Carl Trueman on American Celebrity Culture

Back in May of 2007, I asked the question, “Are We Creating a Reformed Celebrity Culture?” which, at the time, gained considerable traction.  A year later, Carl Trueman shared some of his concerns about the celebrity culture while reflecting on Collin Hansen’s book Young, Restless, Reformed. Most recently, Trueman again picked up on the cult of personality and celebrity culture in America.  Here’s an excerpt:

I had often wondered why certain British figures – Jim Packer, N.T. Wright, Alister McGrath etc., were much bigger this side of the Atlantic than back home in their native country.  Was it just the accent?  Surely it couldn’t be the dentistry…..?  Maybe the dress sense? No.  It is all to do with the way America is a personality/celebrity oriented culture in a way that Britain, while she may well be catching up, has historically not been.   The American church reflects the culture: ministries built around individuals, around big shots, churches that focus on god-like guru figures, all of them pointing to one door.  I have lost count of the conversations I have had with church people anxious to tell of who they heard at this conference, of which person they corresponded with, of how this opinion or that opinion would not sit well with this demi-god and is therefore of little value; and, of course, of how anyone who disagrees with, or criticizes, this chosen hero must, of necessity be morally depraved and wicked.  People want the gods to do their thinking for them.  All of the Pelagian, Manichean celebrity malarkey of the American political process is alive and well in the church as well.  The question is: when it comes to churches and ministries built around messiahs who are supposed to point not to themselves but to the true door, who is going to have the guts to leave the temple?

My good friend Owen Strachan has interacted with Trueman’s article, and offers these thoughts:

Our culture can leave us susceptible to the vicissitudes of a personality-driven atmosphere, causing us to trust more in the speaker at the conference, perhaps, than in the Lord of the church. Trueman is right about the way some Christians lean too strongly on certain leaders, seemingly aligning themselves more with earthly leaders than the Lord of the church.  The same is true of contempoary political leaders, not least among them our current President.  In sum, his political analysis is generally on target, and he gives some needed cautions about a celebrity church culture.

[ . . .] At the end of the day, I’m sure that I have a great deal of agreement with Trueman.  I would love for American Christians to put way more trust in the church–and more than this, the Lord of the church–than in conferences, speakers, big-name organizations, and the like.  More of us everyday Christians need to invest in the local work of God and give a little less devotion, perhaps, to big-name Christians.

We could all do a little self-examination on this point and consider whether we’ve bought into celebrity Christian culture and how it might be affecting our view of the church and its mission.  But don’t take my word for it–take Carl Trueman’s.

Good words, both from Trueman and Owen, words we need to hear more than just once, or twice.

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15 Comments on “Carl Trueman on American Celebrity Culture”

  1. Thomas Clay Says:

    Unfortunately, the reformed movement is most certainly guilty of creating celebrities. We just held our True Church Conference and Paul Washer had guys wanting to just hold his bible, wanting to take a picture of his office, wanting him to sign their bibles, and someone wanted to wash his feet!

    Bro. Jeff also is bombarded by folks just wanting to get a touch of him. I don’t mean to say that everyone who regards these men highly (and others like Piper, MacArthur, Mahaney, Dever, are guilty of idolatry, but I do think that some in the movement believe that they are incapable making celebrities–and so they deceive themselves. We must guard our hearts with the upmost diligence!

    I know for certain Bros. Jeff and Paul detest this sinful behavior but what is one to do? Loving rebukes were given in the sermons at the conference. But they also have a deep passion to help brothers who have a genuine desire to reform churches.

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  3. Matt Privett Says:

    I wrote about this phenomenon a little bit when Dr. Piper preached for three days in chapel a couple of years ago. It has been my observation that even some in the Reformed camp are in danger of falling into that old Corinthian trap – I am of Piper, I am of Driscoll, I am of MacArthur, etc. At the end of the day (and at the beginning and all points in between) we are called to worship God and love His word… I pray that believers would worship the God this men preach instead of focusing so much on personally seeing or hearing the men themselves.

