Online Conversation | Celebrity Culture and the American Church with Katelyn Beaty

How can we understand the rise and fall of well known Christian leaders in recent years? Is it a result of higher standards and more scrutiny? An inevitable result of trusting fallen humans? Or are other influences at work?

Katelyn Beaty, the award-winning author of Celebrities for Jesus, wrestles with such questions by exploring how modern celebrity culture is tied up with evangelicalism. She encourages Christians to pursue an ordinary faithfulness that keeps fame in its proper place.

On Friday, March 10, The Trinity Forum hosted an Online Conversation with Katelyn Beaty to better understand how fame influences our churches at the national and local level and what we can do to mitigate its negative effects.

Online Conversation | Katelyn Beaty | March 10, 2023

Cherie Harder: Thanks so much, Molly. And let me just add my own welcome to all of you joining us today for our Online Conversation with Katelyn Beaty on celebrity culture and the American church. I’d also like to thank our friends at the Brazos Press, who are co-hosting today’s Online Conversation with us, and welcome the more than a thousand of you who have registered for today’s Online Conversation. I understand that we have guests from more than a dozen countries joining us, as well as almost 100 first-time registrants. So first, welcome from across the miles and across the time zones. If you haven’t let us know already, we’d love to hear where you’re from. Put that in the chat feature. It’s kind of fun for us all to see where everyone is tuning in from.

And a special thank you to those of you who have tuned in for the first time today for what is, I believe, our 88th Online Conversation. If you are one of those first-time attendees or otherwise new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we seek to provide a space to engage the big questions of life in the context of faith and to offer programs like this Online Conversation to do so and to come to better know the Author of the answers. We hope today’s conversation will be a small taste of that for you today.

So every age has its scandals, but the last several years seem to have brought the collapse of quite a number of celebrity pastors and parichurch leaders whose ministries, as well as reputations, have been left in shambles as the reality of abuses, injustices, or immorality has come to light. Each of these cases have felt not only deeply sad, but also shocking, even unbelievable. And indeed, in most cases, the whistleblowers were initially not believed. But considered together, our guest today asserts, there are discernible patterns and predictable dynamics that enable, even encourage, a preoccupation with power, profit, and fame and a susceptibility to their misuse. A culture of celebrity, she argues, is hurting the church, both by distorting the message of the gospel and often the priorities of the messengers who bring it. An overemphasis on cultivating personas on pedestals has often encouraged the pursuit of influence and profit without the guardrails of institutional accountability or spiritual maturity. And the way forward begins by looking squarely at the deceptions embedded within a culture of celebrity, as well as renewed attention to truer ways of living, modeled by he who called himself the way, the truth, and the life. It’s a provocative and an intriguing argument and one made with expertise, eloquence, and grace by our guest today, Katelyn Beaty.

Katelyn is an editor, author, and journalist who’s written on faith and culture for The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Religion News Service, The Atlantic, and many other publications. She’s also the editorial director of Brazos Press and previously served as the print managing editor of Christianity Today. She is also the author of several books, including her most recent book, Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Prophets Are Hurting the Church, which we’ve invited her here today to discuss.

Katelyn, welcome to Trinity Forum’s Online Conversation.

Katelyn Beaty: Hello, Cherie. Thank you so much for that invitation and introduction and thank you all for joining us today. I look forward to getting to some of your questions later on in our hour together.

Cherie Harder: Absolutely. We’re so excited to have you here. So as we start off, I just have to observe, your career has been spent as a writer and editor, a podcaster, a frequent commentator, all sectors and industries where the influence of celebrity is particularly profitable and sought after. So what do you see as the problem with celebrity culture and what led you to write this book?

Katelyn Beaty: Yeah. Well, to answer the second part of your question first, I wrote this book in large part based on my time at Christianity Today magazine—flagship evangelical publication based in the Chicago suburbs—and [I] would end up being there for about a decade. And CT is a non-sectarian journalistic publication and received several tips and allegations in the time that I was there against famous Christian leaders, household names, people whose books were on my family’s bookshelf growing up. Of course, I didn’t know these leaders personally, but I had this kind of affection or affinity for them from afar, from that distance. And we’ll talk about the distance that celebrity creates. And so CT had to report on these stories, look into these allegations. And of course, we have seen a pattern emerge among celebrity leaders in the church. It tends to be the case that the higher the platform, the higher the power, and the higher the power, the lesser the accountability. We’ve seen in so many cases the failure of surrounding institutions and leaders to offer accountability and checks and balances to that celebrity power.

