When a monthslong independent investigation found credible evidence that Ravi Zacharias leveraged his reputation as a world-famous apologist to carry out years of sexual abuse, the response from the evangelical community was predictably one of shock, horror and grief.
Many questioned how this pastor could effectively masquerade as a humble servant of Christ and fool millions of adoring supporters? How could this respected intellectual who preached the Gospel of Jesus with clarity and passion brazenly manipulate vulnerable women into providing him with sexual stimulation?
As the empire Zacharias built — all in the name of reaching the lost with the Gospel of Jesus Christ — came crashing down, perhaps the most devastating realization for many was just how damaging the blow his posthumous downfall was to the witness of the Body of Christ.
From the fraudulent ministry of Jim Bakker in the late 1970s and early 1980s to the recent slew of scandals surrounding Hillsong Church and one of its most popular pastors, Carl Lentz, the phenomenon of well-known Christian leaders engaging in misconduct is nothing new to the Western Church.
What then drives the dysfunction and lack of health seen in many church leaders today? Why do so many pastors in Western evangelicism fail the fame test despite the biblical example set by Jesus Himself?
The problem isn’t with being a "celebrity Christian" itself; in fact, Jesus was regarded as a celebrity in the first century, as He was known far and wide for His miraculous acts.
Rich Villodas, the Brooklyn-born lead pastor of New Life Fellowship, explained: “Generally speaking, celebrity and Christianity are not necessarily contradictions in terms because notions of celebrity are often projected onto people,” he said.
Redefining success in a secularized culture
In 21st century American evangelicalism, it can be very tempting to shift toward a different model of success — one focused on money, fame and numbers — than the one outlined in Scripture.
That’s according to Scott Sauls, the senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and bestselling author. He told The Christian Post that biblically, success is defined as demonstrating faithfulness, character and integrity.
“Integrity means being whole in our lives and in our ministries, and that means that we are whole disciples of Christ following the whole Scripture and the whole way that we do life and ministry, including the administrative part of it,” he explained.
“While administration and faithful and excellent organization are important to steward God's resources well, the measure of whether or not we're doing administration well is the character with which the churches are run and led.”
The onus is on the Church to "redefine success" — and before hiring, churches must “look deeper into a person’s life, soul and background,” according to Ed Young, the founding and senior pastor of Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas.
“We cannot allow someone's great gift to overshadow a lack of integrity in some other area,” he told CP. Many of the pastors who have publicly fallen in recent years exhibited “patterns” that were ignored by those closest to them because of their gifts, he continued.
Egyptian-American pastor and televangelist Michael Youssef of the Church of the Apostles in Atlanta, Georgia, lamented that in the Western Church, many pastors are not shepherds but “celebrities and CEOs of an operation called the church."
"That’s fine if that’s what they want to do, but don't call it the Church of Jesus Christ. Call it something else,” Youssef said.
“We have become a marketing operation and celebrity preachers. We're not servants of the living God. We're not there to serve God's people, minister to them, admonish them, rebuke, uphold, encourage, comfort and all of these things that the Scripture is very clear about. We have departed from that.”
The secularization of culture, Youssef added, is a driving force behind this phenomenon — and it’s not to be ignored.
“The secularization of the culture at large is impacting the Church, especially those who might not have their feet on the solid ground of the infallible Word of God who are ministering and pastoring out of an emotional, experiential kind of Christianity, rather than the solid Gospel foundational New Testament preaching," he relayed.
Pastor and author Tim Keller acknowledges that he’s viewed as a “celebrity pastor in some circles.” The founding pastor of Redeemer Church in New York City, Keller’s sermons are heard around the world and his books are read by millions.
And Keller understands that if he misuses his platform, “a lot of Christians can be put to shame” because of him.
“And therefore, if God gives me a bigger ‘platform,’ then I actually have a responsibility to not disappoint people,” he told CP. “Not to just look like a great person; I actually have to be holy; I have to actually mortify my sin. I have to have a prayer life. I have to do the stuff that every Christian needs to do. I don't have to be better than other Christians. I just need to be what God wants a Christian to be.”
When pastors get to be “well known,” he said, the praise can turn their heads, the criticism can prompt self-pity and the overwork can cause them to neglect their prayer life.
“For all those reasons, very often, so-called ‘celebrity ministers and figures’ live lives less consistent with the Christian faith than Christians who are not so famous,” Keller said.