Christian Values in a Celebrity Culture

Extracts from a larger talk given to Youth for Christ staff in Colombo on 8th October 2019
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Ajith Fernando

Some years ago, a survey was conducted among young people about what achievement they desired most. They were given various options to choose from. The most popular option emerged as “a few minutes of fame.” We live in a world where success and significance are measured by the things that famous people have and do, like many fans, prominence and wealth. We often measure our own significance by the amount of “likes” and “loves” we get on social media. It seems to be very important to us to be people whom others admire as successful. I am calling this the celebrity culture, and in this article, I want to highlight the dangers it poses to people in Christian ministry. 

Perils of the Celebrity Lifestyle

Prominence has come to be regarded as equal to success in both society and the church. Usually along with prominence comes the privileges enjoyed by a successful person in society, such as adoring devotees, bodyguards, time saving gadgets, fancy cars, luxurious houses, opportunities for up-market leisure activities and vacations, and material wealth. Many celebrities have serious personal problems just like other people, perhaps even more than others, and some of these problems are related to being famous. But many good people wish that they too could be famous like these people.

Many celebrity Christian leaders today are also having serious problems. But their ministries show visible signs of success like spectacular prophecies, miracles, great preaching, teaching or singing, and great crowds coming to hear them. Therefore, those close to them don’t give the needed attention to the problems. The ministry risks crashing if the celebrity leader is confronted and disciplined for his wrong actions. Sometimes leaders are so powerful that there is no structure to hold them accountable and to correct their wrongs. The problems are left unattended with only a few knowing about them and their ministry goes on. 

All Christians are tempted in relation to power, money and sex. But famous people are particularly susceptible to temptation in these areas. They have more opportunities to abuse the power and the adoration of people they enjoy. Reports of Christian megastars crashing are being reported with sickening regularity today. I used to get a very popular Christian daily news bulletin from the USA. Almost daily there was a dose of news over the sexual improprieties of Christian leaders. I felt I was getting a sinful satisfaction and my mind was getting polluted from reading these detailed reports. So I unsubscribed from this bulletin. 

Many of these problems of Christian leaders are related to insecurity. Many leaders are talented, but insecure, people who have come to the top through sheer hard work and drive. There is nothing wrong with that. But they need to have safeguards to help them not let their insecurity ruin them. Insecurity may trigger a desire for the satisfaction of conquering people sexually, resulting in them using their positions to sexually exploit others. Insecurity may cause leaders to abuse power and become dictatorial. The opportunity to amass material possessions could trigger gross expressions of greed. Those who rose from poverty to leadership are particularly susceptible here. Some use the sacrificial contributions of people to adopt extravagant lifestyles with fancy cars, luxurious homes, and expensive holidays. The theology of some of these permits them to be happy to see that their leaders living with extravagant prosperity even though they themselves may be struggling financially. 

The pressure of having to perform in the public arena, or of having to lead a growing organisation, could cause dangerous levels of stress which sometimes expresses itself in bursts of uncontrollable anger, especially with colleagues, or in attacks of severe anxiety. Sportsmen, artistes and preachers will testify to how vulnerable to temptation they are after performing before a huge audience. Some resort to stress reducing substances like alcohol (alcoholism is becoming a serious problem in the ministry). Others look for sexual outlets. Those who suffer most from the stress of famous people are their families. There is an alarming increase in the incidence of neglect, serious conflict, and divorce among Christian celebrities. 

Some celebrity leaders like to build monuments that showcase their success, like huge buildings, hospitals, seminaries, and universities. These monuments may not come within their primary callings and giftings. Often these projects run into financial difficulties. In raising funds for them some leaders break principles of Christian integrity. For example, they extort money from unsuspecting Christians through prophecies of blessing in return for generous giving. The upkeep and maintenance of these projects also become a huge burden. And leaders could be detracted from their primary callings because they must raise funds for that. 

The Need for Accountability

One of the best ways to overcome the problems of fame is having good friendship and accountability structures. Friends have an amazing way of filling up what is lacking in our lives and preventing us from crashing (see Eccles. 4:9-12). They help give us a security that helps us avoid the pitfalls related to our own insecurity. 

Fame and power creates a dangerous distance from people that makes an adequate accountability structure difficult to forge. This is especially true for pioneers or those who grew their work into huge ministries from small beginnings. The ministry depends on them to survive. They are the parents, the teachers, the source of attraction, the source of authority, the brains, and the public face of the ministry. Such ministries often don’t have a system to deal with the pioneer’s problems.