So I wrote this book very much to step back from the headlines, not so much to rehearse the details, but to say, okay, what’s in the water here for the American church? Surely there is something beyond kind of individual sins or past pathologies. There’s enough of a pattern here to say we all need to examine our own common life together, our own institutions, the desire, perhaps in our own hearts to either seek a platform or to put others on platforms so that we don’t keep seeing these falls and failures, that there’s a lot at stake.

To go back to the first part of your question, yes, I have been inside the evangelical industrial complex for my entire career. And so on one hand, I am very sympathetic to the idea that platforms and self-promotion feel like just part of the game in a celebrity-oriented American culture, in a social media–driven culture. I think a lot of us sense the tension of wanting to use those tools without those tools misshaping and misforming us. So it’s simplistic to say every Christian, every faithful Christian, should be off screen, should be off the stage. I would be very hypocritical to make an argument like that. But I do want anybody who feels called to the role of communication and conversation in a public way to really be serious and sober about the temptations that can come with a platform-driven life and the personas that can arise in the midst of that.

Cherie Harder: You know, I’ve seen many articles and heard many people say that the last several years has basically seen the shift to an attention-based economy where, you know, attention is the most scarce and valuable resource, even more than some material goods. And so getting attention is sort of the new coin of the realm. If we live in an attention economy, is a celebrity culture– does it become inevitable and even unchangeable?

Katelyn Beaty: I think it is inevitable for Christian leaders and organizations that want to get people in the door. And we think about evangelistic models and church-growth strategies or organizational strategies, and oftentimes in those contexts, numerical growth, whether in a budget or number of people in the seats or pews, whatever kind of church you go to, is kind of the main goal. We want to see that numerical growth. And there’s a very pragmatic calculation that can come in, whatever it takes to attract people. And so maybe another way of saying that is whatever holds people’s attention. We know that having a pastor with an excellently communicated 20-minute sermon that’s passionate and motivational and helps me live a better life or a more fulfilled life, well, that holds people’s attention. I mean, churches have risen and fallen just on the power of the one person’s oratory skills. So there can be very strong, pragmatic impulse both within American culture and then, of course, within American evangelical culture.

Part of what I want to say in this book is that what we want as people of Christian faith isn’t just to hold people’s attention, because we all know how fickle attention is and how easy it is to, you know, flit from one thing to another. What we’re offering people or what we want to offer people is something that captivates their hearts and minds and calls them to a life of deeper commitment, of deeper community, of not just being entertained, but being known in deep and lasting ways. And I think that is what we are made for. I think that’s what we want and maybe don’t always know how to articulate. And so in what ways can the church and Christian leaders perhaps play on holding people’s attention but also captivate their affections with the gospel, with the invitation to a deep life in Christ? And that might actually require not using some of the tools of the world. You know, if we want to offer something radically different from what the world offers, we can’t just determine to pick up the world’s tools and expect to use them for godly ends. And so a lot of this book really is about looking at the means and saying that the means matter as much as the ends, in fear that we’ve become [so] overly focused on the ends that we forget the means. We forget to even ask questions about how we’re getting to our goals.

Cherie Harder: Yeah, that’s fascinating. One of the things I thought was quite intriguing in your work is, in tracing especially American evangelicalism, a lot of the early celebrities of the 19th century in particular were evangelists. They were not tied to a particular institution or local church or even sometimes a denomination. They were nomadic, traveling, very well known. You know, whether we’re thinking about Charles Finney or John Wesley or even Billy Graham. And I would be interested in your thoughts on how sort of that early history of so much of American evangelical Christianity being tied to revivals, sort of instigated by a celebrity figure, might affect our view of celebrity culture.

Katelyn Beaty: Yeah, well, I find the history of, let’s argue, the most famous evangelical leaders of the last 200 years and kind of the men who would really shape our understanding of modern American evangelicalism— I come to this topic with great affection for Billy Graham in particular, and I write about him a lot in my book, first of all, as someone who I believe genuinely wanted to love and serve the Lord and draw people into the faith with his incredible evangelistic tools, you know, someone who actually acknowledged really early on in his ministry, as his star was rising, that there could be real temptations to this celebrity power that he found himself with. I mean, somebody traveling the globe, as you said, Cherie, I think there’s something about the nomadic lifestyle and always being on the road that can fuel the celebrity dynamics.

