There’s a worrying trend developing amidst the church around a desperate bid for us to be ‘relevant’ and ‘change the culture’ of the world. A trend that is having the opposite effect of changing the culture of the church.
This trend is a through line that runs in the U.S evangelical church’s obsession with Trump, the Aussie church’s obsession with Israel Folau (until this week), and everybody’s new obsession with Kanye West. We want to be noticed and normal. We want to restrain the excesses of our society and we’re so used to the levers of power and cultural influence ‘from above’ — from ‘influencers’ being pulled, that when an influencer becomes a Christian we thrust them off their pedestal and behind a pulpit as soon as we can. We also keep building pedestals and pulpits for fame adjacent Christians — like CEOs of lobby groups who build political platforms for their video “preaching” — but neither being famous, nor fame adjacent, qualifies a person as a preacher or teacher.
Both Israel Folau and Kanye West have pivoted from very public expressions of their Christian faith to the pulpit. Both are now operating as teachers in communities; neither is qualified in any way to do so. The apostle Paul says teaching, or being an overseer, is a noble task but is not for recent converts (1 Timothy 3:6)… or lovers of money (1 Timothy 3:3). Both Folau and Kanye run the risk of damaging the witness of the Gospel if they keep functioning as preachers without being trained or qualified, and we run the risk of damaging the witness of the church to the crucified king if we keep treating celebrity itself as a virtue and so trading on celebrity for our own relevance, or the proclamation of the Gospel.
Character, gifting, and calling qualify a person as a preacher. The ability to ‘rightly divide the word of truth’ qualifies a person to be a preacher. Unfortunately it seems that neither Izzy, nor Kanye, nor Martyn Iles (or the Australian Christian Lobby) are equipped to lead the church theologically, as teachers or preachers. And this matters — because both our politics and our witness to the Gospel are actually profoundly theological exercises. We evangelicals, in our desire to win people to Jesus (and to follow Paul in ‘becoming all things to all people’) have somehow baptised pragmatism — the getting of ‘results’ — measured in converts, over the substance of the Gospel message and the way it produces a certain ethos, or virtues, that are to be part and parcel with Gospel preaching.
There’s a deep irony that some of the justification for cultural engagement comes from 1 Corinthians, where Paul starts by outlining how the content of his message is the foolishness of the cross of Jesus, which is the power of God — not worldly power or status. The city of Corinth was obsessed with fame; especially with famous orators; sophists. People who valued style over substance and ability and results over character and conviction. Paul smashes this. He comes to the Corinthians embodying the Gospel of the crucified Jesus; when he writes to them again about their obsession with the ‘super apostles’ in 2 Corinthians, he gives a long list of his foolishness and suffering and being unimpressive as the resume for a Gospel preacher. When he describes himself in 1 Corinthians and his social position as a preacher he says:
For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honoured, we are dishonoured! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment. — 1 Corinthians 4:9-13
This is him imitating his crucified king. The one who died a humiliating death reserved for slaves; the scum of the earth, to show God’s upside down world altering kingdom. The power of God is not found in fame. Being famous is not a qualification for being a preacher; our bizarre desire for famous Christians to represent Christianity publicly as though they are preachers, and to not call out the problems that come from that public representation turning into occupying a pulpit and so, potentially, speaking the word of God to his people and the world is a reprehensible departure from the Gospel that mirrors the situation Paul addresses in Corinth.
I understand Kanye’s desire to preach about the grace that it appears has been given to him. But there is no way he is ready for the task of preaching yet.
I understand Izzy’s passion to save people from God’s wrath; but he is not just unqualified as a preacher of the Gospel, he is disqualified because he explicitly rejects the Trinity.
