In the last couple of weeks, I noticed on social media a few evangelicals excitedly sharing a media clip of philosoper-psychologist Jordan Peterson talking about Jesus. The testimony wasn’t clear, but, these Christians seemed to say, Peterson is awfully close to becoming a Christian. The excitement reminded me again of evangelicals’ weird relationship with celebrities — and celebrity conversions.
In case you haven’t heard, hip-hop artist and entrepreneurial mogul Kanye West got saved. That was the word on the social media streets a year or two ago, anyway. Yes, the entertaining provocateur known as much for being Kim Kardashian’s husband as he is for his explicit rap lyrics had publicly professed faith in Jesus Christ. He was being discipled by a Master’s Seminary grad. It was a huge win. There were even some solid pastors and evangelists vouching for the veracity of his conversion. And then West continued saying some very bizarre things in the media and partnering with prosperity non-gospelist Joel Osteen, and now the state of his spiritual journey is a little . . . well, murky.
This story is new, but the phenomenon isn’t. While social media gives us a fresh news cycle every day and the rate at which data points become “old” seems to shrink by the minute, I am “old” enough to remember when evangelicals were celebrating the Christian faith of Chris Pratt, Matthew McConaughey, and Justin Bieber. I don’t mean to say that any of those fellows aren’t really a Christian—only that evangelicals are keen to take any evidence (Pratt goes to church, McConaughey was photographed reading a Lee Strobel book, etc.) as another win for the team, only to lose some interest as the news cycles.
So what do we do when a celebrity professes faith? Should we dismiss the story out of hand because so many of our hopes have been dashed before? Should we go all-in with celebrity Christians, realizing their fame is a currency that can be stewarded for evangelistic influence? I think there is a range of dispositions available to—and perhaps even incumbent upon—evangelicals whenever a celebrity in the secular world professes faith in Christ, but below I’ve summed them up primarily in three important responses.
1. PRAYERFUL JOY
Jesus tells us in Luke 15:7 that heaven rejoices when even one sinner repents. And in keeping with our true citizenship, Christians should rejoice as well. What we saw in some responses to the Kanye West story is a kind of begrudging attitude, the kind that almost sounds like Jonah’s feelings about the Ninevites, an irritation that God might save somebody like that.
Is the real test of repentance in the fruit of a life committed to Christ? Of course. But since we cannot see into the hearts of new converts as the Lord can, we ought to believe the best about them (which is one way of loving our neighbor, if 1 Corinthians 13:7 is to be taken seriously). Let’s be glad when anyone newly professes Christ because it is a reminder that God is still in the business of saving sinners and that the gospel is just that powerful a message.
At the same time, of course, we want our joy over a celebrity’s profession to be filled not with careless assumptions but prayerful petitions. Any new convert is still weak in their faith and in need of care and feeding from the church. When you consider the pressures of platform and the expectations (and temptations) that come with a celebrity’s peers and environments, the pressures on a genuine believer must be enormous. So in our joy at celebrity conversion, let’s remember to pray for them, that they will receive discipleship from more mature believers, be protected from sin, and will begin growing in the faith and learning how to take up their cross daily.
2. GENTLE CAUTION
Unfortunately, the eagerness of many Christians to have celebrities among the fold sometimes means the pressure put on new believers comes from their new community, not from the old. Those of us happy to see a star with the wattage of a Kanye West or the intellectual gravitas of a Jordan Peterson profess faith in Jesus need to be careful that we do not expect too much from them. In other words, if West or Peterson are believers, they are undoubtedly new ones. We should not expect all of their theology to be straightened out from day one. We should not expect the days of their early faith to look like the recent days of long-time followers of Jesus.
The best thing for any new Christian, again, is to receive sound and steady discipleship from more mature believers in a local church. The fact that a new Christian happens to be famous does not mean they ought to be now held up as a Christian spokesperson. When a celebrity gets saved, he does not immediately become endowed with the qualifications of a pastor, one of which, by the way, is that he not be a recent convert (1 Tim. 3:6).
We don’t need to be gracelessly cynical about celebrity conversions, but we should be appropriately cautious. Let’s not expect too much too soon. The profession of genuine faith is just the first tiny bud of a life of fruitfulness. Or, as Charles Spurgeon put it in reference to churches making note of post-invitation “decisions,” let’s be wary of counting unhatched chickies. While we engage in a prayerful joy about the wonderful profession of a celebrity’s faith, let’s also exercise a gentle caution about what is just beginning.
3. GRACIOUS AMBIVALENCE
American Christians love bigness. We assume that bigger is better. Success becomes the measure of faithfulness. These unspoken analytics even come into play when we consider the faith of celebrities. The evangelical subculture tends to love it when famous people even seem Christian, and not always because we are in awe of God’s grace. Too often it’s because we think celebrity endorsement is a kind of validation of our own faith.
If you don’t believe me, you should look around at Christian culture and ask why most of the best selling Christian books are written by stars of reality shows or celebrity pastors of gigantic churches. Ask yourself why we attract people to church services or conferences with the promise of famous athletes, musicians, and the like. None of that is sinful, of course—though, I suppose, it could be, depending on what’s in our heart—but it is quite telling about the weight we put on fame.
Is it a good thing when celebrities get saved? Absolutely! It’s a great thing when anyone gets saved. But we need to remember that the validation of Christianity does not come through celebrity endorsement or popularity—it only comes through Christ. There is no movie, rock, or sports star big enough to make the cross not a scandal and Christ not a stumbling block.
With this in mind, Christians ought to practice a gracious ambivalence about celebrity conversions. Not an unloving apathy. A gracious ambivalence. Gracious, because we love our neighbors, including our famous ones. Ambivalence, because we know that celebrity conversions are not the verification of the gospel or the validation of the church. And because we know that the strength of the church is not in our P.R. or cultural clout, but in the Holy Spirit’s conforming us to the image of Christ, who came humbly and lowly. Our hope, friends, is not in fame or popularity, but in the risen Christ who reigns over all.