But I write as someone who had a born-again experience at age 13 and responded personally and powerfully to an evangelistic altar call. And so these are my people, and this is very much my lineage. When I think back to my own early faith formation, our family always attended church, but really never understood what it meant to be part of the local church. I think really the emphasis was on having a powerful and pretty individualistic response to a gospel message. And oftentimes that message being from someone like Billy Graham, where you would go listen to them at a stadium packed with tens of thousands of people or hear them on the radio or on TV. And so we can point to that kind of legacy and say, yes, numerically—I mean, even Billy Graham once bragged that he reached more people with the gospel than Jesus, which is a pretty bold thing to brag about. I’m indebted to that impulse, that evangelistic impulse, and certainly that has borne much fruit.

I think what we are now encountering, it’s in part a discipleship problem in the American church, that after that powerful, individualistic experience, we aren’t always equipped to know how to invite people into a life of ordinary faithfulness that doesn’t depend or rise or fall on a powerful emotional response to a particular message. And we all know that life with other people and with other believers can be hard, can be grating, can be boring, but really looking at the New Testament and believing that that is in fact the warp and woof of the Christian life. And I think the American church has struggled to thread that needle and to call people into what’s really ultimately a commitment to an institution or a commitment to a community or body. If the gospel that’s originally been presented, if the emphasis is so much on that individualistic experience with Jesus, it’s no surprise that many American Christians think of their own devotional or discipleship life as “I listened to a sermon at home on my laptop” or, you know, on a podcast while I’m walking to the gym or the groceries or whatever. And we can talk about those forms of media and teaching. But I don’t think that that is church, and I don’t think that that is what the vast majority of us are called to think of discipleship and life together as.

Cherie Harder: Well, let’s talk about some of those forms of media, because you said in your book that a celebrity culture essentially depends on mass media. And I think virtually any scholar of mass media and certainly, you know, one of the first and most famous of them, Marshall McLuhan, talked about essentially the medium through which we get our information is not neutral, that the medium affects the message. It often affects the messenger, that every different medium has a bias towards the way we present information, the kind of information that we present in the first place. How do you see a mass media celebrity culture shaping the content of what the church teaches?

Katelyn Beaty: Well, it certainly shapes how the message is received. Neil Postman writes a lot about Billy Graham in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death and is, of course, drawing from the work of Marshall McLuhan in claiming that the medium is the message. And Postman argued that Graham and other televangelists were showing this technological naïveté in terms of thinking about what it means to preach an evangelistic message through a medium that most people use to be entertained, to consume entertainment and information throughout their days in a pretty passive and individualistic way. So if you think about, you know, your average American or American family sitting down at 6:00 to watch the nightly news—this feels like a very long time ago to even be describing something like that—but, you know, flipping the channel over to the nightly news and then flipping the channel over to Jeopardy or The Price Is Right. And then they flip over to there’s a crusade that’s being televised from Graham. Well, what does it mean that this family’s experience with the gospel message is kind of woven into, you know, salacious headlines from the day and then something very light and fluffy and entertaining?

I think, crucially, these mass media tend to allow for a highly individualistic way of engaging the information. You know, I think about the experience in a local church where you’re sitting together with other believers in a community week in and week out. You hear a sermon, maybe it’s great, maybe it’s fine, but you have an opportunity together to understand the meaning of the sermon, either after church or in a small group or devotion group. There’s a sense that what we’re doing together can only be understood in proximate flesh and blood relationship. And mass media just atomizes the way that we process information and content.

Of course, going back to the attention economy and knowing how short our attention spans are, I do wonder if mass media today—especially with social media, podcasting, TikTok—really asks all of us to lead with the most dramatic or click-baity part of what we have to say and how that distorts oftentimes what we have to say. You know, if you’re on Twitter, it’s like you lead with anger. If you’re on TikTok, you lead with, I don’t know, some kind of dance routine. I don’t spend a lot of time on TikTok, I’ll admit.

Cherie Harder: Just here on Zoom.

Katelyn Beaty: Yeah. But kind of— if you are just trying to get eyeballs, if you’re just trying to get listeners or attention, you’re going to do the thing that is the most dramatic. And I don’t ultimately think that is the fullness of what we have to offer the world when we’re talking about articulating Christianity in the modern world.

