Athletes and Hollywood Christians are strategically placed for the Gospel, but we cannot and should not act as if they’re testimony means we are free to do whatever we want.
Jonathan David Faulkner
Let me say this up front, I hate the idea of Christian Celebrity and I hate the culture we have created around celebrity Christian’s. Believe it or not though it is not the idolatry that it often ends up in, though I am no fan of that, nor is it the pedestal just below idolization that gets me, though again I am no fan of that either. It is the fact that those are the people often referred to when Christians talk about those who live out their faith even though they have no frame of reference other than one comment made to the media. Someone does not have to demonstrate with their lives they are a Christian, all they have to do is say something, even if that thing is tan gently orthodox and biblical and Christians flock to them like moths to a lamp. Mention the name of Jesus and your guaranteed to have 1000 new twitter followers overnight, even if your exegesis and application are extremely questionable.
You all know what I am talking about, you were all alive when Tim Tebow (congrats on your recent marriage by the way Tim), was playing for the Denver Broncos. I can remember people praising him for painting John 3:16 on his face before the game and for what became known universally as “tebowing” praying after he scored a TD. I can remember college girls fawning over him because he was such a good and godly man who did not smoke drink or chew or go with girls who did. He was held up as the archetype for what a Christian should be and in fact, he was, if your archetype of Christianity is the classic conservative “nice Christian boy” who epitomizes purity culture and who never upsets people.
Now, before you accuse me of being disrespectful, let me say that I have a great deal of respect for those who live out their faith in the public square. It is extremely difficult to stand up for your faith in our modern context and Tebow has paid a price for it. I also have a great deal of respect for Tim Tebow as a person, his special prom nights for children with disabilities is a truly gospel-oriented mission that gives dignity to kids who do not get to experience that dignity within the public-school system. I do have a problem with the culture he represents, but no problem with him personally. The problem is with the celebrity status and idolization that occurred because Tim Tebow stood up for His faith in the public square. Tim’s life is attractive for the Gospel, the Christian Celebrity that rose around him, hindered it. I felt the same way about Kurt Cousins recent comments after losing to the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional round of the Playoffs, something my own Packers did the very next week. I appreciate the words that he said, “win or lose, God is on the throne” what disturbs me are the people who raised the concert of praises and allowed the cycle of idolization continue. Again, Cousin’s life may attractive (I do not know enough about him to say) for the Gospel, but that kind of idolization hinders it.
We do the same thing to Politicians, all someone has to do is signal solidarity with Christianity and boom, Christians will flock to unquestioning support for them. Even if upon further examination we find that person is not a believer, or at least not living like one, but only used the manicure to secure a section of the voting base. This is the playing card that we have been watching play out before us in the political arena for the last 30 years, coming to fruition in the worst possible way with the 2016 election. We become uncritical followers of men seeking political power we risk allowing ourselves to be led astray from the Gospel principles found in the Word of God and the moral high ground we have always vigorously defended. I have beat a dead horse with this one, but I will say it again, we cannot insist on certain moral characteristics and then turn around and vote for someone who does not fit those characteristics. Regardless of what may be promised or what we may gain, better to lose the whole world then to forfeit our souls eh? Unfortunately, it looks as though we have chosen to forefeet our souls.
But that is the problem I see, we are not just forfeiting our souls, we are forfeiting our souls in the case of politics, but we are all too often forfeiting our witnesses by outsourcing them to the Christian Celebrity. We seem to think that the person who professes faith on TV or after the football game is going to be what stems the tide of secularism and reinvigorates the witness of Christ around the world. The problem is secular people and younger Christians do one of two things with the athlete/politicians/Hollywood type professes their faith. They either scoff at it because their experience with Christians they interact with daily do not live out what they claim to believe or they applaud it once and move on, getting back to the business of living out their robust faith. They either do not see it as sincere, or they ignore it all together. No one is reached, in fact, it seems that the opposite is happening, people tune it out because the Christians they know are no different than they are.
Celebrity among Christians seems to have become an excuse for not living out the gospel at home before all men. We think because they have testified to Christ we do not have to. It is a convenient way of outsourcing our own responsibility to communicate the Gospel in word and life. We seem to think that so long as (Insert name here) is working out his or her salvation with fear and trembling we are excused from it. Or that the Great Commission is for missionaries and pastors and we just go to church and fellowship and that’s the extent of our Christian Life. The Great Commission becomes “The Great Omission” to use Thom Rainer’s term even if your part of the 48% of Christians who know what the Great Commission is (Lifeway 2019). “Go into all the world and Make Disciples of all nations” apparently does not mean our own, or it does so long as we do not have to do it. “Put off the old self…and put on the new self” (Col 3:6-10) is all well and good and long as we do not have to do it. As long (so and so) is being a light to the world, do I really have to be?
