Celebrities. You can't escape their influence these days. They pitch causes and products. Their visages fill the pages of magazines. The limelight is so bright, in fact, that a new generation of young people aspires to be famous above most other pursuits.
How is this starry-eyed frenzy affecting ministry? To help provide perspective on the issues of celebrities, the Barna team asked Americans—including born-again Christians—to identify some of the high-profile leaders and celebrities they respect the most. There were four arenas of leadership we explored: entertainment, politics, business and faith.
Under the Spiritual Spotlight
The biggest story among the religious figures tested (see sidebar) is that so few people knew who they are. Some of the highest-profile leaders in the Christian community are virtually unknown to the population at large, including Charles Colson, Rick Warren, Bill Hybels and Andy Stanley.
Christian leaders are unknown, particularly in comparison with other political, business and media personalities. Billy Graham and Pat Robertson are the only leaders recognized by the vast majority of believers. Still, even though Graham and Robertson are both widely known among Christians, they have very distinct reputations: Just 7 percent of born-agains had a negative opinion of Billy Graham, while three times as many felt unfavorably toward the former presidential candidate. Other leaders generated hit-or-miss awareness among Christians. James Dobson was known to half of born-again adults, followed by Franklin Graham, T.D. Jakes, Joel Osteen and Colson. Despite their publishing successes, Left Behind's Tim LaHaye and Warren (of The Purpose-Driven Life fame) were known to only one-quarter of Christians. Meanwhile, several pastors who have reached "superstar" status among their fellow pastors (e.g. Hybels, Stanley) are virtually unknown to born-agains.
The Real Superstars
Not unexpectedly, presidential leaders have almost universal name awareness. However, reflecting a growing ignorance of current affairs among today's Americans, many adults—including many born-again Christians—are unaware of other prominent national figures such as John Ashcroft (41 percent of born-agains were unaware of this former U.S. attorney general) and Nancy Pelosi (more than half were unfamiliar with the first female speaker of the House).
While high-profile entrepreneurs Bill Gates and Donald Trump enjoyed awareness among nearly nine out of 10 born-again Christians, the Microsoft founder was perceived much more favorably than was the man who trademarked the catchphrase "You're fired!"
The survey also confirmed that entertainment leaders enjoy the most widespread name awareness within the Christian community. More than three-quarters of believers are aware of the likes of George Clooney, Paris Hilton and Rosie O'Donnell, while half are familiar with Bono, Natalie Cole and John Grisham.
Do You Like Me?
It's difficult to gauge the actual influence celebrities have on us, since we're not always fully aware of the forces that drive our choices and behaviors. Still, we can examine the potential for influence. One fascinating way to assess this is to examine the percent of born-again Christians who are both aware of the leader and who feel positively inclined toward that personality.
In this way, consider that Oprah Winfrey, Denzel Washington and Graham are the most widely known and respected celebrities among the Christian community. On the flip side, the highest level of negative opinion expressed by Christians related to (in order) Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, O'Donnell, George W. Bush, Trump and Bill Clinton.
Interestingly, in comparing the ratio of positive to negative impressions assigned to each of the people evaluated, Americans hold religious leaders in the same regard as entertainment and business leaders. On average, three out of every four adults has a positive impression of the spiritual leaders whom they are aware of. That's on par with the favorability ratio related to entertainers (74 percent) and businessmen (71 percent). Political leaders (who generated an average favorability of 64 percent) were held in lower esteem.
Impacting the People
There are a number of insights from this study that affect ministry today. The first realization is that born-again adults perceive public figures virtually the same as those who are not born again. The only real area of difference is that they are slightly more aware of and favorably disposed toward spiritual leaders. People's faith in Christ has surprisingly little influence upon their decision-making, which explains why surveys find few distinctives in their lifestyle and values. Not only are most born-again adults surprisingly oblivious to national religious leaders, but they apparently have the same perceptual filter as non-Christians. If nothing else, this suggests that most born-again adults are a work in progress, with their minds still being renewed.
Second, it's important to realize that pastors and church leaders have to forge an uneasy truce with the power of celebrity in our society today. Like it or not, celebrities are a part of our national ethos and identity. Media plays a significant role in shaping the awareness and image of leaders. These individuals wield disproportionate influence—even on the thinking, aspirations, preferences, ideals and values of people in your congregation.
To put this skewed sway in context, consider that even relatively "unknown" entertainment celebrities (e.g. Anne Rice, Patricia Heaton) are as well regarded among Christians as Warren.
In balancing your concerns about this reality, keep in mind these things:
• People in your congregation may have little to no knowledge of the Christian leaders who you believe they ought to know and respect. Assume little about what people know and whom they read. Still, many of these Christian leaders ought to have greater exposure within today's Christian community. In what ways can your ministry cultivate interest and engagement with a diverse set of Christian authors and thinkers?
• Americans are surprisingly ignorant of the cultural forces and current affairs that shape their lives, other than those things that feature prominently in the entertainment sector. One of the tasks of ministry in today's culture should be providing people with a perceptual filter that helps them discern their environment. This should not be driven to give celebrities simple "good" or "bad" labels. You can't tell people what to think, but rather how to think biblically. How can your ministry provide people with a more holistic way of seeing and interacting with their world in light of God's principles?
Finally, among younger generations, recognize that a working knowledge of popular culture is necessary to connect with them. It is an innate part of their experience. Ignoring this part of American life—or failing to have a coherent and biblical approach that addresses artifacts of pop culture—is like going overseas to serve as a missionary and not bothering to learn the language.
You may not like the celebrity culture we inhabit. But God expects us to be wise stewards of every opportunity.
David Kinnaman is president of The Barna Group Ltd. in Ventura, Calif. He and George Barna write a free online research report, available only at barna.org.