Youth Workers Weigh In On Celebrity Culture. . . Some Excellent Thoughts! . . .

Wisdom. More wisdom. That’s what I’ve been reading from a group of youth workers who have joined together to form our first-ever CPYU Faith and Culture Learning Cohort. Our little band of 16 from across North America began meeting virtually two weeks ago to talk about things that matter. . . and how to make those things matter even more. Our first meeting was about the pursuit of celebrity in ministry. We want to wrestle through and discuss things that matter deeply to God. We want to wrestle through how to make those things matter more to ourselves. And, we are looking to develop biblically faithful strategies for taking kids deeper into an understanding of how these things matter to them.

Before each of gatherings, we read something meant to spark our desire to think critically and Christianly about a contemporary cultural matter of importance. To prepare for our conversation about celebrity, everyone read this recent blog post along with some additional articles on the trend. But our work doesn’t stop with our virtual interaction. I’ve asked everyone to continue thinking and to develop some practical follow-up thoughts and strategies that I can share with others as the fruit of our discussions. Several of our CPYU Faith and Culture Learning Cohort members submitted their thoughts which I’m sharing here. . . and they are good! May they challenge you to think and live more faithfully in the midst of a culture that idolizes celebrity. . .

“Our culture, including the church culture, has an increasing emphasis on becoming “noticed” and “famous” as quickly as possible. Although becoming famous is not inherently sinful, the Bible does put an emphasis on Christians being ordinary people who follow Christ in whatever culture He desires to put them in. As a youth worker it is important to remember to display for students that some of the most extraordinary things they can do include reading God’s Word, praying, and being with God’s people. Although the world does not look at these things as important, it is these spiritual disciplines that God can use to both change us and the world!” – Kyle Hoffsmith

“I’ve been reflecting a lot on the clash between our American celebrity culture and “cancel culture”. So many people, many of them teenagers, are desperate to create their brand a find a platform for what they have to say. But one mistep, and you’re “canceled” and lose it all. The voices that our teenagers listen to are always changing, each relishing their five minutes of fame before fading away again. For us in the church, it should drive us to be different, we don’t need five minutes of fame. As a youth pastor, in obedience to the Lord’s call on my life, and because I love students, I want to see them grow as disciples. As soon as my ego and pride become more important than that, I become just another voice that will fade away, forgotten. The church and student ministries should be a place of steady biblical consistency. Ten years from now I doubt teenagers will remember most of what they watched and listened to on social media, but I do think that if we remain as a steady presence, we can help them abide constantly with Christ.” – Jeff Travis

“Two values we should keep in the forefront of our thoughts and that we should teach to students are faithfulness and service. Reflecting on Colossians 1 recently, and thinking about this discussion, it struck me that Paul commends the saints and specifically Epaphras for being faithful. I’ve also had impressed upon me by many wiser ministry veterans the importance of seeing ourselves as servants and slaves. Even in his recent book Lead, Paul Tripp dedicates a whole chapter to this idea, instructing us that a call to ministry leadership is always a call to servanthood and suffering, that we are called to be people who find joy not in position but in service. We need to constantly be reminded that ministry is about faithful service over the long haul, not about making a name for ourselves, because a desire for the latter comes so naturally to us. As we minister to students, too, we need to be aware of the temptation they face to make a name for themselves – which is so much easier for them to do with social media these days! – without having a lifetime of faithful service to accompany it. Let’s keep these values before us, then, that we may make much of Christ and less of ourselves.” – Linda Oliver

“Up until last year I worked at Connexus Church in Ontario and have spent a ton of time with Carey Nieuwhof. One of the things that I loved about being with Carey is how committed he was to the Gospel wins in our local context. In fact, even as I would probe him for fun stories about the leaders he was chatting with as he traveled around, he would tell me that he loved sharing stories with them about what God was doing in specific people’s lives in our small towns in Ontario. This caught me by surprise because I figured that thinking about ministry at a high level and talking with national leaders would be the fun parts. But when we chatted, the things that inspired him the most were the stories of dads coming to Christ, Wiccans giving up their sorcery, and kids taking the step of baptism. Rather than building a platform, I’d rather build a legacy of lives changed. I’d love to know how to inspire others to do the same.” – Jeremy MacDonald

