Is Christian celebrity harmful to the church?

Yes, says Katelyn Beaty, who defines celebrity as “fame’s shinier, slightly obnoxious cousin.”

When I was a child, my mom watched Joel Osteen’s sermons on television and filled our bookcases with his books. Our church regularly participated in Willow Creek’s Global Leadership Summit before being absorbed into a network of Indiana megachurches. I came to idolize women like Jordan Lee Dooley and Annie F. Downs for being good Christian role models on social media. This is precisely the world journalist Katelyn Beaty aims to expose in her new book, an examination and critique of Christian celebrity.

Beaty dives into stories of high-profile Christian pastors, influencers, authors, and megachurch organizations to craft the argument that celebrity ultimately hurts rather than helps the church. Inspired by the dramatic fall of Christian leaders such as Mark Driscoll, Bill Hybels, and Carl Lentz, she outlines the ways celebrity sabotages true Christian leadership. She examines how Christians have wielded celebrity as a tool to expand their reach in the world, and she calls for an alternative: a life of ordinary faithfulness, rooted in a theology derived from Jesus’ upside-down kingdom.

The Latin root of the word celebrity evokes fame, but Beaty notes that there are differences between fame and celebrity. Fame involves being known by far more people than you could ever know yourself, but it is not always deliberately sought. For instance, Rosa Parks was an ordinary person who became famous for doing a seemingly ordinary thing. In a meritocratic culture like that of the United States, fame is often awarded to those with humble beginnings whose talents have made life more enjoyable, such as Walt Disney or Steve Jobs. Fame is not sinful in and of itself, Beaty claims, and not all famous people should be written off as shallow and inauthentic.