The Cure for Celebrity Christian Culture: Faithfulness over Fame
In A.D. 400, Jerome warned the church, “Shun, as you would the plague, a cleric who from being poor has become wealthy, or who, from being nobody has become a celebrity.” In the early church, leaders led by a model of sacrifice and generosity, not by privilege and accumulation.
I personally know a number of people who could be called “Christian celebrities” but lead by example and genuinely seek to honor God with the platform He has given them. But unfortunately, the modern evangelical culture—including the publishing and music industries as well as larger churches and speaking circuits—sometimes generates Christian celebrities and lavishes them with wealth and attention they’re not prepared to handle. People who think they are entitled to lots of attention and money also tend to think they’re entitled to sexual immorality and other self-indulgences, and are prone to hypocrisy. Countless fallen Christian leaders have demonstrated that financial indulgences and sexual indulgences tend to go hand in hand.
I have the greatest appreciation for Jackie Hill Perry, who is a poet and hip hop artist, and the author of Gay Girl, Good God: The Story of Who I Was, and Who God Has Always Been (a book I highly recommend). What Jackie said earlier this year on Facebook about the dangers of fame is so great:
I’ve been spending a lot of time processing through all the good and the bad that being “influential” can bring. I truly believe that “Celebrity Christian culture” can be fruitful and indeed it has been but within it is a handful of snares. Ego, greed, hypocrisy, & public leadership without local accountability are a few of the land mines among us and no one is exempt from landing on one, no matter how “Gospel centered” one might assume themselves to be. ⠀
I came across this quote from a woman named Hannah More who was a popular poet and play[wright] in the 1700s. It’s really helped to reframe how I understand influence, fame, or whatever you want to call it: “For Christian women to look up with a giddy head and a throbbing heart, to honors and remunerations, so little suited to the wants and capacities of an immortal spirit, would be no less ridiculous than if Christian heroes should look back with an envy on the old pagan reward of ovations, oak garlands, parsley crowns, and laurel wreaths. The Christian hope more than reconciles Christian women to these petty privations, by substituting a nobler prize for their ambition, ‘the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.’” ⠀
In other words, the glory we’ll all share in once Christ takes us home will far exceed whatever praise we might receive on Earth. So one way to guard ourselves and each other from letting a platform rot our souls is to position our hope in Heaven, where God is. His “well done” is truly the only praise that matters. So please, stay near to God Saints. Faithfulness trumps fame any day.
Thanks for those insights, Jackie, I totally agree—faithfulness trumps fame any day! In doing many book signings and media and speaking events over the years, I’ve had a taste of what it’s like to be treated as a celebrity. It’s fine to respect and appreciate someone’s writing, but some people treat me better than I deserve. I do not believe that these people are trying to dishonor God. But I’m as vulnerable as anyone to sliding down the slippery slope of pride, succumbing to flattery, and gradually coming to think that I deserve special attention, recognition, and material indulgences.
That’s the big danger of being in the public eye—you can start to think that you’re above the rules of life. But none of us are. Fame easily becomes detached from character and integrity. And when people admire you, you can believe you’re worthy of admiration, become proud, and let down your moral guard.
The remedy is to stay plugged into Scripture and to remind ourselves we’re no better than anyone else. We’re all under the same rules. God is watching and He cares how we live: “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13).
It’s a huge mistake to believe what people think about you. One day you’re a hero; the next day you’re a jerk. That’s why we have to set aside people’s opinions of us. We have to know who we are—and who we aren’t—in God’s eyes.
When someone thinks too little of me I always remind myself that there are other people who think too much of me. And the court of public opinion isn’t what matters—what matters is what God thinks. As Jackie reminded us, “His ‘well done’ is truly the only praise that matters.” He’s the Audience of One. No matter who we are, let’s want to hear Him say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”
Twenty-five years ago, I spoke at a Green Bay Packers pre-game chapel about “Fame or Character.” The players and coaches there were just like the rest of us, except more famous and wealthy (and somewhat larger!). This is the transcript of the message I shared with them, which I believe is still relevant today.
Also see this great article from Scott Sauls, sharing things he’s learned from Tim Keller about God-honoring leadership.