Over the past months there has been a good deal of back and forth on the blogs (good blogs from people I respect) about the dangers of “celebrity pastors.” As is often the case with these matters, there are many legitimate concerns to be made and many overreactions to avoid.

So, in no particular order, here are seven theses to keep in mind.

1. Celebrity is not a terribly helpful word. A celebrity is simply someone who is well known and easily recognizable. So in one sense, there are celebrity pastors. But “celebrity” often carries negative connotations, especially in Christian circles. A celebrity is someone who is famous for no substantial reason. We hear “celebrity” and think “vain,” “status-seeker,” “important for superficial reasons.” Unless this is what we want to say about some well-known Christians (and maybe it is), we should avoid calling them “celebrity pastors.” Both were famous and influential in their own circles, but there was a difference between Macho Man Randy Savage and Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

2. Popularity is, to use Jonathan Edwards phrase, a non-sign. Noting that Pastor X  is popular should not be seen as a value judgment. Hitler was popular for a time, but so was Jesus. It’s no necessary sign of faithfulness or faithlessness that many people go to Pastor X’s church or love to hear him speak or want to buy his books. Bigger may be better or it may be badder.

3. Factionalism is a danger, but factionalism is not the same as having a following. Many people are quick to bring up Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians about those who said “I follow Paul” or “I follow Apollos.” But Paul is rebuking the church for divisions (v. 10) and quarreling (v. 11), not for having teachers. Being drawn to a certain preacher does not by itself mean you are committing the sin of factionalism. If you think your favorite teacher is the only one worth listening to, if you are passionate about following him rather than following Christ, if you get into pointless arguments for the sake of defending your teacher, then you are making the mistake Paul warned about.

4. The human heart is desperately sick; who can understand it? Popular preachers and teachers are not immune to vanity, pride, and self-absorption. Those who follow them are not immune from idolatry, gawking, and completely missing the point. And the critics of all this are not immune from jealousy, cynicism, and undermining the work of God just because it seemed to be working.

5. Men follow men. (And by this I mean, less elegantly, humans follow other humans.) So long as we remember the Hero, it’s good to have human heroes (cf. Hebrews 13:7). Show me any great Christian in the history of the church and I guarantee he (or she) learned at the feet of some other great Christian. For some it’s Whitefield or Hodge or Warfield. For others its Augustine, Aquinas, or Athanasius. For others is Susanna Wesley, Sarah Edwards, or Elisabeth Elliot. For others it may be Lloyd-Jones, Lewis, or Machen. Why should we be surprised that some current names will be added to the list of God’s special instruments?

6. Give glory to God for his gifts wherever you find them. This entails three things:

1) We must always remember—and not just give lip service to the fact—that God is the one who apportions gifts to teachers, pastors, and authors. The churches get edified. God gets the glory.

2) Some Christians are more gifted than others. That’s not just reality; that’s the way God designed things. It will be better to learn about John Calvin from some teachers than from others (one of the reasons speakers are advertised at conferences). Often those with the more pronounced gifts are those with more pronounced influence. And those with more influence are usually better known than those with little influence. So as long as God apportions gifts as he sees fit, we will not escape the fact that some men have more notoriety and are used more powerfully than others. If you had to teach a class on the Reformation you’d certainly spend the bulk of your time on the likes of Luther, Calvin, Know, and Zwingli. The human mind can only comprehend so much, so we tend to focus on the men who (to our imperfect eyes) seemed to be used uniquely by God in his plan.

3) We ought to find ways to give great honor to the parts of the body that lack it (1 Cor. 12:24). This may mean thanking your faithful pastor more often even though his sermons will never be in a preaching anthology. It may mean writing a note to the servants at our churches with behind the scenes gifts. It certainly means that those with pronounced up-front teaching gifts should look for ways to direct attention away from themselves in order that they might honor “those other parts of the body.” Senior Pastors in particular should find ways to publicly praise the rest of their staff. They should develop the habit of thanking others in private too. And they should pray for wives who aren’t easily impressed (and recognize God’s grace when they’re not!).

7. Shame people only for what you are certain is truly shameful. Following your favorite speakers like teenage girls followed John, Paul, George, and Ringo is silly. But let’s be careful not to make every Christian who’s ever gotten an autograph or a picture taken feel like a dope. There are stupid reasons to wait in line to talk to a popular person. But there are God-honoring reasons too. Many people simply want to say thank you, or ask for prayer, or get a quick piece of advice. Judgments easily turn into judgmentalism when we don’t know all the facts (1 Sam. 16:7). If in our desire to warn against the cult of personality we forget that God uses persons, we won’t be doing the church any favors. Or God for that matter.

