Mark Driscoll and the Death of Christian Celebrity Culture

March 18th, 2014
Mark Driscoll

Mark Driscoll has taken quite a beating on Christian blogs and social media in recent days. He has probably deserved a good bit of the flak he’s received, but as is the case too often in the church, there hasn’t been a shortage of folks lining up to kick a man while he’s down. Driscoll, who has been dogged with plagiarism charges, also found himself in hot water recently after his church hired a marketing company to boost his book Real Marriage to the New York Times Bestseller List.

Apparently Driscoll wants off the roller coaster, at least for a little while. According to Christianity Today, he has released a letter to his congregation apologizing for the bestseller list scandal and other mistakes. He has also promised to focus more on his church and his family and less on his higher profile activities. Part of that includes giving up social media for at least the rest of 2014. "I don't see how I can be both a celebrity and a pastor," he wrote, "and so I am happy to give up the former so that I can focus on the latter."

Fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In American culture, we’re fascinated when celebrities fall from grace. So much so that we interrupt real news to report it. The church is no better—if anything we’re worse, because society as a whole tends to be much more forgiving of secular celebrities who screw up than we are of well-known Christians who do the same thing.

It's probably a blessing that becoming a huge Christian celebrity isn’t as easy as it used to be. The amount of competition and the current "noise level" make it harder for new Christian authors to break out of the pack. So we rely on the name brand authors, who are pressured to crank out content whether they have anything new to say or not. Most of the big Christian celebrities have been established awhile.

But because of the fragmented audience, even some of the top Christian celebrities aren’t as big a deal as they once were. And this problem isn’t unique to Christian publishing, or even mainstream publishing. Have you looked at your cable lineup recently? I have over 150 channels, and with the exception of a few big hitters, I don’t know the names of the people on most of the shows I watch. There was a time when being a channel on basic cable almost guaranteed you a million viewers—now many channels are lucky if they get 100,000 people in prime time. Becoming “famous” now is a lot like winning the lottery and having to split the jackpot with a lot of people.

So what does this mean for the Christian celebrity culture? Well, the chances of us seeing books with the commercial success of The Purpose Driven Life or the Left Behind series are much smaller now than they were at the turn of the century. And even when there are breakout titles or authors, I believe there will be a lot less staying power than there has been in the past. Attention spans are shorter than ever now, and personalities are probably going to fall in and out of favor much more quickly. This will present a number of challenges to Christian publishers and to authors who are trying to make a living as writers.

Now more than ever, content is king. The days of name brand authors phoning in half-baked manuscripts and depending on editors to assemble recycled content under new titles are numbered. Depending on past success to sell books is going to become more difficult. This will be good for consumers, but the top quality content is going to become even more difficult to find. Many Christian writers and speakers are going to have to narrow their appeal and find viable niches in order to succeed. And more and more of them will have to hold down other gigs to make ends meet. Making ideas available to the masses will get easier and easier, but getting the masses to listen is going to be the hard part.

In short, there will be fewer mega-celebrities and more mini-celebrities. And that means there will be fewer big scandals and more small ones. The good news is, the church just may function more like a real body this way. And when we do have scandals, they’ll do much less damage and be forgotten much more quickly.

We can hope anyway.

Shane Raynor is an editor at Ministry Matters and editor of the Converge Bible Studies series from Abingdon Press. Connect with Shane on Google+Twitter, and FacebookSign up to receive Shane's posts free via email.

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