From Celebrity to Community
by Gregory Thompson
What do we do when we realize that the forms of Christianity we inherited are either insufficient for—or opposed to—the Christian mission to which we are called?
In previous articles, I explored the shift from Dominion to Communion, a shift in the purpose of our faith, the shift from Myth to Truth, a shift in our interpretation of the context in which we live out our faiths, the shift from Victimhood to Servanthood, a shift on our identities, and the shift from Being Right to Being Good, a shift in our formation, a shift from Hostility to Hospitality, a shift in our neighborliness, and a shift from the Powerful to the Poor, a shift in our priorities. In what follows, we consider the shift from Celebrity to Community.
From Celebrity to Community: A Shift in Leadership
In this article, I am attempting to write about leadership. More specifically, about the dangers inherent in what seems to me to be a dominant model of leadership in much of the American Church; a model which—like the market forces from which it derives—transcends both denominational and geographic bounds. I am referring here to what may be called a celebrity model of leadership.
I confess to being somewhat ambivalent about the language of celebrity. My primary reason for this is my sense that, for many, the word “celebrity” primarily evokes things like red carpets, award shows, extravagant wealth, and couture design. And indeed these are—in many instances—clear signifiers of the presence of celebrity. But while what I am describing certainly can entail these things (though typically on a more modest scale) these are not the heart of the celebrity model. And this is the reason for my ambivalence: By overly identifying celebrity with these outward effects rather than with its inner logic, it is easy to miss features of the celebrity model that are not only more malignant in impact but also more widespread in presence. Because of this, though I persist in the use of the word, I intend to draw attention to the inner logic of celebrity and to gesture toward the outlines of another model.
The Inner Logic of Celebrity
In my experience, the inner logic of celebrity leadership is structured around—and can be easily identified by—four foundational elements. To understand the celebrity model, it is important to understand both the meaning of each of these elements and how they—taken together—create the capacity for enormous, predictable, and repeated harm to everyone involved.
1) The institutional centering of a single individual
Here I am speaking very simply of the broadly observable tendency of churches and other religious organizations to build their institutions—their vision, mission, strategy, staff community, and financial priorities—around the preferences of a single individual.
2) The justification of that centering by appeal to their putatively singular gifts
I am referring to the frequency with which this institutional centering is justified by often breathless appeals to the capacities of the individual—capacities alleged to be both unique in the world and essential to the work of the kingdom.
3) An inordinate focus on the creation and management of that individual’s public identity
Here I am considering the deliberate willingness—by the institution, by the individual, or by both—to embrace the construction, management, and commodification of the public image of that individual as a central task of institutional life.
4) A culture of institutional protection of that individual’s perceived interests
This is the tendency of institutions to protect that individual not only from their detractors, but also from the consequences of their actions.
Taken together, these four elements conspire to create an ecosystem of both extraordinary privilege for the leader and extraordinary vulnerability for those under their influence. Privilege, in that the leader inhabits a world in which their will (cloaked in the language of vision) is both the central engine and the final boundary of institutional life. Vulnerability, in that the individuals under their influence can (and frequently do) find themselves surprisingly subject to both the personal and institutional ambitions of a single, centralized, and often unaccountable leader. And, importantly, this dynamic is replicable regardless of institutional scale; the inner logic of celebrity—and its disfiguring effects—may be readily seen in institutions both large and small.
The Consequences of Celebrity
These disfiguring effects are by now so obvious to many of us that they scarcely require explanation. Or, so one would think. But the heedless persistence of this model in our midst suggests that a reminder may be in order. Consider first the effects on the individual at the heart of this model. Do not empirical data and personal experience suggest that the celebrity model cultivates a leader’s worst instincts?
- Narcissism The presumption of being the most important person in the institution.
- Entitlement The expectation of having one’s own ideas and language institutionally validated.
- Pretense The astonishing vanity of believing oneself competent to speak credibly on virtually any issue.
- Isolation The instinctive need to divide the world into supporters and detractors and to hide within the walls of affirmation.
- Abuse The furious instinct to expunge those who threaten their status.
- Addiction The desperate need to calm the fear and exhaustion at the heart of celebrity leadership through addictions to affirmation, substances, and sex.
- Shame A life made forever vulnerable to both personal regret and public recrimination.
Consider, too, the effect on those under the leader’s influence.
- Insecurity The temptation to evaluate one’s own identity and value by one’s proximity to the leader.
- Loss of agency The overwhelming temptation to subsume one’s ideas and gifts to the service of the leader.
- Exhaustion The very real psychological, emotional, spiritual, and physical exhaustion that comes from ordering our lives inordinately around the will of another.
- Alienation The loss of one’s community, one’s sense of life with God, one’s sense of self that comes from enmeshment with the life of a celebrity leader.
That each of these is a virtually assured result of the celebrity model of leadership seems to me to be beyond controversy. How many of us reading these words could, right now and without significant effort, identify both leaders and followers whose lives are marked by these very realities? How many of our own lives have been so marked? And yet, despite all of the empirical data and personal experience testifying to the malignancy of this model, we allow it to persist in our midst. Indeed, we continue to reward it as the paradigm of success.