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45 thoughts on “7 Theses on “Celebrity Pastors””

  1. Kevin,

    As always, this short post of yours is filled with very wise advice. Thank you. I pray it proves helpful in the days to come in the “discussion” that’s been happening in the blogosphere (I must read a few of the same blogs, because this has been a frequent topic).

    Oh, by the way… can I get an autograph? :)

  2. Timothy says:

    On the first point, “celebrity” says more about us than about the “celebrity”. It is we who put them on a pedestal and so make them celebrities. Thus the negative associations of the word can apply as much to a God honouring pastor like Lloyd Jones as the other one you mentioned, who I assume is not so good. It is the putting on a pedestal that is so unfortunate and this was the fate of Jones in the eyes of many. There was not a lot he could do about it and hopefully he did not lose too much sleep over it. But we should if we make celbrities of any preacher however good.

  3. Kerry says:

    john piper had some good thoughts on this a couple of years ago:

    http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/taste-see-articles/hero-worship-and-holy-emulation

  4. JC says:

    A hearty Amen!

  5. Beulah Land says:

    Good stuff. Not an easy path for those who have become or are becoming “celebrities” as well. May we be reminded to pray for these pastors as Satan’s attacks are strong against them.

    And a word about the wives… These women, by default, also become celebrities and must live in the spotlight. Pray for God’s wisdom and strength for them to live lives of Godliness.

    Thanks, Kerry, too, for the link.

  6. Dave Wilson says:

    Anyone know where I can get my Kevin DeYoung tattoo removed?

    Seriously, very good post.

    I may be biased though.

    Dave

  7. Jacob Lee says:

    Well said…thank you!

  8. Tom says:

    Yes! So profound.
    I commented recently that its more often than not the listener who takes the following of a teacher too far, and not as much the teacher who is just doing his job well!

    Thanks for this Kevin!

  9. Donovan says:

    Thanks Kevin. Good stuff!

    I’d add: 8. Whichever popular pastors we appreciate, we should also recognize the beauty of faithfulness and the reality that God can use more mediocre gifts in massive ways. We should cultivate an appreciation for the faithfulness of our pastor(s), and awareness of and thankfulness for how God has used them in our lives. We should also recognize one thing that makes them special in a way popular pastors are not: God, in His perfect wisdom, has placed us under their care. They are our shepherds.

  10. Arthur Sido says:

    The missing link here is subtle but important. We see these men on stage in their immaculate suits and their soaring oratorical skills and want to be just like them (or worse expect our local pastor to be just like them). We are often encouraged to imitate or emulate men in the Bible but what is it about their lives we are supposed to emulate? How well they speak, how eloquently they preach, their skill in teaching? In a word, no. Paul in 2 Thess 3:7-10 speaks of the example he set but it was not an example of writing swell books and speaking at the best conferences. It was working a job, not being idle, being an example of work for the church. In Hebrews 13:7 we are told to “Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”. Sound words but how are we to do that for men we don’t know?

    Honestly, how many men who attend Together for the Gospel or similar conferences have a clue what sort of life Al Mohler or Mark Dever leads? I am confident that their lives are praiseworthy but I don’t KNOW them so it is pretty hard to “imitate” a man I don’t know. What I know of Al Mohler I know from reading his books and blog, listening to his radio show back in the day and his podcasts and following his Tweets. That is hardly solid ground on which to imitate a man.

    Christians follow “celebrity” pastors like John MacArthur, John Piper and even Kevin DeYoung because of their books and their talks. I used to live about ten minutes from the church Kevin pastors and I know lots of godly men in that area who live lives worthy of emulation. I also know that if you invited these men to speak at a conference, few people would show up because they lack name recognition and are perhaps not as polished in speaking as some of the “celebrity” pastors. I would say the average Christian man can learn a lot more from another faithful and more mature Christian man that he actually knows and can have access to who works a regular job and cares for his family than he could by devouring hours and hours of sermons and conference talks from even the very best “celebrity” pastor. Even the most pious Reformed American is in danger of getting caught up in the desire for entertainment and performance and for many of us listening to a well prepared and presented conference talk is every bit as entertaining as Jersey Shore is for someone else.

