February 21, 2012
Part 2: The Evangelical Industrial Complex & the Rise of Celebrity Pastors
It isn’t simply followers who are creating celebrity pastors, it’s the market.
This market-driven cycle of megachurches, conferences, and publishers results in an echo chamber where the same voices, espousing the same values, create an atmosphere where ministry success becomes equated with audience aggregation. (Thankfully there are outliers like the Epic Fail Conference and the Q Gathering that defy these trends by platforming important, non-celebrity voices.) But there’s a reason you won’t see a flashy conference for the house church movement. And there’s a reason a brilliant, godly, wise, 50-year-old pastor with a gift for communicating, carrying a timely message, and leading a church of 200 in Montana is highly unlikely to get a publishing contract. And even if he does, good luck getting the stage at a conference or any marketing energy from the publisher; their efforts will be poured into the handful of megachurch pastors in their lineup whose book sales pay their salaries. It is exceedingly difficult to break into the club without a large customer base (a.k.a. a megachurch).
Are the publishers evil for focusing on sales potential more than quality? Of course not. They’re businesses that have to sustain themselves. They are simply reacting to the realities of the market. But sometimes they fail to see how they also shape the market by their decisions. And am I saying all megachurch pastors’ books are subpar? Not at all. Some of them are my friends and I’ve deeply appreciated their writings (Dave Gibbons and Tim Keller immediately come to mind.) But we mustn’t be naive--the system is rigged to favor a writer/speaker’s market platform rather than his/her content, maturity, or message.
Yes there are exceptions, but they generally prove the rule. And we've all been to ministry conferences where we've scratched our heads wondering why that yahoo is on the platform...oh yeah, he's got a big church and a book to sell, just like the guy before him, and the one before him. It's a system that rewards sizzle whether or not there's any steak.
Consider the scale of the evangelical industrial complex that survives by perpetuating this system. The Christian Booksellers Association, representing 1,700 Christian stores, sells $4.63 billion worth of merchandise a year. And that doesn’t count retailers like Amazon and Walmart. Some estimate the total evangelical market to be over $7 billion a year. Evangelicalism is a very, very large business...that’s why I call it an industrial complex.
And this massive market has grown in conjunction with the rise of megachurches since the 1970s; they rely upon and perpetuate each other. Megachurch leaders offer publishers pre-existing customer bases (their own congregations), and publishers make megachurch pastors into celebrities to perpetuate and expand their bottom lines. As a result, evangelicalism is not a meritocracy where talent, gifting, character, or wisdom result in a broadening influence. It is an aristocracy where simply having a platform entitles you to ever-increasing influence regardless of your talent, gifting, character, or wisdom.
So, as more people begin discussing and worrying about the existence of a celebrity-class of pastors, we need to see beyond our human tendency to idolize leaders or even the historical fact that celebrity preachers have always existed. Today it isn’t simply Christians who are creating celebrity pastors, it’s the Christian market. We live in a new age where consumerism and mega-congregations have resulted in a self-perpetuating evangelical industrial complex that not only creates, but also depends upon a growing number of celebrity pastors. Should we be concerned? Yes, but at least they’re not building nukes.
And what are we to do about it? Avoid conferences or popular books? No, not necessarily. But we do need to be discerning and recognize that popularity does not equal maturity, and a wide audience does not equal wisdom. Don't let the publishers or conference organizers determine what's right for you and your community. Seek God's wisdom about what voices and ideas to allow into your life and church. Allow the Holy Spirit to lead you and not just the marketing departments of the industrial complex.
And when it comes to books, remember that best sellers don't always contain the best thinking. Because of my role and access to the latest books, people ask me frequently, "Who should I be reading?" I always give the same advice: "Read dead people. And if they're not dead they should be close." If a Christian book written 50 or 500 years ago is still being read today, it's probably worth reading. I'm not opposed to reading contemporary books or listening to living leaders, but engaging historical authors and perpetually relevant human issues is an antidote to the shallow celebrity culture we current bathe in.