Celebrities, Charlatans and the Kingdom of God

It is both an amazing and a humbling truth that God has for some reason decided that his work in this world would largely be carried out by you and me. He has said that we his people will help to build his Kingdom. Despite our fallen, frail and fickle natures, he has wondrously and mysteriously chosen us to help get the job done.

That is an incredible thought. As Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 4:7, we have this treasure (the glory of God) in earthen vessels (our own weak and stumbling selves). Imagine the humility and grace of God, to entrust this most vital of tasks to us.

It is almost as if I had a multi-million dollar business deal to stitch together, and I entrusted the whole job to a five-year-old boy. Or as if I must sit a rigorous PhD entrance exam, and I ask a four-year-old girl to take it for me. Or as if I choose to entrust the flying of a 747 to a three-year-old boy.

Of course we have many promises that God will achieve his purposes, and his Kingdom will be established. “I will build my church” Jesus reassured us (Matt. 16:18). Indeed, the gates of hell will not prevail against it. That which God has started he will bring to completion (Phil. 1:6). Many other such promises and assurances could be cited here.

Yet despite these glorious promises, it is still mind-boggling to know that somehow we are involved in all this. He still deigns to use us to help achieve the tasks of world evangelisation, disciple-making, and church building. Given how many Christian leaders have failed so greatly, and how many pastors have fallen from grace, it is a wonder that the church is being built at all. Indeed, we have all seriously harmed the church and brought dishonour and disrepute to God by sin, selfishness and failure. We have failed him time and time again. It is incredible that God still continues to use us.

A recent article in Charisma magazine speaks to one aspect of all this. It speaks of the “deadly virus of celebrity Christianity” and is well worth having a look at. (It does not yet appear to be in the Charisma website.) J. Lee Grady, the author, reminds us that we have strayed quite a way from the early church, as we engage in “shameful carnality”.

He begins with these words: “Some bigheaded preachers demand rock star treatment. If the apostle Paul were around today he might throw rocks at them. Just when I thought we had finally taken enough abuse from the egomaniac ministers in our midst, I’ve learned that some of our leaders are taking things to a new extreme. We’ve moved beyond the red carpets, limousines and entourages of the 1990s. A new strain of the celebrity virus is spreading in large segments of the church.”

He provides several examples of this. One really takes the cake: “One friend of mine in Texas recently inquired to see if a prominent preacher could speak at her conference. The minister’s assistant faxed back a list of requirements that had to be met in order to book a speaking engagement. The demands included:

-a five-figure honorarium
-a $10,000 gasoline deposit for the private plane
-a manicurist and hairstylist for the speaker
-a suite in a five-star hotel
-a luxury car from the airport to the hotel
-room-temperature Perrier”

The apostle Paul would be rolling in his grave if he heard of such foolishness. Indeed, as Grady rightly comments, “This really makes me wonder how the apostle Paul, Timothy or Priscilla managed ministering to so many people in Ephesus, Corinth and Thessalonica. How did they survive without a manicurist if they broke a nail while laying hands on the sick?”

Jesus, Paul and others warned about the trap of riches, and the temptation to turn the gospel into something for mere financial gain. Yet it seems now that some pastors are even charging for pastoral visits, or a bit of pastoral counsel. Grady provides this example:

“In a city in the South, a well-known preacher is known to ask for money in order to secure a five- or 10-minute counselling session. The minister uses Proverbs 18:16, ‘A man’s gift makes room for him and brings him before great men’ (NASB), to support this bizarre practice. Some people are known to give more than $1,000 for a short meeting.”

Grady comments, “People on fixed incomes need not apply. (That would include lepers, blind beggars, Samaritan women or any other social outcasts who were welcomed and healed by Jesus without payment.)”

Quite right. We live in the age of the celebrity pastor, and these pastors have a lifestyle to match their status. Yet our Lord had nowhere to rest his head. He owned no home, had no wealth, and did not even have a pension plan. Nor did the early disciples.

But today we have made a prosperity gospel out of what should be a gospel that sets sinners free and makes us right with God. Today we have no heroes, only celebrities, as David Wells reminds us in his important new book (which I will soon review here).

The Christian church has also fallen for the celebrity trap and the fame game. We are more interested in mega-pastors and megachurches than we are in the two most important things of the Christian faith: the person and work of Jesus, and the inspired Word of God.

Indeed, in one best-selling book by the pastor of America’s biggest church, words such as sin, the cross, judgment, atonement, hell and self-denial are not even mentioned. It is all about us, and what benefits we believers can get. Jesus is in fact rarely mentioned in this book, and God does not get much more attention. (This book I will also soon review here.)

