I grew up in a unique scenario. When I was thirteen, my mother launched a national homeschooling magazine for which she served as both publisher and editor. Within the first year she had already established relationships with many of the top Christian publishers in the U.S., featured Dr. James Dobson (among others) on the front cover, and became a tour-de-force in shaping the growing homeschooling movement through the late 1980s, ‘90s, 2000s and beyond.
Before the days of the internet (the great leveler), if you wanted to get your name in print, you needed to work through a “gate-keeper.” You couldn’t just blog or post videos online. In order to have an article published, you would have to submit it to an editor who would accept or reject it. Given that most publications published less than a dozen articles per issue, and probably received hundreds of unsolicited submissions, it was rare to be accepted, and it seemed to validate your efforts if someone saw your piece as a diamond among the rubble.
The same was true of book publishing. It took thousands of dollars to get a book into print. (There was no affordable “print-on-demand” at that time.) You needed to work through a traditional publishing company to even get your words on paper, let alone find an audience for them.
To have a radio audience, you had to pay tens of thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of dollars per month to buy airtime on a national network. (Podcasting wasn’t a thing yet.)
TV was out of the question for most individuals, and to reach thousands of people with video, you’d have to be chosen by a network (like winning the lottery) or, again, pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy TV exposure (YouTube wasn’t founded yet.)
One thing I noticed when my mother started publishing and going to industry trade events (such as the National Religious Broadcasters’ or Christian Booksellers’ Convention) was how differently everyone treated her once they found out she was an editor. In fact, I found it interesting how industry people treated other people in general. I’d say most of them followed the popular maxim, that I think was promoted by Dale Carnegie, that you should never spend more than fifteen minutes interacting with someone who can do nothing for you.
Over the years, I have interacted with hundreds (thousands?) of aspiring authors, preachers, conference speakers, radio personalities, TV broadcasters, musicians, and Christian celebrities. There are many people who have wanted to make a name for themselves. When people found out my mother was a gatekeeper who could give them a national platform, they would often fall all over themselves trying to figure out how to exploit that connection for their personal profit and gain. It was amazing how she went from being a regular person that was largely overlooked by important people to someone a lot of people now wanted to “court” in terms of a professional relationship. As a teen, I found all of this intriguing.
I have given a lot of thought over the years about what it is that drives many people to seek a public platform. For me, I simply had one, whether I wanted it or not. Being on the cover of a magazine or being featured in some public way was something that has followed me since my teen years. It was never special to me and I have always been strangely intrigued by those who were fascinated by it. Working in the magazine industry myself for over twenty years, I saw behind the curtain I guess, so the magic of the wizard held no illusion for me in the way it does for many.
I decided in my late teens that I could either run from my inherited public platform or embrace it and try to steward it. Eventually I felt strongly that I had something worth saying and sought to develop an audience of my own. If you are a preacher, it helps to have someone listen to your message. If you are singer, it helps to have someone listen to your song. That makes sense, and I don’t think there is anything innately wrong with that. There is a definite dark side to the Christian “industry” though and especially to the aspect of constantly promoting yourself and putting yourself forward.
My uncle worked in Christian radio in the 1980s and ‘90s. In fact, at one point, he worked for the Number 1 Christian FM radio station (in terms of listenership), and he had the top show on that station (The Morning Show). If my math is right, I think for at least that one year, he had more listeners for a single market radio station than any other DJ in the nation at the time. So, he was quite a local celebrity. It was fun for me to hang out with him at concerts and other Christian events and see people respond to him in much the same way they did with my mother (his sister). The difference was, they weren’t asking anything of him. They just wanted to meet him. They wanted to put a face to the name and voice they connected with every morning.
While I recognized that he had an unparalleled talent in the field of radio (okay, he excelled at anything he did, so it wasn’t his only gift), I knew him simply as my uncle. He was the guy who lived in a simple duplex with his wife and two kids, had a parakeet, and drove older model cars. Unfortunately, Christian radio, much like Christian publishing, doesn’t provide a very lucrative living. My uncle was definitely regionally famous but far from being wealthy or successful if wealth was a primary metric.
I believe the reason some people want fame is because they see it as a means to wealth. They hear stories of celebrities who make fortunes, live in mansions, and drive Italian sports cars because they are singers, authors, conference speakers, etc. I quickly learned, even as a young teen, that was not the reality for most people in the “business.” Even many famous Christian authors and singers make less money than your local dogcatcher. Unless you are a 1%er, you are lucky to barely make a living with your craft. Most traditionally published, non-fiction Christian authors sell about 3,000 copies of their book over the lifetime of the project and get paid about a dollar per copy sold. So, they work a year to get their book in print, promote it like crazy, and make less money then most people get selling MLM stuff on the side.