All Christians, new and mature, must flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness. But the Bible teaches that we do that “along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (2 Tim. 2:22). We all need people who confront us about our sins and weaknesses and help us to live holy lives (see Heb. 10:24). Our accountability partners can help moderate our ministries so that we avoid unhealthy excesses. We need friends who help us in our personal lives and those who exercise fiscal controls on us, like a Board. Here are some ways in which accountability groups can enrich our lives and help us avoid some of the pitfalls of fame and power. Of course, a lot of these decisions can be made personally, without the intervention of friends. But friends help implement good decisions and by keeping us accountable.  

  • Restricting our public ministry involvements so that we can spend good times alone with the Lord and with family, with colleagues and with those we minister to personally. 
  • Declining invitations to events which buttresses our status as celebrities, but which clash with our more basic commitments like a school programme in which our child is taking part. 
  • Having someone to report to regarding our weaknesses which, if left unchecked, could ruin our lives and ministries (e.g. internet behaviour, losing our temper at home, indiscipline with personal finances). 
  • Declining a wonderful opportunity for speaking in a prominent gathering because our accountability partners have placed a temporary restriction over us as a discipline. 
  • Deciding on the most responsible and effective ways to raise funds. 
  • Having a group that will critically analyse the pros and cons of a pet project which we have dreamed up. 

The huge amount of funds raised by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association came in because of Graham’s powerful ministry and personal credibility. But in the use of those funds, Graham submitted to the leadership of his Board. When I was a member of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelisation in the 1980s, we were always short of funds. At our meetings, the question was often asked, “Why don’t we ask Graham for some funds.” Graham was Honorary Chairman of the Committee. Those close to him told us that he would love to give funds to Lausanne, but his Board would not allow him! The most famous Protestant at the time was not allowed to do what he wanted to do with money that came in because of him. That is accountability at work. 

The Evidence of History 

It is significant that some of the greatest and most influential heroes of God’s people lived simple lives without the trappings of celebrity success. Indeed, there were some godly people in the Bible who were very wealthy, like David, Josiah and the other righteous kings. Some Old Testament heroes in so-called “secular work,” like Daniel and Nehemiah, must surely have been wealthy people. The Old Testament presents wealth as a blessing, and even today God uses wealthy people to perform important tasks for him. What we want to point out is that those who don’t have the earthly trappings that go with being a celebrity are not necessarily missing God’s best for them. 

The Old Testament prophets were, for the most part, people without much acclaim in society. They became heroes only after they died (Luke 11:47). The famous prophet’s clothes which John the Baptist wore were chosen partly to identify with the poor. Jeremiah was asked by God to give up many of the earthly trappings of success. 

Many super-star prophets of today are very different to the Old Testament prophets. While the former are rich and adored, the latter were poor and despised by God’s people; while the former major on promises of prosperity and blessing, the latter majored on condemning sin. The sin problem is as urgent now as it was then! There may well be people today with a genuine prophetic gift who are affluent and popular. But those with a special prophetic calling to advocate holiness in this unholy world will probably not enjoy the material trappings of success. They should not consider themselves failures. 

The ideal man, Jesus, did not have a place to lay his head (Matt. 8:20). Of him Paul says, “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor” (2 Cor 8:9). If Jesus lived today, he would not have been considered successful by those who espouse a celebrity culture. I once did a study of every time the New Testament asks us to follow the example of Christ. I found 29 passages, and 23 of those were calls to suffer, to be servants or to persevere in patience like Jesus. Of the other six, three were general calls to follow Christ; one was a call to be obedient like Jesus and two were calls to forgive like Jesus forgave. That is strong evidence for not associating Jesus’ lifestyle with earthly comforts and privileges! It is also a strong challenge to the popular idea that, because Jesus bore the curse for us, we do not need to suffer like him. No! We are asked to follow him in suffering. 

Paul says he gave up his legitimate material rights in order to be more effective in ministry (1 Cor. 9). He described himself as being “poor, yet making many rich” (2 Cor. 6:10). Acts 20:18-35 presents him as an ordinary grassroots worker going from house to house battling for the lives of people, doing things which celebrities often consider a waste of time. At the end of his life he was in a prison in Rome, and when he went for his court case, even the Christians in Rome had shunned him (2 Tim. 4:16). Around 62 AD if someone asked who the most significant person in Rome was, no one would have said, Paul. Most would have said Nero. But, as someone once said, “Today we call our dogs Nero and our sons Paul.” 

The most influential early church fathers did not subscribe to the world’s idea that wealth and fame must go with leadership. In a recent book, Give up the Purple, Julyan Lidstone shows how for the first three centuries the model lifestyle of Christian leaders was not one of privilege but one of servanthood. Purple was an extremely costly dye which was used by royalty. After Christianity became state religion in the fourth century, the status of Christian leaders changed and the symbol of status—purple—was taken on as the colour that the hierarchy of the church wore. The high earthly prestige of church leaders was not something found in the first centuries of Christianity.

