Will you be my groupy?

I’m sad. I don’t have any groupies. Not even one. No one wears my “Marc Cortez” t-shirts, even though the logos are pretty cool. And I still have several boxes of Marc Cortez bobble-head dolls in my office. It’s distressing. (Though I have to admit that the dolls are a tad creepy when they all start nodding in unison.)

I’d even settle for some flunkies. Or, better yet, minions! Just think what I could do with a minion or two.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve heard quite a few criticisms of how our “celebrity” culture has infected the church. The concern seems to be that “fame” is a virus, or maybe a parasite. And, Christian leaders who seem to be pursuing fame are necessarily headed down a fatal path.

You can’t have a humble celebrity.

But, is that really the case? What about people like John Stott or Billy Graham? They certainly attained a level of stature that most would associate with being a “celebrity.” At least, no one can deny their fame. And, they weathered the storm reasonably well.

Now, I’ve heard some argue that the problem isn’t necessarily with being famous but with pursuing fame. If you’re highlighting yourself and intentionally increasing your own visibility, then you’ve fallen prey to celebrity-ism.

But, that doesn’t seem quite right either. If you have a cause worth agitating for, an agenda worth promoting, or a soapbox worth standing on, shouldn’t you seek to maximize your opportunities? And, if this means branding, marketing, and (heaven forbid) networking, shouldn’t you do precisely that? To do otherwise seems irresponsible.

In a fame-driven culture, can fame itself be used as a tool for getting your message out? Or, more accurately, can it be used without destroying the one who uses it?

I wonder at times whether our critique of “celebrities” stems from the fact that we aren’t famous. Resting comfortably in obscurity, it’s easy to throw darts at the famous faces. It may even make us feel better to argue that obscurity is actually a better, holier, and more responsible place to be anyway.

None of this is to dismiss the significant problems and challenges of living in a fame-driven culture. We’ve seen too many celebrity Christians fall to ignore the real dangers. If fame is a tool, it’s a dangerous one.

But, so is my lawnmower. And I still use it.

If I had to pick, I’d say that the problem isn’t necessarily with being a celebrity, but with being a groupy. Once you’ve become someone’s groupy, you’re much more likely to follow along with whatever they say/do, often defending them against all criticism, despite how reasonable such criticism might sometimes be. But, is that their fault? Maybe we should stop critiquing celebrity-ism and pay more attention to groupy-ism.

Upon further reflection, I don’t think I want any groupies.

Does anyone want to be my sidekick?

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on August 22, 2011, in Culture, Leadership. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. sure, what does it pay? lol

    • I’m pretty sure that you’re not supposed to pay groupies. It’s like paying for Twitter followers. You can probably get away with it for a while. But sooner or later people are going to find out, and then you just look stupid.

  2. You might want to check out the definitions of groupy and groupie if you haven’t already done so.

    • It has a broader meaning that just the typical idea of someone (usually a young girl) who follows (among other things) a celebrity. I’m going with the idea of anyone who is an “enthusiastic or uncritical follower” (free dictionary).

  3. OK, I’ll bite. It’s monday morning, so I’m grumpy and still emerging from my post-preaching fog, so basically this will be incoherent (and to those playing the home game, I consider Marc a good friend who has partnered with me in ministry–I’m not interested in starting a fight with any incendiary comments I throw out below like so many hand grenades).

    Also, to Paul’s point, maybe you should give Almost Famous another viewing and then ask yourself if you really want Kate Hudson following you around (though I guess the call at the end for a sidekick means you’d be more comfortable with Patrick Fugit following you around, in which case, more power to you).

    I’ll try my best not to name names here, but if you want to exchange Celebrity Pastor Trading Cards later, I’ll bring some bubble gum and you can bring some sodas. In the meantime, please allow me some disorganized, rambling thoughts and questions:

    1. appealing to John Stott strikes me as an exception proving the rule. that’s it for point #1.

    2.I appreciate your distinction between being famous and seeking celebrity-ism, however…

    ‘If you’re highlighting yourself and intentionally increasing your own visibility, then you’ve fallen prey to celebrity-ism.

    But, that doesn’t seem quite right either.’

    Yes, I have intentionally cut that quote short, but only to draw attention to the first part. ‘Celebrity pastors’ who intentionally highlight themselves are exactly the problem. In my mind, this isn’t simply a lack of humility, or dangerous, it’s to some degree anti-Christian (too much?). These men (women? humans?) have been called to be ambassadors of the gospel, a message that quite frankly seems to shatter all our preconceived notions of the use of power, even the power of fame and marketing, and definitely shatters our selfish machinations.

