Disclaimer: There are instances of sarcasm and satire in what follows. I do not mean to impugn or malign anyone’s actions or motives – I’m simply poking fun at a trend that strikes me as somewhat silly (at best), although potentially dangerous and harmful (at worst). I have no doubt that the “celebrities” mentioned in this article are all humble, godly men who have faithfully served God and His Church for many years. Finally, I do not claim to have never fallen into some of the same tendencies satirized here.
Last Fall, my wife and I had the privilege of attending the 2010 Desiring God National Conference. We had a great time and were both challenged and convicted by the things that we heard (especially Francis Chan’s message entitled, “Think Hard, Stay Humble”).
As Providence would have it, we ended up sitting about twenty feet from John Piper for the majority of the conference, and thus had a front row view of the “feeding frenzy” that would quickly develop around him between sessions. I remember feeling slightly amused as we watched the fan line grow, complete with craned necks and gentle nudges toward the front, as people strained to get close to the Man Himself, the promise of a personal picture at his side too tempting to ignore (and maybe they’d even get to touch the hem of his jacket).
However, this amusement quickly turned to disgust (OK, maybe that’s a bit strong, but I don’t like any of the thesaurus’s suggestions) when the announcement went out that everyone was to return to their seats for the beginning of the next session. The fan line began to dissolve as many disillusioned souls slowly turned back, forsaking their quest to shake the hand of their hero. However, some – more indefatigable souls – darted ahead, pushing their way through the crowd until they were just a few feet away from their goal. With the grace and dexterity of professional XBox gamers, they whipped out their pocket-sized digital cameras, extended their arms forward, and snapped a close-up of Piper and…well, just him. Some even apparently forgot to change their camera setting, hitting him right in the face with a blinding flash. Then, turning on a dime, their quest complete, they quickly retraced their steps to their seats, a wide grin of success plastered across their faces. They had done it! They had captured what few others had ever captured: a personal mugshot of John Piper. Cue the Hallelujah chorus! My wife and I were flabbergasted.
Last week, I spent a few days at 2011 Gospel Coalition Conference in Chicago. Right off the bat, I want to say that I was blessed immensely by the conference. The preachers and preaching were wonderfully Gospel-centered, and thus a joy to listen to. The workshops were helpful and the free books were awesome! However, upon entering the conference center, I quickly noticed an enormous banner stretching across the upper reaches of the foyer. As I gazed heavenward, my eyes connected with three celestial beings looking down from above: DeYoung, Chandler, and yes…Piper. Their ginormous faces, each probably the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, ushered us in to what would undoubtedly be a star-studded conference. The messages were fantastic, but I couldn’t help leaving the conference feeling a little bit uncomfortable with the seemingly pervasive “celebrity culture.”
OK, time to get serious.
Eric McKiddie recently posted an article entitled “A Not-Famous Pastor’s Take on the Evangelical Hollywood,” an excellent look at two potential pitfalls for “normal” Christians as we attempt to navigate the ever-increasing fanfare surrounding big-name pastors, scholars, authors, and conference speakers. First, he reminds us that the “Evangelical Hollywood” is not new:
There has always been a pastoral Rat Pack. From Peter, James, and John to Peter, Apollos, and Paul; from Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli to Edwards, the Wesley’s, and Whitefield.
And now we have Keller, Carson, Piper, and Driscoll.
No, the Evangelical Hollywood is not new, but what is new is 24/7 access to it. Blogs, tweets, and decades of sermon archives are available at the click of a mouse. This, I think, is what has ratcheted up the evangelical celebrity scene to new proportions.
He hits the nail on the head when he writes,
It is sinful when the infatuated wants to be like them, identified by them, and loyal to them, rather than wanting to be like Jesus, identified by Jesus, and loyal to Jesus. It is sinful for the cynic to use Jesus in order to identify himself over against the fan-boys, rather than actually reveling in Jesus himself (see 1 Corinthians 1:11-12).
McKiddie notes four ways that we can response poorly to these Christian superstars, each worth real consideration (read the article for his valuable explanations):
- Copying the form rather than the substance.
- Wanting a big church like those guys.
- Thinking that you can do what they do.
- Throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Such movements [like the Gospel Coalition] also provide an opportunity for positive articulation. Sometimes cooperative efforts have a way of combining weaknesses with weaknesses, rather than strengths with strengths. Yet the ideal Christian world is where everyone puts their best foot forward. Networking together, listening to one another, and sharing experiences provide the opportunity to sharpen one’s beliefs and practices so that the strengths of one another are maximized and the weaknesses minimized…
Some of these positives also represent dangers. The opportunity to put our best foot forward can create larger-than-life personalities and heroes, when in reality, such movements rarely survive the driving forces or persons that bring them into existence. These kinds of movements have strong short-term potential but minimal long-term influence. Without some transition from ad hoc cooperation to established, institutionalized relationships, the work of maturation and discipleship will happen elsewhere. A person can come and enjoy fellowship and teaching at a conference, but ought not to assume that such things can replace the learning and maturing that require years of pastoral practice and study with the accountability of a seasoned pastor or denominational board.
I am thankful to God for famous pastors and teachers (especially ones with a Reformed bent). I have learned much from them. And I enjoy star-studded conferences (mostly because they give away lots of books). But, like everyone else, I must carefully guard my heart from idolatrous worship of God’s servants. As great as the Pipers, Driscolls, and Chans of Christianity are, they’re nothing compared to the soul-satisfying glory of the Son of God, the man who died in my place, rose again, and now intercedes for me at the right hand of the Father.