We often get excited when a celebrity comes to faith in Christ—they can use their platform for the gospel. But what happens when pastors and Christian leaders become celebrities in their churches and communities? Isn’t there also a dark side to Christian celebrity? Is that an oxymoron, or should it be? We’ll answer these questions and more with our guest Katelyn Beaty in her new book Celebrities for Jesus.

Katelyn Beaty is a journalist, editor, and keen observer of trends in the American church. She has written for the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, Religion News Service, Religion & Politics, and The Atlantic and has commented on faith and culture for CNN, ABC, NPR, the Associated Press, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. She is cohost of the Saved by the City podcast (Religion News Service) and previously served as print managing editor at Christianity Today. She’s the author of Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits Are Hurting the Church (Brazos Press, 2022) and A Woman's Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World (Simon & Schuster, 2016).

Read Ken Berding’s review of Katelyn’s book on https://kennethberding.com.

Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: We often get excited when a celebrity comes to faith in Christ, because they can use their platform for the gospel. But what happens when pastors and Christian leaders become celebrities in their own churches and communities? Isn't there also a dark side to Christian celebrity? Is the term Christian celebrity an oxymoron, or should it be? We'll answer these questions and more with our guest, Katelyn Beaty in her new book, Celebrities for Jesus. I'm your host, Scott Rae.

Sean McDowell: I'm your co-host, Sean McDowell.

Scott Rae: This is Think Biblically from Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University. Katelyn, we know there's often a backstory to the books that we feature. I'm really curious about what the backstory is to this one. What motivated you to write about Christian celebrity?

Katelyn Beaty: That's a great question, Scott. For about 10 years, I worked at Christianity Today magazine based in the Chicago suburbs founded by the evangelist, Billy Graham. It's a journalistic publication, so CT's responsibility in part is to report on the good, the bad, and the ugly happening in the American church. Over the years that I was there, our staff just received so many tips about famous leaders, pastors, people who were household names in the evangelical movement. Of course, most news is bad news. When things are going well, and when pastors are loving and serving in a Christlike manner, we tend not to hear about it. So, it's not to paint too broad of a picture of the American church, but I did start to wonder, "Is there something about the dynamics of celebrity that can lead to sinful behaviors, temptations to misuse one's power?" I wanted to dig into how celebrity can lead to abuses of power, and for us to people in the church or Christian readers to put people on pedestals that we shouldn't. Part of this call is also an examination of your average lay Christian, person in the pew. Are we contributing to the problem of celebrity?

Sean McDowell: Katelyn, there's a certain irony in writing a book about celebrities and platforms when you can't write a book without being somewhat of a celebrity, depending on how you define it, and build it into platform. I know publishers in publishing a book will ask, "What platform do you have," because they have a business. Obviously, you've thought about this. You reflect upon it in the book, but how do you reconcile that tension where you're writing and getting as much of a platform you can to call the church back to being concerned about platforms, and yet potentially using some of those mediums yourself?

Katelyn Beaty: Well, it's a question and a tension that I've wrestled with from day one of this project. You're right that most book publishers are asking questions about platform. They want to make sure that there's an actual audience that will be excited and ready for the book once it releases. Something that I keep coming back to, I'm borrowing this from Karen Swallow Prior, a writer and professor of English. She talks about the work being the platform. I think, oftentimes what happens, and this really goes to the distinction between fame and celebrity. Many of us, because of our virtuous lives, because of our excellent work, because of the ways that we lead or serve others, we find a certain kind of renown, people know about us or about our work, not because we're seeking it out, but because people are drawn to excellence or talent or goodness or virtue. Celebrity is something that is a modern phenomenon. It really relies on the tools of mass media to project an image and what we might call a personal brand. So in my work as a journalist, as a writer, obviously, I hope people read this book if that's not clear.

Sean McDowell: Sure.

