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Celebrities For Jesus: An Interview with Katelyn Beaty

Editor’s Note:  This interview was originally published by World News Group as part of its “Listening In” podcast.  You can hear the audio version of that interview here.  It is used with permission, and it has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Katelyn Beaty believes that some Christian leaders use their fame and influence in positive ways. But too often, she says, fame and celebrity are cultivated for their own sake, or for the sake of profits and the building of personal empires.

We see this phenomenon most conspicuously with the prosperity Gospel preachers.

But, increasingly, these practices of the Prosperity Gospel have crept into mainstream evangelical ministries.

That’s why Katelyn Beaty believes we should explore the evangelical church’s relationship to celebrity. She explores how fame has reshaped the American church, explains why and how celebrity is woven into the fabric of the evangelical movement, and identifies how fame has misshapen the church.

Katelyn Beaty is an editor at Baker Books, and has written for The New York TimesThe New Yorker, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic. She previously served as print managing editor at Christianity Today.  Her new book is Celebrities For Jesus:  How Personas, Platforms, and Profits are Hurting The Church.

Warren Smith:  I’d like to start off with a baseline question: how do you define “celebrity”?

Katelyn Beaty:  I define “celebrity” as social power without proximity. 

I tried to distinguish between celebrity and fame. There have always been famous people in every time and place.  Usually because of their family name, military accomplishments, creative works.  People with a larger than life imprint. I think that’s fine. 

Sometimes fame comes to you without you seeking it. I tend to think that’s probably the healthiest form of fame. 

Celebrity is cultivated for its own sake.  It tends to focus more on projecting an image, a curated image. It definitely is a modern phenomenon that relies on the tools of mass media. 

Celebrity power can be tempting and also dangerous.  It often isolates people from real relationship, real accountability. There seems to be a kind of distance between the celebrity figure and the rest of us ‘normal’ people. And with that absence of proximity can come all sorts of temptations and abuses of power.

WS:  So celebrity creates an illusion of intimacy, not real intimacy. You also mention early in the book that the right kind of fame arises from a life well lived. In other words, fame that is earned through accomplishments.  You’re not seeking the fame, you’re seeking excellence in what you do, or you’re seeking to live a good life.  

KB:  Modern celebrity both in and outside the church offers the feeling of intimacy. I can listen to a podcast and I am hearing somebody’s voice in my ear.  I’m watching their face on a screen.  I go to Instagram and influencers are showing me photos of their house or their kids or whatever.  

It’s easy for me to forget that, in fact, I’ve never met these people. I’ve never had a sit down conversation with them. But there is something attractive about them, especially in a time of loneliness.

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This feels like intimacy, but it’s not. It’s not based on real relationship.  That’s why fame is healthiest when it’s more about the work than about the person.  That becomes a celebration of helpfulness or excellence or virtue.

The fact that pastors and Christian writers and ministry leaders are famous doesn’t really tell me that much about their motives or how they’re carrying or stewarding that fame. When church leaders go into ministry looking for the spotlight, looking for the attention and the adoration, looking to grow their platform for its own sake, that our alarm bells should go off.  We should ask if there is enough spiritual maturity, groundedness, a desire for proximity and accountability.  As people are heading into the spotlight, can they handle it once they get there?

WS: Gifted young people will rise because of that giftedness. But if their character is not being developed at the same time that their competence is on on view before the world, then that can cause a collapse. 

The shorthand version of that is this:  “competence causes you to rise, character causes you to fall.”  

Given that, Katelyn, I want you to say a few words about how the Christian Industrial Complex or the Evangelical Industrial Complex is uniquely suited to creating these kinds of celebrities. 

By that I mean that not only are we Christians vulnerable to the star-making machinery, but we actually seem to run toward it, or to create our own celebrity machines and keep plugging more and more people into it — with book publishing and podcasts and megachurches. 

Am I wrong in that? I mean, is the evangelical church, in fact, not only not separate from the world, but actually worse than the world in this?

KB: We’re certainly not better. We may be on par with the world. But that’s not saying a lot. 

American evangelicalism is not resisting celebrity dynamics, but feeding on it. There are a few factors why that is.  American evangelicalism tends to simply adopt American notions of success, oriented around growth, and the faster the growth, the better. 

Then there’s profitability.  We see that at the church level.  We see that in publishing, we are just as prone to go after it as kind of secular businesses. I talk about the Christian book publishing industry and the fact that celebrity sells.  Over time, it feels like platform and celebrity reach crowd out other important considerations, such as spiritual maturity, credibility, credentialing, even quality of writing and thought.

So, yeah, I think we’ve borrowed a lot. We’re swimming in American waters. And we haven’t done enough to tease out what is American and what is truly Christian. 

