How Christians Create (and Consume) Celebrity Pastors
No one likes celebrity pastors. Everyone has a favorite celebrity pastor.
Welcome to a paradox that no one has sufficiently explained. After all, if you don’t like celebrity pastors, then why do you read their books, download their sermons, and follow their social accounts? Conversely, if you have a favorite celebrity pastor, then why do you find The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, The Righteous Gem Stones, and Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed so compelling?
We love Mark Driscoll, Jen Hatmaker, Matt Chandler, Jennie Allen, Carl Lentz, Tim Keller, Sadie Robertson, Jonathan Pokluda, C. J. Mahaney, Jackie Hill Perry, Andy Stanley, Ben Stuart, Bill Hybels, Rachel Hollis, Rob Bell, Franklin Graham, T. D. Jakes, and John MacArthur… until we don’t.
When the love ends—whether it’s because of a scandal, theology, or a political perspective—we are suddenly full of self-righteous indignation toward the one we once loved. We relish dismantling their celebrity almost as much as we savored basking in it.
There is something deeply human about this pattern: the tendency to be overawed by power, prestige, and charisma, and the subsequent delight in cannibalizing Icarus after he falls. I cannot help but think of a visceral story from Acts 12:21-23:
“On an appointed day, Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. And the people were shouting, ‘The voice of a god, and not of a man!’ Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.”
The podcast would be titled The Rise and Fall of Herod Agrippa, and I doubt the worms would want for company. The crowd that cheered for Herod would happily consume stories of his demise. We must not glide over the irony: the crowd made Herod a celebrity. They were no less guilty of idolatry than he was.
Neither am I.
But as I look at the modern media landscape, I’ve come to realize that the nature of celebrity changed in the 20th and 21st centuries. The creation of celebrities looks different today than it did two millennia, or even two centuries, ago.
Let There Be... Celebrities
Crowds once played a role in creating what Daniel J. Boorstin calls “heroes.” These are figures whose accomplishments, however noble or ignoble they may be, were transformed by the folk into folklore. They became famous for deeds, and it was understood that few heroes populated any given generation.
Commenting on Boorstin’s work, Charles L. Ponce De Leon writes in Self-Exposure,
“People did not become famous overnight; in most cases, it took many years, sometimes even generations, for a person to achieve wide renown. Fame was also reserved for those who performed, or were said to have performed, heroic or miraculous deeds, and was transmitted through folklore.”
Boorstin points out that today, the crowds no longer create “heroes.” Instead, they receive pre-fabricated images—celebrities—that are hero-like, though quite different. Boorstin writes,
“The hero was distinguished by his achievement; the celebrity by his image or trademark. The hero created himself; the celebrity is created by the media. The hero was a big man; the celebrity is a big name.”
Just ask yourself: of all the celebrity Christians I follow, did I follow any of them before they were famous? The likely answer is no. Or at least, mostly no. We follow famous people because they are famous. Yes, they may have notable gifts and talents, but we first followed them because of the public conversation around them. In other words, media-generated both their credibility and celebrity. The newspaper breathes the breath of life into the modern celebrity, not the folk.
Celebrities are created by the media to satisfy the public’s insatiable hunger for more news and more heroes. Boorstin writes,
“We expect new heroes every season, a literary masterpiece every month, a dramatic spectacular every week, a rare sensation every night. … We have actually demanded that this mold be made, so that marketable human models—modern “heroes”—could be mass-produced, to satisfy the market, and without any hitches.”
The question is whether there are really enough heroes and newsworthy events to feed a hungry public (and make the publishers quite wealthy). The earliest newspapers were monthly periodicals, not for financial reasons, but because publishers did not believe there was enough news to report more frequently than once a month.
But as newspapers grew into a lucrative business, some printing two to seven times a day, the need for news became unquenchable. Early masters of public relations understood this. They had a knack for creating what Boorstin calls “pseudo-events”—public speeches or happenings created solely for the purpose of filling newspapers and increasing the visibility of the celebrity holding the event.
Former U.S. senator, Joseph McCarthy, is an infamous example.
The Creation and Cannibalization of Joseph McCarthy
McCarthy’s protracted, sloppy, terrifying persecution of supposed socialists was fueled by the press. This is counterintuitive because journalists were often targets of his ire. But journalists need stories, and McCarthy needed attention, so the two became secret bedmates.
McCarthy, for his part, held a non-stop stream of pseudo-events. At the end of the workday, he would send out a press release sharing that in the morning he would release big news. The newspapers, for their part, ran stories speculating about what McCarthy might reveal. When the morning came, McCarthy would meet with the press.
Sometimes he would share a small bit of information. Or, just as often, he’d explain that they were confirming a few details, which he would release that afternoon. Again, the press would report and speculate, and show up that afternoon. The cycle of pseudo-events was endless. The goals of both parties were clear: elevate McCarthy’s fame and fill gray newspaper pages with ink.
