The Danger of Christian Celebrity

canstockphoto0776902The world doesn’t need more Christian celebrities.  Neither does the church.

I have been back in the USA for over a year now.  After living in South Asia and Africa for almost 10 years collectively, I’m noticing things I probably didn’t before. I’m older, not nearly as starry-eyed and have had opportunity to see the beautiful and the broken in so many places as I have traveled.

There is a trend in some parts of our Western Christianity that is dangerous and counter-productive, especially as it has recently been amplified by social media’s explosion.  It mirrors the “cult of celebrity” in popular culture where twitter feeds dictate reality and reality TV is anything but real.

Let me preface what I am about to say by saying there have always been leaders who were well known in their day within the Church and recognized by history as influential. I am not talking about being well known in and of itself.

In the last few years as the selfie has become a social media staple, it seems the goal has shifted even in ministry to becoming well-known, having a more powerful platform, a bigger ministry, a wider-reaching Facebook presence, a broader personal branding empire… for Jesus sake of course. #allforhim {I couldn’t resist.}

History’s “famous” leaders (and many of today’s) became known simply as a by-product of their fixed gazes following the only Famous One and paying unimaginably high prices to do so.  Being “well-known” was never the goal.  Being known well by Him was.

I’ve been hearing a subtle shift (and sometimes not-so-subtle) in some emerging leaders away from sacrifice and servanthood to savvy staging and success, from empathy to empire, from celebration to celebrity.  “I want to be famous for Jesus so I can influence many.”

Celebrity {not to be confused with having a broad influence as a leader} has no place in the church. Period.  It is dangerous and subversive to the Gospel itself. Celebrity puts leaders on pedestals (sometimes not even of their own making) and then crucifies them when they fall off or fail to meet the image others have created for them.  Celebrity creates unreachable “guru-status” with special inside knowledge or gifting and by default makes that gifting seem unattainable to the masses.

Jesus Himself rejected man’s pedestals and crowns instead choosing a cross.

The Gospel is a celebration of His strength in our weakness, His faithfulness in our failures, His beauty in our brokenness and His victory in places of our defeat.

Are we raising up a generation truly hungry for Jesus even if He takes them to a place of utter obscurity where they never see a stage or receive a speaking invitation?  If they never become a “revivalist” or are never recognized as an apostle?  If they never sign a book deal or garner 1000 fans on Facebook?  Where the ultimate goal is to hear His well-done when the race is finished.

We create the benchmark of success for the next generation by what we celebrate in our own.  That is why “Christian celebrity” is possibly one of the greatest dangers to the future of the western Church.

Let’s begin to intentionally cultivate celebration and not celebrity, where Jesus is celebrated in each of our lives whether we are known throughout continents or simply to a few immediate friends.  Where we celebrate the truth that everything He paid for on the cross is available to every single person who believes and that there are no glass ceilings in God’s Kingdom. 

The church that lives out this kind of celebration becomes dangerous to darkness and unstoppable in His love that never fails.

My Prayer for the Next Generation (& My Own)

IMG_0061I sit in the hush of the early morning stillness.  Something about that time when the world is still sleeping that makes it easier to hear clearly.

When I hit publish a day ago for my last post I had no idea the momentum those few paragraphs would release.  I climbed into bed, happy to have shared what God put on my heart.  I woke up this morning, brewed my coffee and checked in online only to almost spill my coffee and fall out of my seat.  Surely the numbers weren’t correct.  I refreshed the page and they had only increased. What?!?

Obviously Holy Spirit knows what He is doing and that particular musing was a word in season for many of you.  I am incredibly humbled to see Him encourage you through this heart of mine splashed on a page.  My life feels so incredibly ordinary now that I am living back in the my childhood hometown.  And… I am enjoying ordinary a lot.

When I was writing what is now the most read post ever on my blog about the perils of Christian celebrity, I began to think about what my prayer is for this generation of emerging leaders in the church.

I am more convinced than ever that the present day church is in need of another counter-cultural movement birthed in the desert places.   I have walked with the desert fathers of old, the early church saints and the Celtic believers through their writings and they have shaped my view of desert places and seasons.  Deserts, to me, are not places of rocky barrenness but of raw beauty.

For a leader to be trustworthy, mature and prepared to lead in the Body of Christ, he or she must be well acquainted with the desert.