I also think that because we’re Americans, we have a unique history that includes figures like Dwight Moody and Billy Sunday and Billy Graham.  I write about these very gifted, talented, charismatic men who brought millions of people to Christ through their preaching and teachings, could fill stadiums. I am very much appreciative of Graham’s ministry and life.  

But it was easy for crusade attendees to walk away, not necessarily focused on a local institution, but on the charismatic individual who had just presented the gospel.   And we see, of course, the decline of institutional authority in many segments of modern life and kind of the rise of individual authority. And that’s true in the church, no less than in every other sector of life.

WS: Since you brought up Billy Graham, I want you to talk about the Modesto Manifesto and the so called “Billy Graham rule.”  Billy Graham had a complicated relationship with celebrity.  Really great things resulted from his ministry. As an institution, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association did promote the local church.  It often partnered with local churches when it did crusades. 

And yet, as you say, there’s no denying that Billy Graham was a celebrity from the early days, when William Randolph Hearst famously said, “Puff Graham” to his editors.  He named BGEA after himself.

But there was this document, the Modesto Manifesto, which was visionary in a way.  It talked about money, relationships with women.  But I got the idea that you wrote about it with mixed emotions.  Can you talk about the Modesto Manifesto, what it is and what you think about it?

KB: We tend to stop with the Billy Graham rule, because of course, it gets into gender politics and women in the workplace and people have very strong feelings about that rule. 

But we do tend to forget that there was a lot more in the document that really addressed the need for transparency.  They committed to truth telling in terms of crusade numbers. I really appreciate those elements of the Modesto Manifesto.  Given the work that you’ve done with MinistryWatch, we think about the need for increased financial transparency and accountability.  A number of Christian nonprofits have filed church status so they don’t have to file their 990s to the government.

WS: Well, yeah. And now that includes the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.  They are one of those organizations that no longer files their form 990s, which is kind of ironic.

KB: Yes. The number of nonprofits who have changed their status to church is an alarming trend. And, gosh, if the leaders that BGEA could go back and look at the Modesto Manifesto, and be reminded of the fact that their founder really wanted to stress the importance of that transparency and truth telling, you know, I wonder if they would reconsider that that decision.

WS:  Kaitlyn, when I think about these mega-ministries, I think about Marshal McLuhan’s famous line, “The medium is the message.”  I think many of our listeners will probably have read Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death.  Postman and McLuhan introduced many of us to the idea that electronic media literally change the nature of messages.  This illusion of intimacy that we have been talking about is just one of many illusions that electronic media create.  It’s one of many distortions of whatever message you are pouring into that medium.

It can create, for example, the illusion that you really understand the gospel, that you are that you have really submitted yourself to the authority of a church and community, when in fact you have not.  To some extent, we go pastor shopping and church shopping because we are ultimately willing to submit ourselves to no authority other than ourselves.

KB: Right. Yeah. Neil Postman has a pretty scathing critique of Graham and other televangelists. Of course, Graham is not the worst example of the televangelist world. But Postman talks about a kind of technological naivete. TV is an entertainment medium, and it’s a consumption medium. And so, if that is where you receive the gospel, where you hear the gospel, that’s going to affect what you think the gospel is about. 

I’m of the mind that the gospel is really about an invitation and call to live in and among the people of the Body of Christ, and that you can’t actually make sense of the gospel without being rooted in real Christian community. So are people hearing that when they tune in to the televangelists? 

Plus, people now often say “I don’t go to a local church, but I just I have found my favorite preacher and I just listen to his sermons every week.”  I guess that’s better than nothing, but it’s not really a living out the gospel.

WS:  I think I understand what you mean when you say that tuning into a televangelist is better than nothing, but I think that conclusion is at best a guess.  It may actually be worse than nothing, because if someone gets their church, so to speak, from television, might that not inoculate them from a desire for being involved in a local community?

KB: And, of course, the further you get into a real Christian community in the local church, you realize, I might actually be asked to sacrifice something, I may be discipled and disciplined. This may not be fun sometimes.  I’m worshiping among people who annoy me or who I really disagree with. So that’s the kind of death to self that comes when we live in deep Christian community that you’re just not going to be called into if you find your favorite preacher on television and consume their messages there.  So I’m very concerned about what celebrity pastors and preachers communicate to a watching world.

And, of course, we know that the world is watching because there are there have been tons of headlines in recent years about the celebrity pastors who have risen and fallen, and our neighbors see those stories and know those stories.  That creates an issue of kind of credibility in the public square. 

