As I checked-in for major spinal surgery at Marina Del Rey hospital several weeks ago, the admissions nurse asked for the usual name, rank, serial number, insurance and reason for visit. Then she inquired, “What is your religious preference?” I was tempted to say, “I think those saffron robes Buddhists wear are pretty cool, but I happen to be Christian.” But I desisted.
In the Old Testament they asked, “Who is your God?” A generation ago they asked, “What is your religion?” Today they ask for your preference. Preference? I drink Coke not Pepsi, I like In & Out not FIVE GUYS, I wear Nike shoes, and subscribe to Netflix. Oh yes, and put me down for Islam.”
Of course, the only reason they ask is prudence, not theological interest. In case you happen to expire on their watch, they want to be sure they send in the right clergy to usher you to the next level, as it were. It’s not about belief but liability protection.
According to the great English writer G.K. Chesterton, tolerance is the virtue of people who do not believe anything – he meant it as a criticism. But it captures nicely the dilemma of the Restoration Movement today: where sound doctrine is trivialized, one is unlikely to find any sort of tension. When one believes that your spiritual framework determines your eternal destination, things can, at times, be rather contentious; when your beliefs are treated as a breezy consumer preference, tolerance flourishes. After all, we don’t persecute people for their tastes in cars. Why for their tastes in doctrines?
Oddly, in our increasingly secularized national convention, there is one form of intolerance that does survive. And that is the disdain bordering on contempt of the convention makers for the deeply convicted. Those for whom doctrine is not a preference (what one Spire director referred to derogatorily in 2016 as “denominational loyalty”), but a central aspect of expressing one’s faith.
Every manner of sociological and political argument is now ruled legitimate in our brotherhood’s discourse. But invoke the Bible as grounding for your beliefs and you will be charged with breaching the sacred wall of local church autonomy. Call on the current political fad, the latest sociological study, or the hottest leadership guru, fine. Call on the apostle Paul, and everyone starts clutching their pearls.
Do a Google search, for example, on last year’s convention speaker, Social Justice Warrior Danielle Strickland, and find that she is known for her decidedly political bent on doctrine, or this year’s upcoming speaker Pastor Oscar Muriu from Nairobi Kenya, and learn that all biblical exegesis is shaped by sociological influences, that “the church in the Southern Hemisphere reads the Bible very differently from the church in the Western Hemisphere,” so we (Western Christians) must “change our perceptions of Africa and start listening to the theology that is arising out of that continent.”( Note: This is a direct contradiction of John chapter 4 where Jesus teaches, through the Samaritan woman, that cultural influences are subservient to – not controlling of – spiritual truth.) It’s little wonder then that Pastor Muriu will be featured during Spire’s leadership convention, being that he’s as gifted a demagogue as I’ve ever heard. But such is the fruit of a convention focused more on leadership than on truth.
Every year we are subjected to another motley crew of “thought-leaders.” And for what reason? Because they are all celebrities. The well-knownness they all have in common is their greatest virtue – it’s what overshadows everything else. Their achievements, such as they are, fail to undergo any sort of scrutiny and are completely incidental to their selection. No, they are distinguished by their image and trademark. And they are creations of a growing plethora of religious media platforms throughout the country.
Celebrity pastors/leaders are made at will – though at considerable expense. But that is precisely what the market demands, and just as Aaron presented the golden calf, Spire conference will, too, fabricate fame at great expense and present it to the masses. Every year they will produce more and more celebrities: thin, attractive, media-savvy millennial evangelists who are passionate about being passionate, christian versions of Steve Jobs, and Seth Godin; and sadly, with each passing year the less worthy of admiration they will become, depriving followers of real models. This is a process which can only make more and more conventioneers aware of their own dissatisfaction, sending the novice leader home to the same failures and problems. The truth is – the qualities which now make a man or woman into a “nationally recognized” brand are a new category of human emptiness.
To be sure, many celebrity pastors are admired and revered, not because they reveal God, but because they reveal and elevate ourselves. They are molded in our own image to flatter us, but are, in truth, usually nothing greater than a more-publicized version of us. Whereas, in the past, leaders were selected by the inscrutable processes of history, today they are chosen by an ad hoc committee, which is appointed to select from among the best-known names of 2019’s Top Christian Conference Speaker’s published by Sharefaith magazine.
Audiences are told from the stage, that the lives of all great leaders remind us that they, too, can make their lives sublime, go beyond the local church, and be a “leader of a movement!” They encourage their patrons to continue to hope in human greatness. After all, these celebrity pastors, standing under Spire’s bright stage lights, are more vivid and more persuasive than explicit theology.
If Spire’s focus on leadership is to be helpful, perhaps, then, they should teach some of the cautionary tales of their own directors as examples of Ministers Who Went Too Far. Guys who went over the line – messed with the goddess of celebrity and got burned.
Before the world of Celebrity Pastors came along, many of these leaders had the world on a string. But as they became more recognized, they began hiring publicists to expand the “brand,” consulting with publishers, cross pollinating with other megachurch pastors, making deals with any number of the explosion of parachurch organizations, and rubbing elbows with the elite. And it didn’t stop there, with it came the heterodoxy of the multisite campus – denying churches their local autonomy – where in Orwellian fashion, these humble servants of God began broadcasting their larger-than-life images to loom over audiences via satellite on theater screens around the world.
Where did they cross that line? Where did they go from being admired by their peers to being seen as having broken faith with their calling?
Perhaps it was in 2016 after their high-profile denunciation of the RM as a moribund movement on it’s way out, all the while forcing our national convention to turn its back on sound doctrine. Maybe that’s why they no longer hold the high esteem they once enjoyed. And while it is true that a certain amount of schadenfreude and backbiting is to be expected in high profile positions, in this case, even their friendly peers in the ministry have quietly lost respect.
Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t apply to all megachurch pastors. Many are able to navigate the choppy and dangerous waters of notoriety and prosper. But why is it that some thrive while others crash and burn?
Maybe it’s because the former are real. Many guys project a public image completely devoid of greed, vanity, lust or ambition. In spite of their prominence, they continue to be well-liked and respected by their colleagues. Others, outrageously overexposed, come across as calculated and insincere. Recently, I discovered one celebrity pastor who, along with his publicist, had announced his retirement over a course of six months across at least three local TV news affiliates, a national Christian radio station, a Christian cable TV channel, several local newspapers and multiple nationally-known, online, Christian magazines. The press release spoke over and over of his uncommon humility, how he eschewed notoriety, and attributed his decision to step down as being motivated by the fact that he wanted to get out of the public eye, now, before he grew too accustomed to the perks of celebrity. No mention was ever made, however, that he had already taken another position which would likely draw as much attention to himself as the ministry he was vacating. Needless to say, it was difficult to take seriously.
In our world of big names, curiously, true models tend to be anonymous. In this life of illusion and quasi-illusion, the person with solid virtues, admired for something more substantial than his well-knownness, often proves to be an unsung hero in the Kingdom of God: the Sunday school teacher, the jr. high sponsor, the mother, the communion preparer, the hard working minister at a lonely, underpaid, unglamorous, unpublicized ministry. In God’s upside-down Kingdom, these will receive great rewards precisely because they remain unsung. Their virtues are not the product of our collective effort to fill a void. And, thankfully, their very anonymity protects them from the flashy, ephemeral, seduction of celebrity.
Terry Sweany serves as Senior Minister of Playa Christian Church. He received his Bachelor’s in Christian Ministry from Cincinnati Christian University and a Master’s in Marriage, Family, & Child Counseling from Hope International University. He and his wife, Patty, reside in West Los Angeles