It happened again this weekend.
I was going through my normal weekend routine at the Summit when somebody walked up to me and – in a hushed whisper usually reserved for only CIA-level conversations – said, “Hey, did you know that ______ is here?” (Although they actually filled in the blank, because otherwise that would be just weird.)
And sure enough, _____ was there. At our church. Staring at our video screens. Sitting in our seats. Shoot, maybe even taking advantage of our plumbing facilities.
You see, we’re not a special church. We’re just a big church. And we’re a big church with lots of people who have lots of relationships, and sometimes those relationships yield an invitation to someone with a big name. And sometimes, those big names show up.
Over the years we’ve had collegiate sports stars, local TV personalities, up-and-coming NBA players, NASCAR drivers, big-time politicians, and even the occasional musical prodigy. And every time I get wind that one of these folks is at one of our campuses, I want to meet them at their car, pull them to the side, and say, “Before you walk through that door, let me go ahead and ask your forgiveness, because you’re about to see a bunch of Jesus people lose their ever-lovin’ minds.”
And the reason is, we don’t know how to deal with celebrities in our culture, much less in our churches. We don’t know what to do with the star athlete who’s worshipping with abandon two rows up. We don’t know how to treat the person we’ve seen on the national stage when they take communion out of the same dish that we do.
Now don’t get me wrong: I can be star struck just as much as the next guy. Remind me sometime to tell you the story of when I stood beside Wynona Judd in a Lifeway Store in downtown Nashville. (Actually, that’s pretty much the whole story. So scratch that future blog post.)
I’m grateful for the fact that “big names” are visiting our church. I’ve had the chance to strike up conversations and/or develop friendships with some of these men and women from time to time, and have found every one of them to be genuinely likeable, down-to-earth, put-their-diamond-studded-skinny-jeans-on-one-leg-at-a-time folks just like you and me.
And yes, we can and do use the influence of these folks occasionally, with their permission, of course. We’ve featured Duke football players and UNC basketball players in videos and interviews. We try to be very careful, strategic, and appropriate with those things, because we recognize that even in getting a person of note to tell their story, we can be guilty of exploiting them.
I also recognize that part of being a celebrity means that they have a certain expectation they’ll be approached for an autograph or a photo op. My argument is not that we should ignore celebs and leave our autograph books woefully empty (except in the case of Kim Kardashian: Let it go, Kimmy!). My argument is that we should decrease the culture of fame inside our churches so that we can increase the fame of Jesus.
So here’s one pastor’s meager attempt to help us gain a bit of sense when it comes to celebrities at our church. After all, I know a bit about celebrity culture, myself. I once had a lady hound me incessantly at a Denny’s for my autograph. (Turns out it was just the waitress trying to get me to sign my credit card receipt, but still…)
- Create the culture. I tell our First Impressions team often that it’s our job to create the culture for the weekend. If you’re a leader of any sort, the same goes for you as well. Leaders, you set the tone for this. The way you react and snap photos and point and gawk will give others permission to do the same. We’ll serve the church (and the celebrity) well when we maintain a sense of normalcy as much as possible.
- Honor their space. To you, they’re a big deal. But to them, they’re just trying to go to church. Don’t stare. Don’t point. Don’t whisper. Don’t ask them, “Hey, do you know who you are?!?” (Trust me. They do.) And above all, if they’re sitting close to the front, don’t you dare try to get a seat beside them when you haven’t exited the back row in six years, you stinkin’ hypocrite.
- Let them be “off.” They get enough requests for special favors in the public eye. Let the church be their sanctuary (pun intended). Think about it: if you’re a professional, there are times you just want to be Average Joe. Doctors don’t want to diagnose your rash at a dinner party. Accountants don’t want to give you tax advice at a ballgame. And as a preacher, if I never pray for another dead chicken at another family reunion, that’ll be okay by me.
- Focus on what you can give, not on what you can get. Sure you should engage them in conversation if the opportunity naturally arises. But rather than asking for an autograph or a photo or jockeying for tweeting rights, how about giving them some affirmation, some encouragement, a word of welcome? That holds true for all of us, but especially a certain 15 year old son of a certain Connections Pastor who had a certain celebrity sign a certain arm cast yesterday. (You know, hypothetically speaking.)
- Give them their privacy. Don’t broadcast on Twitter, Facebook, or any other manner of social networks that they showed up. Doing so escalates the celebrity-crazed culture that we find ourselves in, and makes it harder for them to worship unhindered on their next visit.
- Pray for them. If the celebrity is not a believer, pray that the Holy Spirit would work in them during the few moments they’re here. Pray that God would take their national stage and turn it into a platform to make much of himself. And if they are a believer, pray that their faith would strengthen and they would get beyond common temptations that money and fame tend to bring.
Should we celebrate the celebrity when they come to our churches? Absolutely we should. But we should also celebrate the business professional, the plumber, the homemaker, the college student, and the skeptic. We should celebrate every single guest that God sends our way, because they’re all the outsiders that we’re called to make insiders.
James had some strong words to say about singling out people in church for special honor. Let’s be careful that we’re not making a bigger name out of a celebrity than we’re making of The Name that we’re supposed to point the celebrity to.