Everyone likes a good story – especially if it’s a true one. The exciting and the unusual will always catch our attention and get passed around. In this respect, there is no difference between the religious and the secular, or between the ancient world and the modern. The Biblical book of Acts, the history of the early church, is full of such stories. It’s easy to forget that it covers a period of almost 30 years in just 28 chapters; there must also have been a lot of boring and mundane stuff in between the big events, things that just weren’t memorable or worth recording.
One of the most famous events recorded in this book is the conversion of the apostle Paul (Acts 9:1-19). He had an unusually dramatic testimony: while on a mission to stamp out Christianity, he suddenly had a vision of Jesus that temporarily blinded him and convinced him that he was not (as he had imagined) upholding God’s honour by persecuting Christians, but was fighting against God. Overnight, he changed from being Christ’s most dreaded opponent to his best-known protagonist.
If such a thing happened to anyone today, he would be in instant demand as a speaker, would write a book, make videos for YouTube, and quickly establish an international ministry. Instead… Paul’s initial efforts to preach the gospel put his life in danger and he spent at least ten years in quiet obscurity in his home town, followed by a fair length of time working as a deputy minister in a large church. Only after all that did he commence the work for which he is now known, teaching and evangelising in the Middle East and south-eastern Europe (and writing about half of what we now know as the New Testament in his ‘spare time’).
Now we expect too much too soon. The modern celebrity culture has permeated the churches, and young Christians with interesting and dramatic stories to tell are rushed into high-profile publicity (the best-selling book, the YouTube videos, the website…). Such is the immense public appetite for this kind of thing that there is a little American boy whose near-death experience (at the age of only four) has been made not only into a book but even a film (“Heaven is for Real”).
The problem with fame (and especially international fame) is that it is hard to handle. And like a drug, it becomes addictive. Paul knew about this; he warned against thrusting a new Christian into the spotlight of church leadership, because “he may become conceited and fall under the same judgement as the devil.” (I Timothy 3:6) But what happens to so many of these young ‘stars’? They can’t resist the many temptations to embellish their testimony and exaggerate the dramatic bits. The waters get even murkier when they start making a living from their stories. Paul was scrupulously careful about this; he kept up his ‘day job’ making tents, so that nobody could accuse him of profiting from his new converts (II Thessalonians 3:7,8). His ministry was always and everywhere backed up by a clean lifestyle. After he moved on, there was no sour taste left in the mouth, no secret scandal waiting to be uncovered. Sadly, our modern Christian celebrities often end up bringing the church into disrepute – and the church must sometimes share some of the blame.