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Reporting the Truth.
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Survey: Most Americans Don’t Like Celebrity Pastors or Megachurches

By Josh Shepherd
celebrity megachurch spotlight microphone mic preacher
A national survey has found that most Americans, including Christians, have a low opinion of celebrity pastors and megachurches. (File photo)

A national survey has found that most Americans, including Christians, have a low opinion of celebrity pastors and megachurches. It also reveals a gap in the self-perception of Christians versus how people of “no faith” view believers. 

In a brief released earlier this month, Barna Group, a research firm which specializes in evangelical and religion trends, revealed that only 16% of Americans view megachurches in a positive light. Only 17% of respondents view celebrity pastors positively. 

In contrast, the study found that 71% of Americans view Jesus Christ positively and 63% affirm positive views of the Bible.

The nationally representative Barna survey of 2,005 U.S. adults and teenagers has a margin of error of 2%. It was conducted December 13 to 22 of last year, as part of Barna’s Spiritually Open research project in partnership with Gloo and the He Gets Us campaign.

David Kinnaman, CEO of Barna Group, commented on the findings. “The work of Christians is to embody Jesus—full of truth and grace—and reflect his image in all they say and do,” he said. “The data shows they too often fall short.”

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barna celebrity megachurch
Americans Have Positive View of Jesus & His Message, But Not His Messengers. (Chart: Barna Group)

Katelyn Beaty, author of Celebrities for Jesus, observed that “platforms take even as they give.” She noted that megachurches and nationally known pastors benefit from wide public exposure for their books and messages. But “their moral failings or inconsistencies are (also) exposed to a larger swath of the public,” she told The Roys Report (TRR).

“When they fall, they fall faster and farther than a local pastor or leader who’s off the national media map,” Beaty added.

Another question in the Barna survey asked respondents to “describe present-day Christianity” by choosing from a set of attributes. Researchers compared respondents with Christian beliefs versus those who reported “no faith” and found significant differences in their answers. 

Christians were most likely to consider their faith respected (48%), defined by “good values and principles” (45%), and friendly (43%). In contrast, people of no faith described present-day Christianity as hypocritical (49%), judgmental (48%), and “too involved in politics” (42%). 

barna christian perception
Gaps in How Christians vs. “Nones” View Present-Day Christianity (Chart: Barna Group)

These findings align with a Pew Research survey released earlier this year, which found 60% of evangelical Protestants have a favorable or very favorable view of people holding to their own beliefs. In contrast, 32% of nonevangelicals have an unfavorable view of evangelicals.

“No one likes to think of themselves as hypocrites!” said Beaty, who often works with high-profile Christian authors in her role as editorial director at Brazos Press. 

katelyn beaty
Katelyn Beaty (Courtesy Photo)

In her view, negative perceptions of non-Christian people toward Christian communities and leaders should “serve as a wakeup call.”

“Sometimes, those outside our institutions and entrenched subcultures can see true things about ourselves that we can’t see,” she said. 

Drawing from her book, which provides a historical view on the rise of celebrity culture in faith communities, Beaty noted that many Christians who handle notoriety well came to it “later in life, after seasons of testing and maturity.”

She said Christians who gain a following and retain a humble posture “are committed to being deeply embedded and known in proximity, in-flesh communities. They regularly take stock of their own motives and keep watch against the lure of money and power. (And) they get serious about accountability and seek it out.” 

In a recent podcast edition of The Roys Report, Beaty and host Julie Roys discussed the temptations of publicity and platforms – and how to counter celebrity culture. 

 

 

Freelance journalist Josh Shepherd writes on faith, culture, and public policy for several media outlets. He and his family live in the Washington, D.C. area.

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13 Responses

  1. Accountability. That is the topic we need to read more about. What do churches do how do they approach it who helped them what are the models? The greater the size the more accountability is needed.

  2. I do wonder how the results could’ve been different if different terms were used. “Celebrity pastor” has a negative connotation in many of my circles, but asking about specific well known pastors might’ve yielded different results. Or instead of “Megachurch”, how might be have responded differently if they said do you think very large churches (10,000+ participants on a weekend) are a positive force?

    1. Great points, Andrew and Daniel. How did they define a celebrity pastor? Or a mega church?

      I personally know people who loathe both – but rave about Tony Evans (who can check many boxes of “celebrity pastor”) and his church (that serves WELL over 10k).
      What’s the difference?

      Nothing else in the survey surprised me. :(

  3. This is great insight, though not surprising. I do wonder if Barna defined “megachurch” for the respondents (or if it would have even mattered). The connotations that a church of 800 and a church of 25000 bring up are very different, at least for me.

    I’m not usually a megachurch defender and think that many of them have lost their way…but I do know of some in my city (all affiliated with denominations) that have ministries that no smaller church could dream of having. Many of these are “social services” such as homing veterans, paying for kids lunches, etc. that have received positive local media coverage. I wonder how my local community would answer these questions in light of this?

  4. The problem with the so- called celebrity Pastor is that in America, we love anybody that can swoon us and make us believe what we sometimes know isn’t true. That is largely due to the Biblical illiteracy of professing Christians today. We don’t know the Scriptures, so we’re at the mercy of the charisma and persuasive rhetoric of the Ministers in these large Churches.

    As to Dr. Tony Evans, I’ve known him since 1988, and I can tell anyone that as a person that has been up close and personal with him for all these years, he is the real deal in every way! You .ay not necessarily agree with his exegetical approach to the Scriptures in every instance, but you will NEVER hear about any kind of Scandal on him, ever! He is accountable to the Lord, the Elders of Oakcliff, and yo his adult Children, as he value their views and opinions to the highest degree.

    1. Thanks, Wayne. For clarity, I am a huge fan of Dr Evans, having attended OCBF for a while when I was in the DFW area. My comment was not a swipe at him. I just know that “on paper” he and his ministry check a lot of boxes that could give people pause.
      I have been nothing but blessed by his ministry, and am happy to hear his reputation remains one of integrity and uplifting of the gospel.

  5. Good points Andrew. Having not viewed the original survey, it seems that some of the terms used had survey bias which would affect the response. A good survey clearly defines terms for the respondent.

  6. I’d like to see this poll expanded. “Do people always leave churches because of sin?”.” Should we include the congregation in the definition of ‘worship team’? “Should we abandon Christians, especially singles and widows or divorcees if the y don’t show up for X weeks”? ” Are young people the future of the church?”you(Hint: James 4:13-15).

  7. Did Tony Evans church buy a golf course that sells alcohol? Isn’t his daughter a preacher?

    1. Debra –

      I don’t know anything about the former. But yes, his daughters (Chrystel Hurst and Priscilla Shirer) are also in ministry (authors, women’s ministry speakers), as are his sons Jonathan (pastor) and Anthony (singer).

      1. Thanks Marin! There are several thoughts that usually encourage me to evaluate my own perspective. Yours and Wayne’s are among them.

  8. I look at the church as it is portrayed in the bible and compare it to the modern, American, church of today. One is a group of believers intimately involved in the every day physical and spiritual care of each other. The other is a large corporation that is run by a Pastor/CEO that has some Christians in its membership and the “ministry” is performed by different department heads. It is a far, far, cry from what I believe true Christianity should be, and the world knows it and sees it. Sad.

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