Cherie Harder: Know, you mentioned the individualism that mass media sort of predisposes us towards in terms of our experience, but it’s generally been institutions and communities that have often been the most potent in terms of their formational power, in terms of both their constraints and what they call us to do. And, you know, I noticed that you quoted Yuval Levin, who’s also been one of our Online Conversation guests, on the importance of institutions and have implied, even argued, that in many ways mass media and celebrity culture can undermine the formative power of institutions. And I would love to hear more of your thoughts on how that happens.

Katelyn Beaty: Yeah, well, I’m very grateful for Yuval’s reflections on the decline of institutions. It’s something that we see headlines about on a not infrequent basis. And of course, this isn’t just religious institutions. It’s all of our institutions, all of our common organizations that continue on our common life and keep things running, essentially. So what does it mean that all of these institutions are facing crises in levels of trust? And Yuval talks about institutions today becoming platforms for individual performance. And one of the examples he gives is, you know, members of Congress being in session, theoretically trying to create laws. And meanwhile, their Twitter thread is going and they’re like throwing shade—

Cherie Harder: Yes.

Katelyn Beaty: —from the other side of the political aisle, and just how much institutions are seen as propping up the individual’s own agenda or persona. Right. That the persona takes precedent over the very important but boring work of the institution. And when we think about—it doesn’t just happen in large churches—but I do think about the megachurch phenomenon. And the megachurch movement, which, you know, by many accounts is a very successful model of church in the United States. The majority of people who attend church in America attend a church that qualifies as a megachurch. And also we just see over and over again the ways that the lead pastor or the pastor who preaches week in and week out, almost his—I’m saying “his” intentionally because most megachurch pastors are men—that their charismatic presence and their persona just overwhelm the institution itself, that people who come and participate in that institution very much see a primary connection to that leader over and against a connection to that community.

And I know that there are lots of megachurches that have tried to mitigate this by drawing people— “If you make a commitment to this church, well, you need to be part of a small group”—lots of lay ministers or lay leaders, you know, keeping the church running. But even there, I worry that they’re called to keep the church running so that the lead pastor has room in his schedule to keep, you know, writing best-selling books and traveling all over the world, preaching and speaking.

And so one of the pitfalls of this model, with the decline of the commitment to an institution and the ascendance of the persona as kind of the operating or central character in a church’s self-understanding, is that if or when the pastor has a moral scandal or falls or fails in some way, the institution has a really hard time continuing on without that central figure. We’ve seen this with Willow Creek, we’ve seen this with Hillsong, various Hillsong churches, where it’s almost like the church doesn’t know who they are apart from the leader. And especially when you have a story of a leader who is no longer in a position of power and there’s been real hurt and real grief for the community, how much harder it is to disentangle that past and that story from their own life together. So I think it takes a real intentionality, perhaps especially on the part of megachurches, to have an understanding of themselves and core commitments that say, “We know how easy it would be for what we’re doing here to be essentially becoming a platform for this one person, and here’s how we’re going to resist that. Here are choices that we can make together to resist that or to undo what’s been done in the past.” But it’s an uphill climb, right? It’s going against the flow of so many elements of megachurch culture and American culture.

Cherie Harder: You know, it’s really fascinating in that, you know, the development of that persona, not only, of course, does it put an individual church at much greater risk, but from everything we know, cultivating a persona rather than being known is actually a terribly isolating, lonely, depressing place to be. You know, there’s tons of data on this, not only for adults, but particularly for teenagers. We recently interviewed Jonathan Haidt and Andy Crouch and just overwhelming evidence that once smartphones became the norm, you know, just huge upticks in teen depression and anxiety. At the same time, it was accompanied by also huge upticks in essentially elevating fame as that which was most wanted. You know, there have been other studies that basically had teenagers pick from, let’s say, seven different values. Fame definitely came out on top. We want to be famous. We want a persona. Even though the persona makes us miserable because we aren’t known, what is it about us that so longs for a persona when a persona, a false persona, essentially makes us miserable?

Katelyn Beaty: Yeah, it’s a profound question. And think about again using the attention economy idea. And we might say, oh, these teenagers just want attention. You know, they’re using these tools to kind of get their 30 seconds of fame because they just want to be seen. But if you dig a little bit deeper into the understanding or the notion of attention, especially when we’re talking about young people at a very formative, often unstable or rapidly changing part of their own sense of self and identity, attention is perhaps another way of trying in their own way to be seen and to be known and even to be loved or adored. And you know, it’s not relegated to TikTok and teenagers, of course. These are fundamental human longings that on a spiritual level are satisfied in our lives in Christ, that God sees us and knows us and loves us. And also something that we desperately need to live grounded, healthy human lives. It’s what we are created for.