Even in the fourth century, some of the most influential Christian leaders refused to adopt an affluent lifestyle. The North African Augustine (354-430 AD) was consecrated Bishop of Hippo against his wishes and has been considered the most influential Christian theologian since Paul. One scholar speaks of his “ethic” as being “ascetic”  John Chrysostom (347-407 AD) was consecrated as Bishop of Constantinople, also against his wishes. He was probably the greatest expository preacher of the early church. The Reformers rediscovered and adopted his expository style. When he became the Bishop, he sold most of the gold and silver in the church and used the proceeds to help feed the poor and refugees. 

Martin Luther, John Calvin and John Wesley—three of the most influential leaders of the last Millennium all lived very simple lives. Missionaries are among the great heroes of the nineteenth and twentieth century church: William Carey, David Livingstone, Adonirum Judson, Henry Martyn, Hudson Taylor, C. T. Studd, Amy Carmichael, Mother Theresa, Helen Roseveare and a host of other people. They all suffered severe discomfort and lived very simply. Their lifestyles would have been scorned by the celebrity culture. But today they are heroes of the church. 

Some of the most influential preachers, Christian leaders and writers of our time refused to become rich even though they could have. Billy Graham received the salary a pastor would receive and didn’t touch the vast financial resources his organisation had. John Stott gave all his earnings away and himself lived very simply in a small apartment, which I had the privilege of visiting. Dr Robert Coleman whose books have sold millions of copies, drives an old car and, when he lived in the Chicago area, used to get his clothes from a Salvation Army second-hand clothes shop! John Piper lives a very simple life in a part of the city of Minneapolis which wealthy people shun. Rick Warren would have been a millionaire, not through donations but through earnings from the books he wrote. But he refused that route. Two of the most influential preachers India has produced, Sadhu Sundar Singh and Bakht Singh, lived very simple lives. They both renounced the trappings of success, even asking God not to allow the prominence of miraculous answers to prayer in their ministries to detract from the gospel. 

These are some of the people whom God allowed to be the true “celebrities” of the church. Their influence was huge and lasting, but they refused the worldly trappings that go with being a celebrity today. 

Wrong Measures of Success 

Sadly, many young workers today measure their success in ministry by earthly criteria, like the vehicle they drive, the house they live in and the position they have in their church or organisation. Some get very angry when they are deprived of some of these perks while others are given those. 

Often people angrily leave an organisation or church because they are not given a promotion that they think they deserved. Many of them ruin their futures because of rash steps taken after the disappointment. All the teachings that Jesus gave about what our true treasure is are thrown out of window. We say that we believe in the inspiration of all scripture, but we refuse to believe statements of Jesus like Mark 9:35: “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” It is natural to be upset when we are overlooked for a promotion. But biblical Christians address those human feelings with biblical values and assure themselves that God will look after them and give them the best life possible. 

Many Christians workers today are destined to unhappiness because their ambitions are too influenced by the celebrity culture. Of Jesus’s twelve disciples only Peter, John, and James are mentioned favourably after the Gospels. But there is nothing to say that the others, except Judas, were failures. We hear speakers challenge their audiences saying, “You can all be leaders.” I wonder how biblical that is! Not everyone is called by God to be a leader or to be famous. But everyone who does the will of God is significant in God’s eyes and will be rewarded in heaven accordingly. 

We have a strong sense of purpose and significance when we know that we are aligned to the programme of the Lord of creation which will end in eternal triumph. There is no uncertainty there, no fickle crowds who will cheer a celebrity one day and jeer him the next. We will be contented people if we have a strong sense of what our eternal destiny is. 

Some of the great missionary heroes of the church were brilliant people who could have gone to the top of the social ladder if they had stayed in their home countries. But they left all of that to go to the unreached. Some were brilliant preachers or scholars. And if they had stayed at home, they would have preached to large congregations or taught in prestigious seminaries. Instead they spoke to about three or four people each Sunday for many years until the gospel broke through and people responded. Some saw hardly any fruit during their lifetime, but they opened doors for others who reaped the harvest of their labours. Today some would say those people were fools, or that it was a huge waste of talent! 

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I want to end this article with an appeal to younger Christians. When you think of significance and greatness, don’t let the celebrity ideals of society spoil your vision. God may give some Christians those privileges and perks. But they are not a big deal. The big deal is doing God’s will. Whether you end up famous or not, guard your life, and ensure that you avail yourself of those essentials for maintaining a ministry that is approved by God.

 

 

Ajith Fernando is Teaching Director of Youth for Christ, Sri Lanka, the ministry he led for 35 years. These days, in addition to teaching and preaching, he spends his time mentoring and counselling younger Christian leaders and pastors.