“My usefulness was the last idol I was willing to part with,” said Cotton Mather. As true as this was in Mather’s day—who lived over 300 years ago—how much more is it in our own?
On writing on how the gospel should change the church’s celebrity culture, Matthew Sims writes that although there’s always been a culture of celebrity within the church (think the brother who is famous “for his preaching of the gospel” mentioned in 2 Corinthians 8:18), “We’ve flipped it.”
Oftentimes the controversies rise up because it seems many well known Christians are more concerned with their position, power, and authority and less concerned about the integrity of the gospel.
Matthew’s hit the nail on the head on the issue. The other week, I was reading a book that described how, as part of a particular church’s mission, they were attempting to strategically raise the profile of its lead pastor. In other words, to make him a celebrity.
Reading this, honestly, left me feeling a bit like I needed to take a shower. It just felt wrong, in the same way that laughing at Everybody Loves Raymond seems wrong. Not because expanding the reach of the gospel is a bad thing—far from it!—but because the way this ideal was communicated made it seem to be all about the man, not about the Lord.
The reason this rubbed me wrong, I believe, is because it’s contrary to the counterintuitive nature of the gospel. Take, for example, John the Baptist’s view of his own ministry. When John came on the scene as the last of the Old Covenant prophets, he understandably caused a scene. He was telling everyone to repent for the Lord was on his way.
Then Jesus came. And before too long, John’s ministry started to get smaller. And smaller. And smaller still.
People began to ask John, “Aren’t you bothered by this?”
And all he said was:
“He must increase, but I must decrease.”
Let that sink in.
John could have pursued celebrity, but instead he embraced obscurity. Not that this would have been easy, mind you. After all, it feels really good when people are paying attention to you. When people are waiting to hear what you’re going to say next. But the Lord’s glory was more important to John than his own.
John was useful—he prepared the way of the Lord (Matt 3:3). He was effective. But in the end, his most important accomplishment was to “decrease” when the preparation was done.
Which brings us back to Cotton Mather and Christian celebrities. “My usefulness was the last idol I was willing to part with.” Our usefulness is a good thing, to be sure. But if can be a dangerous thing, too. Whether it’s having a New York Times bestseller, having a big church, or even just a widely-read blog—how would you feel if the Lord wanted you to give those things up?
To not preface the next book with “bestselling author” or maybe never write another one again?
To stop having TV screens serve as pastors, and plant autonomous churches instead?
To pull the plug on your social media and only interact with people in your local community?
If that’s what decreasing would require so the Lord’s glory might increase, would you do it? If the integrity of the gospel was at stake, would you set aside your own “usefulness”?
This, again, is why I’ve suggested a key way to fix the problem of celebrity-ism is through community. People who know us help us see our idols for what they are. People who care for us let us know when our usefulness is getting in the way. People who love us remind us that we must decrease so that Jesus might increase.