The emphasis on personas, platforms and profits is damaging the ordinary witness of faithful Christians, says Katelyn Beaty
On a dreary autumn afternoon in 2014, I found myself on a reporting trip for a Christian magazine. We were running a special feature on women apologists and I had been sent to Oxford to profile one of them. As a college student from the USA, I had previously studied there for a term, and was eager to return to the city of dreaming spires.
But Oxford’s charms were no match for the anxiety in my stomach as I prepared for my interview. I would be speaking to a scholar who was working for a ministry bearing the name of a world-famous apologist.
In recent weeks, we had received a disturbing tip about him: he had been seen entering an overseas hotel with a woman who was not one of his family or staff members. Now I had to ask the apologist if she could lend any credence to the tip.
When the moment came, the apologist responded with shock. She said she had never heard or seen anything that would cast a shadow of doubt upon his integrity. She suggested that perhaps he was the victim of false rumours because he was sharing the gospel in a hostile, secular climate.
Christian celebrity is an oxymoron, with dire consequences for the church
A bit relieved, I accepted this explanation and reported back. The story lay dormant for several years until, of course, the truth came to light.
The late Ravi Zacharias, a global Christian celebrity, speaker and author, was found to have sexually abused many women around the world. He was even exchanging explicit photos with some until a few months before his death, in May 2020.
The Zacharias tip wasn’t the first time I had been made aware of a disturbing allegation about a beloved evangelical pastor, author or speaker.
During my time working as an editor, many other allegations were revealed to be true, and I started to wonder whether some were actually not people of deep character and qualified to minister, lead and represent the faith in the public square. I began to consider whether ‘Christian celebrity’ was, in fact, an oxymoron, with dire consequences for the whole Church.
Recently, headlines have abounded with famous Christians who have built toxic ministry cultures, used their power to harm others or treated church more like a business than the house of God.
But I wanted to know why there were so many celebrity Christians in the first place, especially in the United States. Why are so many of us eager to embrace and idolise individuals with mega-platforms? And what effect does this have on how everyday Christians understand church, leadership and ordinary faithfulness?
Firstly, it’s important to define ‘celebrity’. In 1962, decades before the Kardashians hit our screens and social media was invented, American historian Daniel Boorstin defined the concept as referring to “a person who is known for his well-knownness”.
Boorstin captured perfectly the artificial nature of modern celebrity – and how the tools of mass media allow users to cultivate a persona and following.
For the purposes of my own research and writing, I define Christian celebrity as someone with “social power without proximity”. By this I mean a speaker’s ability to shape millions of hearts and minds from a stage or platform, without necessarily having a relationship with those followers and fans.
People might feel that they know the speaker but, of course, the distance between the platform and the everyday life of the listener is vast. The speaker can cultivate a popular public image, while their true, private self remains a mystery.
This is part of the problem of Christian celebrity: it often bypasses accountability, which is necessary for anyone wielding leadership and spiritual power.
Of course, many Christian celebrities have used their social power for relative good. Billy Graham was arguably the most famous Christian of the past century, reaching millions of people around the world.
He took a pragmatic, even progressive approach to mass media, believing such platforms should be embraced if they allowed the gospel to reach more people. He was also kind, down-to-earth and plainly likeable, befriending all the US presidents from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, as well as celebrities including Johnny Cash and Muhammad Ali.
In one episode of The Crown, the popular Netflix dramatisation of the lives of the British monarchy, Queen Elizabeth II invites Graham to meet with her, noting that he’s “rather handsome”. When they speak (over tea, naturally), Graham encourages the Queen in her faith and counsels her when she finds out that the Duke of Windsor, her uncle, had consorted with Nazis during the second world war.
The episode highlights the way Graham could minister to people in unique, high-profile positions of power, even while having a heart for reaching the poor and dispossessed. He died in May 2018 and ended his public ministry without a single scandal.
Graham established guardrails early in his life that protected against the temptations of celebrity power. The ‘Modesto Manifesto’, as it came to be known, included a commitment among the men in his closest circle not to meet alone with women who weren’t their wives or family.
This is the most controversial element of the manifesto, and one I personally find unhelpful when applied to modern workplaces where men and women naturally need to meet alone for business purposes. However, discussion of the manifesto tends to neglect the other guardrails.
Graham and his team agreed to operate with financial transparency. His salary would be set by a board of directors instead of being determined by funds collected at events, so that he could not be accused of manipulating crowds for financial gain.
They committed to reporting accurate attendance figures, so as to resist puffing up numbers for better publicity. They also worked closely with local churches instead of pitting themselves against existing congregations on the ground.
With prescient insight, Graham identified the main danger facing celebrated Christian leaders: the temptation to start believing they are above the rules and accountable to no one.
He saw that celebrity could fuel the search for personal riches and defy the Bible’s warnings against the “love of money” (1 Timothy 6:10). He also saw that too many ministries orientated themselves around a central, charismatic figure and undervalued the ordinary witness of local churches. And he understood that status could tempt leaders to fudge the truth – whether attendance numbers or Facebook followers – to promote their own importance, seek greater attention or more money.
