Note: This post on the evangelical industrial complex is written as satire. Please read with a sense of humor and a huge grain of salt.
Even as local churches are seeing declining attendance, we have witnessed the rise of a celebrity Christian culture. Since about the turn of the century, a small number of celebrity Christian pastors and theologians have been getting a disproportionate amount of donations, book sales, conference bookings, and so on.
Some Christian leaders (including Carl Trueman, Rachel Held Evans, Skye Jethani, and Ministry Watch) have gone on record to express the opinion that this is not an entirely positive development. They say that non-celebrity Christians should get a bigger share of the spotlight, and deplore the fact that an industry, which they derisively call “the evangelical industrial complex,” is promoting the celebrities and cashing in on their success. Some estimate the evangelical market to be over $7 billion a year. The Christian Booksellers Association alone is reporting sales of over $4.6 billion of merchandise annually.
The critics are mainly disturbed by what they see as market manipulation. For example, Christian publishers sign book deals with megapastors, then work to make those leaders more popular so that they can sell more of their books. This makes it look like a mass conspiracy to extract money from the pockets of unsuspecting Christians. Allegedly, Christian publishers care little about their authors’ theological integrity, but mainly care about their ability to sell books. This could explain much of the marketing hype, and the publicity stunts surrounding books by Christian celebrities such as Rick Warren, Tim LaHaye, Rob Bell, and Steven Furtick. Not many authors can guarantee sales of thousands of copies of any book they write. Likewise, not many speakers can draw big crowds. Publishers and conference organizers don’t want to gamble, so they’re always looking for a sure thing.
I have to stop here and ask: Do critics of the evangelical-industrial complex want Christian business people to gamble? They may as well tell them to take their money to Vegas! Crazy, isn’t it?
Below, I have listed ten additional reasons why the critics are mistaken, and why the rise of the evangelical-industrial complex is good for everyone:
1. Jesus Only Chose 12 Apostles
Synaxis of the Twelve Apostles. Russian, 14th century
Jesus said the gospel would go forth into “all the world,” and yet how many disciples did He choose for this great task? Only twelve. While it’s true that there are more than twelve celebrity Christians in America, there are still so few that we can easily create a select list of twelve. You may want to create your own list, but here’s an example:
- Rick Warren
- Joel Osteen
- Joyce Meyers
- T. D. Jakes
- Mark Driscoll
- Rob Bell
- John MacArthur
- Beth Moore
- Bill Hybels
- Ravi Zacharias
- Pat Robertson
- Benny Hinn
You may think these leaders are not comparable to Jesus’ apostles, but why not? Two of the disciples wanted to call down fire on a city, and Peter denied the Lord three times. We can rightly be critical of our modern-day “apostles” while knowing that somehow, God has a plan behind it all.
I agree that the companies and connections in the publishing, convention, media, and financial industries that make up what we call the evangelical-industrial complex are indeed complex. However, what these businesses end up giving us is a relatively small number of “rock star” Christians. As Christian consumers, this makes our choices very simple.
2. Celebrity Pastors Help Local Churches
It’s true that people learn dubious doctrines such as the prosperity gospel from some of these pastors. These doctrines infiltrate into local churches of every stripe. Though this might appear to be a problem, it creates an opportunity. As you may have heard, the Chinese word for “crisis” also means “opportunity.”
Local pastors should take advantage of this opportunity by formulating sermons to address potential heresies within the congregation. Occasionally, the pastor or a church elder may have to engage in an heated debate with wayward Christians. On the positive side, however, this keeps things interesting. One of the main complaints people have about most churches is that they’re too boring.
While Paul was imprisoned in Rome, he heard that some people were preaching the gospel out of selfish ambition rather than for the Lord. He responded by rejoicing because he knew that at least the gospel was being preached (Phil. 1:15-18). Let’s follow his example and not worry too much about a little false doctrine here and there.
3. They’re Raising Up the Next Generation of Leaders.
We seldom hear about the co-pastors or friends of celebrity pastors. Still, have you ever considered the fact that some of them have children? Think about it… Billy Graham gave us Franklin Graham; Charles Stanley gave us Andy Stanley, Francis Schaeffer gave us Franky Schaeffer, and George Bush (another strong Christian) gave us George W. Bush. Going further back in history, King David was not only the father of Solomon, but also an ancestor of Jesus. This is all the evidence we need to know that in some cases, children of godly parents are not just spiritually but genetically blessed. These families can become dynasties that God can use!
Some of America’s megachurch pastors are teaching local pastors how to run their churches more like businesses. Local pastors can also learn psychological techniques from famous evangelists who know how to lead people to the Lord, heal them, and slay them in the Spirit. These methods aren’t manipulative because it’s all being done for the glory of God!
4. They Build Great Infrastructure.
The Crystal Cathedral, Los Angeles
Only a celebrity pastor can collect enough money in offerings to build an attractive, enormous building. We should have at least one of these in every major city. Occasionally, I drive around the Washington D.C. beltway and pass by the beautiful Mormon Temple. What a testimony to the glory of the Latter Day Saints. My point, of course, is that we Christians need to compete with them!
Of course, more celebrity pastors will be needed in the future to fill not only the shoes of their forebears, but also their buildings when they’re gone. A great tragedy of our time is that there’s no celebrity pastor who can fill the Crystal Cathedral the way Robert Schuller did. Let’s support celebrity pastors so that Lord willing, this will never happen again.
