Writing early in 2012, Skye Jethani sought to account for the rise of celebrity pastors and described what he termed the Evangelical Industrial Complex. His thesis rings true, and explains why the billion-dollar financial imperative faced by ‘Christian’ publishers leads to a self-perpetuating cycle where they promote – and then become dependent upon – megachurch pastors and other celebrities whose doctrine is often less than entirely sound. This behaviour is readily understandable from a business perspective, but is utterly tragic and reprehensible when one considers that souls are at stake.
Jethani’s full article is well worth reading, but here is its central argument:
So, what does Eisenhower and the military have to do with celebrity pastors? Well, just as America’s militarism for the last half century is partially the result of systemic economic forces, so is the rise of the present clergy celebrity-class. There is an evangelical industrial complex that helps create, and then relies upon, the existence of celebrity leaders. Have you ever wondered why you don’t see pastors from small or medium sized churches on the main stage at big conferences? Or why most of the best-selling Christian authors are megachurch leaders?
Here’s one possibility (the one people like to believe): The most godly, intelligent, and gifted leaders naturally attract large followings, so they naturally are going to have large churches, and their ideas are so great and their writing so sharp that publishers pick their book proposals, and the books strike a nerve with so many people that they naturally become best-sellers, and these leaders are therefore the obvious choice to speak at the biggest conferences. As a result they find themselves quite naturally becoming popular, even rising to celebrity status.
Is this possible? Yes. Does it happen? Sometimes. Is it the norm? I don’t think so.
Here’s the other possibility (one I’ve seen from the inside): Through any number of methods–powerful gifting, shrewd marketing, dumb luck–a pastor leads a congregation to megachurch status. Publishers eager for a guaranteed sales [will] offer the megachurch pastor a book deal knowing that if only a third of the pastor’s own congregation buys a copy, it’s still a profitable deal. The book is published on the basis of the leader’s market platform, not necessarily the strength of his ideas or the book’s quality. Sometimes the pastor will actually write the book, and other times a ghost writer hired by the publisher will do the hard work of transforming his sermon notes into 180 pages with something resembling a coherent idea.
Wanting to maximize the return on their investment, the publisher will then promote the pastor at the publisher-sponsored ministry conference or other events. As a result of the pastor’s own megachurch customer base and the publisher’s conference platform, the book becomes a best-seller. Or if that doesn’t work, sometimes sugar daddies purchase thousands of copies of the book to literally buy the pastor onto the best-seller’s list where the perception of popularity results in more sales. (Yes, it happens. Not a lot, but it does happen.)
This market-driven cycle of megachurches, conferences, and publishers results in an echo chamber where the same voices, espousing the same values, create an atmosphere where ministry success becomes equated with audience aggregation.
Photo credit: LifeWay Building, Dennis.