I think that’s especially apparent in the melding of church ministry and personal wealth, and the display of lavish wealth. It is not within my purview to determine what pastors should be paid.  I’m happy, on one level to say, each church body needs to decide that for themselves. 

At the same time, if there is a flaunting of wealth, which then connects to the prosperity gospel, that’s obviously a corrupt form of the gospel. I think our neighbors see that.  It’s just so plain.  They know it’s weird to see a pastor wearing $10,000 shoes, or a $15,000 watch.  There’s something not right about this. And I think most of our neighbors intuit that.

WS: Let me drill down on that idea just a little bit, Katelyn, because it’s easy for some of us in the evangelical world to be a little self-righteous about this idea.  It’s easy for us to say you’re talking about Benny Hinn.  You’re talking about Kenneth Copeland.  You’re talking about the prosperity gospel preachers. But we forget that Franklin Graham makes over a million dollars a year, that Dr. Charles Stanley, who is nearly 90 years old, and hardly shows up at the office anymore, makes hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

To what extent has the prosperity simply become normalized in the evangelical church?

KB: I guess my question is, who can hold those people accountable? Because if your board has signed off on this salary, or some kind of body that’s supposed to, you know, theoretically offer oversight has signed off on this from the outside, it’s kind of hard to know who else can step in? 

I mean, there’s the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. There are journalists who like you who are doing the work of digging into the Form 990s.  

But yeah, if you are theoretically supposed to hold the leader accountable, but you yourself are also benefiting from their continued presence in the spotlight, and from their amassing increased power and wealth, you’re going to be disincentivized to say anything, because you’re actually benefiting from it as well.

WS: That’s what happened with Mark Driscoll. That’s what happened with Ravi Zacharias. The people who could hold them accountable found it to be not in their financial or reputational best interest to do so. So they mostly kept their mouth shut. 

It probably would be no surprise to you, Katelyn, or to our listeners, to know that I think that’s the reason I think journalism is vital to this process. I think the government has demonstrated themselves inept and incapable of providing accountability.  We had the Charles Grassley investigation of the Grassley Six about a decade ago, and nothing happened there. The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability does good work. But Gospel for Asia, Ravi Zacharias, Willow Creek, and lots of others were all members of the ECFA whenever the scandals broke in the media. So clearly, the ECFA didn’t do anything to fix that.

So journalism has to be a big part of the solution to this problem. 

But that does cause me to pivot.  You and I are both journalists. To what extent are even we co-opted.  You and I have podcasts.  You and I have books.  How do we make sure that we don’t become what we hate, so to speak?

KB: That’s a great question. And of course, I echo your belief that journalists play vital roles in trying to push for accountability. The Bill Hybels story was broken by Chicago Tribune and Christianity Today, and all sorts of other media did their own stories. CT broke the Ravi Zacharias story.  Who else would have done that?  Who else could have done that besides these journalists? 

But yeah, you see a kind of personality-driven journalism, where people start following you because of your persona, rather than because of the work itself.

And how objective can you be if you’re on Twitter, opining about all sorts of things, and then you’re expected to report on that topic?  So there’s a professional boundary that I think needs to come into play. 

But there is a tension because, of course, we want people to read the work we’ve done. I want people to read my book. Most authors do.  You want people to engage the work.  You think you have something to offer that’s helpful or beneficial.  So you do feel like, well, I kind of have to play this media personality game for people to even know about the book or the podcast and engage. 

I think about taking a time and energy inventory and making sure, personally, that I’m not spending more time scrolling Twitter or on Instagram than in editorial work, which is my day to day job.

WS: Trust me, when I say I don’t have an answer to the problem. But I gotta admit that I find that answer a little bit dissatisfying. If I spent only 49% of my time and energy on self-promotion today, I’m okay?  But if I spent 49.5% of my time and energy, that’s wrong? Drawing a line and staying below that line doesn’t quite seem to be the right answer.

KB: Well, of course we’re dishonest with ourselves. We’re always self rationalizing. You know, does it go back to that proximity thing? Does it go back to where you derive your value and worth? And are you staying connected and rooted in a community of people who appreciate that you’re a journalist, but that’s not why they care about you. It’s not just: we love you because we adore your work. It’s: we know you and we know your faults and blind spots. And we’re committed to staying connected to you for the long haul. 

I wonder if that kind of rootedness keeps us grounded and humble, especially when we welcome hard feedback, which is not fun for any of us. Are there people in our lives who can speak the hard truth? 

I think that might be part of it, as well. 

Also, being willing to say no to opportunities.  You may think, “Oh, I need to say yes to all the speaking engagements and podcasts invitations and endorsement requests.” Maybe you put deliberate limits on saying yes to things because you recognize you’re a mortal human who needs eight hours of sleep and needs to spend time with their family and needs to, wants to stay curious about the world. 

