The Evangelical Industrial Complex & the Rise of Celebrity Pastors

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.

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  • http://www.inamirrordimly.com ed cyzewski

    I don’t have much to add here Skye. I think you nailed it. I was just thinking that many of my friends don’t realize that publishing survives because of a few big names. Very few authors bring anything resembling a real profit. A few friends of mine in publishing listed some of my favorite authors and told me that they make very little money for their publishers. So there is a huge demand for a few rock star authors who can make money. I don’t know what the solution is, but your post certainly rings true to my experience.

  • http://www.andysstudy.org Andrew Evans

    Thanks – a really helpful analysis which opens up stuff lots of people don’t want to talk about.

    Sadly some American preachers seem to have confused fame/success for godliness and bold evangelism – if they haven’t heard of them it’s down to lack of courage: http://www.andysstudy.org/2012/01/christianity-magazine-has-reignited.html

    Your article calls out really well.

  • http://www.spitandmud.com Jonathan Simmons

    Skye, this is one of the best and most honest summations of where the Evangelical world currently resides. I think of the ‘tween’ whose Twitter feed hosts Bieber, Gaga & Obama then Warren & Osteen. The mashing of these worlds encourages a pluralism that many followers are unequipped to discern. I think of the ministry major at Liberty University who thinks Piper is the next best thing to sliced bread or the student at ORU who feels a TV show is the standard of success. No, that’s not everyone but yes, that is the trend and direction we’re heading. Social media (the new S&M) plays an increasing role in how we perceive, define and validate ourselves. Each of the aforementioned continue to lean heavily on expressing their theology in 140 characters or less. Finally, and most importantly, I think of a newly orphaned Syrian child or a Sudanese family that wants for clean water. Somehow I find it hard to imagine that they give a rip about complimentarianism, the definition of masculinity or T.D. Jake’s personal views of trinitarianism. I guess the only requirement to have a say in the Evangelical Industrial Complex is minimum wage.

  • KBH

    “Finally, and most importantly, I think of a newly orphaned Syrian child or a Sudanese family that wants for clean water. Somehow I find it hard to imagine that they give a rip about complimentarianism, the definition of masculinity or T.D. Jake’s personal views of trinitarianism.”

    THIS. Thanks, Jonathan, for voicing something that has saddened me when I look at the evangelical blogosphere/Twittersphere…how we miss the forest for the trees.

    Wonderful post, Skye.

  • http://www.derwinlgray.com Derwin L. Gray

    Skye,

    Superb article.

  • Shea Fite

    Ok, very thought provoking read. Could the author name an example of a pure meritocracy ” where talent, gifting, character, or wisdom result in a broadening influence.” without there being an financial element that speaks to its creditably. And I am not suggesting that the wealth of a megachurch offers it any more legitimacy than it deserves. I am just wondering if the antithesis is even possible.

  • http://www.flirtingwithfaith.com Joan Ball

    The EIC may not be building nukes, but it is building stumbling blocks to Jesus for many people outside of the church who see (or sense) the disconnect and vow to stay away from the church as a result. It also creates a competitive sense of wanting to “be someone” among new/younger voices who believe that a platform trumps grace when it comes to following the Holy Spirit into a calling that involves communication. As both an author of and a marketing professor, it is so clear how marketing principals have infused both the publishing industry and the church. Targeted small groups, consumer-driven church services and general consumables rule the day. Daughters “need” little pink Bibles and teens “need” Bible comics because we have bought into a secular business model that gives us a false sense of blessing–when those same tactics would work if any good professional non-Christian marketer were tasked with growing your church. As such, I think we have a false sense of where the American church is today that is translated in terms of the lack of loving, compassionate influence it is having in our culture. We’ve created institutions that separate the wisdom of our elders from young people in the name of giving the people what they want in terms of music and overall vibe. As a result, people shop rather than submit–switching churches every time something doesn’t meet their needs. I am grateful to be an author who got only one clear leading from the Holy Spirit–that I am not to market my book. As a teacher who practiced marketing for 17 years before making the switch, I can guarantee that I could have pimped the story of my conversion and sold 10x or more the books than I have. And my publisher would probably have been happier if I had. But I believe that my story will get into the hands of every person who is supposed to read it…1, 10, 100, 1000 or 1,000,000…in Gods time and by God’s will. But here’s the rub. That means I have to be willing for that to happen when I am 80 years old. Or after I am dead. Or 100 years from now. No big platform. No conference spots. I’ve believe there is something on my heart that is to be shared. I’ve met and had conversations with the “powers that be” and rubbed shoulders with the Christian stars. I’ve even sensed I was supposed to be part of what they do. But it will never happen (please Jesus may it never happen) in my time on my own power. Just because we “can” build that platform doesn’t mean we should…

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  • deets

    3 quick thoughts:

    First, great article. The American church need to know about this dynamic.

    Second, is it a little ironic that I’m reading this article and my wife points out that the is a big ad button to hire Skye as a speaker. (You don’t have to be a current pastor to be a celeb pastor.)

    Third, I’m a little bothered by this statement: “Are the publishers evil for focusing on sales potential more than quality? Of course not. They’re businesses that have to sustain themselves.” I don’t think it is evil for publishers to focus on sales, but I don’t think it matches a Kingdom mindset. Those publishers aren’t in the business for the Kingdom, but I’d like to think that they should be. More importantly, the buyers are the ones who should be looking for Kingdom-building books rather than quick sales.

