This essay from Carl Trueman is gold:
It is probably a year or so since I raised the question of the impact of celebrity on evangelicalism. As I was told then, celebrity either does not exist in the evangelical subculture or is of no real importance there. Thus, I suspect the Evangelical Industrial Complex either does not exist or exerts no influence; but it is entertaining to imagine what would the signs be that it was a real issue (which, I am sure you will agree, it is not).
The aesthetics of success would subtly and imperceptibly supplant the principles of faithfulness or would indeed come to be identified with the same. The rhetoric of faithfulness would be retained, but the substance would be less and less important. Thus, the key leaders would be the men at the big churches or with the ability to pack a stadium or to handle media with slick sophistication. Fruitfulness and faithfulness would be rhetorically opposed in a way that would be ridiculous if we were talking marriage, but which somehow seems plausible in a church context.
This isn’t a new problem, of course. In the early days of his work in Geneva, Calvin was strongly opposed to publishing his sermons. He believed that the commentaries he wrote were for all Christians, but his sermons to the church in Geneva were specifically meant for the church in Geneva and shouldn’t be published for people outside the Genevan church to read.
Of course, you can probably guess what happened. Printers in nearby cities simply started selling unauthorized copies of Calvin’s sermons that didn’t always reflect his actual beliefs. Consequently, Calvin had to make a compromise and authorize a printed version of his sermon simply to prevent unauthorized versions from getting out. (As an aside, this is one reason I appreciate it when prominent churches put their sermons behind a paywall. That paywall is going to keep a lot of casual sermon listeners from regularly listening to their preaching and becoming more influenced by that then by their own pastor at their own local church.) The lesson here seems to be that technological developments can make our ideal scenario for church life a bit harder to realize.
The question we’re left with then is how we might actually begin to get away from this “evangelical industrial complex,” that Trueman writes about so forcefully and accurately. To go Marshall McLuhan on the issue, the nature of the internet as the dominant medium for communication is such that it’s hard not to develop “brands” or for prominent ministers to become really prominent. When you win on the internet, you really win. So how can Christians responsibly pursue a more spiritually healthy way of living in the church when the dominant mediums we use are so toxic in this particular respect?
To maybe put a bit of teeth on this, some of the most prominent “evangelical celebrities” going right now aren’t actually trying to build a brand or a personal empire. There’s a few of course, but many of the “evangelical rockstars” are actually better on these issues than Trueman’s critique might suggest.
John Piper, for example, doesn’t interact with people a ton on Twitter, his approach to his finances is above repute, and a few years back a specific change he wanted to make to the Bethlehem constitution was voted down by the elders, which shows that his elders were not simply yes men blindly following their fearless leader. In fact, they even felt perfectly comfortable contradicting Piper’s publicly stated position. That’s huge when you’re talking about a man with Piper’s influence and stature within the evangelical sub-culture. And, most obviously, the man voluntarily stepped down from leadership of his local church and then move over 1000 miles from that church so that he wouldn’t be a distraction during the transition time. A man addicted to power doesn’t do that.
Tim Keller, another evangelical celebrity, seems similarly above repute on these matters. Redeemer sermons are actually behind a paywall and he only published one book between the founding of Redeemer in 1989 and the first of his many recent books The Reason for God, first published in 2009. From a quick Google search, it looks like he didn’t speak at many conferences during that time either. Additionally, most of his books since Reason for God have been published with non-evangelical publishing houses. In fact, I remember reading D.A. Carson’s 2005 book Becoming Conversant with the Emergent Church where Carson talks at some length about Keller’s ministry in Manhattan which, up to that time, I had known nothing about. I knew about most the prominent evangelical pastors and authors, but I’d never even heard of Tim Keller.
Of course, despite all that… when people think of “evangelical celebrities,” Piper and Keller are two names that immediately spring to mind, despite the things mentioned above. And it’s easy to understand why, of course. For all their efforts to resist becoming “brands,” and celebrities, Piper and Keller get a ton of attention, they have a lot of fans, and a lot of people hang on their every word. If you surveyed the sort of evangelicals Trueman is talking about who are more influenced by celebrities than their local church, I’d guess many of them would say that Piper or Keller are two of their primary influences. But I don’t think Piper and Keller have themselves pursued that kind of empire building in the nefarious ways implied by critiques like Trueman’s. In fact, both of them would probably tell those people to stop listening to their stuff if it’s giving them an excuse to not be involved in a local church.
Which brings me back to my question–how do evangelicals resist the evangelical industrial complex, something which we absolutely must do for the sake of the spiritual health of our churches and for individual Christians? It seems like the issue here isn’t always that evangelical leaders are trying to build a brand online or become celebrities. There’s something more complicated going on which involves our sin natures, evolving communication mediums, thin ecclesiology, and probably several as well.
In some cases it may be as simple as smacking a leader getting too big for his britches down a few pegs. Sometimes leaders really do become brands and the results are toxic. But those cases seem to be the minority. A lot of prominent Christian figures are just ordinary Christians with specific (and usually above-average) giftings that they are trying to steward for the advancement of the Gospel.
But because of the many other factors in play, that good desire gets twisted and they find themselves a member of the complex. In those cases… what do we do? I agree with Matt’s recent call for more pastors to embrace downward mobility, but even when they do that, they end up in the spot light. Francis Chan decided that he needed to get out of the celebrity rockstar role, which just became another reason that people followed him and hung on his every word. So what do we do? It seems like a classic damned if you, damned if you don’t situation.
We can’t change the fact that the internet is the dominant communications medium today. And we can’t immediately change the thin ecclesiology that marks American evangelicalism, though that should definitely be a long-term project. So is the only way to solve the problem for all the rockstars to simply stop publishing books, stop speaking at conferences, put their sermons behind paywalls, refuse every interview request, and start pastoring small congregations of 200 people? Even if they did do that (and I’m not sure it’d be a good idea to do so anyway)… what’s to keep some other group of pastors from simply taking their place? I’d love to hear from readers on this one because I’m clearly long on questions and short on answers.