Being published may be a way to become known, but connecting it to viable revenue (let alone sizeable wealth) is something most authors and singers never end up being able to do (but never stop dreaming of).
It’s funny how many aspiring creative types have the “fake it till you make it” philosophy. I remember one lady who discovered my mother and felt my mom could put her on the map. While it was true that my mother could recognize genuine talent and often rewarded it by granting publication space to people she thought had something to say, she also disdained publicity seekers who wanted to sell themselves more than they wanted to sell a truthful message. There were many people who became leaders in the homeschooling movement who were completely unheard of before being published in my mom’s magazines. She did truly launch many successful careers (including mine).
But this one lady (in her late 40s) wanted it SO BAD! I couldn’t understand why. Her husband was a successful businessman and made more money than we did (so she didn’t need the money). Her writing wasn’t that good, and her ideas were largely subtly plagiarized from people who had original thoughts. She would dress in business apparel and come to our office to meet with my mother. She would open her leather briefcase and lay out her portfolio of any little newspaper or magazine that had published her work.
As I got to know her a bit better, I came to understand that she was in a desperate search for affirmation and praise. Her husband traveled extensively, and it became apparent they were not close. Her only child had moved away and didn’t care to keep in touch. She had very few personal friends and had a need to prove that she could be successful at something. The carefully crafted portfolio scrapbooks she carried with her revealed the intensity with which she craved every single line of commendation for her work. Every speaking event (even to the local rotary club) confirmed in her mind that she was making a difference in the world. I could tell a hundred similar stories, but her example encapsulates most of them.
Worship and Idolatry
As I explain in my article, The Idolatry of Celebrity, the reason most people love Christian singers, authors, TV personalities, sports heroes, etc., is NOT because they actually love those individuals (or even their work). They think they do, but they don’t. The truth is most people love themselves. They don’t want to merely meet those celebrities and be recognized by them; they want to BE those celebrities. It’s covetousness and idolatry. They “worship” those artisans because they see in them the potential for their own success. They want the cheering fans, the passive million-dollar checks that simply arrive in the mail (true fantasy!), and the respect and honor these leaders seem to have attained. For most people, hero worship isn’t mere appreciation, it’s toxic self-seeking. It reveals discontent and an unsatisfied life. It demonstrates that the average idolator doesn’t believe he or she has done enough in their own life to be considered heroic, special, amazing, successful, or worst of all, maybe even meaningful.
The teachings of Jesus and the apostles stand in stark contrast to the mantra of the Christian industry that tells us to throw ourselves out there in search of larger and larger fame and adulation. Jesus said:
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matt. 16:24-26).
The lust for fame is exactly the same as the lust for money. The itch can never be adequately scratched. You always feel that you haven’t quite made it and you need to reach for “just a little more.” To live from this posture of insecurity is damning. It ruins you. It keeps you from truly living. You are always looking towards your big break. You can never truly enjoy the moment because even at the pinnacle of your greatest achievement, you are thinking ahead to your next high. Success is like heroin. The more you get, the more you need, and the more you take, the faster it kills you.
The only solution to this is to become totally secure in who you are right now. Who are you? What makes you valuable? What makes your life meaningful? If you can answer those questions successfully before fame and fortune, you may be able to keep answering them the same way after. But if you can’t, you never will.
You need to know who you are in Christ and your relationship to God through Him. You need to know who you are to your family, and maybe to your friends. You need to know who you are to yourself, even if you don’t have affirmation outside of your own relationship with the Lord. If you are secure in those things, you can create from a place of satisfaction and fulfillment, and it can bless others without impoverishing your own soul. If you haven’t reached a place of peace and contentment there, please don’t seek a platform. It will only destroy you from the inside out.
There are a few Christian leaders I’ve known who seemingly are unphased by their success. They could sell a hundred books or a million books, and it doesn’t matter to them. They know who they are. More importantly, they know whose they are. I am grateful for their example and leadership.
The rest of the Christian industry is like a bunch of orphans running around in Brioni suits. Whether they can afford the image or not, they are desperate for your approval and want to be liked more than you want to be like them. They may not have started out that way, but they have been sucked into the vortex of perpetual self-promotion for the endgame of glorifying self and directing attention to themselves. The message is a mere means to that end. If they have to modify, water-down or compromise the message … so be it. The show must go on.
I’m thankful for people like Billy Graham who used his enormous platform to point people to Jesus. There is nothing wrong, in itself, with having an audience or a following. It can be a good thing. But needing it and craving it … that’s another altogether.