The Evangelical Cult of Personality

successful pastor

For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you. Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. (1 Corinthians 1:11,12)

According to the Bible, the church at Corinth was had become a cult of personality. Christians were saying that there were a follower of Apollos, Cephas, Paul, or Christ. In verse 13 of I Corinthians 1, Paul asked:

Is Christ divided?

Two thousand years later, we can answer Paul’s questions with an emphatic YES! The followers of Jesus Christ have spent 2,000 years fighting amongst themselves, leading to, according to the Pew Forum, 41,000 Christian denominations throughout the world. (Wikipedia list of Christian denominations)  Every Christian Bible has the following verses:

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! (Psalm 133:1)

By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another. (John 13:35)

For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. (I Corinthians 12:13)

There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. (Ephesians 4:4-6)

These four verses alone stand as an indictment of modern Christianity with all its divisions and internecine warfare.  The various Christian sects can’t even agree on basic beliefs like salvation, baptism, and communion.  Jesus said, I am the way, truth, and the life, and almost every Christian sect thinks they have the way, truth, life market cornered. Pick the wrong sect and, according to many sects, you will miss heaven and be tortured by God in hell for all eternity.

Evangelicalism, an inherently Fundamentalist religious belief, has a unique problem in that its churches are generally a blend of sectarian divisiveness, Madison Ave advertising techniques, and a fan of movie stars devotion to their pastor and successful Evangelical leaders. This has led to a cult of personality, like what Paul was addressing in the church at Corinth, 2,000 years ago.

Drive by most any Evangelical church these days and what do you see on the church sign? Most every church sign will have the pastor’s name prominently displayed. Why is this important? Why is it necessary to advertise who the pastor is? If the church is one body worshipping the one Lord, why call attention to the who the pastor is? Why don’t churches put the name of the poorest church member on the sign?

James wrote in James 2:1-4:

My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons. For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; and ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool:are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?

Is not giving the pastor top billing on the church sign giving the pastor undue respect? After all, Peter said in Acts 10:34 that God is no respecter of persons. God may not be a respecter of persons, but his Evangelical followers sure are. Ask an Evangelical where they go to church and they are just as likely to say I go to Pastor So and So’s church as they are I go to First Baptist Church.

In the average Evangelical church, the center of attention is not Jesus, the Word, or the sacraments. The focus is on the man standing behind the pulpit. He is the man of God, God’s messenger, the pastor.  In some Evangelical churches he is also the bishop, prophet, or apostle.  He is the main cog in the machine, without which the machine won’t run. If you doubt this…watch what happens when one of these superstar Evangelicals leave their church. The membership inevitably declines, often because church members don’t like the new guy. Evangelicals then feel “led” to join another church so they can be “fed.” Rarely, will they admit that the reason they changed churches was because they were spiritually and emotionally infatuated with the pastor who left.

Awhile back, I wrote a post about Evangelical pastor Steven Furtick and his new house. It is scandalous how these “profits” of God rake in millions of dollars from the churches they pastor, the books they sell, and outside speaking engagements. Even an atheist can see that these kind of pastors are not following in the steps of Jesus. Instead of following the WWJD mantra, they are following what would a Wall Street profiteer do.

Yet, any time I write about one of the Evangelical superstar pastors, someone is sure to come along and defend them.  It doesn’t matter what the Bible OR common decency says, I have attacked their god and they are not going to stand for it. Little to do they realize that their defense simply illustrates the fact that the Evangelical church is a cult of personality.

I would love to be able to say to readers of this blog that I was different when I was a pastor, but I wasn’t. My name was prominently displayed on the church sign. I was the center of attention, the main cog of the machine. People came to the churches I pastored because they loved my preaching and liked me as a person.  When I pastored a fast-growing church in SE Ohio, people would drive 30-45 minutes to hear me preach.  Our church was exciting and growing and I was, uh I mean God, was the reason.

I am sure a Calvinistic Evangelical reader is thinking, my church is different! We focus on the WORD and not the pastor. Really? Are you sure?  How many books written by Tim Keller, Don Carson, Kevin DeYoung, Al Mohler, Mark Driscoll, Stephen UmJohn MacArthur, or John Piper do you own? Why are these names bandied about on every Calvinist blog , website, and conference?

From 2005 to 2008, I was enamored with the Emergent/Emerging church movement.  Even here I found the cult of personality with people fawning over the likes of Brian McLaren, Donald Miller, Rob Bell,  and Shane Claiborne, to name a few.  Even the home church movement has its own cult of personality. Who hasn’t heard of Frank Viola?

What drives the cult of personality?  Here in America, we are enamored with success. We tend to give respect to people who give the appearance of being a winner. Even in the blogosphere, we often judge the value of a writer by the number of people who read their blog and follow them on Facebook/Twitter.  We forget that these numbers say NOTHING about the person. I have to constantly guard against this. I know my blog readership numbers, page views, and subscriber numbers are growing. Does this mean that I am”more” successful than I was years ago when a hundred people a day read my blog? Should people respect me more now that thousands of people read this blog? Of course not. A person’s success proves nothing.