The Desert fathers and mothers were radical contemplatives who fled the Constantinean reforms of 313 AD that imposed a professional political empire on the church.  They instead embraced a life of prayer in the desert as a counter-cultural stance against the power structures taking over the fabric of their faith.

They embraced an ebb and flow of solitude and community bringing them into the depths of intimacy with the Father and authentic relationship with one another. Some of them took asceticism a little to seriously and I am certainly not advocating that.  For most it was not about self-abasement, it was about finding sanity and freedom from a politicized church system run a muck.

There is a story about a younger desert monk seeking out an older monk to list all of his spiritual disciplines. The younger monk asked the elder “What else can I do?”  The older monk reportedly lifted his hands towards heaven and his fingers became like lamps of fire.  He replied, “If you will, you can become all flame.

Desert journeys are truly about that.  About becoming all flame. And that is my prayer for the next generation as well as my own.  May we become all flame in Him.

Deserts are places of burning bushes and miracles of provision. They are precious intimate seasons where reformers are shaped and nations are birthed. They are the places we are wooed and spoken tenderly to, given back our vineyards, where we lay our head upon the rock and meet with angels.  Deserts are where the valley of Achor becomes a door of Hope.  They are the places we come up out of leaning on Him Who is the Lover of our souls.

Yes there are times God seems a bit far, His hand a bit slow for our liking.  But He really isn’t… ever far or slow.

It is easy to misinterpret God changing the way He interacts with us as a withdrawal of relationship or an absence. When all it is an invitation to seek a whole new level of intimacy beyond anything we have experienced thus far.

Deserts are the incredible places where God is not at all absent, He is very present. He is simply presenting Himself to our awareness differently.

So sweet friend, may you run to the desert knowing burning bushes of commissioning, deep wells of compassion and holy encounters where you are named and you meet God face to face are waiting for you there.

It is in this place true reformers are being shaped to prepare the way of the Lord.

This is my prayer:

P.S. The rest of this coming week are finals week in grad school so I am going to be a busy beaver finishing all my assignments.  So if I am scarce in these parts that’s why.  You are so loved and appreciated!

Why the Church Needs Role Models Not Rock Stars

bysoar1{What Ephesians 4:11-16 Is Really All About}

Apostle. Prophet. Evangelist. Pastor. Teacher.  I have seen all of these titles on business cards through the years.  I have even seen all of them on one business card at the same time along with psalmist and bishop added for good measure.  Just covering the bases I’m sure, in extremely small print.

I’ve been at events where folks have come up to me with their invisible clipboard and checklist.  The exchange usually goes something like this:

“So, what are you?”  {Expectant pause.}
{Urrr, what ever happened to “Hi, what’s your name, how are you doing? I wonder silently while smiling and trying not to look confused.}
“Well, I’m in love. What are you?” {I squelch the incredible urge to throw 4’9″, single, female and grad student into my answer as well.}
“No no, what ministry do you have?” comes the reply.
“The ministry of showing up, and you?”
At which point I have either failed the invisible checklist challenge or become sufficiently interesting to have a real conversation with.

I have repeatedly told the people I’m privileged to run with, mentor and serve, “The only reason I want to raise my ceiling is to raise your floor.”   I’m not after a bigger house.  My art studio, office and living quarters nestle cozily in a little over 700 square feet.  Small is the new big. Less to clean.  Less to deal with.  More time for what matters.  I’m not after a bigger ministry organization or a more impressive anything.  I have nothing to prove. Period.  I simply want to love well and be faithful.  What happens beyond that is entirely in Jesus’ hands.

The church doesn’t need more rock stars.  We need real, raw role models of authenticity, humility, love and grace.

Can I be just plain honest?  When I see “apostle” or “prophet” on a business card, I can’t help but think we have got it all turned around and upside down. (I do know some of the titles are cultural depending on what church stream is represented.  But isn’t it time we lined the “culture” of the church up with His Kingdom?)

I believe wholeheartedly in the apostolic and the prophetic.  But they are functional job descriptions, not badges of honor, sources of identity or official ministry titles.

The apostolic and prophetic are foundation laying functions in the Body. Their job descriptions are not to be at the top leading the charge but at the bottom: in the muck, digging deep for the foundation posts only to be stepped on, walked over, unseen, hidden and be the one people build on top of.  Ahem, any takers?

