It was fascinating to watch Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) struggle last night during his acceptance speech at the Grammy’s. He was visibly uncomfortable receiving the award for Best New Artist, wanting to show proper gratitude but at the same time distance himself from the event, presumably, out of fear of being swallowed up by the pop culture machine. Vernon said that when he started writing music he did it not for awards or accolades but for the inherent reward of making songs. Vernon was uncomfortable because he knew that there is a big difference between being a ‘musician’ and a ‘celebrity’ - and the two do not always fit well together.
There has been much written recently about the phenomenon of the ‘celebrity pastor’ - think Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll, Steven Furtick, etc. In many ways this is nothing new. Even in the early church Christians were aligning themselves with famous apostles like Paul, Apollos and Cephas (1 Corinthians 3:21). We all have a natural tendency to make our leaders into idols - and leaders have a natural tendency to turn their “platform” or their personal “brand” into an idol as well.
Bob Hyatt wrote this morning about his own struggle with the pursuit of pastoral fame. “I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a danger to my soul in pursuing more exposure, more name recognition, more money to be made from thinking, writing, and speaking about ministry issues.”
Hyatt argues that we must separate celebrity from pastoral work. “Local church ministry should not be a stepping stone to anything, least of all to fame and fortune. It should not be easier for CNN to get in touch with a pastor than for someone in his own congregation.”
Skye Jethani helps to break down this phenomenon even further. He argues that there is more than a spiritual or psychological reason behind the rise of today’s pastoral pantheon. There is a systemic economic force at work as well. Evangelicalism is a very large business. Some estimate the total evangelical market to be over $7 billion a year. A market, just like any other, that must be sustained. Jethani points out that “This market-driven cycle of megachurches, conferences, and publishers results in an echo chamber where the same voices, espousing the same values, create an atmosphere where ministry success becomes equated with audience aggregation.” Sounds a lot like pop-music to me.
In Matthew 4 we’re told that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to to be tempted by the devil. The tempter came to him three times with three different temptations. “If you are the Son of God... tell these stones to become bread... throw yourself off the temple and have the angels rescue you... worship me and I will give you all the kingdoms and the splendor of this world.” Henri Nouwen points out that these were essentially the temptation to become relevant, to do something spectacular, and to become popular and powerful. These are the same temptations we all face in Christian leadership. Why are these temptations so potent? Because each one offers an easy substitute from the hard task of love.
Christian leadership is about love. It is not about fulfilling our need to be relevant to a market audience, it is about about giving and receiving the life-giving love of our Creator. It is not about becoming popular, it is about being rooted in a community where you can know and be known. It is not about power and control, it is displaying the same kind of mercy, humility and service Jesus showed to the world.
May we minister not for the awards or the accolades, but for the inherent rewards of serving Christ and his Church.