But despite all the attention, she was the first to admit on Twitter that ‘it didn’t make an ounce of difference how many retweets I had when I sat holding hand of bereaved lady this morning’
Bottley clearly has her head screwed on, but it’s not the case for everyone. Being a star has long been the dream of many; affirmation, being well known and receiving recognition for what you do being all part of the attractive package. The leaps and bounds in technology over the last decade have made this all the more achievable. It still takes a certain something, the elusive ‘X factor’ perhaps, but building a stage for yourself is easier than ever before.
The Christian world is no stranger to celebrity. Be it authors, speakers or musicians, the market is a busy one, with many people seeking to promote themselves and their wares. Last year, former chair and CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, Michael Hyatt, wrote a book, Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World (Thomas Nelson), offering a step-by-step guide to building a platform. It raced up the best-seller charts, proving our fascination and desire for recognition. Since then, Hyatt has continued to develop his own platform, and has launched the Platform University. All the how-to knowledge for platform building can be yours for just $25 a month.
"Is your identity based on how many people follow you on Twitter, or from your position as a child of God?"
There is nothing inherently wrong with being well known. The problems arise when those seeking notoriety begin to take active steps to self-promote. So, is the lure of fame and fortune winning out over kingdom-building and serving God?
UK v US market
Despite sharing some similarities, the difference between the Christian market in the US and the UK is plain. ‘Don’t believe the tales of rapid decline in the US that you might hear,’ says Jason Clark, senior pastor of Sutton Vineyard, who is also studying for a PhD in theology on Church and Consumer Culture. ‘There might be a drop in the number of Christians in the US but Christianity is big business and close to the surface everywhere, even in the most secular of locations. The contrast between the UK and the US is immense, in terms of numbers of practising Christians as [a] percentage of any location, and that translates into sales of all Christian resources.’
The UK market is a dwarf in comparison, but there is still the inevitable competition and jostling for space. It is saturated with hundreds of books, CDs, speakers and conferences. Even using the term ‘market’ in the Christian world brings with it many connotations. ‘We’ve commoditised Christianity,’ says Krish Kandiah, executive director: churches in mission and England at the Evangelical Alliance. ‘People can have the best intentions and somehow end up crossing the line. It is very difficult to navigate in [a] godly manner.’
Obviously many ministries do incredible work and without a platform they wouldn’t reach many people. ‘The problem comes when people have nothing to say and nothing positive to contribute; this makes lots of noise and becomes a little bit vacuous,’ says one former head o f a Christian organisation. So it then becomes an issue of motivation. ‘If the motivation is to speak the message or use the gifting that God has given it is not an issue,’ says Gareth Russell, director at Jersey Road Limited, and former managing director at Authentic Media. ‘But if it is simply jumping on a bandwagon, hoping to make some money and tap into what is a sizeable market, then that is an issue. Books and albums should not be produced to meet a budget, they should be produced because they add value, they bring a different viewpoint or flavour, or they showcase a God-given talent.’
Responsibility of the individual
As we face a constant barrage of messages, standing firm on the truth of the gospel is vital. ‘At the core of our faith is the gospel that subverts the platforming celebrity culture ? and we’ve had to fight against [celebrity culture] in every age. We’ve got to fight against it as individuals; we put people on pedestals,’ says Kandiah. ‘Sometimes Christians will prefer to idolise a celebrity than take seriously their own walk with God,’ says Andy Peck, a tutor at CWR. ‘They can assume that celebrities have a hotline to God, and it’s their job to listen to them. This isn’t the fault of the celebrity.’ Kandiah agrees: ‘We do have a Corinthianised Church world; we have our heroes and we’ve outsourced our thinking to them. Sometimes we just follow in their footsteps rather than critically engaging with them. There is a danger in celebrity culture that we don’t do the hard work ourselves.’
New media, new challenges
In a landscape that was already tricky to navigate, new media has meant that it is even easier to ‘play the game’ and to self-promote. There has been a democratisation online, opening up the space for anyone wants to be heard. ‘On the one hand, digital technologies have made it easier than ever before to share one’s gifts, ideas and wisdom with others,’ says author and speaker Sheridan Voysey. ‘But there is an ugly side to platform building. It can become narcissistic and self-serving. The temptation comes to be overly sensational, controversial or [to] jump on a bandwagon topic without adding any gospel light to it, purely because those things draw significant blog traffic and so build your platform.’
