The Dangers of Celebrity Pastors & Runaway Megachurch Cultures

Below is an excerpt from one of the most spot-on, timely and utterly devastating articles I’ve read in years about church leadership. I wish it never needed to be written, but now that it has I hope all pastors, leaders and Christians enamored with the intoxicating excitement associated with being part of a booming, explosive church will take it to heart. I certainly am.

Here is just one excerpt from this must-read article The Painful Lessons of Mars Hill: What can we learn from the collapse of Mark Driscoll’s church? by Ben Tertin

By their results you shall know them

How can King Jesus’s leadership characteristics ever make center stage if churches reserve that space for a growing church’s bolder, sexier, more exciting qualities?

For the person or community bent on “going big” or “making a huge impact,” the desire for popularity might be unavoidable. Simple, faithful, Jesus qualities and Christian fruits of the Spirit simply do not make headlines. Yet, even if such virtues don’t feed rapid church expansion, at least a real church with real roots will stand—whether it be a bonsai or a mighty oak.

At the end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he says, “Beware of false prophets; by their fruit you will know them.” We quote our Teacher. So why don’t we apply his words? “So often Christians approach that as if it says, ‘by their gifts you shall know them’ or ‘by their results or charisma you shall know them,'” Schlaepfer says.

“In context, Jesus is saying the exact opposite. He is talking about the fruit of the Spirit. By their spirit, their love, their joy, their peace, their gentleness—that is how you will know them.”

New Testament professor and scholar Scot McKnight (Jesus Creed, The King Jesus Gospel, The Kingdom Conspiracy) says, “Leaders matter, period. Leaders matter because they become embodied in the culture they lead, and the bigger the culture, the more significant the leader.

“I’ve been in a megachurch in Pennsylvania,” says McKnight, “where the pastor was a gentle, loving, caring, godly leader. It was a big church that was healthy as it could be—because that pastor knew what he was doing in creating a culture of grace.

“And I’ve been in other churches, of course, where it was a controlling pastor with a controlling church culture. I do not think that it is at all taking a cheap shot to say that this is what happened with Mark Driscoll. I think he had elements of toxicity in his character that were amplified as the system grew bigger.

“This is going to be a great lesson for church leadership during the next 20 to 30 years.”

The celebrity collapse

Part of the problem is the “free-wheeling” attitude that many young, evangelical church planters take on. They see the booming “success” of men like Driscoll and want to emulate.

“You get a free-wheeling evangelist who plants a church, and all of the sudden you’ve got a person who is responsible for everything that’s happened,” says McKnight.

Western Seminary’s Dr. Gerry Breshears, a past friend and co-author with Driscoll, says many churches today have a problem with “giving lip service to ‘co-laborers,’ while depending on a single superstar.” And if it is all about the superstar, he says, then what if things go wrong with him or her?

“You might not have a church anymore.”

“Let’s face it,” agrees McKnight, “in some of these megachurches, the celebrity factor is so powerful that without them the place collapses.”

“Paul describes bad leaders in the church as lovers of themselves, boastful, proud, abusive, unforgiving, without self-control, brutal, rash, conceited,” says Schlaepfer. “I think a lot of times people who are interested in achieving results—thinking big—are willing to compromise on those character qualities.”

A compromising church culture dominated by a celebrity leader leads to corrosive chemistry. “Every church has its own culture,” continues Breshears, “and every church culture can go toxic.”

“The elders at [Mars Hill] knew the problems they were facing with their celebrity pastor, but it got out of control,” McKnight says. “Speaking into that situation did not lead to the kinds of virtues and characters they wanted, and so it crumbled.”

“If I hear one more person at a church conference tell me that they finished Walter Isaacson’s biography on Steve Jobs and picked up lots of great ideas on how to lead their church, I’m going to scream,” says Schlaepfer.

“The whole corporate model for managing a church has infiltrated and affected the church more than anybody realizes.”

“I looked upon it, and received instruction.”

The Mars Hill empire has collapsed, under the weight of business principles gone wrong and the lie of celebrity ministry. But the key rot in the Mars Hill roots wasn’t just the structure; it was the source of dependence.

“When it is dependent upon one charismatic leader,” says McKnight, “it is not dependent on Jesus.”

Read full article here.

I (Jeremy) have watched the demise of Mark Driscoll and the collapse of Mars Hill Church with much sadness. It is tragic, and yet, sadly, not all too surprising to me. When are we going to wake up and learn the dangerous snares of celebrity and church cultures driven by bottom line business marketing strategies where numerical expansion and efficiency are the key values? Were those the core values of Jesus’ ministry?

Read the New Testament and study Jesus’ ministry, the leadership of the apostles, and the growth of the early church. Sure, you may find explosive numerical growth at key isolated evangelistic “events” (e.g., 3,000 new converts at Pentecost). But let’s be clear: Pentecost is describing individual responses to one momentous evangelistic message, and has nothing to do with offering a model or justification for the establishment of any kind of numbers-driven organized mega church!

I am convinced that the ministry of Jesus and the early apostolic church was anything but efficient. It was messy — annoyingly messy. It was slow — frustratingly slow. Leaders were humble servants washing the feet of lepers, embracing the outcast, visiting people in prison, hosting late night prayer meetings, taking in orphans and widows, breaking bread in their homes, helping others follow the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, and “enjoying the favor of all people.” Today many churches want the moral teachings of Jesus to be our message but we’ll let the church’s organizational culture be shaped by corporate business structures and strategies. The church’s community life and the way leaders lead IS a big part of our message to the world. We must model our leadership and organizational life after the pattern of Jesus, too.

I don’t mean to stand in judgment over celebrity pastors as if I’m immune to all the lures of church success.  My passion around this issue stems from my own awareness that I, too, daily feel the temptations common to all young, driven church planters who want to use whatever means to make a big impact for the kingdom and reach more people for Christ. The truth is I am just as prone to fall as Driscoll, and if I were just a more gifted and dynamic leader, my own character deficiencies might be more thoroughly tested in the fiery flames of temptation that come with success, celebrity, influence, and growing popularity. I have plenty of pride to confess and daily guard against in my small, humble ministry context. “There but the grace of God, go I.”

However, if I’m honest, I think I am much more willing to forgive the individual fallen pastor for a moral failure than I am to forgive the well-intentioned “healthy” leaders (who may never “fall”) who keep feeding and fostering these kinds of corporate, efficiency and growth-driven church cultures. It’s time we place Jesus as CEO over his church again….oops, there I did it again…

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