kellerI’ve been eavesdropping a bit on the conversation about celebrity pastors. I first peaked in on Richard Clark’s piece at The Gospel Coalition, and then read this great followup on the irony of TGC hosting Clark’s piece and then tossing up a bunch of candids of everyone’s favorite celeb pastors and theologians a couple of days later.

I don’t have a ton to add to these posts which point out the obvious Americanization of evangelical Christianity, but I do have a story — an anecdote, really — that shows both the evangelical cult of celebrity as well as my naiveté to this phenomenon just a few short years ago.

Back in 2008, as my wife and I were preparing to move to New York City where she would begin grad school in the fall, we were having dinner with the parents of one of our best friends from college. They’ve always been very supportive of us and excited for each our life adventures, and so we were telling them all about our impending move. When it came to the question of where we would attend church, they had a suggestion. It turns out their best friends from seminary, with whom they had remained close over the years, pastored a church in New York City. It was a fairly big church, they warned — a lot larger than anything we were used to in Boston, but that’s life in New York City.

Their friends were the Kellers, and the church was Redeemer Presbyterian. It was settled for us; a recommendation from these friends carries a lot of weight. On our first Sunday after arriving in New York City, we attended the Upper West Side Redeemer service. We didn’t know what Tim Keller looked like, but we had checked the church’s website, and it said he would be preaching (this is before they stopped announcing this information).

His sermon was everything our friends had said it would be. It was smart and funny, organized and concise, and it was incredibly insightful. We were psyched; looks like we found ourselves a church, we agreed. We couldn’t wait to meet Tim, as everybody seemed to comfortably call him, at the coffee hour after church where we imagined we’d swap stories about our mutual friends and make plans to grab dinner together.

But Tim wasn’t at coffee hour after church. Not that Sunday, or any Sunday to follow. Turns out, Tim doesn’t attend coffee hour. As we continued on at Redeemer and came to understand the culture, this made sense. Tim generally preaches at 4 out of Redeemer’s 5 services each Sunday. Truly, he is a celebrity within the Redeemer culture and I can imagine that if he attended coffee hour he’d end up having to talk to a long line of fans, and this is even before his The Reason for God really took off. It made sense, but it was a bit off-putting too.

Anyway, we stayed at Redeemer for just over a year until our discomfort with the culture was too much to bear. Though, in that time we made some great friends and heard some great sermons. In the end, we settled into an anonymous little Episcopal church in our neighborhood, the kind we’d attended off and on back home, and very much like the one we attend today. We never met Tim Keller.

For their part, Redeemer has taken steps to reduce the celebrity culture, by splitting the church into various congregations, each with their own lead pastor, and, as I mentioned, by not announcing when and where Keller will preach. Though, arguably, this has added to the mystique.

In no small part through the efforts of The Gospel Coalition and other organizations within the so-called Young, Restless, and Reformed movement, Keller’s star has continued to rise; he has joined the ranks of Piper, Carson, Driscoll, and Mohler. And it’s probably too late to turn back on the cult of celebrity within evangelical Christianity. Ultimately, evangelicalism has married itself to a particular strain of American culture that is, often, at odds with Christianity. And the results are legion — celebrity worship, consumerism, and nationalism, just to name a few.

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Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

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4 Responses to Evangelicalism’s Celebrity Pastor Problem: An Anecdote

  1. Derek Griz says:

    I can’t resist chiming in. 🙂

    A few thoughts…

    Though I find your final claim a bit too sweeping, for the most part I can agree. Evangelicalism and other strains of Christianity in America have struggled with these culture-wide issues. However, I think you’re taking aim at the wrong guys.

    Some more anecdotal evidence…

    I think you’re confusing size with celebrity. Some of the dynamics you described for Keller are driven by the size of his church, not his personal celebrity. I serve in a church with three worships services, and we often lament how hard it is to connect with everyone. No one at my church is a celebrity, but because of our congregational dynamics, the pastoral staff is not able to know everyone and be at everything.

    I also think you’re confusing *having* celebrity (i.e. being well known) with acting like a celebrity (i.e. hollywood). My experiences with many of the TGC guys have always been ones of grace and charity. I have not seen them act like celebrities. Piper has been living in our area for the past year, and I’ve heard of several Piper sightings. Everyone I’ve talked with has commented on his graciousness in chatting and interacting. One friend bumped into Piper at Walmart, another at Cheddar’s, and another catching a flight with his fam in our tiny airport. (By the way, he attends a little known church). One person reported feeling bad even saying hi because he could tell he was interfering with Piper’s family. In that sense, these guys can be the victim of celebrity. And there are more examples. Keller still preaches at local congregations. D. A. Carson graciously talked with us at a TGC conference. Jared Wilson chatted with us in the bookstore at T4G. DeYoung was among the crowds walking the sidewalks headed to lunch at T4G. I could go on.

    Now of course, there are certainly guys who play the part of celebrity, and I’m sure it’s a constant temptation for any of these guys with notoriety. But I wouldn’t start with Keller or Piper. I would start with someone with a 5 million dollar home and a private jet. But that just me.

    P.S. Driscoll has been out of that circle for a while now. It almost seems strange to include him in that list. Note he’s no longer part of Acts 29, T4G, and TGC and hasn’t been for a few years. He has also not appeared at (been invited to?) several other perennial favorite evangelical conferences for the last couple of years. So I wouldn’t count him in your figuring.

    • Hey Derek,

      Thanks for weighing in. I think you make some great points. The only counter-argument I have is that I’m not really saying the pastors/theologians are acting like or thinking of themselves as celebrities, so much as being treated that way. The original article I linked to is taking issue with evangelicals who idolize these pastors, so that was my starting point.

      But, also, I didn’t know Piper was down there? No sightings for you? No chance for Piper to meet Piper?

  2. Joshua Crabb says:

    Glad you appreciated the article and thanks for linking it. I definitely am speaking to this out of my own experience having that starry eyed admiration for someone I know more about through no personal interaction, i.e. John Piper.

    I think my personal concern is the sort of ministry idolatry it can create. I had a conversation recently with a very close friend who said the only church he would want to work at as a pastor is Bethlehem Baptist (Piper’s church). That is really messed up when ALL the churches in our wonderful state of Wisconsin are not good enough because they don’t look exactly like famous pastor’s church/big ministry church.

    Anyway, thanks again and great conversation to start and continue!

  3. […] Patrolmag a year at Redeemer and never got to meet the senior pastor […]

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