We live in an age of entertainment, of celebrities, of greed, of pleasure, of vanity, of self, and of self-indulgence. And much of the church of Jesus Christ has pretty much taken all this on board. No wonder we are so anaemic, so ineffective, so despised and rejected by the world. We have nothing to offer.

The world has all these things already. Why get them second-hand from the church? It is only when the church is radically different, and preaches a real gospel, that we will turn the world upside down. Only when we get back to Jesus Christ and him crucified will we be real salt and light. Only when we renounce our worldliness and shallowness and carnality will we see real revival break out.

The question is, what do we as God’s people most want? Do we simply want to be like the world, or do we want to challenge the world, to show the world something much better, and be true to Jesus Christ? The world rejected Jesus. It put him on a cross. We should expect no less as his followers.

But if we insist on being like the world and copying the world, we will not be rejected, much less crucified. We will simply be laughed at, or ignored. We certainly will not be taken seriously. Now is the time to decide whose side we are really on. “Choose you this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15).

[1230 words]

12 Replies to “Celebrities, Charlatans and the Kingdom of God”

  1. Hi Bill,

    Couldn’t agree more.

    I have seen it cleverly summarised thus:

    “Christianity began as a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. When it went to Athens, it became a philosophy. When it went to Rome, it became an organization. When it spread throughout Europe, it became a culture. When it went to America, it became a business.” – Anon.

    Juliana Simbroski, Darwin

  2. Your article accords perfectly with the sentiment that many Christians have on your site which is that our big church leaders, apart from a handful who are regarded as eccentrics, are not being heard. The reason I love Diane Mullaly’s statement (below) is that she speaks for millions of ordinary, mothers and grandmothers. I have no idea who she is apart from the fact that she appeared on Anglican Mainstream: http://www.anglican-mainstream.net/2007/02/05/sors-%e2%80%9ci-will-gladly-go-to-prison%e2%80%9d/

    My question is, where is the queue behind this lady whose declaration is as noble as anything written by Milton, Socrates or any of the great philosophers?

    Another piece of scripture that comes to mind is 1 Corinthians 4: 8-10: “Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have become kings—and that without us! How I wish that you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you! For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men. 1We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored!”

    This contrasts with the church wanting to have street cred, to appear cool (I hate to say this but Alpha seems to fall into this trap with TV celebrities like David Frost introducing it. He, after all, was one of those who was instrumental in the sixities with demolishing everything that was considered sacred with his satirical programme, ‘That Was the Week that Was’, and which helped to lay the foundations of much of the cynicism of today) with that of the early church that was not ashamed in the eyes of the world to be foolish for Christ.

    Let us break our self imposed silence (starting within the Church!) with a clear declaration and then let us deliver this at low lever straight through the front entrances of those strongholds about which we dare to sing: “Step by step we’re moving forward. Little by little we’re taking ground. Every prayer a powerful weapon. Strongholds come tumbling down and down. And down and down.” We should be ashamed to sing this.

    David Skinner, UK

  3. Thanks David

    And I of course did not mean to imply that all megachurch leaders or most Christian leaders are fleecing the congregation instead of feeding the flock. Most pastors and church leaders are humbly toiling for Christ without fanfare or large pay cheques. Most do not even have large platforms or large congregations. Most are loyal, Christlike servants who want what is best for the church. So I hope my article does not give the impression that I think all church leaders are charlatans or celebs. Unfortunately however some are.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  4. Nice article, Bill. It is, indeed, a sad state of affairs when a preacher can bat no eyelid when listing such ridiculous requirements. I look forward to the Wells review.
    Simon Kennedy, VIC

  5. Bill, great article pointing out a sad aspect of “ministry.”

    One very down-to-earth minister in who’s church I was privileged to become born again, had a very simple principle for visiting preachers.

    In order to preach from his pulpit, they had to stay in his home as a guest in the spare bedroom.

    That list you quoted would have ended up in his round filing basket within seconds!

    John Angelico

  6. Great article, Bill.

    If I can add a further observation, In John 14, Jesus said He would send us “another councillor” (‘another’ in the Greek being an identical one). John 14 is part of the Upper Room teaching, the context of which is set by Jesus washing His disciples’ feet which was the task in those days of the lowest of low slaves.

    The promised Councillor was, of course, the Holy Spirit – the ‘nameless’ member of the Trinity who also doesn’t seek self-aggrandisement,. He doesn’t appear to have an image problem or lack in self-esteem with not being identified with a personal name, Rather than having His name up in lights, He appears more than content with pointing people to Jesus and then, once that is done, indwell them to help them in their daily walk.