And I think in a time of profound loneliness, a time when we’re less likely to understand ourselves as part of something greater in the form of an institution or a local community, celebrity is like a shortcut. It is something that can be easily accessed using the tools of mass media to get a quick feeling of being known, of being seen, of being adored. And so I think in that way, it’s— I mean, it’s ultimately an empty promise. It doesn’t actually lead to that. But that’s the part of us, the good part of us, that it appeals to. Over time, of course, if it happens to you that you become mega-famous, like overnight, especially at a young age, you just hear about people who grew up in Hollywood or became famous as teenagers or even children, the profound psychological and relational consequences of that.

And I want Christians to, first of all, offer young people a place where they can really be known and loved. I mean, I think about my own youth pastor growing up. This was all, of course, pre-social media by many years. But, you know, she would take me out to Dairy Queen after school or come to my band concert. Just that kind of presence of attention and care can go a really, really long way in mitigating the temptation to find it on the Internet.

But also mean for those of us—for adults—the temptation doesn’t go away. And then I think it requires, for anybody who does find themselves with some measure of fame, with some measure of platform, a real kind of counterbalance in one’s own life, to say, “I’m putting deliberate parameters around my life using these platforms. My priority is the people whose lives I’m intimately connected to, the people I see every day, the people who I’m proximate to. That’s the priority. And all the more, you know, if that platform rises, if I feel myself getting sucked into that, all the more am I choosing to invest in the people around me who don’t just adore me but actually love me.”

You know, it’s not actually good for us to just be adored, but to be loved is to be deeply known and deeply seen and deeply committed to all the same. I write in the final chapter of Celebrities for Jesus about the role of friendship, which—you just mentioned Andy Crouch—and I interviewed him. He’s written very deeply and thoughtfully on technology and [I] just asked, you know, what do we do? And he mentioned, you know, of course, we know accountability is important. We know we need to place limits on our screen time and all of that. But his answer or antidote to the celebrity problem, he offered friendship, which was not something that I was expecting, but just the the powerful role that lifelong friends can play in grounding us, keeping us on the ground when all of this digital technology wants to take us away, away from real presence, away from real community and into some kind of fantasy performance of a persona that’s not actually rooted in who we really are.

Cherie Harder: Well, Katelyn, this has been fascinating. So many more questions, but we’re going to turn to the questions that are piling up from those who are watching. And just a reminder, if this is one of your first times, you can not only ask a question, but you can also “like” a question. And that gives us an idea of the questions that most people have on their minds. So a question from Marlo Rondoni and Marlo asked, “To what degree do you see ‘pastor as CEO’ and bad governance as a significant part of the problem?”

Katelyn Beaty: I see it as very much a big part of the problem. I don’t have, you know, a percentage in mind. And I have been in megachurches where the pastor, for all I could tell, did not think of themselves as CEOs. But I think very much so, you know, the megachurch model drew explicitly in the 70s and 80s from the American business model. There wasn’t even anything covert about it. It’s just looking at basic business capitalistic principles and thinking about growth and the bottom line as the driving principles. And so you end up with people at the helm who, as you just noted, don’t really come in with an understanding of the pastor as a shepherd of souls, because on one level, just very pragmatically, how could you possibly get to know 2,000 souls? You can’t. It’s impossible. The pastor is not so much someone who is meant to be accessible or someone who can provide emotional or spiritual pastoral care in any kind of personal way. Rather, they are the visionary. They are the person who is going to lead us into the future, to bring us, take us, to bigger and better heights, who inspires and encourages—all from the platform.

And it works, you know, it works in the way that the Apple model under Steve Jobs worked. Now Steve Jobs, as I understand it, wasn’t a very nice person to be around. And it is really unfortunate that part of the CEO model is also perhaps someone who doesn’t have time to treat people as real people, someone who doesn’t think about softer skills like emotional intelligence as being necessary—all sorts of pathologies that can creep in with that CEO model. So absolutely, you know, there’s very much an explicit borrowing from the world of business with the megachurch model. And unfortunately, the pastor as CEO is a part of that.

Cherie Harder: So a question from Victoria Martineau, who asks, “Jesus warned his followers that they should not call anyone master or teacher or father. He understood human nature and the all-too-human desire for adulation and elevation in the eyes of others. Why do you think that there have not been more whistleblowers in the Christian church?”