Like all of the ministries mentioned in Ephesian 4, their calling is not to have a huge ministry functioning in the gift of ______ themselves but to take all God has given them and become a key that unlocks the Body of Christ around them to move in these ways.

I once had a chat with some friends about all this.  The question came up was it wrong to “honor” the “prophet”  or the “apostle” or the “______” for his or her gift and call him by the title he or she desires.  My response. “Yes. It sure is.”

“But you, do not be called “ Rabbi ’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ. But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.” -Jesus in Mt 23:8-11 NKJV

Rabbi was not used only for clergy, it could also be translated as an “official title of honor” or “master” and  Jesus clearly said, “Don’t go there.”

We don’t honor people because of what they can do for us, we honor them because as a person created in God’s image and dearly loved by Him they are worthy of honor.  We appreciate their talents and gifts.  But a spiritual gift is a gift of grace not a merit badge of performance.

What impresses me is not someone’s gift.  What impresses me is their character.  The very real truth is great gifts can take you places immature and untransformed character can’t sustain you in. Yes, let’s pursue the all Jesus has for us in the realm of gifting, but let’s pursue intimacy and transformation in Him 100x more.

The church has ever only needed one true rock star. And His name is Jesus.  He is the Rock, the bright Morning Star.  My heart burns for a company of people so in love with Him, they will grow into His fullness and release those around them to do the same.

How We See Success In the Kingdom

lens-1webI’m about to do something brave.  I mean really brave.  At least for a conflict-averse, fairly-extreme introvert who loves to be nestled in her studio illustrating in watercolor or working on a list of writing projects, it feels really brave.

When Up for Debate on Moody radio contacted me some time ago and asked me to be a part of a show discussing whether or not it is OK for pastors to be celebrities, the name of the program was enough for me to want to say no.  I just do not do debate.  Debate is for politicians and apologists, of which I am neither. I explained this.  They still wanted me on and I might just be the most reluctant radio guest they have ever had.  Still.

The program is tomorrow and I am sorting my thoughts.  So I thought we could sort them together, you and I.  My counterpart in the conversation has a speaker’s bureau and reportedly will be sharing the point of view that a large platform is fine because it is simply a place of influence.  I have absolutely no argument with that.  At all. *Sigh*  It might be a less than thrilling debate.

To me platform size is irrelevant. Biblically and historically, every generation has had its well-known leaders and voices, some of which that are still heard today.  Of course God raises up leaders to carry His heart and become the message they are called to bring and in so doing reach and influence many.

The problem isn’t having a platform.  The problem comes when that platform becomes our focus and when its size becomes the defining measure of our success.  A platform that comes as the by-product of a love-based, faithful journey lived focused on Jesus is a beautiful thing.  But in our social media savvy, hyper-connected world it is possible for someone to wind up virtually overnight with a massive platform he/she doesn’t have the wisdom,  maturity or even calling to steward.  Gifts can take you where character can’t keep you.

There is a celebrity subculture that has crept in at the edges in many places in the Church that is deeply concerning.  Here leaders often find themselves balancing on pedestals {in many cases not of their own making} instead of standing on platforms.  And that is a very perilous place.  Platforms are places of influence.  Pedestals are places of idolatry.

Anyone who knows me, knows I’m a certified green room escape artist.  Green rooms can be wonderful places to regroup. But when the business cards start swapping and the elbows rubbing, I duck and run.  I want to hang out with the folks I came to serve.  To be honest, often the most fruitful times of ministry happen over cups of coffee far away from the podium and stage.

The celebrity mentality and the oft ensuing dance of pedestals can cripple the Church.  To the degree we feel it necessary to run after our 5 or 10 favorite speakers or the next major event in order to find what we need in the Kingdom, we are in danger of missing the point.  Can we receive valuable input from speakers and events and truly encounter God?  Absolutely.  But if we make the primary context of meeting Him so-&-so’s ministry or the next conference we can attend, we risk missing the daily invitation to forge our own history with God.

I am grateful for every person, event and place that have played parts in my growth deeper in Jesus. But I am who I am not because a famous speaker prayed for me in a ministry line or because of an event I attended.  I am who I am in Jesus because of what He has done in my life in the hidden seasons and the secret places of meeting Him, as well as the authentic relationships and the community of faith that surround my life and journey.

