Ethics & Christian living

The virus of celebrity Christianity

Chris Tomlin is a popular Christian composer and worship leader. For his forthcoming tour, he has partnered with Hillsong’s worship band United.

Their promotional material is another example of how the virus of celebrity culture has infected Christianity:

The “Tomlin UNITED” Tour aims to not only bring the church back together but also bring faith back to the center of our conversations. Expected to be an experience unlike any other, the tour offers friends, family, and strangers the opportunity to worship together again after what has been a long season of isolation. 

Chris Tomlin and Joel Houston from UNITED are quoted:

“We really believe this tour is going to be something unforgettable…This is the moment for what God has been planning…This is a critical moment in time for people to be reminded that there is a true and living hope, and that’s obviously Jesus. Our prayer is that these nights of worship would be like coming home moments for people, people who have found themselves far from God…a real moment where the spirit of God can do what only the spirit of God can do in people’s lives.” 

And if that was not enough, there are VIP tickets where paying extra can give you an ‘intimate pre-show artist experience’. One outlet even says that these tickets ‘allow you to take a photo with your idol.’

Its another vivid example of how shamelessly the celebrity virus has infected Christian ministry among some of the most influential churches. Can you imagine Billy Graham selling himself like this?

But this virus can also affect us at far more local level.

Misapprehension

About 10 years ago I was invited to speak at a conference for youth and community workers.  The person who had invited me didn’t know me well but had been involved in an online campaign that I had started.

I soon realised my host was under a misapprehension that I was a lot more well-known than I actually am. So, with great enthusiasm, he introduced me to the 300 or so people at the conference by saying:

“Well I am really excited everyone, because today we have JON KUHRT here to speak to us.”

You could tell by the way he said it that he was expecting some kind of response. Maybe a smattering of applause or perhaps even a whoop. But all he got was blank faces.

Undaunted, he continued to introduce me, and then decided to conduct a straw poll to verify his belief in my fame:

“So who here has heard of Jon Kuhrt?”

You can visualise the tumbleweed blowing down an empty street. It was an awkward moment, to say the least.

I think a total of two people put their hands up. One, rather unconvincingly, said “I think I have…” That proved to be the highpoint. The other said “I know his brother – does that count?”

My host could not hide his disappointment with my lack of fame. The only person who was happy about the whole episode was my wife. She thought it was hilarious.

Self-promotion in the Church

There are two good reasons why we should reflect on profile and self-promotion within the Church.  

Firstly, its because platforms, promotion and profile are dangerous. Cravings for recognition often jostle for centre-stage in our lives but to seek affirmation via this route is to feed a beast that will never be sated. It increases insecurity, feeds arrogance and warps authentic spirituality.

Secondly, because Jesus shows the totally opposite approach . He downplayed what he was doing, often avoided big crowds and refused to do what some ‘promoters’ wanted him to. He rejected temptations which offered easy fame. He teaches us to do good in secret, to be humble and that true greatness was found in serving others. Following Jesus’ example is authentic worship.

Idol of Celebrity

There is no doubt that Chris Tomlin and Hillsong United have great musical gifts which bless many people. And there is nothing wrong with selling tickets to concerts.

But there is something wrong about a Christian worship event where paying extra money gives you VIP status to fawn over fellow believers. It is directly contrary to what Jesus teaches and the example he gives.

In our status-ridden world, true worship is a time when everyone stands equal before God. If we allow fame and celebrity to become idols, we are not worshipping the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

27 thoughts on “The virus of celebrity Christianity”

  1. Thank you for highlighting this sad and worldly aspect of christian (?) culture. Its not the first time, sadly wont be the last. It reminds me of the Christian leader in the early nineties whose promotional material included the words “probably the most significant ministry in Europe today”.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The use of the word “intimate” is I think, interesting and concerning. I think Billy Graham also did use the cult of celebrity with the “Billy’s back” posters and every campaign being the most significant. Happily on pre social media days I think it was much less toxic. There also seems a failure in the narrative to acknowledge that following Jesus is not all about experienced sometimes it is hard slog and we have to get on with it. That seems to be the expereinceofJohn of the Cross and others. As always John you offer stimulating reflections

    Liked by 1 person

    1. yes – good observation on the fake intimacy promised. I am sure Billy Graham used marketing very cleverly but as you say, the social media makes everything more toxic and intense. I think we need more contemporary worship songs which emphasise the slog and the need for courage and perseverance

