Is There Such a Thing as Celebrity Street Preachers?
As with any topic I cover in my essays there is a personal note in this. I have been engaged in varied levels and styles of what is commonly called Street Evangelism since my salvation in February of 2004. I am not a newcomer to evangelism in the public sphere. At the same time there are days when I feel like a novice or plebe. Mostly, I just perceive myself woefully inadequate for the task. In the formative days and months of my foray into public evangelism I ran across no small amount of well-known men involved in the same work. These men were lauded as experts in field preaching and their words on the topic were taken as gold. Men like Ray Comfort and Tony Miano and Jeff Rose carried the air of celebrity around themselves.
Admittedly, in many cases this was the result of a certain fanboy mentality that is natural to the human condition. Present company included. However, in some cases, the perception of celebrity is not always eschewed by the men who wear the label. Even if it is not “accepted” by them…
Todd, what do You Mean by Cult of Personality?
Merriam-Webster sums up Cult of Personality by saying that a very public figure is presented as someone to be admired or loved. This sounds rather harmless on the face. But what should we take from it in the context of my essay?
Is there an inherent problem with looking to fellow Christians and respecting them and loving them? Of course not. Scripture is abundantly clear in many places that we are to love the brethren and respect them.
However, and this will be hard to stomach perhaps, many of the well-known Christian open-air preachers aren’t just loved and respected. They are lauded as paragons of virtue. Moreover, they appear to hold sway over many people and end up with hedges of protection built up around them. These watchdog-like lackeys will run interference for their “friend” and brother because “they know them so well”. They act as flying monkeys sent out to harass anyone perceived to be a problem. If there is a point of contention in the broader “community” it is expected that the lesser of the two parties kowtow to the wisdom of the celebrity or risk being ostracized.
This is dangerous and sadly I have seen it play out repeatedly over the last several years. On several occasions when in disagreement with a Celebrity street preacher the flying monkeys have threatened to find my elders and contact them about my sinful behavior. All of this is nothing short of a James 2 violation…
Two Examples of what Humility Looks Like
Well maybe several…
Last year I started out on a project to watch and review both good and bad examples of what open-air preaching should look like. I highlighted two men as positive examples right out of the gate. These two men immediately replied in graciousness and humility by asking me to take the video reviews down.
Please note that I did not do what I did out of a sense of fandom. I was literally wanting to commend these two men as examples of what sound and biblically loving street preaching looks like. Yet, they were concerned that not only would my reviews of their preaching be perceived as vain, but also that they would become prideful.
In another case, I reviewed an individual that, frankly, wasn’t up to theological snuff. Instead of getting angry with me and calling me names he graciously accepted my critique and we have become “friends” of sorts through YouTube.
Another example of humble men with some solid theological chops are dear brothers. These brothers can preach the Gospel like nobody’s business. But do you know what they often do when finished preaching? They will ask, “How was that?” or “What can I work on?” They aren’t interested in fame or being well-known. They aren’t trying to build a following or trying to be seen as the end-all-and-be-all of Street Preachers. Instead, they are humble and gentle and kind and ready for correction in a moment’s notice.
Laboring Boldly and Invisibly Without Celebrity
All these men I just mentioned are the preponderance of Street Preachers out there. They labor behind the scenes not trying to make a name for themselves or gain a following. So many men out there are laboring in obscurity, and they prefer it that way.
I will hear from some of them from time to time when they comment on a video on my YouTube channel. Some of them have hundreds upon hundreds of videos. Each of those videos jam-packed with powerful Gospel presentations in out of the way obscure little towns on the fringes of the American hinterlands. Many of them have no subscribers and good video view counts for them will top out at 35. But they don’t post videos to be recognized and receive accolades. They post the videos for accountability and to push the Gospel out into the realm of social media.
Celebrity Status Means Blind Support
Most of us that are adherents to sound theology and labor on the streets and campuses of the USA and even Europe, have had our share of run ins with law enforcement. Most of us will never see our videos picked up by the broader Reformed community and blasted out onto a plethora of platforms.
This isn’t the case for the highfalutin celebrity street preachers. All it takes is for some of these men is to be arrested in Scotland or Great Britain and the video of their arrests will be everywhere in hours. Simply being questioned and cited by an officer in front of an abortion mill in Iowa City Iowa will result in other ministries picking up your video and running with it. (Links to videos is not to endorse said preacher or to endorse the actions of law enforcement, it is merely to demonstrate the fandom that these celebrity types enjoy and how it infects the broader Reformed Open Air Community, a simple view count alone will demonstrate that there is a large amount of favoritism playing into the way certain men are treated…)
James 2 Violations
Cries about the injustice of it all will result in rallying cries for phone calls to be made to the authorities. Demands that charges against our favorite celebrity be dropped will pour in and the celebrity will be made a heroic martyr for the cause. Meanwhile, still others labor in obscurity having near weekly encounters with law enforcement with nary a word of support from those who were previously most vocal.
But why? What causes this? It’s because the unknown preacher is just that, unknown. What happens to the “little” guy doesn’t matter because it just doesn’t have the oomph. No matter how severe the case, the rest of the Street Preaching community just doesn’t care.
How Celebrity can be Used to Further Sin
Almost two years ago I wrote about why I will never be a “full-time missionary” relying on the support of others to Advance the Gospel. It was an easy statement for me to make. I won’t ever be well-known enough to gain that kind of support. Make no mistake, I have received some incredibly gracious gifts over the last few years. Gifts that I have been thankful for. But I have never solicited money or donations from anyone.
Sometimes, the “bigger” the Street Preacher the more likely they are to be a full-time “missionary”. That level of celebrity status puts them in demand to travel to churches and teach and support that church’s local Gospel work. Sometimes, those Street Preachers get pulled away from one church to join another.
This was the case with Tony Miano, a man that was once a friend of sorts. Tony was talked into leaving Grace Community Church (think John MacArthur) to join Grace Fellowship of Davenport Iowa. What makes this particularly problematic isn’t merely the hero worship of Tony. (Something I was terribly guilty of in the past and have repented of.) It is problematic because GFC is a cult and Tony’s celebrity status lends credibility to GFC.
This battle has been raging for several years, but recently it has kicked back up. Many of Tony’s loyalists have doubled down in their support of Tony, insinuating that there is no way he would be involved in such a thing. But here’s the deal. Celebrity Street Preachers are like all celebrities. They need their egos stroked. This is Tony’s story and the leadership of the GFC cult gladly strokes Tony’s ego. And because he is Tony, many will act as flying monkeys and will fight you if you speak out.
A Final Word
I am not writing this to tell people to delete their YouTube accounts or their “ministry” Facebook or Twitter. I am not telling you that having any of those things means you are seeking to be a celebrity. Moreover, I am not insinuating that anyone who falls into the category of celebrity Street Preacher is doomed to fall or become involved in a cult. Sadly, many of them head-up their own cult of personality already.
I am writing to tell you that we need to check our hearts.
First, if you are the guy with an active presence on the streets preaching the Gospel and a social media presence, consider your reasoning for that.
Second, if you feel slighted that no one watches your content you need to go back and read the above point.
Third, preaching the Gospel isn’t about being famous. Count Zinzendorf said, “Preach the Gospel. Die! And be forgotten!” This should mark the motivation for each Street Preacher.
And, if you are one of those that intentionally or unintentionally has made a celebrity or hero out of well-known names in the Street Preaching community, repent. Seek their forgiveness and then confess to God that you may have had an idol.
The last thing the Reformed Street Preaching Community needs is more people lending credibility to cults. Be they cults of personality or actual cults…
Soli Deo Gloria!