  4. sam Says:

    I think this is a by-product of the “conference culture” as well. How many conferences are there now? Reformed and non-reformed? C3, innovation, Catalyst, Catalyst west, The Sticks, Desiring God, True Church, Together for the Gospel, Shepherds, Advance, resurgence, Ligionier,Unleashed, churchplanting, etc. Then you have the one timer conferences like Building Bridges and Thr3e

    There are far too many conferences. And the speakers that are invited are done so by the size of their church often times. AND it ends up being the same group of speakers that rotate through these conferences in their respective “circles”.

    I know this is a little off topic but i think that these conferences are partially responsible for creating these pastor “celebrities”. It begs the fundamental question. Why so many conferences? Is it a failure of the local church to disciple? Why do para-church ministries like Catalyst exist? AND who is funding these conferences? The local congregation. It is also the local congregation that enables these “celebrities” to speak at so many conferences throughout the year. Is that really the calling of a pastor, though?

    I am not saying that conferences do not have value but i just wonder, especially in today’s economy, how these conferences and fees can be justified? Is this appropriate stewardship?

  5. Alan Cross Says:

    I agree. I am worn out by the conferences. I like getting together with brothers, but I really am not interested in listening to speaker after speaker go on and on. It would be much cheaper and more approachable if they would make a video and stick it on Youtube. Or, if the conference would just get them to submit videos of themselves preaching and then we could all go to the website and watch it.

    Conferences in this day and age would be much better if they were far more interactive. I’d like to be in conversation with other attenders about issues far more than I would like to just hear speaker after speaker – and the same speakers at that.


    This is a good post. Our celebrity culture is ridiculous. Even moreso in the church. It denigrates the gospel and Jesus Christ.

  6. D.L. Kane Says:

    So many thoughts come to mind regarding this topic:

    1) These men (Washer, Piper, MacArthur) clearly have a “global”, “universal” passion for the church and for Christ. They have a burden for the entire “body of Christ” not just their local congregations. They see the situation in the current Christian culture and their hearts bleed. My heart bleeds.

    2) My soul hungers to unite with believers from all over to worship God where the truth of God is preached with power, passion, and without compromise.

    3) It is crystal clear that (down through Church History) God has gifted and called specific men to this kind of ministry and have placed a burden on their hearts for the “universal” church and those professing Christ have been guilty of “idolizing” such men.

    I think of Paul’s letters to the early churches; I think of Christ’s warnings to the churches in the book of Revelation; I think of the itinerant preachers that came to a town and thousands would gather, from all different churches, to hear the Word preached.

    The problem is not with the conferences. They are clearly a blessing from God. The problem is with those who attend the conferences for the wrong reasons and with the wrong motivations.

    Nothing new with that: For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal?

    Yes, some will follow a man. But, it has been my experience that God is using these men and these conferences in a mighty way to restore hope, to edify, to create unity, to strengthen and to encourage the “body” of Christ universally regardless of denominational loyality. Let us do nothing to discourage that!

    D.L. Kane

  7. sam Says:

    I would disagree. I think the conference “culture” is creating “celebrity” pastors. It gives them a much larger stage. Most of these speakers of these conferences are pastors of a church. Isnt their first and primary obligation to their local church where they supposedly have been “called” (that’s a whole other subject for another day).

    AND do these national stages that conferences offer pastors serve to skew some pastors motivation and methods in growing their local church in order to make some para-church’s magazine’s list of top growing churches and to be invited to speak at conferences and do the whole “circuit”. Because lets face it, size of the congregation is why many of these pastors are invited to speak.

    I am not making a blanket indictment by any means. But merely exploring one area that I believe that has given rise to the “celebrity culture” among pastors today.