    We would all do better to quit spending gobs of time and money buying yet another book by a “celebrity” pastor or attending yet another conference full of the big name speakers and instead spend more time building relationships with other “regular” men, men we can develop actual relationships with (and following someone on Twitter is not an actual relationship) and observe their lives as examples for our own. That is hard work and sometimes messy in contrast to a neat and tidy hour long conference talk but it is also infinitely richer.

  11. Dustin Lair says:

    Great stuff! I have one little problem though. I think you are overlooking the striking similarities between Martin Lloyd Jones and the Macho Man. Who do you think taught Savage the flying elbow off the top rope?

  12. Dave says:

    Yes we have a problem with Christians following celebrity pastors, but these pastors seem to revel in the ‘conference’ circuit, and the annual book that just re-writes what others have written before. There was a time when pastors pastored and evangelists travelled, now they blog, twitter, pastor, write books, do conferences etc etc. This is a complicated issue but if we look back we find people such as A.W Tozer who refused nearly all conferences, he refused to preach at other Churches(except occasionally), and other than a few books, he wrote an editorial for a magazine. He could have been much more popular in his day but he refused to pander to what people wanted, he’s more popular now than he ever was, but he refused, time and time again he refused. We don’t find many people like him in today’s Church. The irony is that he was never that popular in his day,yet his legacy lives on, whilst more popular pastors who did preach at the conferences, and who did write books, are now unknown, and have no effect on Christianity today. Lets not fool ourselves that conferences and books are really a help to other Christians, can they be, sure, will they be, now that’s another question.

  13. Dave Moore says:

    “Often those with the more pronounced gifts are those with more pronounced influence. And those with more influence are usually better known than those with little influence.”

    Kevin,

    Wise reflections throughout, but these sentences I copied need clarifying. What do you mean by influence? Who says what counts? How does one measure it? There are more people than you suggest with the “often” remark who have massive influence, but are virtual unknowns.

    My concern is that we have a truncated view of influence and are therefore more vulnerable to the “celebrity culture” than we care to admit.

  14. J. Dean says:

    I suppose the candle-encompassed shrine to R.C. Sproul will have to be taken down from the living room wall….

    Seriously though, good topic. A former pastor of mine who is in the Assemblies of God (I’m a recovering Arminian-Pietist-Pentecostal, btw) was on personal terms with Jim and Tammy Bakker in their earlier years before all of the scandals, and told me that Jim and Tammy were nothing like what they had become in the controversial years. He explained that people kept putting them up on a pedestal, and after a while they started believing the hype, which in turn fed their pride.

    We often forget that “celebrity pastors” are still sinners, and capable of sin. And that can be a very bad thing.

  15. Tony Lin says:

    I also think there is a big difference between the “celebrity” pastors who become celebrities because of their ministries vs those who become celebrities because they spent millions of dollars to promote themselves. Most televangelists made themselves celebrities by spending millions of dollars to put themselves on television screens around the world. It reminds me of how Food Network promotes their “celebrity chefs.” They are only “celebrity chefs” because Food Network puts them on, otherwise they would just be regular chefs. So are they really celebrities?!? In any case, self-promoting celebrities are different from the “celebrities” at the Gospel Coalition.

    But Jonathan Edwards’ point is more prominent today than ever. In the age of mass media any monkey with a computer and an internet connection can be a “celebrity” (aka “Celebrity blogger”). And anyone with a crazy idea can automatically become an international celebrity, as in the case of the “pastor” who wanted to burn the Koran. 30 years ago he wouldn’t have made the news. Today, with 24 hour news stations looking to fill air time, he was able to become a celebrity. Now, more than ever popularity is a non-sign!

  16. Mark says:

    Kevin,

    This is a thought provoking post. I have asked myself: Should “Celebrity” Pastors Offer Disclaimers.

    Sido’s comment above also makes a lot of sense. One thing about the celebrity label is that if the label is that objectionable then it may be good not to act like celebrities.

  17. Kevin DeYoung says:

    Dave, you raise a good point: who can really measure influence? Only God in the end. Some here on earth with big accomplishments will see their work was made of wood, hay, and stubble. Others will prove to be influential in ways they never knew.