    I fail to see how ‘highlighting yourself’ can be excused as a legitimate, albeit dangerous tool to get the gospel message across. I could say much more, but feel free to make this a choose-your-own-adventure by filling in whatever NT proof-texts make sense here.

    3. I completely agree that groupy-ism is a huge problem! My question in return is, how are these groupy sheep to know this if their celebrity shepherds don’t say something? I mean, if we’re going to call these people pastors and shepherds, shouldn’t we expect that they be more mature than their followers? Groupy-ism has been a problem for a while, a long while. An equally destructive problem though, is that celebrity pastors intent on highlighting themselves (whatever their motives) get caught up using methods that encourage groupy-ism. I appreciate your critique on the followers, but I don’t think it’s that simple. In my mind, this is more of a chicken/egg situation.

    I honestly can’t even decide which parts of 1 Corinthians 1 to quote from, so I’ll just include this:

    For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
    “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
    and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
    Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
    For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written,

    “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

    Or, ya know, their twitter followers.

    • There’s nothing wrong with starting a good fight. Especially on Monday morning!

      I’m sympathetic to both your comments and concerns. I’ve always been deeply suspicious (and critical) of celebrity culture for a long time. To some extent, this post was an attempt to push back on my own presuppositions. Nonetheless, let me see if I can develop my thoughts a bit further in response.

      1. How do you know Stott is the exception? I think many of us (myself included!) have a tendency to assume the worst about those who are celebrities. Granted, we have some cause since we often hear the worst. But we also know that what we hear only represents a small slice of reality. So, why assume that it represents the whole. Why not assume instead that many “celebrity” pastors are actually sincere individuals doing their best with the task they’ve been given?

      2. It all depends on what you mean by “highlight yourself.” Couldn’t you make an argument for Paul as a prime example? He wrote lots of books and traveled around the world speaking at lots of church conferences (granted, they didn’t call them that and they were smaller). How is that any different than what people are doing today? Of course, you could say that he was highlighting the Gospel and not himself. But from the outside, does it look any different? Why assume that someone today isn’t doing the same thing: maximizing God-given opportunities to spread the Gospel as widely possible. Even if that means becoming famous along the way, which Paul undoubtedly did.

      3. Your concerns here are valid and should absolutely be taken into account. But, your argument just points out what can happen when someone uses their influence immaturely. It doesn’t say anything about whether this is a necessary result of what we’re talking about. Unquestionably, many Christian leaders have used their celebrity status unwisely, and even sinfully. That’s a good argument for being extremely careful. But it’s not an argument for avoiding it altogether. Many Christian leaders have also abused their authority in unwise and ungodly ways. Should we do away with authority?

      I think you’ve got the wrong part of 1 Cor here. I’m not talking at all about someone who waters down the Gospel to make it palatable to the world so they can become celebrities among non-Christians. So, it’s hard to see how this applies. 1 Cor 1:10-17 would seem more applicable. But again, that points out the problems that can arise, without rejecting what I’m talking about. Paul doesn’t tell Chloe, Apollos, or Cephas to stop what they’re doing. He just reminds us all of the dangers of groupy-ism.

      “Boast in the Lord.” Amen. I assume you don’t think I’m suggesting that Christian leaders should boast in themselves. But, once again, why assume that these people are boasting in themselves just because they’re famous? Augustine was famous and “promoted” himself throughout the ancient world (letters, books, speaking engagements, etc.). Was he just boasting in himself? Or was he trying to use his “celebrity” status as faithfully as he knew how?

  4. I’m coming dangerously close to breaking some of my rules of engagement:

    1. no more than 2 or three responses and/or counter responses of online conversation can be had. When more are required, those involved must meet face to face over a pitcher of beer for further conversation.

    2. never argue with someone smarter than you (unless they’re wrong, hence my ability to continue here).

    That said, I think we’re talking about two different types of people and really, two different things, though they are intersecting circles with some overlap.

    1. Sure, I’m a cynic (AND sarcastic, it’s a miracle I’m still married). I understand your desire to push back on sweeping condemnations of blurry, undefined generalities and stereotypes. Despite my cynicism, mistrust of ‘the man’, and cavalier attitude toward statistics, I still hold, stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason. In other words, people are outraged at ‘celebrity pastors’ for at least a kernel of truth.

    My point (or at least my contention, maybe I never made this explicit), is that methods matter. We teach our people, not just by what we say, but how we say it. In my mind, celebrity pastors are simply a link in the chain of entertainment-as-worship (notice my concern is more about celebrity-ism on Sunday morning than it is on a book tour).