Speaking personally, I must confess that I know these dynamics intimately. When I was in public leadership, I spoke often—both privately and publicly—about the dynamics of celebrity and my wish to avoid them. Not only this, my colleagues and I took very real—and institutionally unpopular—steps to prevent the celebrity model from taking hold among us. Even so, I grieve to say that I felt the pull of this model, felt the temptations inherent within it, and—in spite of earnest desire and labor to the contrary—saw a number of these effects on some of the people that I served. I confess, in other words, that despite my very real efforts, I believe that I failed to escape the power of the model.
That this is so raises an important insight. Namely, the negative effects that attend the celebrity model—rather than being caused by a single malignant individual—are in fact intrinsic to the model itself. Indeed, I believe that many (though certainly not all) of those who inhabit the model do so both unwittingly and unwillingly. And I believe that the reason for this is that many of us and the institutions we serve simply cannot imagine another way. And so, despite our intentions and our actions, the celebrity model—with all of its inevitable harms—persists. Because of this, I am convinced that one of the most important tasks of a renewed Church is a campaign of deliberate, explicit, and sustained repudiation of this model as suitable for the people of God.
Let us pause to quench the thirst for caveats. It is true that people have different gifts and capacities. Some of these gifts and capacities indeed lend themselves naturally toward taking positions of disproportionate influence within a community. It is also true that recognizing these gifts and enabling this influence is often a critical component of institutional effectiveness. Even so, it is also true that our current model for identifying and enabling this influence leads—with alarming regularity—to extraordinary personal and institutional harm and has created a Christian leadership culture that is morally gangrenous, socially corrosive, missiologically catastrophic and, it also should be said, aesthetically bizarre.
The Renunciation of Celebrity
What might it mean for us, as a people, to press against this model? While wanting to underline my ongoing personal bewilderment in the face of this question, I do believe that there are several important things that those seeking the renewal of the Church can and must do.
The first and most basic of these is simply to name the problem and insist on another way. Meaning, I believe that healthy leaders and healthy churches have to make guarding against the celebrity model a central priority of their institutions. Unless we do this, we will never prevail against it; the forces of celebrity are simply too axiomatic and too powerful to proceed in any other way than direct assault. If you’re looking for a place to start, get some folks together and read Katelyn Beaty’s Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits are Hurting the Church. (Click here to listen to her on the Center’s podcast, Peace Talks.)
The second is to undertake deliberate, creative experimentation with an alternative model. In my own life, I’ve taken to thinking of this as a Community-Based model of leadership. In suggesting this language, let me hasten to remind the reader that I have many, many questions about what it will take to escape the celebrity model and disconcertingly few answers. Nor is it the case that I either know how, or even instinctively desire to do the things I am groping toward. The nature of the work here, I repeat, is experimentation. All this to say, in using this language I do not intend to suggest that I am in possession of anything like a fully conceived, perfectly embodied, or empirically assessed model. What I do intend, however, is to suggest that whatever model emerges to supplant the tyranny of celebrity, will—of necessity—be oriented not toward a single individual, but toward the community as a whole.
What then might such a model entail? As I have considered this question, I confess that my own approach has been framed mostly through the work of defiance. Meaning, as I have struggled toward a new model in my own life, my first step has been to identify the impulses of the celebrity model and then simply to do the opposite.
Institutional centering vs. institutional collaboration. Where the celebrity model begins with institutional centering—the centering of institutional energy in the life of a single individual—a community-based model would begin with something like institutional collaboration: the centering of institutional energy in structures of collaborative decision-making.
Singular gifting vs. distributed grace. Where the celebrity model begins with the presumption of singular gifting, the community-based model begins with the assumption of distributed grace. In this, the institution is driven by the deep conviction that we are, in fact, a we, and that the gifts God has given to us come not in the form of a single person, but in the form of a gathered people.
Image management vs. quiet embodiment. Where the celebrity model is driven by the work of image management (insert barf emoji here), the community-based model is driven by the work of quiet embodiment. In this, the institution and those who lead it are anchored in the conviction that appearing to be something and actually being that thing are not the same thing; indeed these two things are often at odds. A community driven by this conviction will simultaneously prioritize the quiet and substantive embodiment of faithfulness and view the hasty temptation to create and manage a commodified public image with the utmost suspicion.
Protecting the leader vs. protecting the vulnerable. Lastly, where the celebrity model defaults toward protecting the leader—prioritizing the perceived interests of the leader— a community-based model will defiantly insist on protecting the vulnerable. That is, the institution will relentlessly devote itself to protecting those being unjustly harmed by others—whether those in need of protection are the leaders, or those being harmed at their hands
Let me say again that I neither know the fullness of what a community-based model will entail nor what will be required of me—or of anyone else—as we seek to inhabit it. Even so, I believe that the work of renouncing the power of celebrity in our communities is foundational to any true renewal of the Christian Church in our time. Because of this, I write in the hope of cultivating—in myself and our communities—both the moral instincts and institutional skills necessary for rendering the celebrity model not only no longer prevalent among us but also no longer acceptable to us. For I believe that it will be then, and only then, that we will finally become what God has called us to be, what we long to be, a people of repair.
Thompson will explore more shifts needed to repair the world in the weeks to come.