If the depressing headlines about fallen Christian leaders tell us anything, it’s that the wisdom of the Modesto Manifesto is evident from our vantage point today.
In the two generations that span Graham’s ministry, celebrity power has overtaken the power of institutions, including the local Church. We are much more likely to pledge our allegiance to specific, charismatic individuals – even those we don’t know personally – than we are to an organisation, workplace, neighbourhood or spiritual community.
Even within communities such as a megachurch, members often orientate their own sense of mission or spiritual fulfilment around a specific leader. Some megachurches have managed to successfully take members beyond a consumerist mindset, rooting them in small groups and relationships with other, ordinary members.
But others, such as Hillsong and Willow Creek, show the folly of over-identifying a church’s mission with a single figure who takes on godlike status and evades accountability. The bruised reputation of these churches demonstrates how difficult it is to extricate a leader’s personal brand from the collective whole after they have permanently tarnished it.
As our institutions decline, our social media platforms and church-adjacent businesses (which add jet fuel to the problem of celebrity) are on the rise. As one example, religious book publishers (in which I now work as an acquisitions editor) often grant book contracts to people with a large platform, knowing that books from famous people sell.
If the author has little of importance to say but attracts scores of social media followers, they will no doubt get a contract. By contrast, authors with great writing skills, theological depth and formal credentials will often struggle to get published if they don’t have a large online presence.
Some hopeful authors will even purchase fake social media followers in order to amplify the appearance of popularity! Books then open doors to the Christian conference circuit, which increases one’s following and secures more book deals. It’s a self-sustaining problem. But what is the solution?
The celebrity Christians who fell from their pedestals
Mark Driscoll built and capsized Mars Hill Church, Seattle, over issues of anger, bullying and ethically murky publishing practices. The megachurch, once home to more than 14,000 people meeting across several locations, closed in 2014, with Driscoll confessing to “past pride, anger and a domineering spirit”.
Bill Hybels, founding pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, Chicago, and the international Willow Creek Association, was accused of harassing several women. He resigned in 2018.
At the time, the church was one of the largest in North America, with an average attendance of 24,000. By 2022, Willow Creek had seen it’s congregation almost half and, as a result, made 30 per cent of it’s staff redundant.
The much-lauded apologist who founded Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) was involved in Christian ministry for more than 40 years. He was accused of serious sexual misconduct, which was confirmed by a law firm hired by RZIM to investigate the allegations. The Christian Missionary Alliance posthumously revoked his ordination and HarperCollins, which owns the Christian publishers Zondervan and Thomas Nelson, took his books out of print.
The popular Christian comedian was accused of using his platform and fame to exploit women and pressure them into sexual relationships. Crist, whose stand-up routines would take him to churches across the US, entered rehabilitation with the aim of getting “healthy spiritually, mentally and physically”.
Former leader of Hillsong New York, Carl Lentz was perhaps best known as the pastor who baptised popstar Justin Bieber. In 2020, Lentz was fired for “moral failures”. The allegations of misconduct against him included bullying, extra-marital affairs and sexual abuse.
A subsequent investigation by an independent law firm into Hillsong NYC noted “multiple incidents of consensual or non-consensual sexual interaction between church leaders and congregants, staff, volunteers, or non-churchgoers”.
In truth, I don’t think we’ve seen the full fallout from Christian celebrity culture. Sometimes it seems not a week goes by without another ministry leader accused of sexual or financial impropriety.
Time will tell if churches like Willow Creek and Hillsong, both of which surely accomplished much good, will survive the scandals among their top leaders.
The problem of celebrity culture in the Church cannot be addressed in a programmatic way, with a solution that can be neatly packaged, bought and implemented.
If we think we can curtail the toxic effects of celebrity with strategy, planning and effort, we reveal how far we’ve bought into worldly myths about our own agency and control.
But there are a few steps we can all take to deflate the temptations of celebrity power and recalibrate the Church towards its central purpose – discipleship and service – instead of growth at all costs.
Firstly, commit to lives of proximity, where we can be truly known and truly loved all the same. This is Christian friendship, designed to keep us humble and grounded, and is especially important for people in positions of power.
Secondly, hire and train Christian leaders who welcome proximity and accountability, who will answer hard questions designed to foster integrity. Perhaps ask leaders to agree to psychological testing to check for narcissistic tendencies, such as a grandiose sense of self, entitlement and lack of empathy for others.
In a time when large swathes of the Western Church have gone all in for bigger, louder and glitzier, we need to return to a renewed vision of ordinary Christian faithfulness.
Obscurity may well be the spiritual discipline the Church most needs to practise in the next 100 years. To detox from the effects of celebrity and preserve Christianity’s countercultural understanding of power, we must recapture a vision of the Christian life that begins and ends with creating what C.S. Lewis called “little Christs”.
If the Church is not doing that then, as Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself are simply a waste of time”. We might add charismatic leaders and slick worship services to his list. Celebrity isn’t a neutral tool; it’s proven itself to be a cunning animal, intent on tearing the Church limb from limb. It’s time to let it go.