Katelyn Beaty: That’s a great question. I think that, just as this person noted, we fallible humans are looking for touch points to the sacred in our midst. We are looking for figures who seem to be closer to the Lord, divinely and uniquely blessed. We want to be part of whatever they’re promising to do among us. You know, if you’re around a leader who’s saying, “This is the vision that the Lord has given me and this is how our church or organization is going to be a part of spreading the kingdom in our midst, being on mission for God,” that meets a very deep felt need for us to be part of something bigger than ourselves, to as Christians feel like we’re co-laborers with God. Maybe God is uniquely blessing us or leading us in a way that God isn’t leading other communities. It just feels really good to be a part of that.

I couldn’t help notice the music lead-in for this session and immediately thought back to, of course, the Christianity Today podcast, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. Just a very well done podcast series. And I thought it was really well done, in part, because Mike Cosper, the producer, recognized how many good things that people were getting by being part of Mars Hill. They weren’t dumb. They weren’t just blind sheep. There seemed to be actual spiritual fruit. And we all want to see that in our midst. And the danger is when we end up confusing faithfulness to Christ with loyalty to a particular person, or thinking that God can only work in our midst or with this leader and not seeing the bigger picture and ending up excusing behavior that should never be excused. But we want a touchpoint to the divine and we want to be part of something big and important. And that can lead a lot of us to turn a blind eye to really concerning and unchristian behavior.

Cherie Harder: So a question from Peter Sherman, who asks, “Your book uses the word ‘charisma’ a lot, and I wonder how a theology and sociology of charisma might compare and contrast with your notion of celebrity. I suspect they are not the same thing.”

Katelyn Beaty: Yeah. Well, charisma, of course, has a spiritual dimension to the word. We think about Paul writing about a “charism” or gift. And we also talk about gifted people both inside religious circles and beyond them. And I didn’t write about this as much as I would have liked to, but I think too about Max Weber’s notion of charismatic authority and the ascendance of charismatic authority over more traditional forms of authority. It is simply the case that I would say most celebrities have some kind of personal charisma. But just because you’re charismatic doesn’t mean that you are a celebrity in the unhealthy way. And I think that’s why it’s important early in the book that I try to distinguish between celebrity and fame.

We think about someone like Martin Luther King, who had a very charismatic presence, obviously was able to help lead the civil rights movement because of his incredible oratory skills and charismatic presence among other people. I don’t think that he was seeking to become a celebrity in his midst. And actually, Billy Graham is another great model of someone who I genuinely believe had incredible gifts—you know, going back to charisms. He was gifted many different skill sets, and most people found him to be charismatic. They wanted to be around him. We’ve all met people where it’s like, “I want to be around that person.” They light up a room, you know, people hang on their every word.

And when we’re thinking about spiritual leadership, learning to, if you encounter someone with incredible charisma, perhaps thinking through special guardrails where it doesn’t just slide into a celebrity dynamic because part of charismatic authority is that those leaders find that there’s like a cult of personality that builds up around them even if they don’t want it. So just recognizing that having charismatic authority or having charisma isn’t always a blessing and it can come with things that you never wanted, you know, people following you in a very unhealthy or obsessive way. So just recognizing that, yeah, charisma, charismatic authority comes with the need for particular sensitivities and guardrails so that it doesn’t slide into unhealthy celebrity dynamics.

Cherie Harder: That’s great. So Adam Vicks asks, “Given the reality that large-scale platforms like big conferences and social media aren’t going away, what are healthy examples of how the church can combat celebrity culture and Christianity?”

Katelyn Beaty: Yeah, well, I’m not thinking so much about lay Christians here. And I’m sure, Adam, who just asked the question, was probably thinking more about, like, what can everyday Christians do? But I do just want to emphasize here, when we’re talking about conferences and book publishing—which I am in currently, I work as a full-time acquisitions editor—I think these business infrastructures have a lot of responsibility to play in correcting long-standing dynamics of preference for celebrity leaders and fueling celebrity dynamics. So I think this isn’t just an issue that’s going to go away so long as everyday Christians commit themselves to the local church, which is a great thing and which I think we should all do. But I just want to note that there are these bigger infrastructure and commercial dynamics at play in American evangelicalism, where I don’t think things will change until leaders in those organizations say, “This has gotten out of hand.” The way the conferences are run, the way that people are selected, the way we treat these people, how much we pay these people—this is all showing that we put way too much emphasis on celebrity following to determine who gets to lead and teach the church.