“Let’s be honest, not many of us are going to become famous for our ministry. It’s easy to dismiss celebrity pastors because it’s not something that most of us aspire to. However, there is a lower level to fame and celebrity, something I think many of us (myself included) in youth ministry grapple with. That is the desire to be thought “cool” by the students we minister to, their parents, and other members of the church. It’s even easy to revel in being the “cool” one on the ministry team. To be able to connect well with students is a gift, but it’s also something that can seduce our hearts and become an end unto itself. I think it can subtly affect our ministry, from what we say and don’t say, who we give our attention to, and even what we wear. We sometimes make subtle choices that convey to our students that popularity and attention are the ultimate goals. How can we model that identity is found in Christ when our actions and choices suggest otherwise? I’m not advocating that youth ministers lean into their most curmudgeonly instincts. There is a middle ground, and one of the many challenges of youth ministry is walking that fine line and being both engaging and fun while holding to an identity grounded in Christ and marked by authenticity. The pursuit of “cool” is at best an endless treadmill. Students have access to a lot of cool things, they crave authenticity. An authentic look into the life, struggle, and brokenness of a caring leader? Now that’s cool.” – Jordan Martin

“For Students: Emphasized over and over again the authority of scripture. Encourage them not to accept what people say when they teach or preach (including myself) because it sounds good, or because the person talking is funny or has good stories, or because they are well-known and well-liked. I need to be teaching students to ask, “Is what they are saying actually being taught from scripture?” “Does this match up with the rest of what I know to be true of scripture?” I want my students to root what they believe in scripture, not in what a person, including myself, says. For Myself: I want to be better at leading ministry in such a way that I am disposable. I want things to be set up so that if I left tomorrow, the youth ministry would not falter. In other words, I don’t want to be the center of the ministry, with all the focus on me. I know one way to do this is to make sure I delegate well to other youth workers. But probably another way is to make effort not to place ourselves as the “heroes” of the ministry. I want to celebrate others, including students and youth workers, in such a way that students see that I am not the hero, center, or celebrity of this ministry. I need to get better at this.” – Kyle Kauffman

“The reality of social media, celebrity status, or being an influencer is something we can all struggle with at some point because it deals with the matter of the heart. Whatever we do or say, whether in person or online, is a reflection of what is within our heart (Matthew 15:1-20). We have to understand that what we share online should not be about promoting ourselves, but about promoting the Savior we serve (Philippians 1:12-26). As we think about what we put on social media for our personal and ministry accounts should all be about advancing Christ over ourselves, our ministry, or our churches. A good heart check for this to be true is asking yourself “if a student engages your content online, but attends another Gospel centered youth program how does your heart feel?” Are you upset that the student isn’t coming to your program? Or are you celebrating that they are in a Bible believing church hearing the message of the Gospel? The framework we should function under is remembering that we are simply under-shepherds called to carry the Good News of the one True Shepherd. This should guide us as we seek to share the Word of God on all platforms. So how then should we live? We should live as humble shepherds under the service of the Great Shepherd. Our desires should always be to propel the Gospel outwards as we live our lives in honor of Christ. In order for Christ to increase, we must decrease. That should challenge all of us to think about how we present ourselves, our ministries, our online presence, and how we live our lives. Christ should always be first and foremost. If He is not what people see in us, then we should step back and evaluate why that is.” – Nick Mance