There is a crucial difference between fame that’s a by-product of following Jesus and fame that comes from pursuing it as our focal point.  We create the benchmark of success for the next generation by what we celebrate in our own.  The goal isn’t to be well known, build a larger social media empire or climb the religious corporate ladder but rather scandalous abandoned love poured out on the feet of Jesus. He is our focus and the rest is simply the overflow of a growing relationship with Him.

What we understand the definition of ministry success to be in this upside down inside out Kingdom becomes the lens that colors our journey.

Would love to hear how you define ministry success over on my Facebook page.   Just reply to this post on my Facebook page {so we all can find you in the conversation}.  See you there!

Which Way the Kingdom?

kingdom-1
Castle Crossing- Wales

Have you ever noticed that unless we very intentionally do things differently, the gravity of the familiar tends to cause change to slide backwards into same?

Yes.  That.  That moment when all you are doing is looking outwardly incredibly successful, but there is this inexplicable pull in the spirit away from what is usually deemed as success.  Bigger is always the proof of better, right?  Multiplying as fast as we can, adding more warm bodies to our meetings, packing out the space and then building a bigger one to do it all over again.  This is the hallmark of successful ministry, right?

Not always.

I just finished spending an hour with some people with very big hearts on air over at Moody radio.  {Praying friends, THANK you!  I feel like I am the one who got most encouraged.}

Now please hear me.  I am all for growth.  It is simply how we sometimes measure growth and success that can obscure the real goal of the Gospel. What if the growth God is looking for is deeper instead of broader?  What if success means spending our lives to pour into a small number of people strategic to heaven?

The greatest successes in the Kingdom cannot be measured by externals.  Real success can only be measured in faithfulness to Jesus and obedience that is the overflow of a heart in love with Him.  I for one want to make sure I am successful at the right things.

If we measured Jesus’ ministry by the standards often levied on ministry success in modern day America, He would have been an utter failure from day one. 

  • Jesus preached to multitudes {Score.}.
  • But then went into hiding. {Fail.}
  • Performed miracles {Score again.}
  • Then took His disciples away from crowds to mentor them. {Seriously. Jesus hello, how about some evangelism here?}
  • Thousands of the hungry found Him anyway and He told His disciples to make a meal happen. {Ok feeding the hungry, score again.}
  • Multitudes fed supernaturally. {Double score.}
  • But just as they were about to promote Him as king where He could have some real power to make things happen, in the middle of international PR opportunities, Jesus disappears.  Again. {Epic fail. Really?  You are at the height of ministry success and Jesus You short-circuit it intentionally?  Really?}

Jesus spent His entire earthy ministry doing the exact opposite of what many of us would consider the successful move.  Turn down influential platforms, run away from publicity, choose to focus on a rag tag group of ruffians who didn’t make the cut.  The unwanted, the passed over, the despised, the wholly imperfect. 

He picked them to pour into and through them He changed the world.

My life has had many twists and turns I didn’t expect in the last 2 years.  Some of those twists threatened to twist my very soul and wring from it dreams and promises and the hope that comes from them.  But I can say today, I am grateful.  Grateful for the twisting and the turning because I would not be where I am, who I am without it.

All things friends means ALL things.  God works ALL things for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.  Sometimes our deepest calling is only realized after the world as we have known it falls apart.

A while ago some friends and I started a season of open meetings, worship and teaching.  The meetings grew exponentially overnight and everything screamed success.  It even looked a little like a church being planted. The only problem with that was I had no peace about growing in that direction. The bigger things grew, the more unsettled my spirit became.  So at our peak of 60-80 crammed in a home, we disbanded.  What God was doing in that setting was finished.  To continue would be building our kingdoms instead of His.  At the height of success, we followed Jesus and walked away.

It is an upside down Kingdom Jesus has given us.  Where true heights of influence can only be born from obscurity.  Where low is high and loss is gain and everything is opposite to the way we think it can and should happen. 

When we are cursed, we bless.  When what we hold dearest is stripped away, we offer more.  When others speak against us, we don’t return the favor.

We live in the light of His gaze for an Audience of One.

Please always remember: You dear one are loved.  You are significant.  Your life lived in love-based obedience to Jesus can change the world. One yes to Him can make history without trying.