Cults of Celebrity

Essays, Featured — By on August 16, 2010 at 8:00 am

Having recently attended a hipster church in Los Angeles, I sat in the audience marveling at a phenomenon which has swept through Christendom. I find “cults of celebrity” highly disturbing. “Cult” is a volatile term to use in relationship to churches, but I lament that it is somewhat apropos.  I live in southern California, merely an hour away from Hollywood. The mass media age in which we live propagates this mentality.  We are equally star struck with our leaders as we are with celebrities.

Since the days of the circuit riding and tent meeting preachers, Christianity in America has elevated the place of the preacher in the worship service. These eloquent, passionate men made such an impression upon our collective consciousness that their imprint remains today. Thankfully this one voice has grown to include minorities and women, but the pattern largely remains.  We have become enamored with our priests, pastors and public leaders.  With the exception of a few Quaker and Congregationalist communities, there is a preponderance of trust in one voice, one opinion.  The interpretive responsibilities stem from this individual, which then sets a tone for the community.  The likes, dislikes, passions, fears – all from one perspective. Rarely are we told to embrace the penchants of pastors, but subconsciously we want to be like our leaders.

Church is largely a spectator sport.  Passive congregants most commonly observe musicians and preachers, whose talents are unique and less accessible to the common laity.  As with any other form of entertainment the audiences soak in and receive content with very little opportunity to respond.  Younger Christians inevitably savor the opportunities to receive instruction, which is a necessary part of spiritual growth.  There must be time for instructing all members and weekly teaching of doctrine is a key role for churches to provide.  I do not fight the place of teaching in worship; I fight the method.

Most communities are led by such dynamic individuals that they are healthy and vibrant.  Most churches are well-adjusted and are agents of grace in their respective communities.  This model works in most cases, but there has been a record of a few maddened men whose intentions were far from pure.  Names like Jim Jones and David Koresh illicit deadly images of what these cults of celebrity can ultimately become.  Though the emergence of horrific leaders is extremely rare, their place in church history is a result of  our lust for celebrity.  As we receive weekly doses, we slowly come under their spells until we are drinking the Kool-Aid in isolation.  Lest we think that we are beyond these divinations, lets not forget the Warren Jeffs situation in Utah.  These leaders can be found today.  Their spells still work on some in the 21st century.

How can we collectively participate in worship to breakdown the cults of celebrity?  Corporate singing is merely one way.  There have been several other ways throughout church history.  We would do well to draw upon the wisdom of our ancestors, offering worshipers the privilege of participating together through corporate prayer, Lectio Divina, sharing of testimonies, read and response, drama, and artistic expression to name a few.

Christian communities contain a diverse collection of individuals with unique abilities and professions. We may not all be orators, but life is not merely homiletic. The majority of our lives are consumed with tasks whose earthly significance is not easily translated into Christian worship. We need to learn how to do our work as unto the Lord.  Our daily tasks can be sanctified. The Sunday morning message typically does not address this fundamental aspect of our post-industrial lives.  Sure we can meditate on the information delivered and try to act upon it within the context of our coworkers, but there must be something more.

Surely there are more teachers in our churches than are speaking from the pulpit each week. How many voices sit silently each week with messages burning in their hearts, waiting for an audience?  The current situation limits the creativity, passion and spirituality of the collective. Donald Miller recently discussed this and some brilliant suggestions resulted.

The magnitude of protest at this meditation is just an indication how much we have bought into cults of celebrity.  If your initial reaction is anger or frustration, ask yourself, “Why do I feel so defensive about my leader?  Why do I need to defend her or him?”  Could it be that you have elevated your leader to a celebrity status?  If so, this is just a reminder that we have only One leader.  One celebrity figure whose redemptive role in our lives must be preeminent.

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    12 Comments

  • Jo says:

    I just want to encourage you (and others) that the Lord has recently shown me similar things. I do believe this article, AMONGST OTHERS HERE, are timely and contain wonderful information.

    I encourage you all not to get caught up in how many comments they receive and such things (for the writers and editors). I feel they are very timely and contain wonderful insights.

    Do know what I witnessed was given to me before the articles appeared so I know the articles had no influence there, but wanted to share as an encouragement. I would like to share more, but sometimes I think I may be too quick there so not going to, yet you can see much of it in some articles here, let the Lord speak to you as He will, even if you don’t find everything “right on”.

    And I personally apprecitate much of the tone I have seen in sharing these things. Whether that is a personal preference or from the Heart of God, God knows. Sometimes at first it isn’t very popular because it doesn’t feed our lusts.

    Anyway, about your article. I think one of the most important things now in the body of Christ is to help people understand how important it is to hear from the Lord for themselves, even while understanding how He uses us corporately. Sure, God speaks corporately but within that corporate speaking the Holy Spirit is also working with us on an individual level, and He is our Leader, let Him Lead. It helps at times to understand things in regards to the Corporate and the Individual Journeys. The believer is on both.

