Celebrity Pastors: A Retrospective

When I raised the 'celebrity pastor' issue a few years ago, my primary concern was the distasteful self-promotion and the cultivation of cults of personality which it seemed to involve.  The first time that I caught serious flack for this was when I mentioned an incident where a group of European churchmen was evicted from the VIP seating at a conference to make way for some young folk.  I well remember a conversation with one of the organizers shortly thereafter when, having declined an invitation to be part of the next gathering (and thus find myself standing inside the tent, as President Johnson would have said), I was told that I needed to understand that the only thing that would be changed as a result of my article was the VIP nomenclature for the seating. In retrospect, that reaction was pregnant with significance: the critics were to be treated as the problem, but the band was to play on.   

We have come a long way from discussions of seating nomenclature and the issue of self-promotion as a merely distasteful thing.  The Elephant Room demonstrated that the big names with dollar power, if they could not quite get away with doing what they wanted, could certainly be sure that nobody of any public stature in the reformed evangelical movement was going to call them publicly to account, whatever disciplinary deals were brokered behind the scenes.  

More recently, we have witnessed the plagiarism/ghost writing debacle and now the use of not-for-profit money for market manipulation.   The sums involved dwarf many church budgets and indicate the disconnection between the showcase pastoral talent and the everyday experience (and financial circumstances) of most pastors.   Perhaps most disturbing is the way in which we also seem to be living in our own version of that final scene of Animal Farm.  The language being used by the church regarding its behavior ('it is not illegal,' 'it was unwise,' 'mistakes were made') is obviously parasitic on the venal patois developed by secular politicians caught with their trousers down.  

All of this is old news.  But here is the rub: If there are people out there who still believe that there is such a thing as reformed evangelicalism as a trans-denominational movement, if they believe that this movement will play a key role in the future of the church, and if they believe that they are important leaders in this movement, then they need to speak directly, clearly, and firmly to precisely these issues.  You cannot be a leader without leading publicly on the major issues and major personalities of the day who impact your movement and your chosen constituency.    It is not enough to say 'That person is no longer one of us' when you helped to create a culture in which accountability is not transparent and where your public silence encouraged the big names to think they could do what they wanted and not be held publicly to account.  That is where today's problems started.

That accountability question has always been the Achilles' Heel of the evangelical parachurch movement.  Now that there are huge sums of money involved, that question is far more pressing and yet far more complicated than ever before.  We who are associated with the so-called reformed evangelical movement, whether because we want to be or because others just make the connection, now look as corrupt and worldly as the despicable televangelists of a previous generation.

Part of me thinks that, if the early warnings had been seen as significant for something more than the nomenclature of the seating at the big venues, perhaps things might be differentmolesworth_reasonably_small.jpg today.   Maybe we might have a culture where bad behavior is publicly called out by the movement's leaders, no matter how significant for ticket sales the person at issue might be.   But I think the game back then was more to do with sending signals about who counted, where patronage was to be found, and who needed to know their place and keep their mouths shut.