I think, of course, accountability is really important for any kind of organization or institution, and it’s something that we all know, of course, and even celebrity leaders will say, “Oh, yes, I fully submit to structures of accountability. Of course that’s important to me.” But really interrogating what those accountability structures, how they actually operate in real life and in real relationships, because you can have a leader who theoretically answers to multiple boards. And yet when you scratch the surface of those accountability groups or structures, you realize that most of the people on the board or in the group have a vested interest in continuing to prop up the celebrity as a celebrity. So really getting wise about interpersonal power and intentionally choosing people to whom the celebrity leader answers who don’t have a vested interest or their vested interest is in the future of the particular church or institution, not on continuing the celebrity leader’s career or extending their power further and further.

So yeah, getting wise about accountability structures, I think this is a call for all of us. I mean, I’m sure you’ve had many guests at the Trinity Forum, Cherie, who talk about screen time and our relationship to media, but this is something that—

Cherie Harder: It comes up.

—we all know that something is off in our relationship with media. But looking at how much time and energy and kind of emotional investment we’re placing in not just screens, but how we then start to see people whom we don’t know in any real way as authority figures in our own lives and spiritual formation. And I’m saying this as someone who has benefited immensely from books written by Christian authors, I don’t know them personally, but their work has really enriched my life and relationship with God. So this is not me saying, “Don’t ever read a Christian book by someone you don’t know.” That’s silly. But are we outsourcing discipleship away from the local church onto individual leaders out there? And what if we were to prioritize or centralize our life in the local church as the place where the primary warp and woof of the Christian life is lived out? And if we happen to find these extra resources that are helpful, great. But those resources aren’t the main thing.

Cherie Harder: Makes sense. So another question we have comes from Rob Daniels, who said, “What do you say to that friend, family member, or coworker who cannot see the unhealthy celebrity culture that perhaps permeates the faith community that they are a part of? Where do you start that conversation?”

Katelyn Beaty: Yeah, that’s a really good question. It’s hard because, you know, if your friend or family member is going to a megachurch with a celebrity leader, it’s probably simplistic to say you shouldn’t go to that church anymore. And going back to the Mars Hill example, we do see very meaningful and deep ways that people can become involved in institutions that are marked by celebrity dynamics but aren’t necessarily swallowed up by those dynamics, that actually you can have healthy and unhealthy impulses in the same community and the same leader, right? But I would maybe ask this person who finds themselves in a celebrity-influenced church culture, when was the last time they had a conversation with someone on the pastoral team? And talking a little bit more deeply about the role of a pastor or pastors, again, coming back to the notion of a pastor being a shepherd of souls and making sure that that person feels cared for as a sheep, as a member of the body, that they understand the crucial role that they play in the body of Christ. And if that is not being spoken to or not an emphasis in that community, yeah, it might be time to think about a different, you know, a church that does things differently or a spiritual community that does things differently.

I think there’s also a healthy warning just to say, you know, we are not called to place our ultimate allegiance in any one particular leader, even very healthy, godly leaders, and to see the costs that can crop up when we find ourselves placing a certain kind of allegiance or giving allegiance to leaders who we don’t really know in any real way. When we look to these kind of heroes or icons out there to tell us how to live as Christians, that lack of proximity and that distance can create all sorts of distortions. And that can be personally heartbreaking if the icon is cracked and we actually see the person behind it as being a very deeply flawed and potentially harmful leader. That can have a real personal spiritual cost for us. Yeah.

Cherie Harder: So a final question comes from Chris Murphy, who asked, “Does technology and social media necessarily take us away from reality and/or community? Are there ways that technology and social media can actually cultivate community?”

Katelyn Beaty: Yeah, well, I’ve never really liked the notion that what happens online isn’t reality. It is a mediated kind of reality. And I think as people of faith who come back to the central notion that God was enfleshed in the person of Christ and incarnated and lived among us as a full human, I think we do want to say that what can happen in the presence of other people hits at a more core and deeper part of who we are and who we’re made to be in the image of God.