Katelyn Beaty: Most authors want people to read their book, but really what I am hoping to draw attention to is not to myself as a persona, as a personal brand, as someone to emulate or adore. It's really, I want people to be engaged in the work. If that means that yes, I have to post on social media, which I have a love-hate relationship with, I'm willing to do that as long as the focus is I want people to find this work, and find it helpful and valuable, rather than to attach to me as a celebrity figure.

Scott Rae: Katelyn, I can hear some of our listeners thinking to themselves, "What's the problem with wanting to do big things for God, having a big platform, a long reach?" Those seem like pretty good things on the surface, but you're saying maybe not. What's the maybe not part of that?

Katelyn Beaty: Well, I grew up in an era of the American church that I was really in the heyday of megachurch culture. I attended a church growing up that was a megachurch hopeful. I don't think we ever got to that stage, but we certainly wanted to. The impulse behind so much of what we did in my childhood church was to draw as many people as possible to Christ. That impulse and that spirit is one that I really honor and value. Evangelicals are pragmatic in their use of tools to reach as many people as possible with the gospel. Billy Graham was a great example of this. He very smartly and adeptly used radio and television and other forms of media to reach millions of people all over the world with the gospel. What I am trying to remind all of us of is that these tools are not neutral tools, and they end up shaping the kind of gospel that we are sharing with other people. So when Graham is using television to share clips from his crusades, and people are watching that at home maybe in between the Price Is Right and the Nightly News, well, that medium is going to affect how they think about the gospel, and how they think about their relationship to Jesus and to the local church. Social media, many forms of social media essentially ask us to... They make us mini celebrities, or they fixate on a image or personal brand. How does that affect how people hear the gospel that we're sharing? Then also, how does that affect us in the process? I think, two, as much as I want to honor the desire to reach as many people as possible with the gospel, I think we might be in a moment in the American church where we need to look at depth of spiritual life and content, and not just numerical reach, that there's something about what kind of spiritual community and discipleship are we calling people into. Is it going deep enough, and are the tools that we're using actually calling people into a shallow understanding and form of discipleship? Maybe we need to get back to the roots and the depth rather than the reach and the numbers.

Sean McDowell: As you know, Katelyn, in the past few years, there's been so many just deconversion and deconstruction stories. Many are well-known musicians and pastors and apologists, et cetera. A piece of this that I found is often, people are just given a platform before they're ready to serve, and a certain lack of spiritual maturity, not in all cases, but in many. So when I think about this generation, I'm like, "Wow, now, anybody can be a TikTok star, a YouTuber." I think, five, 10 years down the road, it can almost be exponential amount about the stories that we hear. I'm curious how you see that. Do you think this current generation is more aware of the lure of celebrity within the church, and have seen these stories, and are so less likely lured by it, or do you think because they have the platform earlier, they're jumping on the bandwagon, and we might see things worse down the road if we don't correct course like you're suggesting?

Katelyn Beaty: I mean, as a journalist, I always have a cynical bent, and so I would probably respond with a more pessimistic read of all of our engagement with social media. I think, you're absolutely right, Sean, that social media has democratized the process by which people can teach spiritually or post spiritually. When we think about traditional forms of credentialing and authority, we see a huge shift away from institutions as the center of authority over to individuals. I will say that the evangelical movement as a whole can't necessarily blame the people who are deconverting, and talking about their deconversion experiences on social media, because the evangelical movement has also tended to price individual authority. We looked at Joshua Harris, the bestselling author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye. He renounced Christianity several years ago, and has taken to social media to tell his story. Well, he's a product of the evangelical culture that shaped him. He's doing what he was trained to do just with a totally different message. Part of what I hope in all of this is that we can recenter the primacy of the local church, and the value of the institution of the local church as the place where all of us are called to figure out what it means to follow Christ in community. It can be a large church, a small church. I'm thinking trans-denominationally, but I am pro institution. Institutions can last. Good institutions, healthy institutions can last beyond the lifetime of one particular charismatic figure or founder. I think, actually, maybe on a positive note, people of my generation actually really want to be embedded in institutions and community. We recognize that we need to be part of something bigger than ourselves, and bigger than our social media timeline, that being part of institutions is a big part of what gives us a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. I don't know that my generation will leave social media. I think, we're going to see just an increase of the use of those tools. But with that, I'm hoping that there's a recognition that deep community and healthy institutions are what we should actually be investing in.