    Maybe that’s a bit idealistic, but I think the church should be about doing the idealistic.

  • http://www.jamaljivanjee.com Jamal Jivanjee

    Thanks for writing this article. I have had many of the same thoughts. I appreciate your heart here. Your post comes at a great time for me as I am actually writing about some practical ways we can eradicate the ‘celebrity’ leader culture out of our lives. This is a much needed conversation indeed!

  • Brian McDonnell

    Very good, Skye.

    Historically, God has a way of using the passage of time and the fire of persecution to consume the chaff and purify the gold. I trust that will happen in the USA before too long.

    Contrasting compassion and doctrinal controversy (comment on starving children not caring about complementarianism) is a point well taken, but it can also be a false dichotomy. It is obvious that starving children are not concerned with doctrinal issues, but that does not mean that the doctrinal issues are not important. Paul exhorted Timothy to refute false doctrine in order to promote love (1 Timothy 1:3-5) We need to be about both.

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  • http://sam.duregger.net sam (@duregger)

    superb observations. loved the line about we are not a meritocracy but an aristocracy.

  • Adam Behnke

    Tim Keller AND Mark Driscoll’s recent books on marriage may be a good example of this complex. Supposedly these two guys are in conversation — they often speak together at conferences, are in Gospel Coalition, and Keller contributes to The Resurgence — yet they publish books on marriage just 2 months apart…. Keller on November 1, Driscoll on January 3.

    Was there a NEED for both books?

    Now, I do listen to both men’s teaching and respect their incredible leadership and vision for church planting and pastoral ministry, but something about this situation seems to be off.

    For those interested, make sure to check out Susan Wise Bauer’s recent review of the Driscolls _REAL Marriage _ in Books and Culture. She points out that there is nothing groundbreaking in this book and that the awkward advertising strategy for this book — one that rested on Driscoll’s celebrity status and material never before discussed — is rather silly. She agrees that there is some solid advice inside of it, but nothing previous marriage books haven’t said and teased out a million ways before.

    Seems to me like one example of this complex…

  • ryan

    thinking of how this so easily parallels worship leaders and the music industry for obvious reasons. (more likely the worship leaders have paved the way for this progression) and have thought more recently of how in our attractional church culture everyone on stage is forced to improve their performance – those who make music and preach alike.
    my sense is that the more the industrial complex comes to define what is good preaching, writing, songcraft, the further those things drift from what the church needs most.
    did I mention I’m also in the middle of Neil Postman’s Technopoly?

  • http://djchuang.com djchuang

    Brilliant observations of human nature, the business world, economics, market forces, and good ol’ American enterprises. And when it comes to business goals, it seems to go way past sustainability; when shareholder value is the ultimate goal, how much profit is ever enough? Where’s the control valve, the corporate self-control called for in Christian spiritual discipline?

    And, what’s interesting is also how the shift of the gravitational center of global Christianity and conversion growth is to the south and east, that is, Africa, South America, and Asia. And that move of the Spirit, if you will, is not happening because of the powerful money-driven evangelical industrial complex.

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  • http://requisite_danger.bluecastle.us Joshua Hopping

    Great article and way too true for my comfort level….sigh and double sigh…

  • http://hollyboardman.wordpress.com Holly Boardman

    This is an excellent post. I believe you have identified a modern heresy in the protestant church. We have become captive to consumerism. In my tribe, the United Methodist Church, I see this mentality as the reason for our overall DECLINE. We have a smattering of large, vibrant churches scattered around, but in their shadow are many congregations that have been hurt by their rise. It was a common experience for me as a small church pastor, to see my most promising, talented leaders hired away from their home church by the large church a few miles away. We nurtured and trained some great musicians, youth workers and other leaders, but were not able to retain them. MONEY is at the root of this issue. Currently the United Methodist Church sets a minimum salary level for pastors, but to date has been unable to impose a MAXIMUM salary. Congregations are able to BUY pastors. Pastors are pressured to acquire greater power, more money, and more influence throughout their career. Frankly, I think this pressure impacts our integrity as preachers in a very negative way. It also destroys the covenant our clergy are supposed to share by turning us into competitors. I have submitted a petition to our General Conference that I hope will help this situation. http://hollyboardman.wordpress.com/2012/01/02/a-more-equitable-salary-petition-to-general-conference/ I have also written a post that sets for a more positive future for the United Methodist Church and the mainline protestant church. http://hollyboardman.wordpress.com/2012/02/04/the-choice-to-be-in-the-middle-class/

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  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    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.

    Just like Scientology!

    (How do you think L Ron Hubbard kept winding up on the NY Times Bestseller lists?)

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  • John Albrektson

    Nailed it! An excellent book-proposal now cuts no ice with publishers. It all boils down to followers: church members, social-media followers, annual seminar-attendance, etc. There seems to be an exception for Christian fiction for women, but that’s it. I’m so glad I slid my books into the system before the publishing industry morphed completely out of reach.

    Of course, self-publishing (FWIW) is a better option than ever!

  • http://www.linsondaniel.com Linson Daniel

    Ouch! Sigh… Appreciate these thoughts, Skye. Thankfully God is moving in the Global South and East in such a way that money and power are not the primary driving force. Any thoughts on how to combat this mindset of hero/pastor worship? What can we do to break the cycle? Thanks again, Skye!

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