  18. kateg says:

    How does seeking autographs, pictures, or memories of a sentence from a stranger not fit with the trappings of celebrity? Did Martin Lloyd Jones and John Calvin give autographs? Did they have photo ops (or in the case of Calvin,perhaps a painting) with their fans so that the fan could hang a photo of himself with his hero in his home? I know Piper, Sproul, Keller et al., point people to Christ in general, and I am very grateful for all they do. But seeing that the whole conference circuit tempts people to a celebrity culture, you would think that these men, being pastors, and seeing Christians clamoring for autographs, pictures and a minute of their time (which the person will cherish but which would likely not be remembered by the “celebrity”), should not give in to the clamor, but should even more forcefully point these people towards Jesus and not themselves. Instead they acquiesce to this culture and by that are complicit in it.

  19. Great and insightful post Kevin!

  20. Rick Thomas says:

    I’m impressed you could put the Macho Man and Lloyd Jones in the same sentence….no small feat. Well done.

    Good article to boot!

    Oh Yeahhhhh

  21. Mike says:

    “Following your favorite speakers like teenage girls followed John, Paul, George, and Ringo is silly.”

    Ouch! That was a good article, thanks for treating such an important subject.

  22. Doc B says:

    The ONLY way to make sure no pastor becomes a celebrity is to limit the exposure to his materials (books, sermons, etc.).

    So would those of you who are complaining against John Piper like to see his books removed from the market? What about R. C. Sproul? Should we shut down Ligonier Ministries and keep his CDs and DVDs out of the hands of the masses? Should we take Al Mohler off the internet to make sure people don’t idolize him?

    These men are not the problem. Our sinful nature is the problem, and it includes not only the tendency to celebritize certain pastors, but also the tendency to be jealous of those who have achieved celebrity status or to be disdainful because we haven’t, even though we *know* we are just as worthy as they are.

    There’s danger on both sides of this issue.

  23. Luke says:

    I really like the bulk of what’s been said here. There is one concern that nags at me about this whole topic. In Act’s, there are a few instances where people attempt to give praise to people where it is due to God. Peter and John after the person lame from birth is healed and Paul and Barnabas after another person lame from birth is healed (Acts 3 and 14 respectively). What is notable about both these stories, aside from the miracle of course, is how disturbed both Peter and Paul are by the fact that people would attribute things to them that ought to be attributed to God.

    I simply don’t see the same level of concern that God would get the glory. I can’t think of a single instance in a sermon, by a “celebrity pastor” where they have simply said, “Don’t look at me, as if by my power I’m doing such and such.”

    I don’t doubt the heart of the men I respect and listen to and read. But it has been an encouragement to be in a church (I live in Portland) where our teaching elder (we don’t have a senior pastor) says often, “Don’t look at me and don’t let anybody build a ministry on you.” Even though he is one of those very dynamic, gifted individuals.

    I think we should be deeply disturbed when there are people who attempt to glorify us. Even if they are immature or not yet Christian.

  24. patriciazell says:

    The most and the best any one pastor can do for any one believer is to point him or her to the Secret Place of the Most High. Abiding with God and cleaving to Him (seeking Him with everything we have) is where true freedom rests. “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary, and they shall walk, and not faint.”

  25. Pete says:

    Good post Kevin
    One other word of caution for us “fans”; we must be careful that as we admire a great pastor/speaker we don’t allow ourselves to blindly assume that everything they teach or expound on is accurate. For example, I greatly admire Piper but have found that I strongly disagree with him on some important issues (i.e., his position on eschatology and his views on Divorce/Remarriage).
    Having said that I do believe that God uses some to have more of an influence than others depending on their spiritual gifts. We can look to a relative new set of prophets currently on the scene
    (DeYoung, Wax, Trueman, D.Murray, Jared Wilson,J.Taylor,Challies, etc.)that keep us current on the important evangelical issues and can exegete well what the Scriptures have to say about them. Think celebrities, historicity of Adam, Doctrine of Hell, etc.I Thank God for social media that those gifted people can now communicate all over the world, including down here in Tennessee!!

  26. Jeff Medders says:

    Kevin,

    Thanks for this piece. I have always enjoyed your writing!

    There is a very important text that needs to be included on this discussion. 2 Cor. 8:18. Paul mentions a brother tha is “famous for his preaching of the Gospel.” Lots of impactions and lessons here! I blogged on that today as well.

    A few observations:

    1) Paul recognizes fruitful ministry and honors it.
    2) Paul isn’t bashful at calling a pastor famous.
    3) The Holy Spirit isn’t shy about it either.

    Just a few thoughts. Thanks brother.