Scott Rae: Katelyn, you say in the book that the danger in celebrity is what you call, I quote, "social power without proximity." Can you unpack that a little bit, tell us a bit more what you mean by that?

Katelyn Beaty: I think of celebrity as a form of power, and that celebrity allows someone to shape the hearts and minds of people who they don't know in any deep, real way, but people look to them to understand how to think or how to navigate life, or maybe they emulate them. There's an immense social power that comes with celebrity. At the same time, part of what I argue in the book is that celebrity has a way of isolating people from deep embodied relationship. It's almost like the higher you go and the higher your star rises, the fewer people that can actually know you with real intimacy and authenticity. When we think about church communities and Christian communities, I think all of us would say, "Well, accountability is really important for any leader. Anybody on a pedestal or with a platform, we all need accountability. Everybody signs off on that, but there's something about celebrity dynamics that can actually hinder real accountability. Sometimes it's because people are starstruck by you, so they don't really think that they could speak a hard word into your life, because you're clearly holier, or more virtuous, or just farther along in the spiritual journey than they are. Sometimes, celebrity dynamics can correspond with a charismatic personality that is intimidating. People feel afraid to stand up to that person. Of course, it can correspond to domineering personalities. People don't want to stand up to the celebrity, because they don't want to get a verbal lashing in front of other people. But ultimately, I think that having power without proximity is dangerous for any of us. I write in the chapter on personas that it's really bad for the celebrity themselves. That actually, we all deeply desire to be known and loved. That is what God has called us to in relationship with each other, whether that's in marriage, or friendship, in a church community, in a professional environment. We all need people who don't believe our hype. We all need people who can see beyond the hype, and just value us and care for us as ourselves off the stage and out of the spotlight. I think a lot of people, who a mass celebrity, find that it's lonely at the top. There's an isolation that comes with that. They don't feel like they have anybody that really knows them, or they can be honest with. It's really not just, "Well, celebrity is bad for the church." I think, celebrity is bad for the celebrities themselves. It puts them in a place that no actual human created in the image of God can really thrive or flourish in.

Sean McDowell: It feels like every few weeks, we hear of some new Christian celebrity, whether they would use that term for themselves or not, just fall from grace in different ways. You talk about quite a few in the book. I'm curious. Are there some common factors that you see that are often found when a Christian celebrity falls?

Katelyn Beaty: I don't think it really has to do with denomination, size of church, size of organization. Celebrity dynamics can happen in big churches, small churches. We tend to hear about the big ones, because those are the ones that attract national media, and that's often where we're reading about these stories. I would say a couple things. One, looking back, you see that over time the celebrity leader was able to do things that other people on staff or in the organization weren't allowed to do. They were kind of allowed to operate on their own terms. People were afraid to ask them to follow the rules, because the person was just seen as very important to the ministry, so important that we can't curtail or limit their access to power or access to do whatever they want. We're going to let them... "We know this isn't policy, but gosh, who are we to ask?" This is just one example, Ravi Zacharias. Staff at RZIM were asked to limit their travel to no more than 100 days a year. This was for two thirds of the year. Most days of the year, you need to be either at home or at the office, again, embedded in those real daily relationships, but Ravi was allowed to travel up to 300 days a year. He was allowed to... He didn't have to follow the rule that everybody else did. Also, I think people assumed, "Well, we need Ravi to be on the road, talking about our ministry, because people are so drawn to him as the central figure. I mean, our organization bears his name, so we need him to run around wherever he wants, because it's essential to our ministry and to our organizational growth." That would be one thing. I talk in the book about anger. Of course, there's righteous and unrighteous anger. The New Testament talks about fits of anger or wrath, what we might call bullying behavior now as unfit for Christian leaders. In a lot of these stories, you see anger directed at people who try to stand up to the central figure. Maybe they are the central figure. The celebrity figure is overwhelmed. They've been given too much to do, so their fuse is really short. They're not getting enough sleep. They're not getting enough time to recharge. They don't really like it when people disagree with them. They want to be surrounded by people who agree with them or who will support the central mission, so they lash out when somebody tries to either disagree with them or even present a different path or a different set of options. That unrighteous anger, I think, can be a common issue. Then I would also point to the use of technology. Again, with Ravi but also to an extent with Bill Hybels, the founding pastor of Willow Creek, there was a use of technology that veered into secrecy. Secrecy is different from privacy. We all, of course, need private channels of communication. So, this is not me saying that my pastor's email should be read and available to everybody in the church, but there was a workaround where people couldn't have access, even if they wanted to or needed to, to these leaders' uses of technology, whether private email servers or multiple cell phones. Those uses of technology were places where, at least for Ravi and Bill Hybels, there was sexual sin occurring in those spaces, but nobody could find that out, because, of course, it was secret. That would be something I would look at. That goes back to the ability to ignore the rules that everybody else has to follow. But certainly, technology plays a big role as well.