I am being a bit snarky here, but if you look at all the data that has come out over the last 50 years as the Church as declined, this is the picture it paints. Now, there are some areas of the country where this is impossible, I think of our New England Brothers and Sisters who, in most places, have realized that living in a Post-Christian society requires Christians to largely abandon their whimsical, pie in the sky Christianity defined by Consumerism and attractionalism and return to a biblically oriented Christian Faith. I am inspired by the Church Planting movement in my own denomination that has been reaching communities with the Gospel by not being afraid to those whom the traditional Church in America has abandoned by making it a sin for a person of faith to even enter those places. Given the changes in our culture we can no longer afford to sit back and hide in our holy huddles thinking that will bring people back to us. Young people are not returning to church when they get older, even those who have a deep faith in Jesus, they remain in exile and disconnected. We can no longer make assumptions that allow us the convenience of ease and allow us to debate peripheral issues. We can either live out the Gospel or we can die, those are the only two options before us as persecution increases and we continue to be forced out of the public square. We do not have the luxury of outsourcing our witness to another, to celebrities. You want to see young people to return to churches? Take your own faith seriously.
I am serious, this is what I cannot stand about Christian Celebrity Culture, we seem to think that it has excused us from living out our own faith in our own portion of the public square. We think that if we do not sin and go to church, we are fine. The result is a lot of people who have relationships with the church, but no discernable relationship with eh Church. We have a lot of people that can proof-text their personal opinions (see last week’s piece) but have no biblical literacy or knowledge of the Bible beyond those defenses of their philosophical viewpoints. We also have a lot of people to look for the pastor to simply affirm their preconceived notions and if the pastor challenges those notions even in the slightest they get angry and make threats and bully people into agreeing with them.
The problem with all of this is God didn’t leave his Church here so that we could outsource our witness and gather around us people who would confirm our biases. Though we are promised in scripture that will happen. He left His church here to be a family and one that went out and witnessed to the world by showing the benefits and blessings of having a relationship with God. A Church then that does not love God, love people (inside and outside its walls) and make Disciples should not expect God’s blessings to follow them. In fact, they should expect the opposite since they have set themselves in opposition to God by their obstinate refusal to live out His commands. The culture pressures on the Church are moving us back in this direction in some parts of the country, but there are some places where resistance to any change back towards historic biblical orthodoxy and orthopraxy, not the canned conservative Americanized version that Billy Graham called: “An inch deep and a mile wide.”
If we want to see the church grow, especially in the alienated small towns throughout the Midwest and South, then the church needs to step up and be the third place of society it was in the first and second century. We do not have the luxury of debates in the public square over philosophies and ideologies that are loosely biblical, if that. And we certainly do not have the luxury at pointing to the latest Celebrity who put his faith into words and expressed it on public television as though their witness excuses us from our own. The secular world is reading our scriptures and calling us out on how poorly we live them out day to day. This is a difficult reality to accept, but Jesus was serious when He gave His commands and applied them all His people. Not just the Apostles, but to everyone who believed in Him.
Pastors, this starts with us, we need to stand up against these kinds of behaviors and take whatever it costs us knowing that we answer to Christ for how we handled His word and taught His people. We need to be willing to not just preach the Gospel but live out the Gospel and demonstrate the blessings of a relationship with Christ to our congregation. We can do this, even if it costs us calls and comfort because we are promised that God will take care of us and we can lean on those promises no matter what. We can also know that God is pleased when we do what He has commanded us to do even when it means people will be furious with us. We need to hold our congregations accountable to the full word of God, everything in their, not just their preferred theological construct. We also need to be willing to answer question, maintaining an open door for people come to ask us when we preach about those passages that challenge our preconceived notions. Not everyone will take you up on that, you will still have people angry with you, but both you and they have to stand before God and give account for how you lived out the Word of God. Be bold, stand firm and remember the one who has your back is greater than this world.
And the next time someone points out the Christian words or witness of a celebrity ask them how they are living out their faith in their community first, reaching people for the Gospel through loving God, loving people and making Disciples. Ask them how they are living out the Great Commission and how that celebrity’s faith may inspire them to live out more boldly the new life in Christ. IF we continue to be afraid to encourage our congregations to live out the Gospel, we will continue this trajectory we are on, and its not good.
To the lay person, please recognize that Jesus words do not just apply to your pastor or the Christian celebrity, but also to you. That you are going to be held accountable for what you did with what you did with the Word of God and how you treated one another, and those God has placed as under shepherds to lead you. Outsourcing your witness will lead to your destruction, not salvation, and if you do not believe me, read the book of Matthew. It would also be prudent for you to start questioning whom you are following instead of swearing undying loyalty to someone who contradicts the bible you claim as the source of your reasoning. Start reading the bible, the whole bible, and do what you can to learn about the bible and the world it was written into. Does that change how we apply it in the modern context? Well, it just might, but that is okay.
Now may the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob embolden you to live out His Holy Word in word and deed with humility and gratitude for that awesome work that was done in Christ.
\Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife Rachel and daughter Erin in Buffalo Center Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center.