The Rise & Fall of Celebrity Pastors

Here we are again. Like flies to a carcass we are drawn to the remains of a fallen celebrity pastor and his ministry. The web is buzzing with postmortem explanations for what happened, who is to blame, and how it can be redeemed. Others are calling for judgment, forgiveness, grace, or discipline. I have no interest in dissecting the character of a leader I do not know or the culture of a church I have never attended. Who am I to judge? Who am I to forgive? Instead we can use this unfortunate story to better understand the culture of American evangelicalism—the ecosystem in which celebrity pastors rise and fall with shocking predictability. Two years ago Rachel Held Evens’ wrote an article in Relevant“When Jesus Meets TMZ,” to explain the rise of celebrity pastors within evangelicalism. Evens’ did 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. Celebrity pastors are not a new phenomenon, nor is our human tendency to exalt our leaders to unsustainable heights. But what is new is the number of celebrity pastors and the speed with which they are being created, corrupted, and then condemned. 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, and how do they achieve so much influence with so little accountability? What explains the creation of an entire celebrity-class within evangelicalism? 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 (EIC)—a phrase I coined in 2012 which I’ve noticed appearing with more regularity in Christian media. 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. 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 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 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 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? No. Here’s the other possibility. 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 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. (Sometimes these writers may also fail to properly site a source, creating unexpected headaches for the celebrity pastor whose name adorns the cover.) 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. 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.) 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), a fact which author Philip Yancey recently lamented. 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 anti-denominational bias, we have no bishops. We have no overseers to guard the vast evangelical flock 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 editors, 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 financially 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. 2. Affirm and financially 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. 3. 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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