In Evangelicalism, numerical success is everything. Success for a pastor is measured by the size of his penis, uh I mean his church. (see post on How the IFB Church Measures Success)  The criteria for calling a pastor/church a success is not much different from the criteria used to judge a successful CEO in the corporate world; growing the business and maximizing profits.

The sure sign that a pastor has arrived is when he writes a book telling everyone how he achieved his success. When I was an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) pastor, almost every big-name pastor wrote a book detailing how they achieved numerical success. The subtle message was this: God is blessing me and this is why. Do you want God’s blessing? Do what I am doing!  Why is it these successful pastors never write a book years later detailing  the fact that “God’s blessing” didn’t last and their penis size dramatically shrank?

American Evangelicals love their conferences. Hundreds of Evangelical conferences are held each year. Who are the speakers? Why those who have achieved “success.”  These conferences always feature big-name pastors who pastor large, successful churches. When’s the last time conference promoters have had a Bro. Joe, who pastors 20 people on the backside of some hill in West Virginia, come and speak at an Evangelical conference? It never happens.

One of the reasons people leave Evangelicalism is the cult of personality. They become tired of everything being about the pastor or the focus being on the latest hotshot, knows everything successful pastor.  They sincerely thought that Christianity was all about Jesus and they found out that Jesus was just the window dressing for their pastor’s ambition. Most Evangelical churches, thanks to their leaders, have lost all sight of what it means to be a Christian. They parrot that the Bible is their standard of faith and practice and then ignore its teachings and examples. Christianity should be about Jesus and his kingdom. From my seat in the atheist pew, it seem that Evangelicalism is all about the pastor’s kingdom and not the kingdom of the Jesus they say they follow.

Notes

Atheism is not immune from the cult of personality. We have our own demigods and it shows when you see the speaking lineup for the various atheist/humanist conferences. When it comes to clergy who have left the faith, you would think that Jerry DeWitt, who is now listed on Wikipedia as a prominent member of the atheist community,  was the only pastor to ever have left the faith. I am not knocking Jerry. I am pointing out that we have our own cult of personality, and the way to cure this problem is to be more diverse and to quit using the same few speakers at every conference. It is important that people be exposed to a variety of atheists, including those who are not as well-known as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Dan Barker, Dan Savage, Jerry DeWitt, et al. When groups like the Freedom of Religion Foundation, American Humanist Association, and American Atheists refuse to do this, they present an inaccurate view of atheism/humanism. How about featuring some working-class atheists who can’t even afford to attend the conferences? To quote the Bible, let our atheist message be confirmed through the mouths of many witnesses.

With humans, the cult of personality is prominent because of tribalism. We want to think that the successful members of our tribe are superior to others in our tribe and the leaders of other tribes.  The cult of personality blinds us to our common humanity and it causes is to devalue those who are not considered successful. (however we define success)

Comments (15)

  1. Andrew Hackman

    Yeah, I have wanted to attend some Atheist conferences… then I saw the price tag. There will be a big Atheist convention in Salt Lake this summer… but I cannot afford to attend. :)

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      They are quite expensive. One thing I have to say about the IFB church movement..their conferences are usually quite affordable. One conference I attended years ago was FREE. The church rented a local motel for pastors to stay in, provided all our meals, and charged no conference fee. Of course, they did try to get your money through the offering plate. :)

      Reply
  2. John Arthur

    Hi Bruce,

    This is a great post and oh so true. Evangelicals, in particular, are infested with this phenomenon of the cult of personality but, as you point out, it is not confined to them.

    The church is hopelessly divided and and most Evangelicals are so far from the vision of Jesus about justice for the poor and the needy and the good news of peace as it could possibly be.

    The sooner Evangelicals realise that they are so far from Jesus and leave the church, the better for all. It is IMPOSSIBLE to recover a church of and for the poor like the first century church (if indeed it ever was this).

    Evangelical religion or ‘relationship’ with a so-called right wing Jesus of power, wealth and splendour is useless in making the world a better place. The sooner people repudiate this kind of Jesus and begin to live with compassion, the better the world will be.

    Shalom,
    John Arthur

    Reply
  3. Ed Maurer

    Bruce,

    I would have loved to have a copy of the “Pastoring for Dummies” book some years ago. I’m sure I could have used it to show my pastor(s) and other elders their errors in church leadership. We could have learned why our church wasn’t growing to be a mega-church like the ones who sponsored the conferences we attended.

    Keep up the good work and you sense of humor.

    /Ed

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Thanks, Ed.

      Reply
  4. Paula

    I was raised Baptist, and of course, the preacher was always the “star” at a pulpit in the center of the front of the sanctuary. It was refreshingly different when I spent some time with the Methodist church. The pastor spoke from one side of the sanctuary. If there was a lay speaker, he/she spoke from a lectern on the other side of the sanctuary. The center place of honor and attention was for the table with the cross and candles, signifying the presence of God. This is probably done in most mainline churches, but you will never see it in an evangelical church.

