The message vs. the messenger

The celebrity worship prevalent in evangelicalism poses great risk to the soul

Posted: Thursday, December 13, 2007

If you spend any time within evangelicalism, you hear people speak in reverential tones about the pastor at this church, the seminar led by this speaker or the book by this author. It's easy to feel as if you need to hear that speaker, attend that church or read that writer to establish your credentials as a believer.

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The number of icons and rituals within one of the nation's most influential movements is actually surprising. Evangelicalism prides itself on being decentralized. Whereas Catholics put a premium on popes, bishops, saints, stations of the Cross and various forms of hierarchy and rituals, evangelicals see themselves as needing no mediator between themselves and God.

That actually isn't the case. Evangelicalism suffers from a worship of icons.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, long before evangelical celebrities like Jerry Falwell stepped forward, there was no bigger Christian icon than Francis Schaeffer. The theologian and his family ran L'Abri Fellowship in Switzerland, where he attempted to give an evangelical response to the day's counterculturalism.

Long before Rick Warren and other modern evangelicals embraced environmentalism, Dr. Schaeffer held forth at seminars about Christians' responsibility to respect the environment and eschew the materialism of the age.

Some friends and I joined several other students in making our way to L'Abri in the summer of 1977. We spent three wonderful months working and studying, trying to come to grips with bigger-picture issues, such as how to view the larger culture.

As instructive as that time was, there was no doubt Francis Schaeffer was a worshipped figure. Now we learn from his son, Frank Schaeffer, just what a toll that icon status took on his father and the Schaeffer family.

Writing in his new book, "Crazy for God," he describes how the platform his father built for himself warped all sense of personal and family normalcy.

Dr. Schaeffer and his son later went on to help birth the religious right, which became the epitome of evangelical icon worship. The sway that charismatic figures like Pat Robertson, James Dobson, James Robison and Falwell had on the early movement is undeniable. The shepherds led the sheep directly into the Republican Party.

Now, Frank Schaeffer warns about the danger of hitching your wagon to icons.

He even laments the role he and his father played in starting the evangelical political movement. They joined up because of their opposition to abortion but got sucked into the whole ticket - telethons, lucrative speaking circuit, adoring fans.

Evangelicals really should pay attention to this message. The movement is undergoing one of its most important changes in a generation. New leaders like Warren are stepping forth with a different, often important vision. Meanwhile, old leaders are fighting to keep their grip (see James Dobson and his never-say-die culture war) or passing away (see Falwell's death this spring).

As this transition occurs, evangelicals have a rare chance to rethink whether the worship of leaders is healthy for their movement. And how much is consistent with the Gospel.

I happen to think Frank Schaeffer is right when he says:

"Big-time American Christianity is incompatible with the Gospel. It is part of the entertainment business. No matter what you think you are doing, you are really just another celebrity in a celebrity-obsessed culture."

Yes, I also realize that any movement will have its torchbearers. Liberalism had FDR; conservatism had Ronald Reagan.

Still, the existence of torchbearers doesn't mean worshipping them is healthy. For one thing, says Darrell Bock of the evangelical Dallas Theological Seminary, icons can lead a movement off the skids.

In my book, that's what Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and Ralph Reed did. So did Francis Schaeffer with his later-years obsession with abortion.

The danger celebrity worship poses to the soul is the greatest risk of all. By placing so much attention on this hot speaker or that great conference, the things that prompt Frank Schaeffer to call evangelicalism "a series of personality cults," you soon have people worshipping personalities.

Where's God in all that?

• William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Readers may e-mail him at

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