Scott Rae: Katelyn, as I was reading through the book, in the beginning part, you're dealing a lot with Billy Graham and some of the early megachurch pastors. I kept wanting to say to myself, "These celebrities that are falling is basically a thing of the past." It was a big part of the megachurch movement, but the more I read, the more you wouldn't allow me to say that. As I see it, I think it's just as prominent today as it was 20, 25 years ago. My question is why haven't we learned about things like abusive power, lack of humility, accountability, these things that a lot of these fallen celebrities seem to have in common? It's happened enough to where you think we might actually learned something about this, and put things in place to prevent this, but it doesn't seem like we've done that. Am I missing something here?

Katelyn Beaty: Well, sadly, I don't think you are. I think about this all the time, because we see these headlines, and one of my first thoughts is always, "Again? This happened again. Why does this keep happening?" I would say a couple things. I think at least in the American church, we have tended to borrow worldly metrics of success. It is just the case that people with incredible speaking skills, lots of personal charisma, a huge social media following, maybe they wear luxury clothing. They're physically attractive. All these things actually work in bringing people to the church. They actually work in attracting people to Christian community. They work in growing a church or a ministry, so I think we are still having to work to get out of the mindset that just because something works in terms of numerical growth doesn't mean it's healthy or Christlike. But I would also say a lot of the fallen celebrity leaders we've read about over the last several years, I'm willing to bet that most of them started with really good intentions. I imagine a lot of them started out not wanting to become celebrities. Maybe they started out just with a lot of passion, really good communication skills. They started out with pure motives, and over time, the celebrity dynamics were too much for them to navigate wisely. It is just the case that charisma and passion and desire to reach a community for Jesus, these are attractive personality traits. It's the same things that can lead to celebrity, and an unhealthy celebrity dynamic are also things that people find really attractive. I think, especially when we're thinking about megachurches and megachurch models, it feels good as a church experience to go to church, and hear a powerful message, to be a part of a Christian community that seems to be alive and growing and dynamic. You can be a part of it too. You can play a role. There are good things that people are drawn to in a lot of these contexts. It's really when celebrity is gone unchecked and seen as, "Maybe this isn't great, but the ends justify the means. It's working, and so who are we to try to keep it in its place?" Unfortunately, the stories that we read about are really just the outworkings and the effects of deeper-rooted issues. They are really just the natural results of previous problems that have been allowed to snowball over time. It is depressing and discouraging to read these stories. At the same time, I am hopeful that enough lay Christians are ready to reimagine their relationship to certain figures, both in the church and in their own consumption habits. When we think about books and podcasts, which we're participating in now, I think that we are in a time of reckoning, but I do think that reckoning can lead and ultimately will lead to a place of health, and a place of growth, and imagining a healthier understanding of the Christian life.