“What comes to mind again and again is how God opens certain doors to people. This is obviously not exclusive to those in full-time ministry. For example, I consider the impact that teachers have had on my spiritual growth and development – especially at our Bible College and seminary. To think that I might one day be asked to teach in a similar capacity is an exciting prospect. As I talk with friends and peers who are currently serving in this capacity, the common feedback is that they miss parish ministry. Even more striking is that they miss preaching in the worship service, even though they have a captive audience in the classroom. I’m reminded of Elijah on Mt. Sinai in 1 Kings 19. He’s frustrated and is certain that he’s alone in his devotion to God. This “nationally recognized prophet” is reminded by God that there’s more going on in Israel that doesn’t involve him. God uses people who are “highly visible,” but He also uses the 7,000 other prophets to do His work. This has always reminded me that for every Elijah, Moses, David, Isaiah, John, Peter, and Paul, there are untold numbers of workers of God’s Kingdom. These unnamed serve in their own capacities and are no less valuable in God’s eyes than the Bible heroes. This topic is something that I’ve discussed a few times with some ministry peers, but I’ll admit that we’ve never reached a satisfying conclusion. Our frustration is how less experienced workers are able to gain so much traction and notoriety with less-than-great content. My instinctive reaction is to respond with content of my own – content that focuses more on the redemptive narrative rather than a call towards moralism. One last point. I believe we as pastors, youth workers, volunteers, etc. need to be extra careful of pursuing celebrity status now more than usual. The current trend and uptick of churches providing live streaming of their worship services, Bible studies, etc. is equally admirable and cause for caution. Admirable because of how they’re utilizing the tools available to them to preach the Gospel in ways they might not have considered or pursued beforehand. Cause for caution because, to borrow the line from Marshal McLuhan, the medium can become the message if we’re not careful. Put simply, our own live streaming can become the end we pursue rather than the conduit by which we proclaim the truth of God’s Word.” – Dan Hurner

“When I think about those pastors who are well known whom I admire, they are most often older and who have a proven track record in pastoral ministry. Tim Keller, Sinclair Ferguson, John Stott, John Piper and the like are well known because they are supremely gifted men whose heart is (was) to equip the saints for the work of ministry. Though I think there can be pitfalls to any kind of larger ministry spotlight (discussion below), there should be a proportional relationship to the size of ministry and the (1) proven integrity over time, and (2) focus on pastoring / equipping / theology. Akin to C.S. Lewis’ keen observation that a desire to have friends leaves you without friends, a desire to have ministry fame should leave you without a platform. Only after there is a focus on the immediate calling to which you are called, with real flesh and blood people, should a reasoned and very cautious approach to equipping a wider audience begin. It happens far too often, especially in the PCA, that church pastors with a congregation of 100 or less, spend more of their time lighting up the blogosphere than leading their church! Notwithstanding the lack of fruit that accompanies far too many talking heads in my congregation, there is the simple matter of redeeming the time; unless someone is wildly gifted, visiting the sick, praying for your people, outreach to your neighbors, planning bible studies, and writing sermons is far more effective for the kingdom than cultivating an online presence! It is hard to imagine that the kingdom is better served re-appropriating hours in the day to serve a group who doesn’t know me. I must always decrease so that Christ can increase.

The pitfalls are numerous: 1) There is the problem of calling; most are called to a local ministry, at least to actually learn how to do ministry well 2) There is the problem of discipleship; Most American evangelicals have a modernist epistemology which believes that growth is equivalent to information; that receiving and dispensing the best information is key to Christ-likeness. But this is simply not biblical. True discipleship is lived out, yes, with good information, but with relational connection, in a social context, with real people struggling together, and a pastor kneading truth with grace into people’s lives. Information (read=truth) is central and foundational, but if it isn’t lived in community, it actually becomes an inoculation to discipleship – knowledge puffs up, but love builds up! This actually seems to be one of the key problems of the Corinthians – a city, which is probably the most akin to our modern world, to corinthianize in Greek colloquially meant to commit sexual immorality – as some follow their celebrity pastor, and most are more interested in a super-apostle. 3) There is the problem of falls from grace; the genesis of this discussion itself because another celebrity pastor has fallen. Cultivating an image and persona is a difficult enough vice to avoid for a pastor in a local context, let alone a global one. Isn’t it best to sit lower in the table and be asked to move up later?

Certainly, God sometimes gives people larger ministry roles. Who is Paul if not a famous preacher, and what are his letters if not meant for worldwide consumption? But we should always be careful of the vices of ex-carnation, cultivating our persona and not our character, taking more air-time than we deserve, mis-appropriating our time and energy, and not focusing on the long obedience in one direction. We should all be careful of the seduction of pride in today’s vanity fair that we call ‘celebrity.’” – Matt Beham

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