And yet preacher after preacher, for who knows what reason beyond — rejoicing that Christ is preached by a celebrity — have joined the Australian Christian Lobby’s Martyn Iles in lionising these two figures. Martyn Iles even doubled down on Folau’s faithfulness this week when everybody else in the world was realising that Folau’s brand of religion is a long way removed from the Gospel of Jesus. He did this just weeks after celebrating Kanye’s conversion. The same Kanye who in an interview last week said he’s considering changing his name to “Christian Genius Billionaire West,” and running for president — hardly the response modelled by Zaccheus and promoted in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus explicitly says “you cannot love both God and money.” This week he appeared at Joel Osteen’s church proclaiming himself the “greatest artist God has created” and saying that God now has him on his side. His sermonettes that you can watch online are mostly expressions about him, and the influence he will now bring because he is on God’s side. None of this means Kanye is not a Christian; what it does mean is that Kanye is not qualified to be a preacher of the Gospel, especially not simply on the basis of fame… The rapid endorsement of these famous people as preachers might mean that there are lots of preachers out there whose qualifications need some renewing.
Perhaps the only thing worse than famous people who become Christians who have the task of preaching thrust upon them by a celebrity-infatuated church, is those who cynically resort to the tools of fame and power to build some sort of preaching or teaching ministry. The only thing worse than preachers or leaders getting photo opps with celebrities (think Osteen and Kanye, or Iles and Folau), are preachers who seem to just perpetually post glamour shots of themselves or photos accompanied by pull quotes from Sunday’s sermon. These are the antithesis of the Gospel and the ministry it should produce as we follow the example of Jesus.
We could do worse than looking to the example of Paul as he followed the example of the crucified king. Who was careful to ensure that the ‘noble task’ of leading and teaching be passed on to those recognised by the church communities they taught as ‘reliable people’ who were ‘qualified to teach others’ (2 Timothy 3:1-3), who charged Timothy to “preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction,” and to do this because “the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.”
Those teachers might just be celebrities who say that the Gospel is just about personal salvation from hell, or about political victory over the immoral leaders of the ‘gay agenda,’ or about all manner of things that we give a pass simply because it seems good to us that “Christ is preached.” This Washington Post piece on how Kanye, like Trump, has embedded a certain form of ‘evangelicalism’ that focuses on individual salvation and self-improvement, in the black Gospel music tradition, is worth considering. Kanye’s conversion, so far, certainly hasn’t looked like doing anything but switching the market he sells his clothing line and music to — and talking an awful lot about having met Jesus. Our hope for Kanye is not that he might make the Gospel relevant by converting lots more celebrities to bring a revival (as he’s expressed his mission), but that he might be surrounded by faithful witnesses who model humility and the power of the crucifixion to him such that his future suggestions about name changes don’t run completely at odds with the virtues that come from a life led imitating Jesus.
We’ve got to stop expecting celebrities to jump on the celebrity preaching circuit; how much greater a witness to the crucified king would it be for Kanye, or Izzy, to submit to years of training in interpreting the text of the Bible, and years of character formation reflecting on the character of Jesus and keeping in step with the Spirit (as Paul puts it in Galatians 5), before opening the mouth. Silence from Kanye right now would speak volumes; it would perhaps speak louder than his brash, enthusiastic, embrace of the Gospel.
In all this I’m reminded of the strength of the testimony of another celebrity convert. Aussie actress Anna McGahan. McGahan has just, after years reflecting on the experience of meeting Jesus as Lord, released a book called Metanoia — which is the Greek word for repentance. The absolute change in one’s life that happens when we turn from the dead ends of relevance, fame, power, and personal glory, to worship the crucified and living God. McGahan writes beautifully. She has been a faithful member of a church community for years, she has turned down the sorts of roles and trajectories her acting career had her on before her conversion and devoted herself to imitating Jesus in ways she describes in her book. She is qualified, in these ways, to be a trusted witness to the Gospel. A preacher. And her book (and her online writing) are a powerful testimony of one who has rejected fame for the sake of the name of Jesus. McGahan does, by conviction, have a ministry with creative people — some of who are famous — she describes the ethos in her book as: “Fall at the feet of Jesus, fall at the feet of Jesus, fall at the feet of Jesus.” She describes how this emerged out of realising that she wasn’t whole as a celebrity, out of being broken and remade by Jesus, not just having her fame baptised and turned towards the ends of making Jesus known, but having her life turned upside down because she is now known by Jesus.
We could do lots to learn from at least one Christian who has experienced fame, and experienced the call of the Gospel, so that we stop acting as though fame qualifies someone to preach the Gospel. The results of our pursuit of relevance through Kanye and Izzy will keep coming home to roost if we don’t.