Understanding the Church-Industrial-Celebrity-Complex

I enjoy podcasts. There are podcasts on just about any topic you can imagine. There are podcasts on topics that would not cross your mind if you were stuck on a desert island for a lifetime and told to come up with a list of podcast topics. As you would expect, there are lots of podcasts about church-related stuff: from worship to theology to pastoral leadership to A/V technology. Take a listen to a bunch of these churchy podcasts. They are a great way to hear voices from outside your usual circle. They are also a great way to better understand the church-industrial-celebrity complex. Who wouldn’t want that?

By church-industrial-celebrity complex I mean the multitude of industries that have grown up around the community of faith in North America. From some angles, this stuff has grown so thick that it’s hard to actually see the church itself. The church-industrial-celebrity complex is a universe that parallels that of the wider culture and runs on the exact same currency: fame, power and dollars. In the church-industrial-celebrity complex people strive to be connected to power and make money off people’s insecurities. Exhibit 1: this NYT story on the adventures of a big personality at a big church in a big city.   

The rising use of several terms in this space illustrates how the system works. First up is the term “spiritual entrepreneur.” The spiritual entrepreneur is someone who tries to make a living dispensing spiritual thoughts in the marketplace. The spiritual entrepreneur might generate income through blog subscriptions, speaking fees or consulting junkets. The spiritual entrepreneur likes to talk about deep things and traffics in authenticity, but also wants freedom and the “maximization of revenue potential.” The spiritual entrepreneur looks to monetize, monetize, monetize. The spiritual entrepreneur has no accountability beyond some chosen friends and whatever the market serves up. Many pastors want to become spiritual entrepreneurs because it allows them to say ‘no’ to certain tasks and to block certain people. It’s also more respectable at the pub. Spiritual entrepreneurs are big wheels in the church-industrial-celebrity complex and many of them have podcasts.  

Next up is the term “influencer.” In church contexts influencers influence because they are famous. The credibility of the influencer comes not through dependability, judgment or expertise, but from . . . well . . . influence. Influence is usually measured by a ratio: how many people follow the person (on social media) compared to how many people the person follows. A 1/1 ratio is not good. It means one takes in as many super awesome ideas as one dispenses. The influencer can’t do this. The influencer must be a source of super awesome ideas. The church-industrial-celebrity complex loves influencers.  

The third term we need to become familiar with is “platform.” People trying to succeed in the church-industrial-celebrity complex are obsessed with platform. Publishers accept books, not necessarily because an author has something to say, but because the author has a platform. In simple terms that means what a book says isn’t as import as whether or not it will sell. This is as understandable (of course publishers need to balance their books) as it is terrible (mind-numbingly shallow). Within the church-industrial-celebrity complex people try to develop their platform faster than their character or craft.

Another important term to know is “leadership.” Leadership is the word that allows church workers to transfer their knowledge to the marketplace (where it’s more easily monetized). A boutique consulting firm seems to be the vehicle of choice here. Leadership is the common fireside where those called to church ministry can join business folks and director-types without feeling conspicuous. The goal of lots of pastors is to achieve a platform of such grand scale that they get called in to talk to executives about “leadership.” Within the church-industrial-celebrity complex one can retire with dignity after being asked to give talks about leadership.

Finally, if you start listening to churchy podcasts you’ll hear a lot about “metrics.” The church-industrial-celebrity complex loves metrics. How do you measure success? How do you measure influence? How do you measure platform? You need metrics, i.e. butts in seats, dollars in budgets, followers on social media, views on the web, and employees. Again, metrics allow those in the church space to explain the impact of their work to others. Your mortgage broker may have no idea what it means to be a friend of God, but she certainly understands the size of your organization’s budget or the number of people that follow you on social media. The rise of metrics obsession in church circles is directly connected to the growing insecurity about what church is for. If the metrics are good enough the church-industrial-celebrity complex doesn’t care about the point.

Check out the podcasts, you’ll see what I mean.  It’s fun and informative. Stay tuned for some thoughts on how to reject the church-industrial-celebrity complex.   

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