Why We (Probably) Won’t Change

It’s too bad the Celebrity Pastor Megachurch movement (imaginary NYSE symbol: CPM) isn’t a publicly traded company, because I’d sure love to see the plummeting red arrow depicting its stock price over the last few months.

The latest hit to CPM’s value came a few days ago as James MacDonald was removed from his post atop the Harvest Bible Chapel empire for “engaging in conduct … contrary and harmful to the best interests of the church” — a rather generous way of putting things if you’re familiar with the details of the story. Although the saga is still unfolding and the future of the Harvest brand remains to be seen, what we know for sure is that MacDonald has now joined a growing company of larger-than-life leaders whose larger-than-life ministries turned out to be rather unhealthy contexts for their abusive behaviors and swollen egos to run wild.

Every time this happens — that is, every time a celebrated leader crashes out (Bill Hybels, anyone?) or a celebrated church evaporates into thin air (Mars Hill, we hardly knew you) — the evangelical world is sent into a frenzy. We crank out articles and tweets and conference sessions about the dangers of celebrity culture. We question the ecclesiology of huge corporation-like churches. We flirt with the idea of selling CPM stock and investing into something with more long-term potential and less glaringly obvious flaws.

But the more this cycle repeats itself, the more convinced I become that the landscape of mainstream American evangelicalism will continue to stay the same. Despite all of our second-guessing and hand-wringing, we’re not really going to ditch our shares of CPM. We may talk about changing our investment strategy, but the vast majority of us are going to remain loyal investors in the Celebrity Pastor Megachurch movement. We can’t stop ourselves.

Why is that?

One reason is that we can’t resist a ripe market for big churches, big platforms, and big personalities.

I didn’t make it very far in my study of economics, but I do happen to remember something about supply and demand and market equilibrium. And although those concepts were specifically applied to the world of dollars and cents, the principles seem to translate easily to the world of modern American church life (also a world of dollar and cents, come to think of it).

As long as  we inhabit a consumerist and commercialized culture (which we do), there will be a demand for get-it-like-you-want-it Christianity. There will be a demand for best-selling books and the stars who write them. There will be a demand for cavernous buildings with sparkling stages and theater seating. Talk as we may about the downfalls of celebrity culture, the reality is that plenty of consumers still want leaders who are made for the camera. They still want churches where each Sunday experience feels like a Tony Robbins seminar for the adults and a trip to Disney World for the kids. And as long as there are people out there wanting it, somebody somewhere is going to deliver it.

Do we want that “somebody” to be the flaky pastor with bad theology? Do we want that “somewhere” to be the church across town? I didn’t think so. And herein lies the compulsive drift toward all things big, polished, and influential. If there are people out there who want it, how can we refrain from offering it to them? If people are ready to buy what CPM is selling, then we can’t be caught napping while others are chasing after the massive, attractional superstructures that will draw them in.

This is what makes CPM so resilient, even after the James MacDonalds of the world make us question it all over again. Even in the wake of a massive PR crisis, it’s always there, ready to meet a demand that doesn’t seem to be going away.

But that’s not all. Another reason we’re not likely to leave behind our old ways is that we pastors don’t know what else to do with our insecurities.

Give a guy a microphone and a group of people who show up every week to hear him talk, and it won’t take long for him to develop a public persona of confidence and authority. But the unseen experience of many pastors when nobody’s around to prop up our sense of worth is that we’re actually deeply insecure human beings.

Of course, that’s not an experience unique to pastors. Just about everyone knows what it’s like to look in the mirror and wonder if they’re really enough. But pastors happen to have a built-in mechanism for neutralizing their insecurities. It’s called a crowd.

Have you ever played golf with physically impressive specimens who can crush a drive into oblivion? I’ve done it a few times, and let me tell you, it makes me feel like a small and weak little wimp of a man. Because I can’t hit a driver to save my life. So when I play golf (an increasingly rare occurrence, in part because of what I’m about to tell you) I tee off with a 3-iron. And while the other guys are swinging around their drivers with titanium heads the size of a football, I’m dinking my little iron shot a cool 100 yards behind their drives, feeling like a dainty and domesticated house cat trying to keep pace with a pack of cheetahs in the wild.

If you can imagine that feeling, then you can imagine something of what it feels like to be the pastor of a 50-person church when you’re talking to your neighbor who goes to the 500-person church down the street. Or what it feels like to be the pastor of that 500-person church when you bump into an old friend who is a deacon at the 5,000-person church that just opened its third campus and just spent your entire annual budget on a new stage lighting package to make the pastor’s facial hair look better on the live feed.

We’re all walking around with deep-seated insecurities about ourselves and our ministries. And rather than asking if perhaps our insecurities may actually be a gift from God (that’s another article for another day), we pastors just grab a needle and shoot up with the drug of more. More people to follow us. More people to listen to us. More people to tell us things that numb us from our own self-doubt.

