Perhaps better titled, ‘Facebook, Fondant, and Personality Cults,’ but who doesn’t appreciate a little alliteration?
I shall devote only a couple of sentences to griping about FB: It certainly is a leveler, in the same sense that Hades was; people from every aspect of the life of the ‘profiled’ go through the same web portal: colleagues, acquaintances, someone you met at concert after-party, family and best friends, to partake of the same information. Funny how impersonal this ‘social network’ seems! And yes, I’m aware of ‘best friend’ settings and all that. I maintain, there’s something weird about it!
Next, fondant. French Fancies, like bakewell tarts and clotted cream, are things obscenely absent from the Colonies. Fortunately for me, I’ve been exiled to the ancient homeland, and I get to enjoy my brightly-coloured little cakes on any given afternoon, with a cup of coffee. A good life (though if I’m lucky enough to get this new job, I’ll be able to have coffee at work instead of in the kitchen writing a lot of rubbish!).
And finally. Personality Cults and Fascists. It seems like every pastor of any church in the US that has more than 2 congregants has recently published a book. (I know I exaggerate.) And I’m willing to bet that many of those books have titles comprised of one word, like, “Strive”, or “More”, or “Wowness”. Yes, I do poke a little fun at such things (while recognising that some of my posts have melo-dramatic or pseudo-deepish one-word titles). These books will often have subtitles as well, or taglines, which may look something like this: ‘The new millennium is already here, but did you know that you could still experience God’s Y2K moment for you?’ Or maybe something a little less obviously silly: ‘God’s love and what’s important to you and how they intersect. Biblically.’ Somehow, while many of these books will profess to couch all the authors’ audacious and groundbreaking theses in Scripture, in the end, it will be, unashamedly, unabashedly, all about—you! Because you’re important. Of course you are! I’m not saying that we don’t matter to Jesus. We do, and we know we do because of his finished work on the cross. But that has nothing to do with all this ‘Christianised’ vocabulary in which ‘I’ is the most common word, and my wants, my strengths, my passions, my purposes, my achievements, my ANYTHING is/are the main focus of Christian life, discipleship and learning. Let’s not even get started on the books and resources for starting and growing churches on the ‘mega’ model. Marketing is for businesses; evangelism is for the Church. So, where are we going with this?
Well, we’re getting there. Some of these groundbreaking books for boosting your self-esteem, helping you know and achieve your potential (in a Christian sense, whatever that means!), and introducing Christians to Bible-wrapped packages of pop psychology and motivational-speaker pointers on problem-solving are being written by guys whose self-promotion and self-styling, to be perfectly honest, scares me. Another blogger has already written on this topic in connection with one very prominent (and very wealthy) American pastor, but I’ll avoid mentioning any names (mostly to protect the guilty). I have, for most of my life, been a member of very small churches. I have been a member of a ‘big’ church for a year and a half, and loved it, so I’m not judging based on size alone. Here I will be speaking of entertainment-driven, busy-community-centred mega-organizations. No doubt there are sincere Christians, perhaps many, scattered hither and yon in these types of churches, and no doubt they can do good work and share God’s word faithfully. But to be honest, there’s something not-quite-natural about it. (And when I say that, certain ‘creepy’ things spring to mind from a visit my family made to a seeker-driven mega-church, where the well-coordinated, uniformed teams of greeters, receptionists, parkers, door-openers (of my car door, I mean), with their matching polos and headsets and walkie-talkies, absolutely made it seem like a cross between the Secret Service and Stepford Church. There was also what some would call a ‘relevancy fail’: a cafe called ‘Church Name Rocks’. So weird.)
Personally, I simply can’t relate to the sense of Community some of these massive churches have, by which I am often cynically reminded of the Borg. It would seem that some members of these churches find their Christian identity in the local church (some churches even have a sort of ‘club’ name for themselves!). Some might wonder what’s wrong with that. It’s a confusion of belonging, if you will; our identity is wrapped up in Christ and what he’s done for us. The local body is the visible manifestation of the community created by Christ’s work and God drawing His people to Himself. The local body is there for us to serve in love and faithfulness, and to disciple and to be discipled, to worship God and have fellowship with His people. But it is not who we are, in a ‘how do I relate to God/stand before God’ sense. Some people at these ‘hot and popular’ churches might sooner talk about their church and how they love it than talk about Jesus. Problematic. Any of us can fall into the trap of putting any aspect of our Christian life before the Lord Himself; it’s easy to do, because everything else seems somehow more pressing, more exciting, more present. We can’t see God, and it takes discipline and the work of the Spirit to continue to put Him first, to meet with Him, to share the Gospel with others, to worship Him in the way that pleases Him and not ourselves. That is all true. But do some ways of ‘doing church’, and some types of pastorate, make it easier for church members to fall into certain patterns and certain sins? Of course! When the pastor never mentions the universal church, never encourages people to pray for their brothers and sisters in other churches (or heaven forbid, in other lands, particularly where Christians are being persecuted), it can be easy to think that God is working more powerfully and with the most relevance and reality (at least, to you) in your local church (I would argue there are thus dangers in writing mottoes and mission/vision statements for the church that don’t emphasize the place of the local body in the universal body, and that don’t encourage partnerships with other confessional, orthodox churches).