    Another interesting point. When I visited the Lutheran church with a friend, the choir was unseen, in a loft at the rear of the church. That means they were only in the choir because they wanted to contribute music to the service, not to see and be seen.

    Reply
    1. NeverAgainV

      I like your observations Paula. I never thought about the choir that way. In my Catholic church the choir was in a loft in the back…heard, but not seen.

      One thing I appreciated after I left the ifb was, i think it was a Lutheran church, but hearing a WOMAN speak. It was so different than the ifb pope screaming and admonishing. There was something about seeing a woman up there that just made me realize the misogyny of the ifb/calvinist churches. I knew I would never go back.

      Reply
      1. Paula

        I once heard an incredible sermon by a visiting woman minister at the Methodist church. She was real old and had been preaching for a long time. Even among Methodists, that long ago she would have been quite a trailblazer!

        The way Baptists treat women ministers is shameful. Even one of Billy Graham’s daughters has written of being asked to speak at the Convention, but having a lot of the male pastors turn their backs when she went up to speak.

        Reply
        1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

          I have only heard a female preacher a few times. One, like many males was atrocious. One other I remember was a delight to hear. (she was speaking at a Holiness church in SE Ohio) I have come a long way when it comes to my beliefs about women in the church. As a pastor, I was definitely, anti-woman preacher. the last church I pastored was a Southern Baptist church. There was a female preacher in the church and I would not let her preach. (and I was being consistent with the Baptist Faith and Message doctrinal statement) I regret being so anti-woman preacher. Women have much to offer the Christian church and without them most churches would close up.

          Reply
    2. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Polly and I loved attending the local, dying Episcopal church. The focus was on the liturgy and the laity. The priest was just one part of the worship equation. Quite refreshing.

      Reply
    3. Ivan

      Dear Paula and Never Again,

      This is very true when it comes to the liturgy music and songs. I am catholic and it is exactly as you said. Mainline protestant churches (and catholics) have their choir and musicians (pianist, etc…) in a side of the church building that you can barely see them. It is like Never again just said -you hear but you do not see-.
      I had the chance to visit the Episcopal Church liturgy and it is just like that.

      Most of evangelical presents like a music show, where musicians and singers are protagonist.

      Reply
  5. Steve

    “God’s blessing” didn’t last and their penis size dramatically shrank?”

    OMFG!! HAHAHAHAHAHA!! X100!

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Thou art welcome, Steve. :)

      Reply
      1. Ivan

        Hello Bruce,

        What you wrote about the view of success that people tend to give to the pastor. I totally agree on that.

        I would like to add that, I believe that pastors such as John Macarthur, John Piper, Jimmy Swaggart, Billy Graham, Joel Osteen etc… are people that will not longer live in a few years. So they try to take advantage of all things that they could use to be remembered. They know they need to build a legacy to be alive over the years once they are not physical alive.

        What does rock artist and actors, TV personalities do once they have success? Like Oprah, Shakira, P. Diddy, Kim Kardashian, Liz Taylor?… They want to expand that success to people that do not care about their music or person so you will find colognes, clothes, accesories and everything with their name.

        How many books John Macarthur have “written”? Hundreds.
        And his versions of the Bible are the ones that sell the most.
        There is a new book of John Macarthur each 3-4 months.

        The Bible commentary series and bibles from Macarthur are massive and impressive. There is no one who have done such kind of work.

        What I see is that there is a competition for a legacy , and for some reason it makes sense to me, because you Bruce once wrote that once a pastor leave the church, people attendance decline.
        What will happen to John Macarthur Church or Joel Osteen Church once they are gone?

        They will say at “least people will have our books, videos, bibles”.

        Books are printed to be sold. If no one demands a book , there is no printed book.
        Why do I say this?

        Well…Before John Macarthur there was a Jimmy Swaggart who had a lot of books, videos and bibles too. And it was the first televangelist we saw in my country back in the 80s.

        He came to the Dominican Rep. in 1986 and my mother was at his conference (She took me with her) so I can say I saw Jimmy Swaggart.

        Who remember Jimmy Swaggart 28 years later in Latinamerica?
        Almost no one.

        It is really, really hard to find his books in spanish language. They are out of print.
        You may find a used copy but rarely a new one.

        So John Macarthur and Joel Osteen are taking advantage of their success to produce all the legacy they can. Books, videos, bibles, websites etc…They will try to have printed their book in spanish, chinese, french etc…They know one day these books will be out of print. And probably no one will remember.

        Who will survive over the years? The one that people think is better in every sense. No wonder John Macarthur talks bad things of every church or denomination while is selling a lot of books and conferences.

        My conclusion is Evangelicalism is not a religion or church. It´s Amway.

        Reply
  6. Daniel

    I agree, the evangelical fundamentalists churches are definitely cults. They display so many characteristics of cults there is no doubt about it. Also, you are spot on about the evangelical tendency of worshiping their favorite Christian authors like Tim Keller, Don Carson, John Piper and so on, it is truly disturbing how many of them post something these authors say in their books on facebook and receive overwhelming number of “likes” because people see that as “Christian”. It’s a very strange, cultish culture.

    Reply

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