The former leader of London’s Holy Trinity Brompton Church, Nicky Gumbel has revealed the names of worship leaders and speakers headlining this year’s Leadership Conference won’t be pre-announced in an attempt to combat “celebrity culture”. Eddie Arthur appreciates the effort, but has some questions
Years ago, I was director of a large mission agency, which gave me a slight prominence in the Christian world.
I wasn’t a celebrity or a household name, but I did get invited to speak at churches and conferences and I’d get the occasional call from the BBC asking for me to comment on some subject or other.
When I stepped down from being director, the invitations and phone calls almost completely dried up. To be honest, it came as a bit of a shock, being even slightly in the public eye was addictive and I really missed it. It took a few years till I learned to relish my relative obscurity.
I was reminded of my own experience, when I learned that the Alpha Leadership Conference has said that they will not be announcing the names of the speakers and worship leaders in advance. The aim is to combat celebrity culture, so that the focus can be on Jesus.
I’m all in favour of putting the focus on Jesus, but hang about. The tickets for the conference range from £59 to £259. If I was going to spend that sort of money, I’d want to know what I was getting for it! Regardless of how famous they are, there are some speakers that address issues I am interested in and concerned about, and others that I could happily give a miss to. Good stewardship demands that I spend my money wisely. I find it slightly ironic that the only reason that the Leadership Conference can do this is that they have a well-established brand, linked to high profile Christians and institutions. You could argue the conference itself is a celebrity, and its name/reputation is enough to draw people in.
we are the ones that create Christian celebrities; we pay them special attention and we place them on pedestals
You may think I’m being somewhat cynical about this. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. I agree with Nicky Gumbel that Christian celebrity culture is toxic both for the “celebrities” themselves and for the wider church. Let me explain.
The thing about “celebrities” is that they get a lot of people telling them how wonderful they are. Not only that, but as part of “building their platform” they often have to spend a good deal of time promoting themselves and their gifts. In this sort of situation, it is all too easy to start believing your own publicity and thinking that you really are special. Sadly, many “celebrities” miss out on the normal pastoral care and accountability that should be a part of church life. Either they are on the road so often that they hardly ever attend their church, or their force of personality means that they overwhelm those who should be caring for them. We all know of stories of famous Christians who have gone off the rails in one way or another. Of course, it is not every celebrity Christian that makes a mess of their life, but there are enough cases that we should be concerned.
The thing is, this comes closer to home. Imagine what it feels like to be a pastor who has worked hard all week preparing a sermon, only to be told after church that a congregation member was really blessed by a talk on the same passage by some famous preacher or other. It can be really discouraging for a minister to realise that they are being compared to famous preachers around the globe. But let’s dig a little deeper. The people leading small churches in the UK, may not have the profile and the star-quality of the big names, but they are faithfully praying for the Spirit to help them speak to the needs of their community. The famous preacher was speaking into a very different context; it may sound great, but it’s not a word for you in the way that something from your home church is.
I think Alpha has taken a bold step in seeking to deal with celebrity culture. If I started out by stating my reservations, that was just to show what a complex phenomenon that this is and how hard it will be to root it out.
In the end, we have to face up to the fact that we are the ones that create Christian celebrities; we pay them special attention and we place them on pedestals. The solution to this, as for so much else in the Christian life, is found in the day to day life of the local Christian community, where we learn love Jesus, to serve and to grow together in the ordinariness of daily life.
Of course, there is a place for specially gifted people and those with a wider ministry or special areas of focus. But when we see them as a substitute for our local church family, we – and they – might be heading for trouble.