  27. Tim says:

    @Dave Wilson Hahaha – :) Let me know if you find a place!

    Very true. Thanks KD. I love that some of the other guys mention some of the names of antiquity that we do the same thing with. Us reformed have a tendency to do with Calvin and Luther what others have done with Hyles, Rice and Norris. Must beware we. We have turned from idols to the living God. Let’s not build more idols again!

    Case in point…Last time I was at a Ligonier conference I saw guys walking around with t-shirts that had Calvin’s face on it…Kind of weirded me out…

    Very good article. Thanks again!!

  28. There are a number of different ways that 2 Corinthians 8:18 has been understood. “Preaching” is supplied by the translators in the version quoted and not found in the Greek. The KJV, NKJV, and ASV all say that his “praise is in the Gospel.” Some believe this is referring to Luke and that he was well-known because he had written the Gospel according to Luke. It could be that this is someone who is well-known because they happened to have made it to a lot of churches. But I don’t think we should make too much of it.

    There have always been people who were recognized as being exceptionally good teachers like Chrysostom and there have always been people who have no business serving as pastors because there are lousy teachers. There have always been faithful pastors who serve in obscurity but faithfully bring those under their care the Gospel both in Word and Sacrament. That is their calling after all. They are not called to be famous. Whether or not they become famous does not prove their faithfulness or disprove it.

    In our modern day I do think that there is a deeper problem that leads to these celebrity pastors. During the time of the Apostles, the baptized gathered in the name of Christ to break bread (Acts 2:42,46) which many including myself believe is a pretty clear reference to the Lord’s Supper. That was their reason for gathering. They met to receive Christ’s body and blood. Today, the Lord’s Supper is celebrated infrequently in many churches and the central focus of the meeting is a lecture heard from a pastor. When the pastor’s message becomes the central feature he is more likely to become a celebrity and we start talking about how dynamic or passionate or whatever else he is. But His calling is not to do any of these things. His calling is to give us the forgiveness of sins in the preaching of the Gospel and in the sacraments. Pastors should be interchangeable and that was one of the reasons for vestments–to demonstrate that one guy can take them off and another guy can put them on and give you the same thing. Paul said he preached nothing but Christ-crucified. Styles may be different but the message should remain the same from pastor to pastor. Christ-crucified should be the central message of every sermon. There are often celebrity pastors because people have itching ears and like to hear something other than Christ-crucified. Some pastors get famous by giving you the 7 steps to being a good husband, others get famous for talking all about God’s glory, some get famous for talking about predestination, and other get famous for preaching Zionism.

  29. Paul says:

    Good article but let’s not boost Kevin’s ego too much in case he imagines he’s become a celebrity pastor! Instead, let’s consider this fascinating statement from Kevin:

    “If you had to teach a class on the Reformation you’d certainly spend the bulk of your time on the likes of Luther, Calvin, Know, and Zwingli.”

    I’d spend my time studying “Know” would I Kevin? Possibly you had in mind (Opportunity) Knox.

  30. Dan says:

    Stepping back from this, it looks to me as though all KD is trying to do is clarify the ongoing discussion with a little perspective. I know we had the brief Trueman/Thabiti debate, others have added their two cents, and now Kevin balances out the discussion so that we all don’t make caricatures out of each other and so that we lighten up a little on everyone including ourselves. Yes, I’ve gotten one book signature, though it was from an American so I can relax now! (tongue in cheek)

    Actually, I’ve found that one good way to avoid this celebrity hawking is to listen to people who are no longer among us; that takes care of lots of these potential problems! They don’t blog, Twitter, or do Facebook, and you can concentrate on their writing and teaching. There is no potential temptation to hope you can interact with them online somehow, ‘cuz they’re clearly not writing anything! And no hand-shaking at conferences either. About the only possible slip-up is maybe trying to strike up conversations with people at conferences who KNEW Dr. XYZ, but it’s doubtful that would get too far out of hand.

  31. Dave Carpenter says:

    Do the words “celebrity” and “pastor” or “shepherd” complement each other?

  32. Sally says:

    Thank you.Wise words…

    I have been greatly blessed and have learned so much from a good many reformed ‘celebrity pastors’ and i thank God for them.

  33. Jack Brooks says:

    We shouldn’t forget the burden of being a well-known pastor. You become a target of harassment, violence, and scams. John MacArthur has to travel around with bodyguards. Fame paints a bulls-eye on your family.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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