The dangerous lure of "Celebrity Christianity"

David Burchett

Tom Krattenmaker wrote a thoughtful piece about the career and ministry of soon to be (this Saturday) Hall of Fame pro football player Reggie White. Sadly, White died in December of 2004. Here are some excerpts from Krattenmaker’s article published in USA Today last week.  My comments are italicized.
On Saturday, the late Reggie White will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The "Minister of Defense" — he was an ordained minister who had a passion for Christian evangelizing during his stellar playing career — will be extolled for his quarterback-sacking prowess, service to the community and commitment to his family and Christian faith.

Amid the deserved praise that will pour forth in the speeches and media coverage, there probably won't be much, if anything, said about another important but less easily swallowed chapter of White's story — namely, his post-retirement disavowal of much of what he stood for as the Jesus-praising champion of jock evangelism. As the greatly changed White put it shortly before his premature death, at age 43 of cardiac arrhythmia in December 2004, "(God) doesn't need football to let the world know about him."

For those who don't follow sports, White was a superstar defensive lineman in the 1980s and '90s, playing primarily for the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers. Not only was he a star on the field, selected to the Pro Bowl a record 13 times, but he was also an exemplar in the now-common practice of using athletic stardom to spread the evangelical Christian message. A frequent speaker at churches and religious events, a man quick to turn post-game interviews into opportunities to proclaim God, White probably did more than any other sports star to usher in the conspicuous religiosity that we witness in pro sports today.

As a player, White correctly sensed that his preaching wasn't welcomed by all fans. But he stormed past that disapproval as though it were just another lineman blocking his path to the quarterback. As he said in one live post-game TV interview during his days with the Packers, "God allowed me to use this game as a platform to proclaim the name of Jesus. ... I know some people don't like what I say sometimes, but God has called me to preach a message, and I have to preach the message."

Disclaimer. I was a staff member of Athletes in Action for five years from 1975–80. I loved AIA and the people we met there. Some of the finest Christians I have had the privilege of knowing were a part of that group. I was a big supporter of the idea of using the platform of famous athletes to communicate the gospel. I begin to question that by the end of my time with AIA and I continue to ponder the issue a quarter of a century later. Before I tip my hand…more of the USA Today story.

Contrast that with the White who emerged shortly before his unexpected death nearly two years ago. "When I look back on my life, there are a lot of things I said God said. I realize he didn't say nothing. It was what Reggie wanted to do. I do feel the Father ... gave me some signals ... but you won't hear me anymore saying God spoke to me about something — unless I read something in Scripture and I know."

White made the comments in a remarkable and largely overlooked interview with NFL Films that aired just days before his death. There was much more. "Prostituted" is a strong word, but it's exactly how White described the way he had been used by sports ministries and other evangelical groups eager to capitalize on his fame.

"Really, in many respects I've been prostituted," White said. "Most people who wanted me to speak at their churches only asked me to speak because I played football, not because I was this great religious guy or this theologian. ... I got caught up in some of that until I got older and I got sick of it. I've been a preacher for 21 years, preaching what somebody wrote or what I heard somebody else say. I was not a student of Scripture. I came to the realization I'd become more of a motivational speaker than a teacher of the word."

The candidness of White hit at the core of my concerns. Please hear me out. There are wonderful people involved in the various ministries to athletes. Many of them are my friends. But the celebrity, power, and money of professional athletes creates a dangerous temptation. Some ministers with impure or perhaps naive motives have indeed hurt the spiritual development of these athletes. Paul cautioned about throwing immature young believers into leadership. While this is not about becoming a church leader I think the principle is important here. We were often quick to send immature athletes into speaking engagements and interviews which placed pressure on them that they were not prepared to deal with. Paul said a church leader must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil.  I have seen that warning play out in real life with men and women who were not grounded on the rock before they were “displayed” as Christians. Back to the article.

Some initially misunderstood White's changed rhetoric as a sign that he had lost religion. Hardly. Tired of having the meaning of faith spoon-fed to him so that he could spoon-feed others, White decided to learn Hebrew so he could study the original texts of the Old Testament — go straight to the source, in essence.

White told his NFL Films interviewers that some Christian ministers had warned people to stay away from the new, heretical Reggie. That's deeply regrettable. White had something important to say on an issue that is far from settled — the appropriate place of religion in pro sports.

Also, as White apparently came to believe, blending faith with pro sports and commerce might not, in the end, be good for religion. Is justice done for the purpose and power of faith when victorious players claim that God intervened so one Christian player might outdo another? Or when ministries put biblically illiterate celebrities on a pedestal to promote religion as though it were just another product endorsement?

"I used to have people tell me, 'God has given you the ability to play football so you could tell the world about him,' " White said shortly before his death. "Well, he doesn't need football to let the world know about him. When you look at the Scriptures, you'll see that most of the prophets weren't popular guys. I came to the realization that what God needed from me more than anything is a way of living instead of the things I was saying. Now I know I've got to sit down and get it right."

Unfortunately, death allowed him very little time to do that.

I wish Reggie would have stayed with us awhile longer to see what that pursuit looked like in his life. But I think he was exactly right. God does not look at the glamor of our careers or our celebrity status to further His kingdom.  Our values are too often not God’s values. If I were God and I was marketing Christianity I would hire a high powered marketing/advertising campaign. I would round up some celebrity Christians and produce feel good spots with great production and moving music. 

But that is not the plan that God has chosen. God has chosen to use idiots like me to fulfill the Great Commission. And that is lived out in the day routines of life. I believe that everything a Christian does has the potential to be sacred. No matter how “unglamorous” my lot in life might be I have the daily potential to worship and glorify God by my work, my spirit, and my life. My work can be worship. Going to the store can be worship. Reaching out to my neighbor can be worship. Because all of those can be about glorifying God and demonstrating that He is real in my life and in this world. God’s plan is not about celebrity…it is about obedience. I no longer am a fan of celebrity Christianity. I am always happy to hear that movie star A or athlete B has come into a relationship with Christ. But I expect nothing from them. I am just happy that they are part of the family.

God does not need celebrities to accomplish His plan. God wants every person He has called to Himself to be obedient and love Him. I am pretty sure that the God of Creation is not depending on Dave Burchett to make sure the sovereign plan gets put into place. I have the privilege of being a servant in the plan…not the pride of being necessary. My heart is exactly with my brother Reggie White. I want to “sit down and get it right”.  Pray for the White family this weekend as they feel the loss of a great man. A man who was honest and faithful and real. May I have the courage to always evaluate my life like Reggie White evaluated his own.  In the light of God’s Word and the transparency of complete honesty.