People used to be celebrated in our culture for accomplishing something special. George Washington won the Revolution; Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic; Wilma Rudolph set a world record in the 100-meter dash. Now, people are famous for, well, being famous.
That’s how people like the Kardashians and Paris Hilton become celebrities. Or take the pop singer Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, otherwise known as Lady Gaga. To gather all the notoriety and money she can, the moderately talented Lady Gaga will say, sing, or do almost anything, from simulating sex in videos to blaspheming God in her songs. She was named one of the most influential people in the world by Time magazine. Please!
As someone who has been in the public eye for a long time — for both good and bad behavior — I can tell you that the cult of celebrity can be awkward and embarrassing. People want to get close to celebrities, no matter what they have done. That’s because celebrity has little to do with worth or character or achievement. It’s more about shocking people or photographing well. That’s why People magazine relentlessly covered Princess Diana, not Mother Teresa.
Our celebrity culture not only honors the wrong people; it actually undercuts the heroes who used to be the real celebrities — those we ought to celebrate.
No doubt you know of Tom Hanks, who starred in the movie Saving Private Ryan. But how about Marine Corporal Jason Dunham? He received the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism in Iraq. On April 14, 2004, Dunham fought hand-to-hand with the enemy and threw himself on a grenade to save his fellow Marines. Dunham, just 22 years old, laid down his life for his friends. He was the first Marine since Vietnam to receive the Medal of Honor.
Now he, my friends, was a real hero. But I’ll bet you seldom hear people talk about him.
Even worse, the cult of celebrity has seeped into our sanctuaries. Like the culture around us, churches too often reward the sizzle and not the steak. Too many people in the pews would rather have a celebrity in the pulpit instead of a good shepherd of souls, a good servant leader.
Not surprisingly, some pastors, certainly not the majority, become addicted to all the adulation and then try to live up to the idol we have made of them. Or worse, all the celebrity worship can make pastors feel they are above criticism and accountability. Their work for the Lord turns toxic. Like many pop celebrities, they can focus ultimately on self-aggrandizement, not on serving others.
According to theologian Os Guiness, we expect the pastor to be a shrink in the pulpit, a CEO in the office, and flawless in his family life. Heap on top of all that our desire that the pastor be a spiritual rock star, and these expectations can lead to pastoral frustration, burnout, and even financial and sexual immorality.
Is it any surprise, then, that the Church has been rocked over the last few decades by clerical scandals?
Friends, celebrity worship — in my book Being the Body I call it the Pedestal Complex — has no place in the Church. Let’s honor and care for our spiritual leaders, of course. But let’s be sure to keep them off our pedestals — for their sake and for ours.