Obviously, you can see the problem when it comes to changing our mega-model of contemporary church life. If the crowd is the only thing keeping most pastors relatively sane, why would we let go of the crowd in favor of a more incarnated, local, and vulnerable approach to ministry? If you take our crowd away from us, what do we have left to protect us from our own hollow selves?

I suppose that leads to a related reason that I’m pessimistic about our ability to dump CPM, namely the fact that today’s pastoral imagination is woefully underdeveloped.

There’s a weirdly-premised State Farm commercial making the rounds these days in which an insurance agent (played by famed former head of accounting at Dunder Mifflin Scranton) is relaxing on the hood of his car, gazing up at the clouds with NBA star Chris Paul. (Seriously, who comes up with this stuff?) While Chris is seeing things like penguins in the clouds, the insurance agent can’t see anything except insurance-related images. His imagination is restricted by the things he knows and is already thinking about. He’s not really looking at the clouds, he’s just reading into them what he’s already seeing in his mind.

That might as well be a parable for today’s church leaders. We’ve let the marketing team of CPM tell us what ministry is and what it should look like. And somewhere along the way we’ve lost the ability to dream up a faithful and fruitful future for the church that doesn’t involve power, influence, and numerical growth.

It’s really not surprising if you think about it. The vast majority of today’s pastors entered the ministry to be on stage. As young people, we looked up to the James MacDonald types. Naturally, when we realized God was calling us to pastor, we assumed he was calling us to do something like they were doing. Maybe we’d start out with a smaller auditorium or a less widely read personal blog (I’m still waiting on that big breakthrough, by the way), but our pastoral imagination was shaped from the outset by a person on a stage, standing before eager faces waiting on every word, eager to go along with whatever the person behind the pulpit tells them.

We simply can’t imagine it another way. And we have an identity crisis when it’s suggested that there needs to be another way. It’s like a kid whose childhood sports dreams are fueled by watching his favorite football players light each other up with helmet-crushing tackles, only to finally get to the NFL and find out that tackling is now off-limits and everyone’s restricted to playing flag-football. What now? His entire understanding of what it means to play football has been rooted in the resounding crunch of pads against pads. But now he’s being told that’s no longer how it works. Where does that leave him?

Exactly. Where does that leave us? Most of us pastors are hearing talk about church as we know it needing to evolve into smaller, more egalitarian, missional communities of locally-rooted people, and we’re like, “But that’s not what I signed up for.” We can’t imagine a way to live out our vocations if we’re no longer supposed to be sanctified leadership gurus with big Twitter followings. Whether or not we want to adopt a new mode of pastoral presence is beside the point. Many of us can’t even imagine that such a thing is even possible.

So, yeah, I guess I’m not especially optimistic about American evangelicalism parting ways with CPM anytime soon. But that’s not to say that I’m resigned to the status quo.

I wholeheartedly believe that the church needs to change. What I’m trying to argue, however, is that merely saying we need to change won’t actually help us change. Instead, we need to address these underlying barriers that keep holding us back.

So long as we think it’s our job to meet every demand of a commercialized culture, so long as we feel compelled to gloss over our own fractured sense of identity with the adoration of others, so long as we fail to bring missional creativity to the pastoral task we’ve been called to — there will never be any meaningful motivation to change the way we do church.

But if we strive to understand our churches as radical communities of love that turn everything a commercialized culture wants to sell us on its head, if we embrace our insecurities and learn to lead as local citizens and local stewards of a place and a people, if we allow ourselves to reimagine what pastoring actually means apart from the allure of power and notoriety — then, perhaps we’ll find the prospect of cashing out our CPM stock not quite as scary.

Are we ready for that? Or are we content to lament celebrity culture for a few weeks, only to jump right back into chasing it once the headlines have changed?

3 responses to “Why We (Probably) Won’t Change”

  1. James Rickenbach Avatar
    James Rickenbach

    Great perspective. I enjoy your presentation angle. (In addition to the fact that it’s squarely true.)


  2. I can only say, yup. After almost 30 years of being part of the UMC pastorate, and having ‘grown’ every congregation in very different social/economic situations I retired early because I could no longer, honestly, deal with the demands of ‘grow, grow, grow’ (statistically) and recognizing the immense compromises to my own soul and spirit to do that. I also was able to see first hand that incubating in the pews were people who simply wanted absolution from their bad, dare I say evil behavior without any embrace of a grace that might change and transform them. Obviously there is much more to say on this the cracks in the whole American Church scene. As I drive through one of my old congregational communities I see one very prominent CPM, I won’t say who, but they now own a building, church, offices in every sector of the community. I have wondered how long it would be before they set up the Golden Arches. It’s just mind numbing.


  3. Great article! I will say, though… I think Angela was head of accounting at Dunder Mifflin 😉


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