Cults of CelebrityEssays, Featured — By Michael D. Bobo 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.