Distortion online is rife, with name-dropping and buying Twitter followers to gain influence being two huge issues. Creating smoke and mirrors online is simple. It’s hardly surprising that there are Christians who have resorted to buying Twitter followers to give the illusion of importance. And reading through your Twitter feed, you will no doubt see a lot of name-dropping. ‘There are some people who want to be seen to know the right people,’ says Russell. ‘Being seen to have been with so-and-so, and putting it online, just so everyone else knows.’ This suggests the need for us to return to the heart of our faith, and our identity as Christians. ‘Where does [your identity] come from? Is your self-esteem based on how many people follow you on Twitter, or from your position as a child of God?’ asks Russell
Fame can offer a much-craved validation. For Christians who are supposed to find their identity in Christ, the tension is obvious. It’s easy to become more worried about what others think of us, than about the work we’re doing for the kingdom. ‘The problem starts when people get into [building a ministry] in order to get fame; when the motivation becomes the notoriety,’ says Russell.
"It’s impossible to know in what spirit someone is preaching or leading worship"
Will van der Hart, vicar of St Peter’s West Harrow and director of Mind and Soul, is concerned that a culture of celebrity worship is damaging for discipleship. ‘It steals the value that young people place on mentoring, service, character development and integrity,’ he says.
He thinks a culture of selfpromotion is detrimental to young people and their spirituality. ‘It could be easy to say that young people just want to be rich and famous as today’s celebrity is culture and is very ego- centric with no one wanting to serve. But equally we’re not very good at providing opportunities for younger leaders to step into.’
Someone who has grappled with this issue is Soul Survivor founder Mike Pilavachi. ‘We’ve agonised about this as a team so much,’ he says. ‘Sometimes we’ve even questioned what we’re doing. Every year I get loads of young people coming up or writing to me saying things like, “I was watching Soul Survivor on God TV and was so inspired by the worship team. I’d love to come over and worship with the team.” I’ve had others say, “The Lord told me I’ll be an international worship leader.” It’s not their fault. It’s the culture that surrounds them. We want to keep saying, “The pay is the same if you’re doing it for five or for 5,000 [people].” But it’s hard to get [the] message through. We’re always trying to raise up new people, and now I’ll deliberately not use [Matt Redman and Tim Hughes], simply because I don’t want it to be about celebrity worship leaders. But then you get a 17-year-old worship leader up there, and the girls get gooey eyes for them. I think it’s a discipleship issue; we need to help young people (and anyone) realise, “Who am I doing this for? It’s got to be Jesus.”’
Education can be part of the solution. ‘The trouble is that lots of stuff on TV says “let’s aspire to celebrity”,’ says Wendy Beech-Ward, events and ambassadors director at Compassion UK and former event director at Spring Harvest. ‘I think we need to be better at educating people about what success is. When I was in Haiti with Compassion, every child I met had dreams of becoming an engineer or serving the community. If I asked 12-year-olds in the UK, they’d probably talk about wanting to be famous; it’s not even a job. It’s about us educating people [to aspire to more than fame].’ Van der Hart agrees: ‘It’s important for senior leaders to ask what we are doing to help disempower this celebrity culture, rather than simply saying “this is wrong”. Are we colluding with it, or even generating it [celebrity culture], and so criticising young people harshly for something we’re actually responsible for?’
We also have to be careful not to ‘bash’ people just because they are celebrities. The temptation to do so mirrors real life, where it is assumed that mocking celebrities is fair game. ‘The only reason those people have become more well known than others is because for a long time they’ve been at the top of their game,’ says Beech- Ward. ‘So Matt Redman has served the Church worldwide producing very good songs, leading by example, and there is nothing about him that you could call “celebrity”, but he is very well known. Does he come with an entourage? No. Expect VIP treatment? No. In truth, why are these people well known? Because they have consistently [produced] something… that’s brought people to Jesus.’ Seeing such consistency in a person’s ministry underlines their integrity.
The issue of speaker’s fees is a contentious one. It is a job, and so the needs of a speaker are the same as anyone else ? to make a living. But the problem comes when this need to be paid is abused. When trying to book one well-known youth worker for a conference in the UK, the event organiser was sent a long list of requirements essential to secure the booking. This list included business class flights for two, a ministry gift of £7,000, £80 a day for food, and a game of golf. Surely an abuse of position and influence? ‘I do get disturbed at the fees I hear celebrity pastors require to speak at a conference,’ says Voysey. ‘The business principle of supply and demand seems to be employed by such speakers ? the greater the demand for their “services”, the greater the price they charge ? and that is a principle from the world, not the kingdom.’