    DL Kane, that is a pretty blanket statement and subjective one at that to say that conferences are a blessing from God when some of these conferences have given platforms to men like TJ Jakes, Rob Bell, and Brian McLaren to name a few.

    I really think it all boils down to the local church. The pastor of the local church should have a heart for his people first and foremost. That is the pastor’s first and primary responsibility.

  8. D.L. Kane Says:

    Sam – I very much appreciated your insight. It is often difficult to convey a point in the limited space of a blog comment.

    You are absolutely correct in pointing out that “Conferences” (generically speaking) are not necessarily a blessing from God anymore than any Pastor at a local church is necessarily called by God to be a Pastor or is actually a “blessing from God”.

    Thank you for clarifying that.

  9. D.L. Kane Says:

    Sam, one thing to consider. Would you discourage a person who thinks that they are Christian, and their local Pastor is Joel Olstein, from attending a conference where Al Mohler and John Piper might me proclaiming the Word of Truth?

    There are many local pastors who are not called by God to shephard His flock.

  10. sam Says:

    No, of course i wouldnt discourage a person who attends Joel’s church to attend a conference where Piper and/or Mohler woudl be speaking. However, that same person could listen to Mohler or Piper via podcasts.

    AND, more so i would encourage that person to be in the Word daily so they could discern if Joel’s church was the type of church that they should be attending.

    Yes, I agree about the local church and i think the rise of these conferences that are partially responsible for the “celebrity culture” are because the local church has failed to disciple its people.

    And let me make a needed distinction here lest one think that I am lumping all conferences together. There is quite a difference between conferences that are centered around the latest church growth methods, being creative, innovative, etc versus those centered around sound biblical teaching.

  11. D.L. Kane Says:

    Sam – I had a feeling we were on the same track. Thank you for taking the time to express and clarify. We live in very difficult times and I am certain God is using all of this to call us all to a deeper, more Christ centered awareness.

  12. Thomas Clay Says:

    The one strength of our having the True Church Conference is that folks can come here and see for themselves the results of faithfully preaching the gospel, of having elders, of practicing church discipline in our people. You can’t get that from podcasts. You can only get that from being on sight and seeing and interacting with our people for yourself.

    I say that realizing that conferences draw some who are there for the wrong reason. Our pastor was incredibly encouraged by conferences that he attended when experiencing great trials for reforming our church and he just wants to give to other men that same encouragement who are striving to do the same in their local churches.

    That’s why I don’t agree that it is just the conferences being held that are the cause of the problem. The problem lies in the hearts of those who quickly make idols out of man.

    Jesus drew men who came for the wrong reason but that didn’t stop Him from carrying out His mode of ministry. He rebuked those who came for the wrong reason and blessed those who, by grace, saw Him for Who He really was, and is.

  13. graceshaker Says:

    i dont have a problem learning from men like piper and sproul and driscoll etc but i think the problem is when we only learn from them and not our local body. and if a preacher thinks his role is to teach but he isnt willing to learn from the people hes teaching? thats a big mistake.

  14. John Inman Says:

    Thought of your post when I saw this at the seminary today.

  15. In response to Carl’s statement in that post, “we all know none of this is going to happen,” I can tell you that we have accepted Dr. Trueman’s challenge. The 2012 Banner of Truth U.S. Ministers’ Conference will be promoted without reference to who the speakers will be. We have long agreed with this opinion, as can perhaps be seen in our annual “line-up” of speakers. Therefore, we will promote the Banner of Truth conference for what it is and has been every year – three days of solid, soul-nourishing refreshment from the Word of God, intimate fellowship among like-minded men in ministry in a smaller conference setting, time for reflection and prayer, and singing by hundreds of male voices that is simply hard to describe! … all regardless of whether you recognize the name of the man in the pulpit, or not! By the way, the 2011 conference is coming up May 24-26 and there is still room. Online registration can be found under “Events” at and the speakers are … whoops!
    Thank you.
    Steve Burlew, Manager
    Banner of Truth, North America

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