Sean McDowell: Katelyn, I think you and I are roughly the same age. I only say that because you're talking about Amy Grant and Sandi Patty and certain common authors. I was like, "That was me growing up in the '80s and into the '90s, et cetera." Well, I read your book with particular fascination, because probably for a number of years, my dad was one of the most recognizable Christian figures, arguably worldwide, with his books and with his speaking, et cetera. So, I would invite you to speak to me and anybody else listening. I don't consider myself a Christian celebrity, but a lot of the warnings you put in this book, I was like, "Wow, I got to think about that, and take that to heart." It just was, it's so timely. We bring authors on we want people to read, but I hope everybody picks this up, and really thinks about it. But what I want you to do is I want you to speak to me. So if we're sitting down having a cup of coffee, and I said, "Katelyn, I read your book. God's given me a little bit of a platform. What encouragement or warning, what would you advise have for me or anybody like me?"

Katelyn Beaty: Well, I'm trying to imagine sitting down with you, Sean, with a cup of coffee. What would I say?

Sean McDowell: Katelyn, don't sugar coat it here, okay? You got the green light here.

Katelyn Beaty: I would ask, and this is a question I ask myself too, "Who in my life doesn't care at all about my following, my book sales, how many podcast downloads I've gotten that week? How many Twitter hits I've gotten?" Who is totally unimpressed by me, and is still deeply desiring to be in relationship with me, because they care about me as Katelyn, and not as Katelyn Beaty, the author and journalist? Am I truly invested in those relationships, and are those relationships durable enough to withstand whatever success or failure may come my way? I guess the question for you, Sean, would be do you have people in your life like that, and are you truly invested in those relationships? I don't expect you to answer that right now.

Scott Rae: I think, she's looking for an answer on that.

Katelyn Beaty: I realize I'm putting you in the spot, but I think people who come to this book thinking, "Now, we need five easy steps to detox from celebrity." I think, it's more, maybe simpler than that and also much harder than that, because I don't think the answer to this is a programmatic answer. I was really struck by an answer that Andy Crouch offered in a conversation about, "How do we recover from all of this?" He mentioned friendship, which totally threw me, because I thought he would say, "Oh, we need more accountability structures. Maybe we need smaller churches. Maybe we need to reform the Christian book publishing industry." Maybe all of those are part of it, but I think friendship has a way of rooting us in the truth that we are loved, but not adored. I don't think any of us need more adoration. We need a love that can speak the hard word that reflects to us the way that God loves us, which is, "I am very aware of your faults and shortcomings. Also, I am for you and committed to you for the long haul." If you have even just a few of those friendships or relationships in your life that can withstand the test of time, I think you're very lucky, because it's hard to find those friendships the farther and higher your star goes.

Scott Rae: That's a good word, Katelyn. I know I've been friends with Sean for a long time. I know he's got those people in his life. I know his life's a little bit like mine, because I'm pretty sure he has a spouse who's as equally unimpressed with those things as mine is about me, and they still choose to hang out with us. So, we both consider that a huge gift. I so appreciate the emphasis in your book. We ran out of time to talk about this, but I think most people will get it when you encourage us to commit to ordinary faithfulness. It's just being faithful to the things that God has called us, in our common callings and ordinary virtues that are the stuff of which our spiritual formation really emerges from. I think that that's such a good emphasis on this. Sorry that you've had so much experience with the dark side of celebrity and in your journalistic career, but I think you've got a really important word to hear that, I think, our communities need to hear, because I don't think the problems endemic with celebrity are going away anytime soon. We are super grateful for your time, for your book. We hope it gets a wide read. I want to command to our listeners again, Katelyn Beaty, Celebrities for Jesus, subtitle, How Personas, Platforms, and Profits are Hurting the Church. Thanks so much for hanging with us during this time, Katelyn. We hope the book gets a very wide read.

Katelyn Beaty: Well, thank you so much for your time today, Scott and Sean. I just really appreciate the depth of this conversation, and hope that it benefits your listeners.

Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including those in our Institute for Spiritual Formation. Visit biola.edu/talbot in order to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation with Katelyn Beaty, give us a rating on your podcast app, and please share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.