I know of young Australian Christians who enjoyed Mark Driscoll’s preaching. Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church had thousands of worshippers in fourteen locations across four states in the US, with annual revenues of more than US$30 million. But in October 2014 Driscoll stepped down from leadership amidst multiple allegations. As of January 2015, Mars Hill was dissolved. Ben Tertin helpfully outlines some of the issues around Driscoll’s leadership and Mars Hill in his article in the Leadership Journal (Christianity Today, December 2014).
The article can be found by clicking here.
Since I am not an American, I am reluctant to comment on this matter. But the comments made in the article remind me of some unhealthy trends I observe in churches and Christian organisations in recent years. I would like to mention a few here.
Gifts and ability over faithfulness
Although this is not explicitly stated in the mission statements of Christian organisations or the official documents of the church, increasingly, leaders are chosen primarily because of their gifts and abilities. In fact, leaders themselves prefer to work with gifted people who are able to achieve tangible results. At the same time, Christians look to charismatic speakers because of their eloquent speeches and power of persuasion. But of course God is more interested in faithful people who are willing to give themselves totally to serve him. Faithful disciples produce faithful followers of Jesus, and often the process is long and the numbers are few. Gifted leaders, on the contrary, have crowds surrounding them. Their followers are many, but often they have not considered the cost of following Jesus.
Corporatisation and over-reliance of business models
Over the past 30 years I have been involved in not a few churches and Christian agencies. Operating in the context of a changing world, where financial management is increasingly tricky, leaders find that they need people with business and professional skills to run their churches and organisations. As a result, committed Christians with those skills are appointed to take up key leadership roles. Churches and agencies then adopt business models used in the corporate world in order to improve efficiency.
There is nothing wrong in this approach—not in and of itself anyway. But my observation is that this is often done without careful consideration of any inherent conflict with the values of God’s kingdom. In the worst scenario, money is the bottom line, which drives everything that the church/organisation does. For example, in the face of falling revenue, staff members are retrenched despite their faithful service over the years. In other instances, popular leaders and highly efficient workers are given greater pay increases because of the numeric or financial success they bring, while faithful and diligent—but less “productive”—workers are less valued.
We must guard ourselves from this management philosophy and corporatisation of the church. Surely we need sound management of our finances and efficient organisational structures. But we must learn to be love-centred with the help of the Spirit, so that we can truly be an alternative community to a value system that treats people as commodities and money-making machines. In times of financial hardships, we are to stand in solidarity with one another and learn to trust a God who will never fail us and who will provide all our needs.
I think celebrity culture has a more subtle effect on us than we think. We all have our faith heroes and we desire a role model to follow. There is nothing wrong with wanting to look up to someone. But it is very easy to turn a leader into some kind of celebrity figure, to the degree that we start to worship them. And we do so without knowing it.
This can happen when a pastor becomes famous because their church membership grows beyond a few thousands. This can also happen when a Christian writer or blogger becomes famous, and when their tweets have gained many followers. But we should never blindly follow well-known leaders, for no one is infallible, regardless of their gifts, charisma, the size of their churches, and their popularity in social media. We should never spend more time on their books and online teaching materials than on the Bible. We are followers of Jesus, and our job is to study the Scripture so that we may know God better.
We should not think that celebrity culture is only found in large churches. It can happen anywhere. Some years ago I met a young man who was well known for his involvement in community development, social justice, and being a peace activist. His punchy writing style and radical peace-making activities were beginning to attract many young people. At the time I was working in the aid and development sector, and I was asked to spend half an hour with him over a cup of coffee. I was surprised that over that short time he repeatedly told me that he had shared the platform with the most well-known peace-activists and those who lived and worked among the poor in the US—those who spoke to thousands of people at conferences and whose books were best-sellers worldwide.
Obviously these famous figures have had an immense impact on his life, and indeed they are his faith heroes. I don’t want to undervalue his (and his faith heroes’) contribution to poverty alleviation and peace-making. But I am afraid that, with a mentality like that, Christians are unwittingly reproducing celebrities in the name of the poor, so much so that we are producing followers of people rather than disciples of Jesus himself.
Power, influence, expansion and world domination
The last trend I want to mention is perhaps not new at all. It seems that there is a renewed trend to use power to extend God’s kingdom. I am concerned when the rhetoric of Christian leaders is about power, expansion, and world domination. The church is not about conquering the world to gain universal dominance through power and influence. Rather, its call is to embody the death of Jesus, so that the world may see the living Christ and risen Lord in its solidarity with the pain and suffering of people in this world.
A (mis)understanding of mission that is based on an expansion mentality can easily lead into empire-building. We are not called to extend God’s kingdom or influence culture by means of (social and economic) power. Rather, Christ-followers are to faithfully live a cross-shaped life and create cruciform Jesus-centred communities that embody the values of God’s kingdom. We are to rely on God’s power in our weakness. We find this in the apostle’s Paul’s teaching.
Paul repeatedly speaks of his sufferings in 2 Corinthians (6:3-10; 11:23-33; 12:10). In his hardships he finds that there is an all-surpassing power to sustain him. A life of affliction in fact displays the life of Christ (4:7-12). For Paul, the Christian life is about being conformed to the image of Christ, and in the process believers reflect God’s glory (3:18; 4:5-6). Importantly, Paul says that power is made perfect in weakness, and therefore he will boast all the more his weakness, so that Christ’s power may become visible to the world (12:9). In his own words, Paul says,
That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10)
This notion counters everything that celebrity culture symbolises. It is about faithfulness, not charisma, gifts or abilities. It does not rely on the best business models, but God’s power to provide. And it is not about expansion or dominance. Instead, it is about a cross-shaped pattern of ministry that bears witness to the crucified Christ and risen Lord.