Christianity Today Didn't Create the Celebrity Newsroom Machine, But It's Part of It
On December 26, 2022, I wrote a Twitter thread about Christianity Today that clearly struck a nerve with, well, a lot of people.
The thread was, in reality, a shortened version of an article I wrote about celebrity, media incentive structures, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, and Christianity Today. It was set for publication in Mere Orthodoxy last summer, but I pulled the article at the last minute for one reason: I deeply appreciate Christianity Today and feared that the article would be militarized by other media operators who are, in many cases, more guilty of the problems I surfaced with regards to CT.
Unfortunately, my thread did exactly that. A small group of people read my tweet as a broadside against CT and used it to explain why they read American Reformers and First Things. The problem is that these magazines exist in the same media landscape as CT and, in many ways, appear to be more intractably entrenched in its broken incentive structures.
Of course, I could write about those magazines, but I wouldn’t be writing from the perspective of a fellow traveler who cares about their future. I’ve written for CT and see them as friends. I hoped they would hear my critique because I believe the institution is helmed by sincere Christians who love the church. I wasn’t surprised when CT’s president, Tim Dalrymple, and several of their reporters responded to my critique with extraordinary grace and kindness. That alone is proof of their character.
But back to the thread.
The Problem with Incentive Structures
In my Twitter thread, I pointed out that the majority of Christianity Today’s most viewed articles explored scandal and abuse in the church. I think my concern surprised some people because I’ve never bought the argument that hiding sin and covering up abuse is better for the church’s witness than confessing it.
We live in the tradition of the Psalmists, who publicly lamented Israel’s idolatry, greed, sexual immorality, violence, and injustice. In the same way, we should be forthright about our own failures, not only as an act of solidarity with those harmed by spiritual and sexual abuse but also in an effort to heal the sin-sick bride of Christ through repentance.
So my concern wasn’t, “Should Christians report on abuse in the church?” Yes, we should. Full stop.
My concern centered on the incentive structures that drive media organizations in the Information Age, and how those incentives unintentionally set media at odds with the interests of local institutions where humans build thick networks of relationships. Relationships that, sociologically speaking, create the soil in which human life flourishes. In other words, if media outlets need clicks to survive and churches need trust to survive, what happens when the best way to get clicks is by critiquing the church?
This isn’t a problem for CT alone. It’s a problem baked into the structure of digital media, and no publication can navigate it by sticking its head into the sand and hoping for the best.
To explain what I mean and how I fear this happens at CT, I must examine how the Information Age strip-mines local institutions and how celebrity culture and news media exist in a symbiotic relationship that reconfigures the definition of news.
The Information Age Strip-Mines Institutions
Social capital — wealth in human relationships — impacts almost every dimension of human welfare. As I wrote in my book Truth Over Tribe,
“Studies show that those who are wealthy in relationships experience the greatest levels of happiness, regardless of their bank account. Communities with the highest number of community institutions (churches, bowling leagues, volunteer societies) and the highest rates of charitable giving are also the communities where a child is most likely to rise out of poverty. These are also the places with the lowest rates of depression, anxiety, crime, and drug and alcohol abuse.”
The tragedy is that we’re living in the great depression of social capital, which may be the root cause of our most intractable psychological and social maladies. Robert Putnam and Tim Carney both wrote book-length treatments explaining why this happened: over the last three decades, our middle institutions, like churches, have been hollowed out. Without them, people become isolated, depressed, anxious, angry, and volatile.
In The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, Martin Gurri suggests that recent institutional dissolution is a result of the Information Age. Between 1999 and 2000, humans created more information than the human species had created in its entire history. Between 2000 and 2001, they doubled it again. The net effect was cheap, easy access to information that pulled the curtain back on the Oz-like institutions — unveiling their faults, foibles, and deceptions. It’s hard to call this bad. Easy access to and transfer of information fueled the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and #MeToo.
Hear Martin Gurri talk more about this on our recent Truth Over Tribe episode.
The problem is that once we learned that the institutional wizards were mere men, it created a hunger to tear down, burn, and destroy the institutions they operated. But the movements that wrecked institutions largely failed to reconfigure themselves into builders.
Put differently, the Information Age gave us an appetite for anti-visions. We have a vision for what we’re against, not what we’re for.
This helps to explain the phenomenon explored by Yuval Levin in A Time to Build, wherein politicians use media platforms to express themselves as outsiders in Washington. They weren’t elected to maintain the system or work within it. Instead, they’re ready to burn it down, drain the swamp, and smoke out Wall Street interests.
