When I worked in Kansas many years ago, I met a student who was friends with Rich Mullins, the late Christian musician. He told me of a time where he was invited to join Rich and several other friends at a restaurant. As he told it, Rich looked around at those gathered in the booth and said, “I’m pretty popular. People want to be with me.” His point was that people are naturally drawn to celebrities, secular or Christian. There were a lot of people, because he was famous, who wanted to be in close proximity to him.
From where I sit, celebrity is the bane of the American Church. It is extremely dangerous because it easily veers into idolatry for both the celebrity and those who seek to be in his/her orbit, even if it is from a hundred rows back. From all the adulation, celebrities can begin to view themselves as something special, apart from other normal human beings. Those who excitedly give their adulation can slip into worshipping the humans rather than the One who created them. This is true with famous pastors, musicians, writers, and speakers. The danger lies with our propensity for celebrity worship.
I am thinking about this because of what I read this morning about Ravi Zacharias, the late Christian apologist. So as not to sully his name more than necessary, suffice it to say that during his life of exquisite teaching and valuable ministry, he lived a second, hidden life that was made possible by his celebrity status. This second life was hidden from his family and closest associates. It was only revealed shortly after his death through some of the people involved.
I know I am not alone in being saddened by the revelations because I respected his intellect and his apologetics ministry. However, I was not necessarily shocked. So many celebrity pastors, speakers, and musicians over the years have had similar stories. I won’t name names, but I am sure you can recall at least one.
They all follow a similar pattern. A person in some type of ministry rises to fame—has a hit single, writes a bestselling book, leads a small church plant that becomes a megachurch—and then is invited to go on the road and share whatever it is that made them so popular. At each venue, they are feted, people line up to talk with them or to get an autograph, they buy their books or music. And as they gather bigger crowds, the more invitations/contracts they get, both in the U.S. and in countries around the world. Soon, the person is no longer a person, but a celebrity.
When this conversion happens, the person is no longer viewed as a sinner, imperfect and prone to failure. For we create in our minds an image of the person based on his or her fame and appeal to us. In reality, we set them up to fall. We have made them into what no person is or can be—perfect. And when a person becomes a celebrity, then the pressure builds to maintain an image, opening the door to a secret second life, which usually begins with attempts to handle the stress of celebrity through sex or drugs, or provides opportunity for seduction or abuse because of fame.
What celebrity ultimately does is isolate an individual. I have always had concerns about famous Christian musicians who are in their twenties and out on the road much of the year (except this one!). Are they being discipled by others more mature than them? Are they spending time with the Lord and in his Word, or are they just singing about him? In other words, is there any spiritual depth behind what we see on stage. It is the same question regarding popular speakers, like Ravi Zacharias. Is there spiritual depth behind what they have become so familiar with talking about? It is quite easy to hide our brokenness behind our knowledge or abilities. Being a celebrity makes that even easier because so few around them care enough to ask those questions. And their fame can blind them to their own vulnerability to building their lives on sand rather than the solid foundation of Jesus.
We the Church have to acknowledge the role we play in the fall of Christian celebrities. We literally set them up for it by the way we treat them. Before they were celebrities, they were someone’s son or daughter; they were just ordinary people known only to their church and communities; no one lined up or paid money to hear them. They were just fallen human beings like the rest of us. The reality is that they still are despite their fame. We need to treat them as such. We need to stop making a fuss over them, clambering to get into close proximity to them just to feel special. Yes, you can buy their music or their books, but don’t make idols out of them. They are unworthy of your worship, as we all are. They are people who need to be loved in the agape way, a love that places a premium on who they are—a creation of God—not what we can get from them.
If we boil it down, celebrity worship is dehumanizing. The person to whom we give such adulation gets lost in the midst of what we seemingly gain from them. Their godly value, needs, hurts, longings, and struggles are obstructed from our view by our own needs. For all the attention we give them, it is really about us rather than them.
The sad tale of Ravi Zacharias and those of so many other famous Christians are ones for which we believers must acknowledge our role, even if we didn’t know any of them personally. We are part of a culture that glorifies celebrities, and the best way to help end it is to begin treating them for the people they truly are—ones loved by God and ones who are sinners just as we are.
© Jim Musser 2021