The following is a transcript of a Raised Catholic podcast episode. To listen to the episode, click here.
Today is episode 107: Celebrity Christian Culture
Hi friends. Have you ever thought about what it took to spread the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus, from a tiny speck on a map to, like, the entire world? Back in the time of the first disciples, there was no technology, no media, no slick ad campaigns, no ability to beam words and images instantly from one part of the globe to another. Back then, the Gospel traveled person to person, first by Jesus, then by his friends, and then by those friends of friends, like circles going out from a stone thrown into a pond. People experienced something good, a healing or a teaching or mercy, and then they shared that goodness organically. Once Christianity became a religion of the powerful in the Roman Empire, that organic system was disrupted, as power tends to do, when we saw terrible chapters like the Crusades when millions were killed in the name of Christianity. A symbiotic relationship between government and religion was not something Jesus ever intended and in fact, warned against, but that’s another episode, friend.
In our modern age, there are lots of ways to explore and learn about our faith and that accessibility to information is a good thing. Publishing, marketing, social media – these are all tools that can be used well to spread the good news of the Gospel. But this week I’d like to talk about the very real danger that can accompany these tools, something I’ve noticed more and more in both Catholic and Protestant circles: the dangerous trend of celebrity Christian culture.
If I asked you to name five ‘celebrity’ Catholics, priests or otherwise, could you do it? I could and I’d be willing to bet that many of us would offer up a lot of the same names and Pope Francis might not even be among them. Hmmm. I’m not sure this kind of celebrity is a good trend for a church whose foundation was built in service and dying to self.
Recently on twitter, I saw two exchanges that gave me pause. In the first, someone expressed that a very popular podcast and its very popular host, a priest you have definitely heard of, was just not her cup of tea. She wasn’t insulting him, it was just her opinion. Well, she was attacked in the comments by many people who love this particular priest. His work had been meaningful to them in their faith walk, and they wanted to protect him. I get it, but this kind of visceral defense of a human person felt outsized to me. I wondered why we haven’t yet learned in our church history that the message is bigger than the messenger, and that no clergy member should be above criticism. Haven’t we seen the damage that clericalism has done in our past?
The second tweet was from a pastor I follow, someone who had been recommended to me from a voice I trust, and I liked his content but in this particular tweet, the pastor was bragging about the number of people he had baptized that week compared to the other churches in his area. I found this to be a huge red flag and I immediately hit the ‘unfollow’ button. I couldn’t remember any instance in the Scriptures where Jesus bragged about the numbers in his crowds. In fact, he so often escaped the crowds and instead prioritized encounter with the Father and with the person directly in front of him, face-to-face. That’s how he healed, that’s how he taught, and that’s how he taught his disciples to heal and teach, too: person to person.
So, how did this celebrity trend happen? I believe that very few people enter ministry with anything but good intentions, but the path toward a dangerous cult of celebrity can at first look from the outside like healthy and positive growth just using the tools that are available in this modern age. Someone shares a message, and it resonates, and a program grows, and this sure looks like good fruit, so the work continues. That personality or format seems to click with people – it’s a formula that works, so over time, the messenger is centered above the message. The audience grows and now there’s a product or products to sell and an organization to protect. The stakes are raised, and this can lead to less accountability or a kind of bubble in which criticism is disallowed. The popular messenger becomes insulated and spiritually depleted and so often this course ends in scandal and damage to the community that in the beginning the guy only wanted to serve. He never intended to be a ‘personality’ at all but a minister who just somehow got lost along the way. In the Christian Church in America, we have seen this pattern play out over and over and over.
So, knowing what can happen on this dangerous road, why do we continue this behavior? Why don’t we see the danger of celebrity culture in the church?
I believe it’s because we’re hungry. We’re starving, actually, in this culture, for goodness and truth. So, when a person is bearing or speaking good fruit, people flock to it. I’ve done that and I bet you have, too. There’s a priest in a city near me that I love – I watch his homilies, I’ve made the trip there for mass, I share his stuff. And I’m not alone, lots of people tune in to this particular livestream from all over the world every week. But I have noticed how much this priest does not center himself. He seems to be pretty deliberate about that actually, always pointing to God and to the parish which has such good stuff going on in the community. This priest surrounds himself with people who keep him humble, and he frequently laughs at himself, and he lets lay leadership take the lead on programming. He takes time away for himself to recharge. All of this behavior seems pretty intentional to me, and I would say it’s working. The parish is bearing quite a lot of fruit. And it seems to me that Jesus had many of these same habits – he set up lay leadership, he pointed always to the Father, he never took credit for his miracles, he took time away from the crowds. Hard to argue with that model.
I’ve heard a couple of podcast interviews recently with Fr. Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries. You might have heard of his decades-long work with gang members and formerly incarcerated people in Los Angeles – it’s pretty amazing and I’ll link to them in the show notes for you. Well at some point while listening, I realized that even though he certainly could be considered a ‘famous’ priest and I’ve heard about his work for years, that I had no idea what Fr. Greg looked like. He does not center himself, ever, but always points to the work and to the homies he works with. Humility is clearly a key component to his ethic and to the success of his ministry. In contrast, there are several celebrity priests, active in the media and on social media, where if I mentioned their name, the first thing you would think of is their face. Their images and personalities have become central to their content, and unfortunately, this is a sign of a dangerous degradation of their ministry.
