You know something is cooking when both Relevant Magazine and the Together for the Gospel conference are talking about it. The issue I’m referring to is celebrity pastors. Rachel Held Evens’ recent article in Relevant, “When Jesus Meets TMZ,” seeks to explain the rise of celebrity pastors within evangelicalism. (A panel at the T4G conference will address the same topic in April.) Evens’ article does a good job of outlining our corrupt human tendency to make our leaders into idols–a temptation evident from Christianity’s earliest days (see 1 Corinthians 3:21), and which has marked every era of the Church. Before Osteen, Warren, and Driscoll, there were Moody, Spurgeon, and Whitefield. Celebrity pastors are not new.
But what is new is the number of celebrity pastors and the speed with which they are being created/coronated. This is what Evens’ article doesn’t address. Every generation has had a handful of well known pastors, but why are there now so many? What explains the creation of an entire celebrity-class within the evangelical world?
Yes, our human proclivity for leader-worship is as potent as ever, but 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.
First a little background. In 1961, in President Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation, he warned about the unintended effects of what he dubbed the “military industrial complex.” Following WWII, for the first time in American history, a permanent arms industry was created to manufacture weapons, tanks, warplanes, etc. This industry employed millions of Americans, and Eisenhower feared its influence over the government, and its need for armed conflict in order to grow, would prove damaging to the country.
He recognized the potential for a self-sustaining cycle of (1) a growing arms industry, (2) supplying an expanding military, (3) resulting in more armed conflicts and fewer resources for domestic needs like eduction and infrastructure. It’s worth remembering that this warning was coming from a Republican, an army general, and a war hero, not a Democrat or anti-war activist. Many now consider Eisenhower’s warning prophetic given the exponential growth in military spending and wars over the last 50 years. You can watch a segment of his speech below.
So, what does Eisenhower and the military have to do with 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 then relies upon, the existence of 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 one possibility (the one people 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 are therefore the obvious choice to speak at the biggest conferences. As a result they find themselves quite naturally becoming popular, even rising to celebrity status.
Is this possible? Yes. Does it happen? Sometimes. Is it the norm? I don’t think so.
Here’s the other possibility (one I’ve seen from the inside): 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 megachurch pastor a book deal knowing that if only a third of the pastor’s own congregation buys a copy, it’s still a profitable deal. The book is published on the basis of the leader’s market platform, not necessarily the strength of his ideas or the book’s quality. Sometimes the pastor will actually write the book, and other times a ghost writer hired by the publisher will do the hard work of transforming his sermon notes into 180 pages with something resembling a coherent idea.
Wanting to maximize the return on their investment, the publisher will then promote the pastor at the publisher-sponsored ministry conference or other events. As a result of the pastor’s own megachurch customer base and the publisher’s conference platform, the book becomes a best-seller. Or if that doesn’t work, sometimes sugar daddies 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. (Yes, it happens. Not a lot, but it does happen.)
This market-driven cycle of megachurches, conferences, and publishers results in an echo chamber where the same voices, espousing the same values, create an atmosphere where ministry success becomes equated with audience aggregation. (Thankfully there are outliers like the Epic Fail Conference and the Q Gathering that defy these trends by platforming important, non-celebrity voices.) But there’s a reason you won’t see a flashy conference for the house church movement. And there’s a reason a brilliant, godly, wise, 50-year-old pastor with a gift for communicating, carrying a timely message, and leading a church of 200 in Montana is highly unlikely to get a publishing contract. And even if he does, good luck getting the stage at a conference or any marketing energy from the publisher; their efforts will be poured into the handful of megachurch pastors in their lineup whose book sales pay their salaries. It is exceedingly difficult to break into the club without a large customer base (a.k.a. a megachurch).
Are the publishers evil for focusing on sales potential more than quality? Of course not. They’re businesses that have to sustain themselves. They are simply reacting to the realities of the market. But sometimes they fail to see how they also shape the market by their decisions. And am I saying all megachurch pastors’ books are subpar? Not at all. Some of them are my friends and I’ve deeply appreciated their writings (Dave Gibbons and Tim Keller immediately come to mind.) But we mustn’t be naive–the system is rigged to favor a writer/speaker’s market platform rather than his/her content, maturity, or message. Yes there are exceptions, but they generally prove the rule. And we’ve all been to ministry conferences where we’ve scratched our heads wondering why that yahoo is on the platform…oh yeah, he’s got a big church and a book to sell, just like the guy before him, and the one before him. It’s a system that rewards sizzle whether or not there’s any steak.
Consider the scale of the evangelical industrial complex that survives by perpetuating this system. The Christian Booksellers Association, representing 1,700 Christian stores, sells $4.63 billion worth of merchandise a year. And that doesn’t count retailers like Amazon and Walmart. Some estimate the total evangelical market to be over $7 billion a year. Evangelicalism is a very, very large business…that’s why I call it an industrial complex.
And this massive market has grown in conjunction with the rise of megachurches since the 1970s; they rely upon and perpetuate each other. Megachurch leaders offer publishers pre-existing customer bases (their own congregations), and publishers make megachurch pastors into celebrities to perpetuate and expand their bottom lines. As a result, evangelicalism is not a meritocracy where talent, gifting, character, or wisdom result in a broadening influence. It is an aristocracy where simply having a platform entitles you to ever-increasing influence regardless of your talent, gifting, character, or wisdom.
So, as more people begin discussing and worrying about the existence of a celebrity-class of pastors, we need to see beyond our human tendency to idolize leaders or even the historical fact that celebrity preachers have always existed. Today it isn’t simply Christians who are creating celebrity pastors, it’s the Christian market. We live in a new age where consumerism and mega-congregations have resulted in a self-perpetuating evangelical industrial complex that not only creates, but also depends upon a growing number of celebrity pastors. Should we be concerned? Yes, but at least they’re not building nukes.