    I had an opportunity to listen to Nicholos Wolterstorff and Greg Thompson on some of these issues a few months back (unfortunately I can’t find the audio online anywhere), but our architecture, lighting, use of media, all of these thing shape our people. So when I see celebrity pastors doing things like this (http://www.theelephantroom.com/, http://www.elevationchurch.org/video/documentary) I sort of want to puke a little. I know I said I wouldn’t name names, but this is what I’m talking about. This sort of posturing is far different in my mind from NT Wright, or Tim Keller, John Stott, Greg Thompson, etc. These men are all well known, all published, and all going around speaking at conferences. But they’re not posturing, and they’re not acting like rockstars on Sunday mornings.

    So what makes the difference? Is it just taste? I don’t think so, but as Justice Stewart said, I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.

    2. What I’ve said above is my attempt (way to brief to actually be compelling, I realize) to define wrong ways of ‘highlighting yourself’. So yes, it does look different. It looks different even when comparing contemporaries. If we want to throw Paul into the mix, I’ll say it looks unbelievable different. To quote Eminem, Paul was ‘chewed up, and spit out, and booed off stage.’ Forgive me if I fail to see the connection between Paul’s ‘fame’ and the behavior and methods of guys like those in the Elephant Room.

    3. I know better than to argue with an exegete, but I protest, I have exactly the right section of 1 Cor 1. Paul is responding to groupy-ism by saying, this isn’t about me. Not only is it not about me, but look at the methods I choose to use to convey this message: it’s weakness and insanity to the outside world. Paul can respond in good conscience to the groupies in Corinth by virtue of the fact that he wasn’t running around pretending to be a rock star. This, to me, is the key difference: we’ll always have groupies, but some ‘celebrity pastors’ will be able to say, I always pointed people to Jesus not just with what I said, but how I said it and how our church set up our worship service, and others won’t.

    If you want to define ‘highlighting yourself’ as publishing books, or being a sought after speaker and using those books and speaking engagements to talk about Jesus, I guess that’s ok. But in a context of rockstar wannabe pastors, I find that definition a little to off to the side.

    The medium is the message. This is my point, and I think at least tangentially part of Paul’s point in 1 Cor 1.

    So, can we agree that celebrity-ism isn’t necessarily bad? Sure. Who cares? The point is that there actually are ‘rockstar pastors’ out there who are convoluting the message of the gospel by using a medium that at least confuses, if not contradicts that message. Those guys need to be critiqued and called on it (and then forgiven and reconciled), not given a way out.

  5. meh. everything I said above is incoherent dribble. I should never have broken rule #1. I’m able to think much clearer with beer in my system.

  6. You’re fine. I’m with you on generally trying to keep blog interactions shorter, but sometimes rules must be broken. Though I should apologize for causing you to stumble! And, I’ve enjoyed reflecting on this more. Especially since my own argument is a rather different way of thinking for me.

    It really sounds like we’re in general agreement on the negative side of celebrity-ism. The kind of “posturing” and “acting like rockstars” is what I’ve always had in mind when I thought about things like fame and self-promotion in Christian ministry. So, I’ve always been incredibly turned off by it. And, I completely agree that our message gets shaped by the means through which we communicate (though I reject the reductionistic idea that “the medium is the message” – a reductionism that I don’t think is what McLuhan had in mind – but that doesn’t change the fact that the two are closely connected) That’s actually my biggest fear in all of this. Even if there’s a form of self-promotion that is less negative than the kind your describing, what unavoidable consequences might it have for the message? But, that’s a question we should be asking of any attempt to communicate the Gospel. Not just this one.

    So, we agree on this negative form of self-promotion, but what I’ve been noodling with in this post is whether there’s a different kind of “self-promotion,” a kind that is legitimately oriented toward something greater and less self-aggrandizing than what you’re describing. But, it is still self-promotion. Just look at both Tim Keller and N.T. Wright (two of your examples). You can’t tell me that they’re not promoting themselves. (Or, someone is doing it for them, which amounts to the same thing.) Their faces are everywhere. If that’s not “celebrity” then I don’t know what is. Now, if you want to reserve the term “celebrity” for the Gaga-esque self-hype that you find so (legitimately) repulsive, fine. But let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that the other kind doesn’t involve some form of self-promotion. But, is that necessarily wrong?

    And, I see where you’re going with 1 Cor now. But, my question phrased differently is whether there’s a kind of self-promotion that doesn’t fall prey to that mentality. And, that doesn’t provide an “out” for people who abuse their celebrity status any more than arguing for a biblical view of authority provides an “out” for abusively authoritarian pastors.

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