In his own career, Voysey relies on three verses to keep him in check. ‘The first is Mark 1:18. The disciples left the financial security of their businesses to speak for Jesus. The second is 1 Corinthians 9:14. That says those who preach the gospel should earn their living from the gospel. So, it is ok to receive payment. And the third is in 2 Corinthians 2:17, to not “peddle the word of God for profit”.’ Because of these verses, Voysey has a policy of having a speaking fee to cover his needs, but equally if a group cannot afford the fee and he believes it is right to go, he will.
On the other hand, if visiting speakers or worship leaders are underpaid ? or even unpaid ? they can find themselves being encouraged to promote themselves, or their ministries, in order to make ends meet. Sales of their books, albums or future ministry bookings can become a financial ‘must’ and so, ironically, a Christian leader can find him or herself encouraged to build a platform.
The rise of the conference
The landscape has changed in recent years. Some may reminisce about the heyday of Spring Harvest, when 80,000 people would gather. But now diversity has changed the picture; every church stream has a conference. This too has led to the different conference models ? the HTB Leadership Conference with its high-profile speakers (including Tony Blair and Justin Welby among others) and the smaller Youthwork Summit, a conference which deliberately showcases unknown youthworkers alongside bigger names.
There is a biblical model for conferences ? we see the many large festivals that took place in Jerusalem ? but as with anything involving a platform, there are dangers. It makes sense that for a conference to be a success it needs to have a list of heavyweight speakers that people are willing to pay to hear. ‘Had HTB not put names on their advertising, I guarantee they wouldn’t have filled the Albert Hall,’ says Beech-Ward. ‘But they listed Tony Blair, Judah Smith and Christine Caine etc and people came; and the expectation also goes up which can only be a good thing. I want HTB to do well, so I’m not going to criticise them and what they are trying to do just because they have the resources to book those people.’
We must be careful that we don’t put big names on the platform simply for the name’s sake. Rather, we should do so because they will bring a message that will edify the Church.
"Integrity is still a key factor when discussing platform"
It’s not just the speaker fees that can raise questions. Which people are invited to speak is also a subject of contention. Often the biggest earners on the speaking circuit are white men from America. ‘We need to be hearing from the two-third world more, but we have a colonial mindset,’says Kandiah. ‘[However], it is not an attractive pull in the market.’ And for conferences to break even, it’s risky to put an unknown name in the line-up, when a big name would stand a greater chance of drawing the crowds.
An issue of integrity
The trouble with motivation is that it’s a hidden ‘heart issue’. It’s impossible to know in what spirit someone is preaching or leading worship. Many would proclaim that it is all about the heart, but Russell looks to Paul and identifies: ‘In Philippians, Paul talked about those people who preached out of a genuine heart and others who weren’t so genuine. Paul said that he didn’t mind what their heart was as long as they were preaching the gospel.’ This is a direct challenge to those who would believe the heart behind the ministry to be more important than the sharing of the good news through the ministry.
Bearing this in mind, integrity is still a key factor when discussing platform. In terms of being a successful leader, it really does all come down to that one character trait. Says van der Hart: ‘Everyone is looking for integrity in their leaders. People go after power, thinking that it’s the vehicle to their leadership, but really it is integrity. In the 21st century everyone wants to know if you’ve got integrity about you.’
It’s equally important to seek to be generous in all our work. ‘I’m a big advocate for generosity,’ says Beech- Ward. ‘Rather than jostling to elevate our own thing, we should be jostling to elevate Jesus and the Church and what the Church exists for. We should be drawing people back to that as a principle.’ By returning to the centrality of the gospel, we can ensure our ministries are motivated not by greed or selfish ambition, but by Christ.
Currently we live in the age of celebrity, but will this always be so? The recently-released film The Bling Ring offers a powerful critique of celebrity-worship culture, perhaps indicating a change of mood in the wider world. Certainly as the online world expands, new forms of communication are creating opportunities for those previously unseen and unknown. ‘There may be a changing mood,’ says Russell. ‘A new generation who are looking for authenticity rather than celebrity
Bloggers can be as influential as people working the circuit. I’ve noticed in my generation of Christian leaders there is more emphasis on collaboration and less about building an empire. I think the celebrity thing will die down as more people look for authenticity.’ Peck agrees: ‘There’s maybe a shift away from adulation: a new respect for one another. That’s got to be a good thing.’
There is also the argument that such a busy, saturated market simply cannot be sustained over time. ‘Whenever you get a pond that is over populated, after a while all the natural resources are eaten up, it becomes bare and everyone flies away,’ says one London church leader. ‘If the pool of Christian celebrities continues to grow and becomes a great seething mass, it is unsustainable, and everyone will leave. I hope they will.’