Of course we want to enjoy and value the fellowship of believers (and friends!) in our local church, but if we forget the bigger picture, we can forget who is running the ship, and why, and we as Christians can grow myopic in our view of the Church and the world, lose sight of the need to faithfully proclaim the gospel, and treat church as if the very ‘belonging’ is what saves us, and gives us ‘meaning’. On the other hand, if church participation is meant to fill some void in our lives, or help give us a sense of purpose, we may very well end up looking for church experiences that motivate and inspire us, or fulfill an emotional need. None of these things are wrong in themselves, but separated from faithful and biblical worship, and clear, regular exposition of and preaching from God’s Word (basically, separation from what honors God), they will not help us to love Him more, and will not grow us or challenge us spiritually. What’s more, making membership to a certain KIND of church (I’m not talking about denominational divides here, but differences in style, size, outreach, priorities, marketing, etc) a personal focus, so that we’re ‘where it’s at!’ or where ‘God is definitely working!’, can teach us to crave that sense of belonging to something important, to be part of the ‘move’ of God, that’s vibrant and exciting. In the NT epistles, it’s Jesus and what he’s done for our salvation that causes the authors to apostrophise with “Thanks be to God!” ; church life, and life in general, is difficult, and can be uneventful, even a drudge; and yet we’re to be content. Church is to be orderly (I Cor. 11-14), and Christians are to work quietly (1 Thess. 4:11-12, 2 Thess. 3:6ff) and mind their own business. Doesn’t sound like a dragon-slaying quest every day to me.
The search for belonging to something cool, where it seems the Spirit is so obviously working, can lead to something even worse than over-stated local church loyalty: fascists behind the pulpit, and the sheep loving them for it. These are the objects of new personality cults. I am now going to pontificate on topics on which I don’t claim to be an expert. In the first half of the 20th century (as in the few centuries before [earlier the pre-Reformation struggle between ecclesiastical and temporal powers offered some checks and balances]), it was in government where power and influence was to be had, and the ambitious strongmen of Europe and Russia, no matter their averred political philosophies, were essentially the same. Stalin, Hitler, Franco, and Mussolini all, quite simply, wanted power, and were willing to do what it took to get it. Now, especially in western democracies (well, perhaps!), a political career can only take you so far. Even if you were to become President of the US, you’d be constantly criticised by your opposition, hopefully held to account for your mistakes and wrong-doing (yeah, right!), and after 8 years, you’d no longer be eligible and have to settle for a more or less highly-paid string of engagements on the speaking circuit.
Where is the money and the power now, and where can it be had for very little worry of suspicion, media coverage and accountability? I would argue, that for the charismatic, well-spoken and energetic bright boys who don’t like politics or business, it’s In the mega-church. There’s almost a natural progression from confusing identity in Christ with membership in a hip and cutting-edge church, to confusing the local body and its purpose and message with the fresh-faced (or at least, no older than 50) guy at the front who draws the crowds, puts the church on the map, goes abroad to speak and preach, and comes in many different flavors: Peppermint Optimist, Passion-fruit Prosperity Preacher, Flame-broiled Foul-mouthed Fighter type, Sweet-n-salty Sow a Seed Shakedown Artist, Peachy Practical Tips and Self-help Stylist, and Gooey God’s-Got-a-Plan-for-You Enthusiast, among others. From Seattle to the Carolinas, and Chicago to Texas, churches have become about the man on the stage (since many of them aren’t behind pulpits anymore), rather than the God-Man at the centre of the Book. And they have taken on new titles. Instead of under-shepherds, pastors, elders, ministers–they are leaders, vision-casters, prophets. These titles grant them more authority, more drama, more mystique. And unquestionably, they are at the top. You’ll often hear a foundation precept at these churches… “We have to unite under the vision that God gave Rev. So-and-so.” If you haven’t heard that before, it may surprise you. And if you haven’t heard people, turned into the proverbial Sheeple, protest vigorously because their pastor is being criticised for not being transparent about his personal finances (as they’re connected to the church’s!), when the pastor has been given the chance to release the numbers, set the record straight, and refuses (perhaps in violation of the pastoral call to be above reproach), you’ll know the force of his personality and pastorate on these people.
