are ecclesiastical authorities that serve as gatekeepers. They guard pulpits and platforms to ensure that only leaders who have been tested and approved are allowed access to positions of wide influence. They take seriously the Apostle Paul’s instruction to appoint only mature leaders, not recent converts, with good character and a gentle spirit (1 Timothy 3:1-7).

Within evangelicalism however, with it’s low ecclesiology and non-denominational bias, we have no bishops. We have no overseers to guard the flock/market from the influence and abuse of ungodly leaders filling our media, bookshelves, and conferences. In the place of a church hierarchy we’ve built the Evangelical Industrial Complex where we expect publishers, conference directors, and radio producers to be the gatekeepers. We trust them to filter out the immature, ungodly leaders, and for many years the managers of the EIC were willing to serve this function. Those days are over. Chaos in the publishing world has put incredible pressure on the EIC to sell books and fill conferences profitably. Managers within the Evangelical Industrial Complex are remembering that they were not appointed to shepherd us, but to sell to us. Those who had functioned as evangelicalism’s bishops for decades have taken off their vestments to reveal their business suits once again.

In summary, the rise and fall of any celebrity pastor is merely a symptom of an underlying malady within American evangelicalism. Why are there now so many celebrity pastors? Because they generate a lot of revenue for the Evangelical Industrial Complex. Why do these pastors fall with such regularity? Because the Evangelical Industrial Complex uses a business standard rather than a biblical standard when deciding which leaders to promote. What should we do about it? Here are three suggestions:

  1. Refuse to support operations within the EIC that platform or publish leaders who clearly do not exhibit godly character, biblical wisdom, or orthodox teaching. This is not a call to judgment, but a call to discernment.
  1. Affirm and reward those publishers, radio programs, or conferences that do show wise discernment. Contact editors and program directors and ask them, “How do you discern who to publish or which leaders to feature at your event? What kind of accountability do you expect leaders to have in their ministries before you will consider platforming them? Do you ask for character references before agreeing to give a leader a national audience?” If you are going to trust these businesses with the authority to choose what teaching and leaders influence your faith, maybe you should investigate how they make these decisions.
  1. Return some of the authority you’ve granted to the Evangelical Industrial Complex to your local church. No matter how seriously the EIC takes its responsibility to protect the evangelical flock, we will never know the leaders we permit to shape our lives via books, podcasts, websites, and conferences. We need incarnate men and women to function in our communities as spiritual mothers and fathers. In the context of a relationship rooted in trust and love, we should allow them to speak in our lives with an authority that is earned and with a gravity that comes from the presence of Christ in their souls. This is what leadership in the church is supposed to be, and what the Evangelical Industrial Complex can never replace.
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11 Comments

  • […] The Celebrity Pastor Factory | SKYE JETHANI Celebrity pastors are not a new phenomenon, nor is our human tendency to exalt our leaders to unsustainable heights. What is new is the number of celebrity pastors and the speed at which they are being created and corrupted. Every generation has had a handful of well known pastors, but why are there now so many, and how do they achieve so much influence with so little accountability? […]

  • November 6, 2015

    Bill Kinnon

    Good article, Skye but just to note, Michael Spencer was dealing with this topic as the Christian Industrial Complex in 2006. http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/riffs-122906-the-christian-industrial-complex

  • November 7, 2015

    Dan

    Thank you Skye for this clear call to discernment within the Church. As a pastor of a local congregation, I am constantly admonishing God’s people to discern what they consume, especially from ‘celebrity’ preachers. I really like your call to action on supporting those who filter biblically the people they are promoting and avoiding those who don’t. In this case, economic reward or sanctions are what can make a difference. Those who pastor in the local church must “shepherd the flock of God”, and that is a sober responsibility. Appreciate your insight!

  • November 7, 2015

    @DarrellWolfe

    First: BIG fan of the podcast, the three of you balance each other perfectly!

    Skye, I have a question for you, that I think you are uniquely qualified to weigh in on. If you’ve already written on this, please direct my eye to that article.