    That’s it. Thanks Bobo, and others. Hope it encourages you.
    Love in Him,
    Jo

  • Jo says:

    I’m sorry, I forgot to add that I don’t see this just as something that can happen in a church setting. I see it in and out of the four walls. You did seem to mention that which I really appreciate, yet your concentration seemed to be more regarding church settings, so just wanted to include that comment.

    So again, when I like something and feel I see validity and wonderful thing in it, doesn’t mean I totally see eye to eye on everything. It may not even be that I disagree, but want to add more for what I see as a more complete picture.

    Thanks for sharing.
    Love in Him,
    Jo

  • Thanks Jo. I appreciate your thoughts in their totality. Just like any piece, I realize there are things I probably should have specified, but I think the point is something to meditate upon nonetheless.

    Peace to you.

  • Jo says:

    Bobo, (hope you don’t mind me calling you by your last name, I like it), just wanted to reiterate that I thought the article was very good, informative, and timely. I’ve just seen where concentration on one particular group tends to, well, bring concentration to one particular group and we can miss where it may apply to a broader spectrum. And I am not saying that isn’t the right or wrong thing “for you” to do. Yet because of the particular burden I have there, I like to broaden the spectrum so we can be aware all around.

    Also, what I witnessed (which I believe came from God, but God knows for sure) didn’t seemed confined to a particular group in that sense, God knows. I felt it was more of a movement type thing. And these were the words I used to describe what I saw before your article, and the ones that spoke of “Selling the Word of God and selling yourself out” and “Community” (the facebook one), came out: A cultish, alien abduction like movement. Community was strong among them, which seemed to attract those that were lacking that. They were singing a song, in unison about selling the Word of God for what you can get out of it. This is what they were promoting, and promoting themselves. Here’s the thing too, I saw some gems among them which to me speaks of things of value, but the way it was depicted to me you could see it was off (like I saw they were benefitting, but the concentration was off). One even told another, “Show…how it is done.” Others were being targetted to be next in line to join this cultish, alien abduction like group.

    So do know I also have my own particular set of burdens within my heart. Not looking to discredit others’ burdens, just sharing as I see fit.

    So I hope in some way this helps, even if just one other particular person. My advice, safeguard what the Lord has placed upon your heart and keep following Him (for me too). His sheep can hear his voice. He is our reward and that is more precious than all the gems available. Gems will come, but don’t make them the goal and concentration instead of our Lord. I don’t see gems as the problem (I’ve seen them before) but the condition of one’s heart.

    I also thought those articles I mentioned covered areas I saw well in regards to contents. I just wanted to broaden the spectrum in regards to not confining it to a particular group as I feel it was like a movement thing, and the other reason previously mentioned. We can all start by, with the Lord, searching our hearts there and taking it to Him. Thank you.

  • Truett Bobo says:

    Mike:

    There are several elements related to this “Cult of Celebrity” that do not serve the people of God advantageously. Or so it seems to me, at least. You refer to church (=worship?) being a spectator sport, and when this happens (far too often) the people are less likely to encounter God in what is called “worship.” There can easily be a mind shift as well, whereby “worship” is perceived to be something that professionals (pastoral staff and musicians) do best, while others partake only as second-hand observers. Or attention can go to considering ways that the “worship” can be improved, or things that “I don’t like,” rather than honoring and exalting God. Sometimes the theatrical character of this “worship” is even emphasized by dimming the lights for the congregation while spotlighting the leaders, a not very subtle way of underscoring that what the congregation does is not as important as what the professionals do.

    One could add several other elements that are often combined with this style of “worship,” from the ways it impacts the egos of the leaders to the matter of tithing to the false notion that size of the congregation is (along with large budgets) is the most important thing. These are off the tope of my head, and I think I could add several more if I took time to think about it at length.

    It would be an interesting study to read how evangelical Christianity has come to this present state, but I’m not aware of such a historical treatment.

    Thanks, Mike, for being willing to speak to this.

    • Jo, I appreciate your thorough comments. Sorry for the delay in expressing my gratitude.

      One recent book I’ve read that provides a historical perspective is A New Kind of Christianity by Brian D. McLaren. He doesn’t address what I call Cults of Celebrity specifically, but he sees a lot of historical tendencies which provoke him to consider the need for a new form of faith that is pertinent to 21st century life.

      Most of my friends call me Bobo and I consider you one, too. I usually get fond remarks or laughs, so thank you for expressing the former.

      I have a beloved Auntie living on Bribie Island, so it means a lot to me to consider your reflections about the broader scope of Christianity (at least in the States and Australia).

  • Thank you Jo and Uncle Truett. I value your comments. They are so encouraging and help me keep on keeping on in this journey.

  • Josh Broward says:

    Thanks Mike for the call for more participation in our worship services. This is something our church is exploring lately. We have begun an experiment we are calling Greenhouse Worship. We meet on Wednesday night to worship and to think and to plan our worship services. We are hoping to instill our corporate worship with more creativity, more participation, and mostly more sense of God’s Spirit.

  • That’s wonderful. Thanks for reading and exemplifying an exception to my general rule. I pray for more pastors like you who are willing to stretch the boundaries of what it means to have a church service.

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