But the media did not merely create McCarthy’s celebrity. They also cannibalized it.
As the cycle of pseudo-events continued, McCarthy could only keep the press’s attention with increasingly outlandish interrogations and accusations. This eventually resulted in his censure, and the end of his pseudo-event press conferences. But this caused no problems for the newspapers. They discovered that they could spill as much ink devouring McCarthy’s reputation as they spent creating it. The cannibalization of Joseph McCarthy’s public image was lucrative.
I hope you see a pattern repeated in recent history:
1. An individual shows skill at creating pseudo-events.
2. The media creates a celebrity by giving him or her attention.
3. The celebrity serves the media by creating pseudo-events to fill otherwise blank pages.
4. The celebrity falls or fails, sometimes in a bid to keep the media’s attention.
5. The media cannibalizes the celebrity they created by reporting their demise.
While this course of events is common enough in secular media, Christian media sometimes follows the same pattern.
Did Christian Media Create and Cannibalize Mark Driscoll?
If you listened to The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, you listened to Christianity Today’s (CT) most successful serial podcast. Despite being over a year old, it still hovers in Apple and Spotify’s top ten spirituality podcasts. To its credit, the series does a remarkable job of showing how building institutions around individual celebrity creates fertile ground for abusive behavior.
But the show leaves one thing (mostly) off its map: CT helped create Mark Driscoll, and now CT is cannibalizing him to enormous aplomb.
To show this, let’s look at CT’s coverage of Mark Driscoll in eight-year chunks:
- Between 1998 and 2005, CT mentioned Driscoll five times. He was pastoring at the time, and slowly gaining some notoriety, but the evangelical industrial complex had not catapulted him into celebrity status. But Driscoll was skilled at creating pseudo-events out of sermons that grabbed attention. Of course, he could have been ignored. But why ignore someone who can fill pages?
- From 2006 to 2013, CT mentioned him 108 times. Coverage skyrocketed suddenly, and if you look at the coverage, it feels eerily like pseudo-events: commentary on Driscoll’s style, crassness, machismo, TGC relationships, and church growth. The coverage is not always positive, but it’s clear that Mark Driscoll serves at least one purpose: filling pages. They (along with others) gave him the attention he needed to become a celebrity, which in turn grew his credibility and power. For his part, Driscoll continued his pattern of pseudo-event-controversy-preaching.
- From 2014 to 2021, CT mentioned Driscoll 128 times. This was the time period directly after Driscoll’s first scandal—when Mars Hill went up in flames—up to the time The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill launched. Christianity Today talked more about Mark Driscoll after his fall than before it, illustrating that media often gets more out of cannibalizing celebrities than it does creating them.
Hear more about Mark Driscoll on our recent podcast episode, "Who Created Celebrity Christian Culture? You Did."
Now, I want to be careful. I don’t mean to impugn the editorial staff at CT. I’ve written for CT, and it was a superlative experience. I never got the sense that their choices were driven by profit or the need to get clicks. Likewise, I do not believe Mike Cosper created The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill for personal benefit.
But this dynamic deserves attention, because in Christian communities, it has the unintended effect of eroding trust in local Christian institutions. As a pastor, I’ve watched a similar reaction play out amongst congregants:
“Whoa, celebrity pastors are bad. And churches cover up lots of bad things. What if that’s my church? I’m not sure I can trust my church. But who can I trust? Well, this pastor I heard on the podcast seems like a good guy. Maybe I’ll read one of his books.”
This is the dark dynamic behind what Skye Jethani calls “the evangelical industrial complex.” Christian media creates celebrities, devours celebrities, diminishes public trust in local churches, and then delivers newly minted celebrities to fill the gap they created.
Again, I don’t think this is intentional. But I’m also not optimistic that anything will change until a few things take place.
- First, Christian media must carefully attend whom they give attention to. You have the power to create celebrities and define what qualifies as “news.” Use that power wisely.
- Second, the Christian public should carefully attend to what they consume. This happens on two levels: 1) Maybe it’s time to stop listening to and reading Christian failure porn, and 2) Maybe it’s time to find Christian thinkers, writers, and podcasters who aren’t celebrities but make thoughtful contributions to areas of ethics, theology, and culture that you care about.
- Third, Christians should consider embracing the decentralization of Christian content. This is already happening via Substack in the secular world, as journalists leave major institutions to start small shops that are less invested in the current media landscape, and less prone to constant reporting. Of course, there are risks here, because institutions often provide necessary guardrails. But perhaps we will see the rise of more informal, networked institutions, where Christian creators validate one another on the basis of work quality, not platform size.
Of course, there is no escaping cults of human personality. But the church should be a place that shows a healthy path forward, rather than becoming acculturated to secular celebrity culture and its phoenix-like parody of Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection.
Dive deeper with us and hear more on the phenomenon of celebrity pastors on our podcast!
Posted by Patrick Miller