But I think it’s simplistic to say what happens in the flesh is real and what happens online isn’t real because you still have humans interacting with each other, even through these mediated forms. And I have found some measure of community online, mostly in terms of affinity or interests. So I would say there’s often times a type of community that can be cultivated, or connection that can be cultivated, that is good. You know, I like that I can go on—well, it’s all driven by ads now and advertising—but, theoretically, I can go on to Twitter and, you know, type in a hashtag of birdwatching. I enjoy birdwatching on the side and I get all these updates about, you know, other bird watchers in New York City and what they’re seeing in Central Park, and that makes me feel connected to that community. And I think that’s for the good, right?

But in general, those types of communities aren’t the types of communities that can show up for us in our most profound moments of need for human understanding and connection. And so it’s not “only invest in the people that you spend your everyday life with.” It’s not that the connections you find online aren’t real. It’s just that at the end of the day, if I know myself to be a vulnerable person and know very well that I could face a moment of crisis, of deep vulnerability, where I need to rely on other people to get through the day or to get through the season, the people who I have connected with online just can’t be there for me in a deep way, and I don’t think that they can necessarily mediate the presence of Christ among us in the way that a friend who would cry with us or pray with us or put their hand on our shoulder can.

So it’s simplistic to think “in-person, good; online, bad.” But I think it is appropriate to talk about prioritization and the kind of connections that we’re able to cultivate both in person and online.

Cherie Harder: Thanks, Katelyn. This has been fascinating. And thank you to all of you for your questions. This has been just a particularly great group of really thoughtful questions, and we regret that we have only been able to get to a fraction of them. So thank you for sending those in. In just a minute, I want to give Katelyn the last word, but before then, a few things just to share with you. First, immediately after we conclude, we’ll be sending around an online feedback form. We’d love to get your thoughts. I say this every time, but it’s true. Every time, we read every word. We try to take your examples and suggestions to heart to make this program ever more valuable to those of you who watch it. So as a particular incentive for filling out the feedback form, we will send you a code and a link to a free Trinity Forum Reading download of your choice, the digital version of our Readings. And some Readings we would particularly recommend to go a little bit further into the topic that we’ve been discussing today include Brave New World, Who Stands Fast? by Bonhoeffer, and Augustine’s City of God and Confessions.

In addition, tomorrow, right around noon, we’ll be sending out an email which includes not only a list of additional readings and resources where you can go more deeply into this topic, but also an edited video of today’s Online Conversation that we would love for you to share with friends, family, and others to start a conversation.

We also would love to extend an invitation to you to join the Trinity Forum Society, which is the community of people who help advance the Trinity Forum mission of cultivating, curating, and disseminating the best of Christian thought. We rely on our members to try to fulfill that mission and would love to welcome you to part of that community. There are many benefits to being a member of the Trinity Forum Society, including a subscription to our quarterly Readings, a subscription to our daily “What We’re Reading” list of curated readings and recommendations, as well as—today only—for those of you who join the Trinity Forum Society with your gift of $100 or more, we will send you a signed copy of Katelyn’s book, Celebrities for Jesus. So we’d love to have you join us at the Trinity Forum Society, and we’d love for you to receive a copy of Katelyn’s book as well.

Coming up in the next few weeks, for those of you who are in town in DC on March 21st, we’ll be hosting Russell Moore, Curtis Chang, and David French on the topic of “Towards a Better Christian Politics.” We’d love to have you join. In addition, some upcoming Online Conversations to be aware of include March 24th, where we’ll be hosting Vigen Guroian and Angel Parham on “Tending the Heart of Virtue,” and on March 31st, where our guest Jessica Hooten Wilson will talk to us about “Reading for the Love of God.” So mark your calendars and would love to see you at each of those.

Finally, as promised, Katelyn, the last word is yours.

Katelyn Beaty: Well, I won’t end with reading all of Middlemarch, but I will read the final portion of the novel from George Eliot. And this is about a woman, Dorothea Lange, who starts off in her life having grand visions of doing big things for God and wants to become a famous saint like Teresa of Avila of her time, and life takes her to places of disappointment, to places that are quieter and unseen. But she really starts to see her calling over her life as investing in the people closest to her. And the novel is such a beautiful image of ordinary faithfulness, which I think is perhaps the most potent antidote to celebrity culture in our midst. And so I’ll read the final sentences of Middlemarch:

“Dorothea’s full nature spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth, but the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive. For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me, as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.”

And so I’m just— I can’t read that without tearing up. But the image of living faithfully a hidden life. And what if that is the call for the vast majority of us? And can we live into that vision with relief and joy?

Cherie Harder: Thank you, Katelyn. That was beautiful. Thank you to each of you for joining us. Have a great weekend.