An article in a journal called Faith and Leadership posits as its title the question "Why are there so few mainline celebrities?" You can read the article for yourself, but for me it was a bit of a befuddling slog to contemplate if only because of a tremendous lack of definition, particularly of the key word "celebrity." Nonetheless, if the question itself is not necessarily a helpful one, it is nonetheless useful for raising other questions that might be more helpful or more illuminating in considering where the church stands more generally, and the condition of the mainline in particular. So this is an old favorite kind of blog entry for me: one in which I address a question by asking a bunch more questions. So, here goes:
1. In this context, what exactly do you mean by "celebrity"? Who defines it? As best as I can tell, the author's main criteria for "celebrity" seem to involve book sales and televised "ministries" (I feel that to be a very loose use of that word, but don't have a better one at hand), with a particular interest on the latter. If you go by that as your primary definition, I have an easy answer for the author's question: because being that kind of "church celebrity" is frankly gross. Who in the world wants that? (To be fair, one anonymous pastor does seem to be quoted in the article as expressing that sentiment.)
Of course, this requires another qualification, namely that we are talking about a very limited and specifically defined kind of "celebrity" here, celebrity within the limited but sometimes white-hot cauldron of "church culture." And again, this also begs a pretty quick answer to the author's original question: because that cauldron of church culture caters primarily to that portion of the church carrying the name "evangelical," the "celebrities" formed in that culture are going to be folks who tell that culture what it wants to hear, i.e. other evangelicals. That culture writ large isn't particularly interested in hearing from Walter Brueggeman or Carol Howard Merritt, and such "mainliners" as do appear among the big-ish names (thinking of Rachel Held Evans here) tend to do so as objects of hatred.
On the flip side, you get yourself among the right mainliners and mention Walter Brueggeman's name and the room gets all glassy-eyed and dreamy and starts rhapsodizing about any one of his several dozen books and how it changed their life. In the mainline, Brueggeman is about as much a "celebrity" as there is. Held Evans (who is, of course, a recently signed free agent for the mainline roster, as a fairly new Episcopalian) is popular, to be sure, at least as much as an object lesson ("see what they do to you?") as for her writing (and note that she is not a pastor, which means of course that the televised megachurch route to fame isn't really open to her anyway). Other mainliners might point out the likes of Diana Butler Bass or Carol Howard Merritt as having a pretty strong following in the mainline. (This also begs the acknowledgment that of those four potential mainline celebrities named, three of them would be very specifically disqualified from speaking in the pulpits of a lot of evangelical churches or colleges. Just making an observation there.)
But again, this definition also leaves out the possibility of other "famous" mainliners (or evangelicals for that matter), who actually do exist. Even if he's been dead many years now, we Presbyterians will always have the record for The Most Bestest Ever Ever Ever Famous Person in the United States of America, namely Fred (Mister) Rogers, and no denomination will ever top that. (Insert smile emoji here.)
Now, let's try a living person: if you're a fan of Pixar movies you may well recognize the name Pete Docter. Even if not you probably recognize the titles Inside Out, Up, Monsters, Inc., and the various Toy Story movies. He wrote and directed Inside Out, Up, and Monsters, Inc., and created the original story for the Toy Story movies. Dude's a Presbyterian, too. In the larger world that would count for a level of fame well beyond any "church celebrity," but Docter is known for movies, not for being Presbyterian (and certainly not for arguing about it). We are talking about a tempest in a teapot here, for sure, by comparison to most sane definitions of "celebrity."
2. Is such celebrity necessarily a good thing? You know who else was a "mainline celebrity"? Norman Vincent Peale. I'm not sure how the Reformed Church in America feels about Rev. Peale today, but back in the day he was one of them, and a big freaking deal to boot. He's the guy who wrote The Power of Positive Thinking, one of the more controversial books to be issued by a clergyperson of any type in the twentieth century, denounced as both a psychological and theological disaster. Nonetheless, it caught on with a lot of folks, and persisted as a general frame of mind even in the face of widespread denunciation. (Backintheday he was a favorite pastor of both Richard Nixon and Donald Trump, if that gives you any idea.)
It would be hard to imagine Peale as a mainline pastor today, but when you start surveying the history of "mainline celebrities" from past decades and Peale is the type you wind up with, you're going to be naturally turned off from the idea of celebrity.
3. Would "celebrity" necessarily be all that helpful to the mainline? For that matter, has it been all that useful to evangelicalism? Do book sales and TV ratings points necessarily translate into spiritual integrity and maturity? (From here the evidence suggests not.) Are the products of evangelical celebrity necessarily beneficial to the "consumers" of the products of that celebrity? (Again, straining to see here... .) If your goal is anything beyond "butts in seats," what good does celebrity do?
Of course, the drawbacks of celebrity are pretty obvious when celebrity becomes notoriety. While "church world" gets all a-flutter when scandal erupts around the likes of Mark Driscoll or Steven Furtick, there are plenty of us whose first reaction to those scandal stories was something along the lies of "I'm sorry, who now?" The old saw "the bigger they are, the harder they fall" most definitely applies here. Ugly ethical horrors are bad enough; having them happen under the magnifying glass of celebrity, even small-scale celebrity, only amplifies the ugliness and rancor.
And even if we expand our gaze to the realm of "real" celebrity, what exactly about that world recommends itself to the mainline?
3a. Is it even possible to be a "celebrity pastor"? Yes, it's clearly possible to be a celebrity preacher -- we've got a bunch of those walking around for better or worse. But a celebrity pastor, in anything more than title? Performing the functions and roles and ministries that happen outside the pulpit?
Seriously, how would that work? TV cameras following the celebrity pastor on hospital visits? So paint me dubious on this one.
Now, to be clear to the point of transparency, I'm no candidate for "mainline celebrity" status even if I were ever to want it, which I don't. I pastor a small church, and am pretty unlikely to pastor anything like a large church. I'm already fifty-two, so I'd be getting a late start on celebrity of any kind. I look like a deformed toadstool, and whether or not that should matter, it does. (This is of course another point against the desirability of church celebrity, which you can place in whatever category you see fit.) And I'm waaaay too cranky to put up with the demands of celebrity of any kind. So, to be clear, no sour grapes here -- if anything, great heaving sighs of relief.
I simply don't see how having a greater "celebrity" presence in the mainline is actually helpful to the churches of this tradition in doing the things these churches need to do to be the churches God calls us out to be. Maybe I'm wrong (that happens a lot). Show me otherwise, if it matters that much to you.
But frankly, I don't find the lack of mainline celebrity anything to be mourned all that much.
Uh, I'm gonna pass on this one...