I don’t claim to know the progression of how talented unknowns rise to power within relatively small groups of people, or how they come to be able to exert so much influence over their flock (I don’t want to equate them with the leaders of the actual Cults or cult-like phenomena, like Charles Dederich of Synanon, for example, but there are certainly parallels: starting small, growing the first church, then branching out to satellite sites, publishing books (which are often used to create a miracle-aura around the inexplicable, successful growth of the ministry) and other materials, acquiring fame, speaking at national and international conferences, and often being declared ‘worth’ a massive salary. And like many of the leaders of ‘wacky’ cult-like groups, no one on the outside starts paying attention until the philosophy of authority in the church has already become totalitarian and abusive, and some relationships within the group (or church) have soured, with people trying either to offer criticism or correction, or to defect. The process certainly seems to a be a gradual one, at least on the local level (at the national level, they may often appear to ‘rocket to stardom’). It would be fascinating to have a sociologist or psychologist chart the rise of mega-church fascistic pastors, and discuss how they can charm their congregations and, for example, manipulate them into generous giving and service to ‘the church’. Perhaps there already is such a study/book out there, and I don’t know about it; the more fool I!
Now, don’t get me wrong; the relationship between leadership and congregation, or pastors and elders, can be complex, and it’s not only pastors who can be the perpetrators in church ‘crimes’. I’ve been in and heard about more than one (small) church where the pastor was, I would argue, being abused by his council of elders. And that’s a grievous thing in the church. But by far the biggest problem in big, rock-star-pastor driven institutional churches is those pastors themselves, and the culture of authoritarian spiritual control they help, unwittingly or purposefully, to create. There is no questioning of his integrity (perceived or otherwise) or authority (or the authority of the new evangelical version of the Schutzstaffel): recently, several elders were publicly denounced during a morning worship service after being forced to resign by their fellow-elders for wanting some answers on the pastor’s finances. They were railroaded, dismissed and disgraced. The pastor of this church is popular throughout the US, having published and produced a huge number of resources, spoken at various seminars and conferences, and hosting his own, amongst other prominent ‘evangelicals.’ But will the story of the elders and their exit, and the events behind it, ever be as widely disseminated as his sermons? Unlikely. And if this IS indeed a case of abuse in the church, on the part of the pastor and the fellow elders, it is not an isolated case. Another world-famous (or at least, transatlantic) ‘evangelical’ pastor also stands accused of forcing out dissenters, even to the extent of forbidding remaining church members, former friends and Bible-study cohorts, from speaking to them. And these people weren’t accused of running a narcotics ring or beating their children, or even teaching heresy. Their crime was to question the increasingly totalitarian nature of their church’s pastorate; the way they were treated perhaps proves their point.
I’m no psychologist, and I have a particularly hard time understanding why people gravitate to some of these men (sometimes women too), when, before I’m even told who they are, seem a bit sketchy. I hear their voices on a podcast, or see their videos on youtube, and I can’t stand to listen to or watch them. When their sermons include so much hyperactivity and what seems like playing to the crowd, preaching in applause-desperate soundbytes, I cringe. Why do people sit under their preaching? How can they be brought to tears (other than tears of frustration or sorrow) during a message that seems to be more about the messenger himself than the King who sent it? And what drives them to side with the pastor and leadership against the ostracised sheep, or to suspect the motives behind curious questions about the pastor’s lavish lifestyle simply because the questioners are not from the church or aren’t Christians? It is one thing to brush off a criticism like, “I think your pastor is paid too much.” But to be righteously indignant about something like, “I don’t know how much your pastor makes, and neither do you; doesn’t that bother you?” is beyond me.
I would imagine that many of the people in these churches, if they heard in the news about a politician’s underhanded dealings with special-interest groups, or companies embezzling funds, they’d demand the truth. They’d want to hear from the accusers and victims, and want those found guilty to be held accountable. Why is there then such a blind spot when it comes to ‘My pastor’? If it’s because you honestly think he’s a ‘man of God’, then certainly he deserves the benefit of the doubt, and at least a fair hearing. But let the witnesses be brought forth, let the evidence be presented, let the budget and other financial details be put under the microscope, and may the pastor and/or the leadership give an honest and gracious defence. The Scriptures provide for situations of offence, for excommunication, for repentance and for restoration; there is no excuse for sweeping anything under the rug. Also, we are encouraged to be like the Bereans. Surely it is just as important to hold our ‘leaders’ accountable for their behavior in ministry, as it is to make sure they handle God’s word rightly. The pastorate is an office that commands respect, but not unquestioning, lemming-like following. One final qualifier: I recognise that not all these rock-star pastors start out as wannabe-dictators, drunk on their own authority and vision-driven calling. It would seem that Christians are not immune from the corruption of power. (Of course, it would probably be easier to hold leaders in the church accountable if we used Biblical models of church polity, and followed Biblical guidelines for choosing elders, deacons, pastors, etc., but that is another whole issue.) Next time, I will, with zero qualifications, fuss over the contagion plaguing small churches (in my experience).
“Pastor Sponge E. Coolshoes absorbs the applause from the congregation while the PowerPoint screen is lowered to cover the cross.”