Listen to Yuval Levin discuss this in greater depth on our recent Truth Over Tribe episode.
A similar dynamic happens in news media when an organization begins to see its mission as apocalyptic (literally: unveiling). When the Washington Post changed its masthead to read “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” it wasn’t signaling an interest in democracy so much as stating its apocalyptic mission: news exists to unveil evil.
The iconoclast outsider is the hero in every anti-vision, whose legacy will be measured more by what she destroyed and unveiled than by what she built. Although there is a deep irony: institutions are the raw material that outsiders meltdown and reforge into credibility and celebrity. Put differently, local institutions may fall, but website traffic and follower counts will rise.
This prolegomenon isn’t about Christianity Today. It’s about all of us. It’s a description of the complex, paradoxical information landscape in which we all live and participate.
On the one hand, injustice must be uprooted. The Wizard of Oz is a huckster, after all. Evil should be held accountable in the light. But on the other hand, outsiders are ill-equipped to rebuild what they — often justifiably — tore down. Even if they wanted to do so, the public isn’t interested: they want anti-visions, they click anti-visions, they follow anti-visions.
The net effect is akin to strip mining. Once the anti-visioneers clear the surface and extract the minerals, they leave behind an eroded, dangerous institutional eye-sore that’s hostile to new life. At this point, the media strip miners simply move to new terrain and start over.
Meanwhile, local institutional leaders seek to salvage the wreckage. Most of them weren’t Oz. None of them were outsiders. But these men and women live in the waste, suffering an even sadder irony: much of the public lacks the drive to build, and when they see the strip mine, they see it as proof of the institution's failure and turn for spiritual wisdom elsewhere. To whom? The outsiders, of course, because they see the vacuousness of institutional life.
One need only watch the irascible Christian Twitter community circling around polemic media outlets like American Reformer and The Daily Wire to see this happen.
Honestly, this situation leaves me hopeless. It’s the ultimate catch-22. To resist public accountability is to court unjust systems that lead to abuse. To welcome it is to court a local-level institutional extinction event that leaves the public psychologically ill. One can imagine a world where the outsiders mine more responsibly, the institutional workers take more responsibility for their sins, and both work together to tell a better story and rebuild something beautiful.
But the incentive structures of digital media militate against this in anti-visionary culture. One place this becomes most evident is in news coverage of celebrities. Namely, the institutional downstream effects of news media creating and cannibalizing celebrities in news properties like The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.
The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill
Mark Driscoll is, in many ways, a paradigm of modern celebrity. It’s now clear that, before he became famous, he — like all would-be celebrities — had a knack for making himself newsworthy. He was the quintessential outsider, mocking evangelicalism for its femininity, lame music, and outmoded growth strategies. His language, swagger, and style grabbed attention, and his use of burgeoning internet technologies elevated his visibility.
During the first seven years of his ministry (1998–2005), CT mentioned Driscoll only five times, but in 2006, something changed. Driscoll landed prime real estate at The Gospel Coalition, and suddenly, his ministry became more newsworthy. During the next seven years of his ministry (2006–2013), CT mentioned Driscoll 108 times.
The symbiosis had begun.
If you look through those articles, you’ll quickly discover that the coverage was not always positive, but that’s the norm in celebrity creation. Celebrities simply need any news to rise, and newsrooms don’t need good behavior to fill their pages. In 2007, CT published the most quintessential form of celebrity media: a celebrity exposé on Driscoll.
Increasing levels of attention elevated Driscoll and gave him enough credibility to create an entire ethos that had downstream institutional effects when some pastors and church planters began to emulate his brashness and hyper-masculinity.
These leaders structured their churches the way Driscoll claimed his was structured, handled church discipline in the fashion he advocated, and pushed congregants to adopt Driscoll’s attitudes toward sex and marriage. Nothing summarizes this ethos better than the cover of Darrin Patrick’s 2010 book Church Planter, published by Resurgence Literature (founded by Driscoll).
The cover is moody, bearded, and masculine. A solitary figure exudes rugged individualism. The stark contrast evokes a cosmic war between good and evil. In his hand is a sickle, symbolically merging violence with cultivation — Driscoll’s own church growth strategy.
Mimetic pastors saw this cover and wanted to be that dude. Driscoll’s celebrity and success proved that this was a good thing. But, as Mike Cosper masterfully shows in his podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, the results were catastrophic. Driscoll-lite churches became fertile ground for spiritual abuse and bullying leadership. But it wasn’t catastrophic for the news media or Mark Driscoll.
