SALT LAKE CITY — I don’t follow Justin Bieber on Instagram, Twitter or TikTok. I haven’t sought out his music in at least two years.
But it still feels like everywhere I turn I see tweets highlighting his religious journey or pictures of him with pastors. Why do so many people care about Bieber’s faith?
The answer, according to religion scholars, is that Bieber, like Kanye West or Chris Pratt, is a Christian celebrity, someone who attends church in between photo shoots and red carpet events. Christians are thrilled to call him one of their own.
“Bieber, Pratt and Kanye West are very much part of an A-list crowd. They seem to make Christianity cool and relevant,” said Laura Turner, a Christian writer and journalist.
In other words, celebrity practitioners seem good for Christianity’s brand. People assume star power fuels new conversions, leading secular fans into church, said Turner, who has covered the allure of celebrity Christians for Vox.
“When Christians see people with huge platforms extolling the virtues of evangelical Christianity, they get really excited,” she said.
That’s been the case for decades, according to Richard Flory, the senior director of research and evaluation at the University of Southern California Center for Religion and Civic Culture. Even before the rise of social media, pastors were shining a spotlight on the most famous members of their flocks.
“This has been part of evangelicalism for a long time,” he said.
Christians believe celebrities give them “cultural legitimacy,” which is especially valuable at a time when organized religion in the U.S. is on the decline, Flory said. Pew Research Center recently reported that the percentage of Americans who identify as Christian dropped from 77% to 65% over the past 10 years.
“Churches can use celebrities to burnish their brand,” he said.
But do Christian celebrities actually make good missionaries? Turner, Flory and other religion experts have their doubts.
“I’ve never interviewed anybody who said I go to this church because so-and-so goes there,” Flory said.
Few young people have access to the same type of glamorous Christian megachurches that most celebrities attend, Turner said. And it’s sort of a stretch to imagine “Beliebers” walking into their local Methodist or Presbyterian church simply because their favorite singer posted on Instagram about how much he loves God.
Even if someone does tune into livestreams of worship services at Hillsong, Zoe or other churches Bieber’s been known to attend, they’re not tapping into the most meaningful parts of religious experience, Turner said.
“You’re there in the sense that you’re seeing worship happening, but you’re not actually there physically seeing what’s going on with other people. You’re not getting the sense of community that church is really meant to give to people,” she said.
Rather than treat Christian celebrities like they’re superior evangelists, we should think of them like people who prepare the way for future missionaries, said Trevin Wax, the senior vice president of theology and communications at LifeWay Christian Resources. Celebrities can open people’s minds to the idea of attending church, but they rarely get them through the door.
“A celebrity open about practicing aspects of Buddhism, for example, makes that religious option more plausible in the eyes of his fans,” he said.
But celebrating famous people for having this effect on their fans still rubs Wax the wrong way. People of faith are supposed to be OK with being misunderstood or disliked, not obsess over people who make attending church seem cool.
“Jesus talked a lot about how unpopular his followers would be if they followed him faithfully,” Wax said. “We don’t like thinking about that side of our faith, naturally, but it’s something we have to take seriously.”
He added, “Christianity isn’t about being cool.”
Wax isn’t calling for a ban on articles about celebrities and faith. He just wants Christians to be sure to pay attention to less famous members of their religious communities, too.
“I would encourage Christians to not treat celebrity conversions as fundamentally different than the stories of other people who come to faith.”
Every person in your church has an interesting story to tell, Turner said. It’s easy to forget that when you’re busy tracking Bieber’s latest Instagram posts.
“In every church, there are so many different life stories. We’re not talking enough about those,” she said.