Celebrities for Jesus

Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits are Hurting the Church, by Katelyn Beaty

This should be essential reading not only for every church leader but every church-goer.

You can guess the thrust of the book from the title. The author has a certain amount of skin in the game, as she freely admits right at the start: she was one of the many reporters who let themselves be convinced there was an innocent reason for the reported behaviour of Ravi Zacharias, so failed to investigate a scandal that would not only rock the evangelical world but, worse, also allow his victims to suffer for many more years. Zacharias’s abuse only ended when he died.

Beaty is American and so the background is very American too. And it’s certainly a fact that mega-churches where abuse and corruption can flourish are a very American thing (though they are spreading). The chapter on mega-churches was eye-opening, Mind you, I speak as someone who would find a crowd that size gathered for any purpose to be utterly appalling, and I would rather eat my own foot than go to one of those services on general principle. I’m sure they work for others.

But then she starts getting personal. There is a chapter on ‘Creating persona’ – and suddenly I was blinking in astonishment because she so exactly describes the case of the former vicar of our church who had the distinction of being the first Anglican clergyman convicted (and barred from ministry) by a tribunal of spiritual abuse. The loneliness of an isolated position, the lack of close friends to keep him accountable, indeed the lack of anything much else in life to give them identity and position other than their position of leadership.

In short, the problems of celebrity leadership are not confined to the rich and famous (though that is where they tend to manifest the most) and they are not all about celebrities. They start, Beaty says, whenever any church leader fails the three temptations of Christ: making a moral compromise, no matter how small, for the sake of the church and the mission. Being big and showy, shortcutting scripture, paying just a bit too much attention to the world’s values.

Suddenly, it seems frighteningly easy for anyone to make the same slip.