We had counted on Carl Trueman, the left-leaning emoticonoclastic Orthodox Presbyterian pastor, to continue to see through the hype and gauze of America’s celebrity culture and warn about its danger for the church (not to mention society). But a recent trip to the Together for the Gospel Conference has changed his tune (or at least prompted him not to sing so loud):
Yes, the men at the plenary sessions are ‘celebrities’ in our small world; but they were not on the platform simply because of that fact. There was no swagger in evidence; all, in their different ways, spoke powerfully about the gospel; nobody indulged in magnifying their own name; and my guess is that none of these men will do anything which embarrasses T4G in the next twelve months. Yes, T4G needs names to fill the venue; but just being a name with 500 000 twitter followers and a knowledge of Calvinist patois is not going to get you the chance to speak. The swaggerati were nowhere to be seen.
My general conclusion on this point is that celebrity is clearly here to stay; the key point is that those who have such celebrity cachet acknowledge it and leverage it for good. By ‘good’, I mean direct people back to their own churches and set examples themselves as those who are committed first and foremost to their own people, congregations and denominations. T4G was quite a contrast to the recent reports of an extra-ecclesiastical high-profile meeting of Christian evolutionists, where celebrity appears to be being leveraged to set the agenda and impact the doctrinal testimony of churches. Nothing I heard at T4G indicated that anyone here had that kind of ecclesiastically subversive ambition.
I am not persuaded. I do think Trueman is right to remind us that celebrities are human beings too. But I am not sure that recognizing the good intentions or basic humanity of people who use a platform capable of abuse prevents that platform from being as abusive as it really is.
The problem is that people whose appetites have been whetted by celebrity pastors will have great difficulty recognizing the worth of their pastor’s pale imitation of Lig, C.J., Al, or Mark. It would be like telling Carl, back in the 70s, to go to the local pub more and listen to Gary, Mike, and Joe croon and play instead of going to the Led Zeppelin concert and buying the band’s albums. How are the Swindon Boys ever going to compete with the Rolling Stones or the Who? The answer is, they can’t.
But the stakes of believers and their undershepherds is far weightier than any rivalry between celebrity musicians and local indie bands. Will Lig, C.J. or Mark come to the hospital to visit with Joe-wine-box who lives in Fremont, Nebraska? Will they come to Defiance, Ohio to counsel a husband and wife who need a referee for their Christian marriage?
Can conferences and speaking engagements be valuable? Sure they can. It is part and parcel of professional life. Attorneys go to conferences. So do nurses. But when so many downloads are available and so many broadcasts are a turn-of-the-dial away, using celebrity to nurture a taste for average pastors is little bit like going to Citizens Bank Park to groom fans for the Doylestown, Pennsylvania’s American Legion team.