Last night, Rich and DawnCheré Wilkerson's new television show, Rich in Faith, debuted on the Oxygen network. They're a good-looking couple who work at a church in Miami, and Rich happens to be the pastor who married Kim Kardashian and Kanye West a couple of years ago.
There have been a couple of profiles of Wilkerson in the weeks leading up to the show's debut, and today, this article at RELEVANT Magazine praised Wilkerson, proclaiming in its headline that "We Need More 'Christian Celebrities.'"
This isn't about the Wilkersons, who, although I disagree with their reasoning behind making their show, I think may also be totally lovely people. And there is some good stuff in the RELEVANT article. But it is entirely wrong to suggest that we need more "Christian celebrities," and putting that phrase in quotes doesn't get you off the hook.
Celebrity culture is one of the worst things to happen to the church. We lionize the people who take the stage--pastors and worship leaders--at the expense and detriment of those who serve in the church in unseen ways. "The world needs Christians who are willing to be influencers in all different areas of our culture," Thomas Christianson wrote at RELEVANT, and "this means we need 'celebrities' who are also Christians, not just 'celebrities' in church spheres." But we've had "celebrities" who are also Christians since "celebrity" was a concept, and I'm not sure where that has gotten us. Christians should absolutely be involved in creating the culture we inhabit and imbibe, but when we become showy about it, nonbelievers get suspicious and angry. Most people aren't tuning into the Wilkersons' show to watch ordinary human beings grow closer to God--that would make for boring television. They're watching in hopes that Kim or Kanye will show up, or to see what a cool pastor looks like, or to watch an attractive couple in their marriage. Can something good come of that? Sure! As a friend of mine said, "Our Father has no shame." God can use anything for our good. But is there wisdom in suggesting we need more Christian celebrities? I'm not convinced.
I also want to talk about something the article and our culture assumes is a virtue, and that is the concept of influence. "Leaders need access in order to gain influence," Christianson wrote, "because you can't influence people who aren't paying attention to you." True enough. But why do we need to influence people? Why can't we just befriend people? When we see people, celebrities or otherwise, as souls to influence, we misrepresent their dignity to ourselves and to God. This is why terms like "influencer" or "thought leader" to describe people are so rightly derided: They reduce the gospel to a bullet-pointed message and people to a following. Have a lot of followers on Twitter? A big church? Pictures with your celebrity friends on Instagram? All of those are only fodder for the platform celebrity Christians use to exercise their influence. Where is the humility? Where is the relationship?
The RELEVANT article closes by encouraging Christians to "expand your influence." That in itself isn't a bad thing, but it's not something I ever read Jesus talking about. Serving the poor, caring for children, making disciples, bringing the Kingdom of God--those things require sacrifice and work and self-awareness. Influence is only ever tangential to being a Christian; it is never the main thing. And as long as that's true, we do not need Christian celebrities. We need only Christ.