The Cult of Celebrity Pastors
Leonard Sweet’s new book, “I’m a Follower” is just blowing me away. I don’t agree with all he says, but he says enough I do agree with that I’m having to make some serious re-adjustments in my life.
Sweet essentially condemns the modern cult of the pastor that’s invading our churches today to such an extent that churches may never be the same. Many of today’s churches are known more for their pastors than for Jesus.
These celebrity pastors are known across the evangelical world. Mark Driscoll in Seattle, Matt Chandler in Dallas. Birmingham’s Davie Platt. Perry Noble in South Carolina. Not all of them are the same, of course. Just because someone pastors a large church doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a cult figure. Among the guys I just mentioned, I think particularly of David Platt, whose reputation for authentic missional engagement and personal integrity is widely known. Even Mark Driscoll—who gets more than his share of criticism—has much to commend his ministry. His recent book on marriage that scandalized so many in the church actually has a great deal of good in it.
Sweet’s point, though, is one I’m struggling with. He simply asks the question of how a celebrity pastor can keep Jesus front and center instead of his own personality assuming the lead role in his ministry. That’s a hard question to answer, particularly in our nation that values celebrity over everything else. Sweet actually takes the Bible seriously when Jesus says: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)
Sweet starts out his book; indeed, his entire thesis, with a discussion of a video that’s made the rounds in the last couple of years. The video was shot at the Sasquatch Music Festival in eastern Washington in 2009. It shows a single individual beginning an impromptu dance. He dances alone for a while, but then another one joins him. Sweet designates this second individual as a “First Follower” and points out this person is even more important than the initial leader. No one else will join the leader until the first follower shows the way. As you watch the video (below) notice also that the first follower actually begins to make his own variations on the leader’s dance. His dance isn’t a carbon copy of the leader’s.
Eventually, a host of others join, each with a unique approach to the initial dance. Very quickly what started out as a single dance becomes a movement.
Then an amazing thing happens. The leader is lost in the movement. There’s no longer a solitary guy leading the way but instead a group of people who have captured in a collective dance the dance the leader began. His success is measured not by how much he stays out in front but by how many others move beyond him.
Here’s the video:
This understanding of spiritual leadership—which is much closer to the New Testament description of the church than many of us are comfortable in acknowledging—cuts squarely against the grain of celebrity pastors. Take, for example, the well-known pastor Steven Furtick from Charlotte. He recently released a video directed, as far as I can tell, against critics of his ministry:
I’m not sure what or who goaded Furtick into making this video but it reveals way more than he probably intended. At least I hope so.
All of us in churches—ministers and lay people alike—are wrestling with the leadership challenges of our culture. The celebrity pastor may be effective for some, at least for a time. But is it the way of Jesus? That’s a question we’ll all need to answer pretty quickly.