There’s a myopic and solipsistic element to the curation of a personal brand, thinking about myself, and how others perceive me. 

I’m really saying all of that to remind myself.  I don’t have any of this perfected by any stretch.

WS: You’re with Baker Publishing Group.  I’ve published a book with Baker.  It happened before you were there.  In fact, the biggest advance I’ve ever gotten for a book came from Baker. So thank you very much! 

I’m confident that the reason we got the advance we got was because of the platforms we built.  I say “we” because my co-author John Stonestreet has an even larger platform than mine. 

I mention that to say this:  I was having lunch with Philip Yancey, who’s written many Christian bestselling books, including What’s So Amazing about Grace?, which was one of his first books.  We now know that book has sold more than a million copies and is something of a modern classic.

But he was an unknown author then.  No platform.  No celebrity status.  He told me flat out that he didn’t think What’s So Amazing about Grace? could get published today. I think he’s right. 

So now you’re on the other side of that gate, you’re the gatekeeper. What do you look for? How do you know the criteria you’re using to accept or reject books doesn’t contribute to the pathologies?

KB: Baker Publishing Group is able to look at considerations beyond platform because we are in independent Christian book publisher. We are not the Christian division of a multinational conglomerate, where the bottom line is the main driver.  That drives every decision. 

People inside other publishing groups find a lot of pressure to go after people with big platforms.  Baker is freer to look at things like quality of writing.  Can this person string together a sentence and do I want to keep reading? Do I find the writing itself compelling and fresh and creative?  Does it speak to questions that people are asking right now? Will it answer those questions?

Thinking about credentialing, especially when we’re thinking about theological and pastoral resources, we want to work with people who have received an M. Div. or some kind of seminary training and have served in church ministry for a long time. 

That doesn’t mean we don’t publish people who are young.  But we want people who are not just writing theoretically, but who can speak from experience. A level of character and wisdom. 

I know that that is that’s hard to assess in a proposal. But I think you can. There are signs to look for.  You can discern some of that in conversations with the author. 

And we haven’t even talked about agents yet. I have mixed experiences with agents. That’s not to say that agents are inherently money grabbing, but you do have to look at that that factor.  An agent is going to try to find the best deal, the best offer for their clients.

WS: I’ve had a couple of agents. I have an agent now. I understand your ambivalence about agents. But, but on the other hand, I’ve submitted book proposals to secular publishers that are outside the Christian world. I’ve published two books with secular publishers, a novel and nonfiction book.  I don’t think my non-fiction book would have even been considered, I don’t think they would have even looked at the manuscript or the proposal, if I didn’t have an agent. 

So in some ways agents are part of the problem. But they can also be helpful to a writer who’s trying not just to maximize the money, but find an audience previously not available.

KB: Karen Swallow Pryor has said many times the work is the platform. The reason you build a platform is to get up on top of it and to share or project a message from it. That is the point of building a platform, the platform is not the point. 

I affirm the desire of all people to want to write and I understand that passion. But there are other ways to communicate and connect with people beyond book writing. And it’s not a project to be taken on lightly, because it’s a lot of work. It requires a particular skill set that not everybody has.  I want to ask people who want to write books: why? What is the motive at play? 

And, of course, this gets into the use of ghost writers and I spell out some kind of boundaries in the book about what I think is an appropriate use of a ghost writer. But it is the case today that if you have 100,000 followers on Tiktok, you will be able to get a book contract and the publisher will say, well, we’ll just we’ll help you write it.

Whereas someone who has incredible writing, like a Philip Yancey, whoever today’s Philip Yancey is, if they don’t know how to use social media in a savvy way, they’re going to have a really hard time getting published. And I just I think that’s wrong. I think that it just communicates a kind of watering down of what book writing and publishing is supposed to be.

WS: Any final thoughts you have for folks about the book or what you hope that they get out of the book?

KB: I’m not really reporting anything new. I’m trying to say, let’s go behind the headlines, and say, what are the dynamics that have created these kinds of environments? And are we playing a role in them? Are we a part of this problem? And then trying to end the book with calling us all back to a vision of ordinary faithfulness. It’s something that is easy to lose in a kind of American church context of bigger and better, louder and glitzier. So I really wanted to just honor people who in my life, who I think model that ordinary faithfulness well, and ask all of us to, to pursue that as the main thing.

Warren Cole Smith

Warren previously served as Vice President of WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD Magazine, and Vice President of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He has more than 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, marketing professional, and entrepreneur. Before launching a career in Christian journalism 25 years ago, Smith spent more than seven years as the Marketing Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers.