Atlanta, like most cities, is plastered with billboards. Among those most prominent are ones promoting such Atlanta-based iconic brands as Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, and Chick-Fil-A. Amidst these familiar corporate brands, however, are billboards advertising local churches, complete with larger than life sized pictures of pastors (and often their wives). From the well known, to the wannabe well known, many churches use these billboards like companies do, to promote their ministry and build their brand. Unfortunately, often it also has the effect of building the pastor’s celebrity.
Admittedly, celebrity is not inherently bad. Like most things, its what we do with it. Unfortunately and invariably we make too much of it. Our infatuation with celebrity tends to get the best of us. This is true in all segments of society. It is particularly true in the predominantly black American context. We like celebrity. We like notoriety. We like our athletes to be celebrities. We like our politicians to be celebrities. And yes, we even like our preachers to be celebrities (the many billboards around Atlanta with images mostly of black pastors gives this away every time). The funny thing is that we not only like our celebrities, but we also expect them to use their notoriety for our purposes. When they fail to do so, we often dismiss, discard, and disown them. Perhaps this is what lies behind the recent dust ups concerning our brother Lecrae.
No one in Christian Hip-Hop today has the celebrity of Lecrae. As with most celebrities, no one therefore is under more scrutiny than he is. He is a talented brother, and by most accounts has earned his place in popular culture. However, because he does not always choose to use his notoriety and voice in ways some in the church think he should, he is subject to accusations of unfaithfulness and compromise.
Please understand, I do not write in this space to defend Lecrae. He’s big enough and grown up enough to defend himself. Besides, some of the criticism may be valid. But my point is simply that we make too much of celebrity.
There is an over emphasis on what celebrities say and think. As Christians, many of us spend too much of our energy consumed with the work that men and women like Lecrae are doing. Lecrae is a rapper. He is not a pastor, an elder (last I checked), a professor, or even ordained to any official office of leadership in the church. He is a gifted hip-hop artist. Amazingly, we seem to expect more than that from him. We want him to be our mouthpiece to the world; the spokesman and advocate for our brand of Christianity. When this is not the case, it is not the artist who has the issue. It’s us! We have our priorities confused. We have our principles out of place. I, like many of you, find Lecrae’s work interesting and at times, entertaining. But I don’t look to him for a vision of what Christianity should be. I look to the Scriptures for that (Ps. 119:105). I look to my local church for that (Eph. 4:11ff). I look to the men and women God has immediately put in my life to help me discern God’s direction for my life, not a celebrity hip-hop artist.
We do brothers and sisters like Lecrae, and consequently ourselves, a disservice when we look to them for direction on how we should now live. We wrongly expect them to interpret the Scriptures for us and to apply those answers to our lives. We not only do it with celebrity artists, but we do it with “celebrity pastors” as well. Consequently, this issue is not impersonal for me.
Let me say, if you are ever in Atlanta, you won’t see our church’s name on a billboard as you dart around I-285. An overblown picture of my face won’t be staring you in your face as you sit parked at a busy intersection. Nevertheless, some at my church like to tease me by saying that I’m a celebrity pastor. I sure don’t feel like one. And if I ever did, I am sure my church family would be sure to do all they could to change that feeling. Nevertheless, if I am a celebrity pastor, I believe I have the responsibility to do what I can to keep that celebrity to a minimum (1 Cor. 3:4-9). In order to guard my own heart, I must resist the temptation to be on stage at conferences all the time. I must resist the temptation of answering every question posed to me. I must resist the temptation of being away from our local church as much as I am present in our the local church.
Too many people look to the opinions of the best-known pastors and teachers more than to the pastors and teachers who know them best. Don’t misunderstand, like most people, I enjoy good conferences and the people who speak at them as well. However, I must remember that most men on stage don’t know me, or my church and thus should not have a more prominent voice in my life than do those who faithfully labor for my life and soul every week. Ironically, most of the so-called “celebrity pastors” I know would agree.
Admittedly, most men who are regarded as celebrity pastors (few would admit it themselves, but we mostly know who they are) are not the designers of their own celebrity. Others do that for them. Yes, there are some pastors preoccupied with building their own brand and making themselves a known commodity; but for the most part celebrity is what others project on us. Nonetheless, I must admit that no one makes me accept conference invitations. No one makes me sit for an hour playing Bible answer man to thousands of people I don’t know. Obviously, the reason all the same names appear at the large conferences is because those same men keep accepting the invitations. If I am viewed as a celebrity pastor, I have to own some responsibility for it – billboard or no billboard.
Don’t get me wrong I am not naïve. Celebrity artists and pastors are not going away. The church likes its celebrities too much for that. However, we can do ourselves a big help if we could give less attention to the celebrity and more attention to community; less attention to the opinions of superstar artists and mega-conference pastors and more attention to work of the ministry through the elders and deacons, pastors and teachers in our local church. Besides, if we are rightly thinking, we are all unworthy servants (Lk. 17:10). In my estimation, unworthy servants make poor billboard icons.