Rethink Cultural Influence
Why Do Evangelicals Love Celebrity Christians?
by Scot McKnight
What empowers this craze for the celebrity conversion story is evangelicalism’s widespread conviction of embattlement (read Christian Smith’s fine book American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving, though he may now think it’s not thriving so much). Many evangelicals sense their loss of status, power, and influence in culture; most now will admit numbers are shrinking. These conversion stories show them they’ve still got the starch. Which means these conversion stories function as an important counter-narrative in the culture wars story. Which can then lead to exaggerations of persecution and embattlement in order to highlight the actual power of the evangelical gospel to reach into the heights of status.
Celebrity conversions permit evangelicals to stand on the platform with the “strongmen” of our culture. Politics, arts, entertainment, mass media – her words for the locations from which these celebrities are drawn.
If the whole Kimye kingdom were converted to Christianity, Christians would have a foothold of power in a hostile world.
Of course, the hope is crushed when the story is told that Kimye’s marriage falls apart.
Celebrity conversions then legitimate the Christian faith to many evangelicals. It makes us feel good about ourselves. It makes us feel we are right and that God is at work among us and that we can attract those in the heights of social status. It makes us feel we may regain our strength or we are on a march toward greatness again.
Yet, there is a tension for most: evangelicals are not “of the world” but “in the world.” Celebrities in many ways manifest the opposite of what Christianity seeks to be — not fame, but cross; not glory, but rejection. So these “brand ambassadors” show we can be both “separate and respected.” The elevation of celebrity conversions degrades the Christian message because their appeal is glory, not cross.
What does this attraction to celebrity conversions tell us about evangelicalism?
So hipster cool churches “use luxury clothing, well-produced music, and celebrity friends to attract millennials and Gen Zers who’d otherwise avoid traditional church.” The attractional power of such church models confirms the faith of many, which is why so many glom onto megachurches – those numbers confirm their faith. A megachurch swallowing up local small churches does not add numbers to the church, but it does put them all in one space.
Here's the tension: most celebrity Christians don’t end up satisfying evangelicals. They are often seen “representing the faith poorly.” Kanye West, Bob Dylan, Jonas Brothers … all have led to disappointments. A platformed disappointment at that.
Who has carried on for the long haul?
She asks, “What makes Christians think their faith is about being cool?”
Celebrity conversions do not lead to “cultural credibility.”