    This article strikes in me a larger question. Not just about pastors, but about all of us Christians, especially western ones.

    How we conduct our lives in a material world, without becoming materialists?

    As a writer and blogger myself, I’ve struggled with the financial aspects of living on this planet. This article makes me wonder about my own life and ministry.

    How do I sell (produce income so that I can dedicate my time to writing), without selling out (doing it only for money)?

    Your thoughts would be appreciated, Darrell Wolfe, Storyteller

  • November 7, 2015

    Missy

    I wholeheartedly agree with this. I’m surprised you did not mention the incredible power of the Internet in creating celebrity pastors.

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts regarding how the women of Holywood are created. It’s very concerning to me that female christian celebrity seems to be driven by clickbait & Twitter followers far more than wisdom, discernment, or theological accuracy. Considering that in my opinion, in the majority of families the mother is the spiritual leader, it is very alarming that many families are now being cybershepherded by 35 year old bloggers with little to no theological training.

  • November 10, 2015

    Brian Jones

    As an author and a Pastor of a large church, I can tell you that I’ve seen few examples of the strawman you are projecting in this article. Most of the guys I know who are in similar situations are quite humble, redirecting of adultation, write their own books, and give away book royalties to missions. As James Emery White told me one time, “Publishing is a business, but never let it be a business for you. Write as an extension of your ministry.” The absolute vast majority of the megachuch guys I know follow that rule.

  • […] The Celebrity Pastor Factory: What is new is the number of celebrity pastors and the speed at which they are being created and corrupted. Every generation has had a handful of well known pastors, but why are there now so many, and how do they achieve so much influence with so little accountability? What explains the creation of an entire celebrity-class within American evangelicalism? (Skye Jethani) […]

  • November 11, 2015

    The Celebrity Pastor Factory

    […] What is new is the number of celebrity pastors and the speed at which they are being created and corrupted. Every generation has had a handful of well known pastors, but why are there now so many, and how do they achieve so much influence with so little accountability? What explains the creation of an entire celebrity-class within American evangelicalism? […]

  • […] After coining the phrase, Evangelical Industrial Complex (EIC), Skye Jethani looks at the Celebrity Pastor Factory. […]

  • November 11, 2015

    ThinkTank

    Thank you for expressing this so well.

    As a writer (and erstwhile ghostwriter) myself, it’s something I’ve seen at close quarters and have become increasingly concerned about.

    It’s worth adding that it’s not only the character of these celebrities which is often questionable, but also – in terms of their literary output – the quality. The industry continues to pump out and promote books by “names” regardless of their calibre as pieces of writing, and regardless of whether or not the same thing has already been written a dozen times by other authors, and usually a lot better.

    The volume of this evangelical Christian “static” seems to be growing all the time. It makes it much harder for the Christian to separate those books worth his or her time from those which aren’t.

  • November 18, 2015

    Tim

    “Have you ever wondered why you don’t see pastors from small or medium sized churches on the main stage at big conferences?”
    No, I’ve wondered why any Bible expert who “devotes” “full time” to the Bible think they are supposed to dominate the whole expression of truth time when believers gather for worship and do it all in strict one-way communication with perpetual dependency results. The local pastorate consumes probably 1000 times the dollars that you consider the EIC. All of these “normal” dynamics nullify many key scriptures. The priesthood of the believer is worthless in the worship hour. Bible lecturers know their orthodox theology well but the Bible instructs specific orthodox practices. These are ignored. There are 58 “one another” instructions in the NT and NONE of them will be practiced in “worship”. They are left to the optional “small group program” that only 25% of saints will participate in. Every hired expert is a local “celebrity” with God’s people in deep dependency for pre-masticated feeding every week of their lives. There are no graduates from this school. Corruption, driven by the flesh and enhanced by the Devil, is never static. It always grows and expands. Sky, be prepared to see even more excessive scripture nullifying practices.Where am I wrong with this? Does “preach the word…” really exegete to mean strict one-way communication? If so, how so?