At least, until 2013. In December of that year, a plagiarism scandal rocked Driscoll’s image. What followed in 2014 was the unveiling of far worse misdeeds: using church funds to catapult a book onto bestseller lists as well as revelations of internet bullying and abusive leadership. During the seven years after the scandal (2014–2021), CT mentioned Driscoll 128 times.
In June of 2021, they released The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, a podcast that received 20 million downloads in the first six months and reached over 10 million listeners. Mike Cosper, the reporter behind the podcast, doubled his Twitter following during that year and became an increasingly prominent voice in discussions around church abuse. Information on how the podcast impacted CT’s circulation, subscriptions, and ad revenue is not publicly available. However, it’s telling that a year after the series’ conclusion, CT still gives The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill an extremely prominent spot on its page selling ads to advertisers. (Note: from my own experience in podcast advertising, the going rate for podcast ads ranges from $20–30 per 1000 impressions).
The aftermath of the podcast is, of course, a mixed bag. I don’t know a single ministry leader who hasn’t had multiple people from his church bring up the podcast, often with concerns about their health and leadership. If this leads churches to become increasingly transparent and create structures that resist abuse, I believe this is profoundly good.
But I do not believe Cosper’s podcast is an unalloyed good.
I know many ministry leaders at healthy churches who felt like anyone who listened to the podcast suddenly became suspicious. Elders left. Long-time members started church shopping. People on the fringe de-churched. Relationships fractured. Those who stayed became more cynical and distant. They felt the need to prove they weren’t doing something badly abusive — but proving a negation is notoriously difficult.
Behind closed doors, they confided that they appreciated the podcast and saw its value. However, they also feared it would harm healthy churches by unfairly liquidating trust and reconfiguring every difficult interaction with staff and members through the grid of abuse. Few of them spoke out because they care about abuse survivors and didn’t want to say anything that might discredit their experience or enable abuse. So they watched helplessly as lives and families eroded under the pressure of institutional disconnectedness.
Winners and Losers
At this point, I want to be careful. CT is a non-profit. As their own reporting on non-profit profiteering shows, this doesn’t mean that revenue is unimportant to them. But from what I’ve seen and heard, CT is not a profiteering organization. They don’t start podcasts by asking, “How much money will this make?” Likewise, I do not believe that Mike Cosper created his podcast expecting it to be as successful as it was or with any desire to hurt churches.
What I’m hoping to highlight in this article is that the celebrity-newsroom-symbiosis machine produces these results consistently, and they are amplified in an anti-institutional culture. CT didn’t make the machine, but it is a part of it.
What makes CT unique is not merely its historical status as an August evangelical publication institution but also its commitment to be “for the church.” This is why they must continue to pay attention to incentive structures. They’re often unspoken and unseen, and yet nonetheless structure decision-making and outcomes.
This is why this article isn’t debating whether we should report on abuse. We should. I’m arguing that incentive structures created by the celebrity newsroom symbiosis can perpetuate abuse and then capitalize upon it without anyone consciously seeking to do so.
Put differently: when it comes to celebrity creation, the biggest winners are celebrities and the news media outfits that write about their lives. The losers, in the case of Mark Driscoll, were the institutional leaders downstream who mimicked the celebrities that news media drew their attention to. The victims those local leaders harmed and abused paid the truest price.
When it comes to celebrity consumption, the biggest winner is the news media and the few institutions that reform as a result. The biggest loser is, well, everyone else. Healthy institutions strip-mined by the operation suffer because they unfairly lost the trust required for healthy collective organisms. The participants in those institutions suffered if their suspicion led them to dislocate themselves from church life or found themselves in estranged relationships with shepherds they could no longer trust.
If we didn’t live in an anti-visionary moment, where outsiders who unveil or destroy institutions become heroes the public trusts, perhaps the cost wouldn’t have been so high. But the true story Cosper told about Mars Hill fits hand in glove with the less true anti-institutional story believed by Americans. Perhaps he didn’t invite his listeners to map Mars Hill onto their local church, but they didn’t need the invitation. They just needed a nudge.
Again, I can imagine a world where painful stories of abuse are mined and brought into the light for the church’s good. But responsible mining would acknowledge the news media’s complicity in creating abusive celebrities (and their emulators), seek to limit its future celebrity coverage (for example, last month’s CT cover story), and be careful not to give the impression that abuse lurks behind the doors of most churches by telling countervailing stories of churches with beautiful orthodoxy.
Christianity Today’s president, Tim Dalrymple, recently came on our podcast to tackle these issues with Patrick head-on. Be sure to give it a listen and hear his unique perspective.
Posted by Patrick Miller