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Celebrity Culture and the Mainline Church

A few months ago editor David Heim of The Christian Century remarked in his blog that “mainline Protestants don’t really have celebrities.” He was responding to some experts in magazine marketing who were encouraging The Century to feature more celebrities on their covers or in their features. Is that true? Mainline churches don’t have celebrities?

We do, of course, have folk who are well known within clergy circles. Jim Forbes, for example, is a draw wherever he is speaking, as are Walt Brueggemann, Barbara Brown Taylor, and John Shelby Spong, assuming he counts as a Mainliner these days! Will Willimon evokes passion among United Methodists who find him alternately thoughtful or irritating. But in the world of popular culture and even in the pews of our churches I suspect the names of these impressive pastors, writers, and scholars would draw mostly quizzical looks (and I say this as one whose previous title of General Minister and President frequently evoked a “huh?” even in UCC circles!). Occasionally one of our own, like Jeremiah Wright, becomes a bona fide celebrity, in his case catapulted to fame by mean-spirited partisans more interested in his celebrity church member than in him. But for the most part mainline pastors and leaders are “celebrities” in a pretty small pond.

Meanwhile, the Evangelical and Pentecostal worlds have plenty of celebrities – T.D. Jakes, Ron Hybels, Joyce Meyer, Rick Warren, Creflo Dollar, and Joel Osteen to name just a few. These entrepreneurial pastors attract lots of attention, not just from their mega-church congregations, but also through their popular books, television shows, videos, and blogs. Their media empires flood the airwaves and internet making them household names in a vast Christian world and beyond; large ministry conferences become venues for promoting products bearing the upbeat image of the star. Evangelical celebrities don’t just emerge, they are created.

We Mainliners eschew this course for reasons both good and bad. The residue of our Puritan origins frowns on self-promotion. We’re a reserved lot, most of us, cautious of anything sniffing of pomposity and pride. And, we’re smart enough to know that celebrity can be perilous, that a fawning public is often fickle, that good press can turn sour quickly. We’d rather fly under the media radar screen than suffer the harsh lights of critique. Think, for example, of Robert Schuller whose Crystal Cathedral just got sold to the local Roman Catholic diocese in the wake of the implosion of his media empire and the bitter feuds among his family. Who wants to be that kind of celebrity?

Furthermore, Mainliners tend to be known for their congregations, not for their pastors. Preachers may be loved or tolerated, adored or abused, but we come and we go. First Church on the Green has been there for 375 years; Trinity has occupied the corner of Second and Main for 175 years. Their white clapboards and granite facades are the familiar faces in their communities, not the pastors and rectors who pass through. “Time, like an ever-flowing stream bears all her sons away,” the hymn writer says. “They fly, forgotten as a dream dies at the break of day.” Humility is the enemy of celebrity.

But there’s another side to this coin. Many of the Evangelical “celebrities” put themselves out there in the public arena not simply or solely because they want their faces out there, but because they believe the message needs to be out there. They view the current culture in much the same way Paul did and are eager to emulate his preaching at the Areopagus in Athens in our own time, place, and medium. And they have followers who are willing to be very generous in order to help make that happen. We Mainliners, by contrast, are far too content to dwell in our own little ghetto and, when we do try to engage the public through various media, find that our members are happy to try to do religion and evangelism “on the cheap,” a certain recipe for failure. Too many Mainliners find themselves preoccupied with institutional maintenance rather than engaging the culture. People like Martin Luther King, Jr. and William Sloan Coffin were celebrities because they expanded their notion of parish and took the risk of jumping into the fray of public discourse and dissent even when celebrity status brought them derision and scorn.

I don’t suggest that we Mainliners develop strategies for becoming celebrities. But I do wish we were willing to stick our necks out for the sake of the Gospel’s call to justice and mercy rather than sit back in our pews and studies looking down our respectable noses at those who are out there in the public eye with a message they feel compelled to announce. It may not always result in the kind of photo-op your Mom and Dad always dreamed of. Some of you will remember, for example, my picture with SpongeBob Square Pants! Reinhold Niebuhr still tweaks most Mainliners with his decades’ old admonition: “Many good men are naturally cautious. But it does seem that the unique resource of religion ought to give at least a touch of daring to the religious community and the religious leader, (Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic”).


John H. Thomas
July 19, 2012

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