Celebrity challenge

February 28, 2012

Occasionally the Century editors sit down to talk with experts in magazine
marketing. They sometimes tells us that we need to do more with
celebrities--feature a celebrity on the cover of the magazine, for example.

No, they're not pressing us to feature Brad Pitt
or Lindsay Lohan. What they have in mind is featuring the celebrities of our world, that is, the celebrities of
the mainline Protestant world.

We usually respond: "But mainline Protestants
don't really have celebrities." When the experts look doubtful, the editors
look at one another. "Well, we might come up with a few living semi-celebrities--but that would take
care of only two months worth of covers."

The absence of a celebrity culture seems like
one of the healthy things about the mainline Protestant world, even if it
limits marketing opportunities. We tend to get uneasy when a person's charisma
or accomplishment is the focus of attention. Adulation seems not only naïve and
credulous but also ignorant of the mysterious and paradoxical ways God chooses
to work.

Skye Jenathi is uneasy, too. He worries about the prominence of celebrity
pastors in evangelical culture, because he thinks the phenomenon promotes
idolatry and shallowness.

Jenathi goes on to outline how an "evangelical
industrial complex" has evolved to produce celebrity pastors. These celebrities
are created not so much to serve the church as to serve marketers' needs to
sell books and videos. Here's how it works:

Through any number of
methods--powerful gifting, shrewd marketing, dumb luck--a pastor leads a
congregation to megachurch status. Publishers eager for a guaranteed sales win
offer the megachurch pastor a book deal knowing that if only a third of the
pastor's own congregation buys a copy, it's still a profitable deal. . .
Wanting to maximize the return on its investment, the publisher will then
promote the pastor at the publisher-sponsored ministry conference or other events.
As a result of the pastor's megachurch customer base and the publisher's
conference platform, the book becomes a bestseller.