So, what should we do, as people who both take in information and as Christian leaders, because each of us are both, you know, leaders and consumers, in the circles in which we live and work. What are healthy practices for us in the modern landscape of faith and media?
One thing is to make a practice of pointing away from ourselves. I’ll say that as a music minister for many years, I’ll sometimes get very kind and even emotional feedback about how my singing made a person feel or helped them to pray. This is quite a thing to hear, as you can imagine, but I could see early on in my ministry that it was a dangerous thing for me to internalize. After some time looking for the right language, I came up with what is now my response whenever I’m complimented about my voice – a thing I did not accomplish on my own but is something that God works through at times to impact his people. So, I’ll respond, “What a kind thing for you to say” or I’ll say, “I am so glad that God found a way to speak to you today!” I find that deflecting the praise, and centering God and the ‘other’ make the message more important than the messenger. This is important to me as a minister, so this practice is healthy for me and for them.
As we discern the voices we’ll listen to in this modern age, our best measure comes from the fruit of the Spirit as described in the Book of Galatians. When we take in a message from a teacher, a priest, a minister, or any kind of public faith voice, do we hear and see love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?
Is this voice a leader or a part of an organization which is open to criticism, which is centered on the ‘other’, which points people to God and not to itself or himself or herself? And what is happening in the trajectory of that organization over time? Are there meaningful structures in place to prevent clericalism or politicization or good old-fashioned ego from taking root? Is there outside accountability to ensure that a person or a group, has not, as it says in the Book of Revelation, “abandoned the love they had at first”? Because it is so easy for this to happen, friend, honestly. People are only human. I wonder how can we help the organizations that we’re a part of to embrace healthy practices, too? I wonder about your thoughts on that.
I was walking home from a run this week and was singing along to a song which had popped up in my air pods, but I wasn’t singing the melody. I was singing on a harmony line, and it occurred to me that this might have sounded a bit odd to anyone who happened to hear me as I walked down the road because they couldn’t hear the fullness of what I heard in my ears. Maybe they heard a bit of a tune or enough words to make them want to find the original song and hear it for themselves. Who knows? I wasn’t putting on a concert, after all. At the end of the day, the same is true of us and really, any Christian leader. We are designed to listen to the Good News, to take it in, and then to offer our own reflection of it in our own unique way, to sing our part, and then, to keep walking. It’s not our show. If the tune is good or the words are valuable, anyone who hears us will go to the source to find the fullness of what is in the capital-S Song that God is singing through us for themselves. This is what being ‘salt of the earth’ is all about. We all have something to share and to give but God is the source, and any Christian leader – even your favorite one – is simply a conduit or a bridge of His love, each of us just one part of the Body of Christ.
And this is such a well-designed system of connectivity: each one doing our part and depending on the other to do theirs, all the while God animating us in love, no one greater than the other. It’s a good word in this modern age to listen and speak and build in the humble ways that Jesus taught us, one heart at a time.
Well thanks so much for listening today, friend. If you need me, you can find me on Instagram @kerrycampbellwrites or on my blog at mylittleepiphanies.com. Thanks so much for rating, reviewing, subscribing and most importantly, sharing this podcast with a friend. That really makes a difference in growing our community, so thanks. If you’d like to support this podcast financially, there’s a way for you to do that in the show notes, along with some resources related to today’s episode, so do check all of that out, but before we go, let’s pray together.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.
God we thank you for the many ways you help us to know you. Please bless your teachers and help them to find healthy practices that help them, their organizations, and the people they serve. Lord, help us to look and sound more like you. In Jesus’s name and wrapped in the mantle of His Mother, Mary, we pray, amen.
Thanks so much for listening today, friend. I’ll see you next time.
This week we discuss the dangerous trend of celebrity Christian culture and explore practices that can help leaders and listeners maintain a healthy faith walk in the modern media age.
If you’d like to connect with me, find me on Instagram or on my blog. If you’d like to help support this podcast financially, there’s now a way to do just that, and thank you – visit me on my page at buymeacoffee.com! Thanks as always for sharing, subscribing, rating, and reviewing, as this helps our community to grow!
Thanks as always to my friend, Peter Vaughan-Vail, for providing the beautiful harp music you hear in this and every episode.
Here are some resources I hope will help you to engage with this week’s topic in a deeper way for yourself:
1. Article/podcast: Social media is producing ‘celebrity priests’ – and it’s a problem for their vocations, by Gloria Purvis at America Magazine
2. Organization: Homeboy Industries
3. Interview/podcast: Kelly Corrigan Wonders with Fr. Greg Boyle, Founder Homeboy Industries
4. Song (this is the one I harmonized with on my walk): Clean, by Hillsong
5. Song: Give Me Jesus, by Fernando Ortega
6. Podcast series: The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, detailing the story of a Seattle church that should be a cautionary tale for all ministers and churches
7. Song: Wonderful, Merciful Savior, by Selah
8. Article: A toxic celebrity culture has infiltrated the church. We must root it out, by Katelyn Beaty
9. Song: Who Am I (Casting Crowns), cover by Mildred Carriaga
10. Essay: Priests Never Say They’re Sorry, by Mary Pezzulo
11. Book: Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits are Hurting the Church, by Katelyn Beaty