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for this article. Would love to see it on Facebook as there seems to be so much of the “look at me, look at us ” type of posting. Thanks for the blog, I really enjoy it and find it challenging as well as informative. God bless you, Andy. ________________________________

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  4. I’ve been worried about celebrity culture in the church for a long time, and our apparent need for ‘heroes’ who of course always turn out to have feet of clay. But although the CofE eventually deals with – badly or well – the fallout from this mentality, it/we need to look at our own sinful attitudes. The CofE is riddled with a desire for status and ways of giving people more status. There’s so much wrong with the way we think and the way we go about things, and then we wonder why God isn’t blessing us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, status anxiety is real issue – whether it be in the trendy, mega-church variety or the pomp and dress of Anglican vestments and garb. I guess at its root is insecurity and a quest for affirmation.

      I really like this from Michael Ramsey:

      “Do not worry about status. There is only one status that Our Lord bids us be concerned with, and that is our proximity to Him. “If a man serve me, let him follow me, and where I am there also shall my servant be”. (John 12:26) That is our status; to be near our Lord wherever He may ask us to go with him.”

      For more see https://gracetruth.blog/2016/01/02/five-helps-for-the-new-year/

      Liked by 2 people

  5. You make a fair point about the VIP tickets John for sure, but the above quotes you mention don’t strike me as having a virus of celebrity about them at all? Can you expand what you mean by that? Also how would you like the event to be advertised in a non virus way (aside from the lack of VIP tickets bit?). My worry is that the church too often apologises for things it puts on and through false humility we try to pretend there is nothing good or life changing or ‘unforgettable’ going on. I guess with most things in church we need a fine balance. God bless

    Liked by 1 person

    1. thanks for reading and for your question. The quotes don’t sound bad in themselves but they are in the context of a multi-million dollar tour which is a completely commercialised venture. It is this fusion of Christian mission and blatant commercialism which grates. We should be doing things that are unforgettable and life-changing and this is what church does best in local communities. If these events were run as a not-for-profit, covering their costs and having special deals for poorer people and others who are marginalised, then it would speak of Jesus. But actually it seems the opposite is the case.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I share your concerns Jon, and love your point about connecting worship with honouring other worship leaders and loving the poor. I’d be interested to see a worship leader in the midst of the congregation or to the side or even leading from behind the congregation as I think that could help to shake things up occasionally. I appreciate that means the people who lead can’t see everyone’s faces, but maybe that’s a good thing! I know I’ve been guilty of preaching or sharing something from the front and looking to see how everyone is responding.
    Some of the people I love to listen to teaching etc are people I’ve met and know their lifestyles and who model humility. One of my favourite worship leaders is a guy from our previous church community who sometimes uses own songs, but I just love his heart and the way the Spirit moves when he leads. I really like the article you’ve linked to as well and it’s good to see there are potential alternative approaches being explored.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Mark – yes, I find that I most struggle with insecurity or worries after preaching. I don’t do it very often for this very reason – I find it brings out the worst in me to be honest. This is why I included the story about the conference in this piece – this promotion of individuals as ‘inspiring’ tends to warp things towards exaggeration and hype in a way which ultimately lets people down. There are so many burnt-out people who bought into hyped dreams which did not have integrity. We need to stand against this stuff and be measured, realistic, honest and open. The miracle of grace can be found when we are truthful about our weaknesses and struggles, not when pretend we are big stage history-makers.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. In the name of balance, I thought it would be good to share this ‘half-hearted’ defence of VIP tickets at such events by someone very engaged in the Christian music business: https://www.premierchristianity.com/opinion/in-half-hearted-defence-of-hillsongs-vip-worship-tickets/5609.article

    It did make me think that whenever you are engaged deeply in something, the issues are always a lot more complicated then they are from the outside. (I continually find this with public discussions of homelessness so I appreciated the points made in this article)

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I thought this was a good, succinct video arguing why VIP tickets are not compatible with a worship event by someone who really appreciates Hillsong and Chris Tomlin

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  9. This has been a very interesting discussion. Christian Music is a big industry, constantly pushing new songs to buy at worship group leaders.
    Where do we place the music group in church? How visibly central is the cross?
    I love your story about celebrity Jon Kuhrt.
    Jon

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    1. yes, and I have heard Graham Kendrick say a number of times about the importance of getting your own disciplines and perspectives right and the failure to do this is by far the biggest danger for worship leaders

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  10. Much like Elevation church and Prosperity Churches who thrive off off status, success, and what God can do for you mentally which puts people off and misrepresents a authentic follower of Jesus!

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