In the past few months, there have been a number of interesting articles about famous Christians and the phenomenon of celebrity pastors. The articles approached the issue from different angles, but for some reason they all led me to ask the question: What would be the easiest way to actually become a Christian celebrity? If Machiavelli had written "The Pastor" instead of "The Prince," what kind of ruthlessly practical (i.e. foolish) advice might he have offered to someone trying to become a famous religious figure? I can't be certain, but I think he would probably encourage you to consider four strategies. Let me summarize them briefly and then explain why they are antithetical to Christianity even though Christians use them all the time.
You must offer a merciless critique of other Christians.
Take this recent example, written by a Christian, in the New York Times:
The rejection of science seems to be part of a politically monolithic red-state fundamentalism, textbook evidence of an unyielding ignorance on the part of the religious ... Ken Ham, David Barton and James C. Dobson have been particularly effective orchestrators -- and beneficiaries -- of this subculture.
I'm sure the article began with good motives, but this is a PR strategy designed in hell. Whatever your thoughts about other Christians and their actions, no God-glorifying church or movement has ever been built on a heap of dirty laundry. I wholeheartedly advocate and participate in debate between believers, behind closed doors. But this kind of finger-pointing leads to extra laughter about, not extra clout for, the Christian church.
You must make a concession about, or hold a vague position on, whatever Christian doctrines are currently unpopular.
Space prohibits me from offering lots of recent examples, but you know the issues. Contrary to current thought trends, both Scripture and church teaching throughout history overwhelmingly agree that:
- People who do not trust in Christ spend eternity apart from Him in hell.
- Homosexuality, though not some "worst of all sins," is nonetheless sinful and not God's design for sex.
- We are not allowed to terminate the lives of very young humans, even when everyone around us thinks it is morally acceptable to do so.
You must make over-simplifications sound like revolutionary ideas.
The secret to any popular movement is simplicity, so people hell-bent on success often build their movement, and win devotees, by promoting a simpler-than-reality "solution" to an old problem. Then they convince people that they are a genius for coming up with this idea, and suggest that it's something no one in all church history has ever noticed.
I shudder to wade into examples, because that opens up the debates themselves, but in the last month alone I have read articles that promoted false dichotomies and oversimplifications like:
- Don't go to seminary. Learn about the gospel in the real world.
- You'll never understand Christianity all by yourself. Go to seminary.
- Either you're a complementarian or you don't take the word of God seriously.
- Either you're an egalitarian or you don't respect women.
- If churches would just embrace liturgy, everything else would fall into place.
- If churches would drop their "programs," everything else would fall into place.
- If Christians would just get out of politics, everyone would come to Christ.
You must make Christianity your business.
If a pastor showed up in a new town and sent letters to as many people as possible, asking them to "follow him," and worked hard to "build his brand," we'd call it a toxic case of self-absorption and excuse him from the position. But when Christians today do that online, and encourage us to hang on their every tweet or blog post, they call it a "necessary evil," or the "only way you can make it in this business."
Christianity is at root an idea about Jesus and His place in history. God has ordained that people be used to preach and proclaim that idea. He may even use your mouth, or your pen, to do so. But the constant danger is that we get more excited about our own mouths and pens than the ideas which we explain. As such, the goal of a Christian's work should not be gathering followers but effecting transformation, and we have to be prepared to do that work regardless of whether it leads to recognition and financial compensation or shame and cultural marginalization.
If you read through this article and kept thinking of people who really need to hear this, you have successfully missed the point. The Bible shows that these strategies are the natural outflow of every fallen heart. I'm able to write about these strategies with ease because, regrettably, I know them from the inside. Surely you have used them too, whether on the big stage or just in a small group discussion.
It requires prayer, the power of the Spirit and regular community with other Gospel-minded people to escape these tendencies. Here's hoping we'll all lean on those things, and receive the mercy only Christ can give, when we are foolish enough to pursue our fame instead of God's.