    Maybe a few of our ‘bigger named’ pastors could take a leaf out of the Holy Spirit’s book – but then, He’s only God.

    Roger Birch

  7. Good read Bill but now I feel cheated. I have just returned from a wonderful teaching trip to Jakarta and Mongolia. I received no pay for any of this trip as the people in both places could not afford to pay. I flew economy class and slept in warm but very basic accomodation and was looked after by wondeful people.

    The sad truth is that these groups on the front line rarely see a ‘visiting speaker’ and yet it is these people who are putting everything on the line for the gospel. To preach to a church of over 500 people in Mongolia and see them get so excited about worship, intercession and ministry was one of the highlights for me. The church in Mongolia will grow because of people like them.

    I see speakers coming to conferences here in Australia year after year to speak to the same people but I wonder why they dont go to these far flung places. Now I know. No pay, no top hotels and no Perrier.

    I have just read ‘Discipling the Nations’ and it talks about the gospel ‘critiqueing’ culture. Sadly I see that so many of our churches have been seduced by our culture instead. Lord help us to grow in our understanding of your culture more than our national one.

    Warwick Murphy

  8. Thank you for this article Bill. There is so much truth in what you say.

    Juliana, your quote is spot on.

    The modern churches, small and large alike, to a major degree, have lost the focus on Christ and Him resurrected, and the power thereof – the power to die to self and live for Christ doing His will and living His way, the power to love and serve others for no return. They have forgotten the scripture “as I freely receive, so I freely give” – yes, I know the Apostle Paul said that it is right and honourable to give the pastor his ‘due’ but all we do for Christ must be through faith – not through demands, pleas or manipulations. All I hear from churches today, small and large, is how God needs money to save the world, and how we can live ‘bigger’ lives through Jesus – the ‘Christian pension plan’. Funny, but I thought that the world would be saved when I told my neighbour about Christ, when we simply reach out to our community.

    I hear a lot on love, but little on holiness and yet God is holy and expects the same of us. I thank God that He knows what He’s doing and His plan will not fail no matter how pathetic our involvement may be. And I thank God that I am in a church who’s focus is on Christ, livingly simply and selflessly for God’s glory, in unity and humility, in the world but not of the world, with our eyes on Him.

    It is my prayer for this coming generation that they recognise the reasons why the Christian church in the 3rd world and Asia is growing like wild fire while western Christianity is by and large stagnant.

    Garth Penglase

  9. I agree with what you are saying here Bill, that indeed many so called “ministers of the gospels” are expecting to be treated like superstars and celebrities. Where did they get this idea from I have not a clue, after all didn’t Jesus Himself say that “the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve?”.

    My next point would be, though I do not expect everyone to share my views, is that a little bit of “indulgence” (for a better lack of a word) isn’t totally sinful and of the devil. For instance, flying business class instead of economy when the means allows could be very practical. You get enough rest and are comfortable which gives you the ability to minister more effectively. It would also be safe to say that when invited or going somewhere foreign to minister, I am sure you would want to feel welcomed. Of course this does not give anybody the right to have ridiculous demands, but there has to be some form of honour given, within reasonable means of course.

    That is just my 2 cents, please tell me if you disagree otherwise.

    Jonathan Ngan

  10. Dear Bill

    One problem in using these big name speakers is that it reinforces the notion is that the plebs in the pews aren’t capable of doing the job of preaching the gospel themselves effectively. Read some church bulletins and they write “bring or drag along your friends to church to hear so and so”.

    I have noticed in the past that church pastors will bend over backwards to accommodate the whims of the speakers they bring in, no matter if their methods appear borderline, especially how they conduct altar calls. For example, coming out the front does not get someone saved; Its being in relationship with God the Father through believing in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

    Jesus Himself chose the roughest 12 men around him to be his disciples. They didn’t wear suits, stay in flash hotels or travel first class. I encourage pastors to stop fawning over these famous preachers and equip their own people instead to evangelize.

    Glenda Morgan

  11. Well said, Bill. Most of the modern evangelism we see on television does seem to be conducted around a celebrity evangelist. However there are untold hundreds of thousands of highly effective Christian workers who labor humbly and consistently in the footsteps of the Master. We know the last days will be characterised by superficial religion (Matt 24). It seems to me the larger the crowd the more shallow the message and the reverse is also true. Pray for the unseen evangelists who do the job in a way the apostles would heartyily approve of.
    Herb Kersten

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