5. They Promote Christian Unity.
Celebrity pastors are all over the map on doctrinal issues, but there are other kinds of unity. What’s most important is that they promote physical unity.
Unquestionably, the Bible teaches that physical unity is important. The people of Israel had to travel to the temple in Jerusalem to offer sacrifices and worship the Lord. In Jesus’ time, Jews traveled from distant parts of the Roman Empire to worship in Jerusalem.
If there’s a megachurch within only one or two hours of where you live, it would be a relatively small sacrifice for you to drive there every week. If you’re not within driving distance, you can still buy that pastor’s books and download his or her sermons.
As many Christians take in the same teachings from the same pastors, it promotes unity. The Bible doesn’t have to be the only book that we share in common. We can also share books like The Purpose-Driven Life. Since I’ve read that myself, you know we have that in common! Is that exciting or what?…
6. They Are Good for America.
Spirit of ‘76 by Archibald MacNeal Willard (c. 1875)
As far as I know, celebrity Christian leaders all have a non-profit status with the government. This means that when we give money to them, we can deduct that on our tax returns.
Another great thing about celebrity ministers is that they seldom speak out against our government, even when it does things that some liberal Christians consider to be “sinful.” This includes activities that help preserve our American way of life, such as wars against rogue nations, drone attacks against suspected terrorists, and spying on suspicious people everyone in the USA.
It’s good for all Americans when our ministers support our nation. As Paul wrote, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities” (Rom. 13:1).
If you aren’t fortunate enough to live in Christian America, celebrity preachers in your country are probably supportive of government and big business. They might be legally prohibited or afraid to speak out, or they may want to avoid controversy. Whatever their motives, ministers ought to be subject to the governing authorities.
I don’t always know what celebrity ministers are doing, but I’m able to rest content in the knowledge that someone always has a close eye on them.
7. Jesus Loves Capitalism
Some combinations can’t be beat. The fact is, Christianity and capitalism go together like peanut butter and chocolate.
By using the label “evangelical-industrial complex” as if it’s a derogatory term, critics show an appalling lack of concern for our economic system, which needs our popular support.
They have been especially hard on Christian publishers, as explained at the start of this article. What critics don’t seem to realize is that Christian publishers must earn profits in order to survive and publish more books. Likewise, conference organizers must earn enough money to at least cover their expenses. Whenever celebrity Christians speak at conferences, they increase the numbers of conference attendees and hence, financial revenues.
Illustration by Michael Elins for a Time magazine cover story
We shouldn’t try to impose our so-called morality on big “Christian” publishers. I put the word Christian in quotes because many of “our” publishers are actually owned by secular companies. Still, there’s nothing wrong with that. Those companies are very much aware of what’s good for America and Wall Street. Anyway, regardless of who owns them, every publishing company is a business that needs to make money.
8. The Market Has Spoken!
Most of the people who watch ministers on television must be Christians; otherwise they would change the channel. We can assume that most of the people who buy Christian books are also Christians. Nobody, including a secular “Christian” book publisher, can force anyone to buy anything.
If a teaching is of God, we must assume that Christian consumers will recognize that and reward it accordingly. As they used to say, “the voice of the people is the voice of God” (vox populi vox dei). We should support democracy by respecting the rule “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Who are any of us to say that Christians shouldn’t choose to follow certain pastors en masse?
By the way, if anyone should argue that the principle of vox populi vox dei seems to contradict my earlier proposition that the governing authorities are God’s representatives, I can only say that God is mysterious, and He speaks to us in many different ways.
9. Less Choice Means Less Confusion
A countless number of relatively unknown Christians are clamoring for our attention. They all think they know what we ought to believe the Bible, God, and so on. Admittedly, that includes me with this blog that you’re reading now. If I may speak for not only myself but others, we ought to recognize and accept our humble places in the world. Let’s stop whining about the fact that some Christians are incredibly more popular than we could ever hope to be. The celebrities are super-talented, and they worked very hard to get to where they are today.
We must also consider the fact that practically speaking, Christians couldn’t handle the confusion of trying to learn about a huge number of Christian pastors and teachers. This is comparable to either going to a known brand like McDonald’s for lunch, or going to a no-name, locally owned restaurant. McDonald’s food may not be good for us, but at least we know what’s on the menu there!
The question is, how many restaurant chains, or in this case how many pastors, can the average person easily learn about? Personally, I’m going to side with Jesus on this and say that twelve is a pretty good number.
10. They Give Christianity More Influence in the World.
President George and Laura Bush meet with Rick and Kay Warren
President Obama meets with Billy Graham
These pictures speak volumes. The Reverend Billy Graham was known as the “pastor to Presidents.” He met with every U.S. President from Harry Truman to Barrack Obama, and always told them something about Jesus.
Unfortunately, we can no longer expect our presidents to be Christian and attend church. Presidents are so powerful and so busy that if they don’t attend church, they may only agree to meet with a highly influential pastor such as Rick Warren.
Note: My actual beliefs are almost diametrically opposed to each of the ones expressed above. The one reason that I think is somewhat legitimate is #8. Collectively, Christians are responsible for deciding whom we choose to follow and support, and whom we choose to ignore. We should all be following Jesus first and foremost. If we were doing that, I don’t think we’d be glorifying individual men and women as much as we do. These celebrities aren’t much, if any more special than Christians who are likely attending a church within a few miles of where we live. Finally, this isn’t intended as a criticism of all Christian celebrities. Some did not seek undue fame or publicity, but only became known through the high quality of their ministry.
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