Katelyn Beaty, Christianity Today’s first female managing editor who now serves as editorial director of Brazos Press, is exploring the cost of idolizing male evangelical leaders in her second book, Celebrities for Jesus (Brazos, Aug 16). Beaty draws on her journalistic background to analyze how celebrity has become a corrupting force in the church and why stories of power abuse have become so ubiquitous in the book, which PW called “a must-read for anyone invested in the fate of evangelicalism “ in our starred review.
Similar to Beaty’s first book, A Woman’s Place (Howard, 2016), which illustrated how womanhood and work can have a thriving coexistence, the idea for Celebrities for Jesus began during Beaty’s Christianity Today days. Between 2012 and 2016, the CT staff received several tips about allegations against famous Christian leaders and household names of the evangelical world related to sexual misconduct and financial impropriety. Beaty was particularly disturbed in 2014 after evangelical minister and author Ravi Zacharias had allegedly been seen with a woman who wasn’t his spouse or colleague in a hotel. Beaty, who had listened to Zacharias’s apologetics talks in college and read some of his books, felt ashamed that he had hurt so many people as well as the credibility of what he professed.
“The cognitive dissonance between how he presented himself and his character against the nature of these allegations was really hard to grapple with,” Beaty tells PW. She recognizes that many others shared her sentiment when the allegations were finally reported in 2021; they were confirmed as true by an investigation later that year.
The allegations against Zacharias and others led Beaty to question celebrity pastors and their popularity. “I started to feel like maybe the leading lights of contemporary evangelicalism are not who they present themselves to be,” she says. It led her to ask: “Why has this evangelical movement in the U.S. oriented itself so much around famous individual pastors, missionaries, evangelists, and writers over and against the local church?” These allegations led Beaty to the central mission behind Celebrities for Jesus: “I wanted to essentially diagnose our obsession with celebrity in the church and help fellow Christians recapture a vision of ordinary faithfulness,” she says.
To get to the root of the problem, Beaty had to look at more than just the celebrities themselves. “These stories of fallen celebrity leaders aren’t just about the individuals and their behavior; they’re also about systems that build up around them that essentially allow them to evade accountability,” she explains.
One example she cites is Bill Hybels, the former pastor and founder of Willow Creek Community Church, which at its height had more than 25,000 congregants. Allegations of sexual misconduct by Hybels were reported in 2018, leading him to resign from the church later that year.
Pastors like Hybels, who garner such gargantuan congregations and effectively reach celebrity status, tend to move further and further from the traditional pastor role. Though Beaty admits her bias as an attendee of a smaller church, she believes in the importance of a pastor’s visibility and availability for individual spiritual care. In megachurches, most congregants never have one-on-one interactions with their pastor. And pastors who preach through social media run the risk of becoming more like entertainers than spiritual shepherds. “It cuts against the core essence of what spiritual leaders need to be able to do to lead and serve well,” she says.
Though Beaty believes the megachurch model does not lend itself to community and connection, she doesn’t see its popularity waning in the coming years. “I think megachurches have proven to be a durable and successful model of church in the United States and lots of Christians are very much drawn to that model,” she says. Beaty believes looking for leaders who welcome accountability and understand power dynamics will help prevent future cases of fallen celebrity pastors. She also advises wariness toward leaders who cultivate a physically attractive image, citing Hillsong New York pastor Carl Lentz as an example.
Beaty’s message carries a special significance for publishers, because when celebrity pastors prove to be undeserving of their status, it can tarnish the reputation of their supporters. In 2014, LifeWay Christian Resources pulled Mars Hill founding pastor Mark Driscoll’s title A Call to Resurgence after he was accused of plagiarism and inflating his book sales. He had also recently been asked to resign from his church amidst allegations of abusive leadership.
“Embedded in the book is a call for Christian publishers to return to their original mission to seek to work with authors who have an important message and great writing, and to not be overly deferential to authors who have large platforms,” Beaty says.
Jim Kinney, executive v-p at Baker, agrees. “If we’re brokering a message to a reader, we want to make sure that it’s a message with integrity.” He hopes that Beaty’s book challenges those in the publishing industry to “take a more careful look at the people we’re publishing.” He also believes her message holds an important message for the church: “The trappings of success we accept as normal for some high-profile Christians come laced with potential dangers,” he says.
When it comes to her role at Brazos, Beaty hopes to “create a publishing program that meets the needs of thoughtful Christians and engages contemporary cultural issues with nuance and depth,” and this includes authoring more books herself. While she plans to wait until Celebrities for Jesus publishes before thinking about her next book, topics that interest Beaty include purity culture and how political polarization has affected the local church.
Publicity for Celebrities for Jesus will include an event at the Baker Book House bookstore in Grand Rapids, Mich. in the fall, and Beaty’s podcast, Saved by the City, will feature a summer series on the book’s topics.