The Evangelical Cult of Personality

church size matters

Cartoon by David Hayward, The Naked 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 had become factional, with the various groups saying that they 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 major 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 such as salvation, baptism, and communion.  Jesus said, I am the way, truth, and the life, and almost every Christian sect thinks it has 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 technique, and a fan of movie star devotion to their pastor and successful Evangelical leaders. This has led to a cult of personality, similar to that which Paul was addressing in the church at Corinth 2,000 years ago.

Drive by many Evangelical churches these days and what do you see on the church sign? Almost every sign will have the pastor’s name prominently displayed. Why is this important? Why is it necessary to advertise the name of the pastor? If the church is one body worshiping the one Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, why call attention to the identity of the pastor? Why don’t churches put the names of the poorest church members on their signs as James suggests 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?

Isn’t giving the pastor top billing on the church sign showing 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 Evangelicals 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 leaves his 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 that they were spiritually and emotionally infatuated with the previous pastor .

A while 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 kinds 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.

Any time I write about one of the Evangelical superstar pastors, people are sure to come along and defend him. I have attacked their god, and it doesn’t matter what the Bible or common decency says, they are not going to stand for it. Little to do they realize that their defense simply illustrates my contention 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 KellerDon CarsonKevin DeYoungAl MohlerMark DriscollStephen Um,  John 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 McLarenDonald MillerRob 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 appear to be winners. Even in the blogosphere, we often judge the value of writers by the number of people who read their blogs and follow them on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram.  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 my writing? Of course not. A person’s success proves nothing.

size matters

For Evangelical pastors, size matters.

Within Evangelicalism, numerical success is everything. Success for a pastor is measured by the size of his penis, uh, I mean size of his church. 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  Evangelical conference promoters have had a Bro. Joe, who pastors 20 people on the backside of some hill in West Virginia, come and speak at their 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 methods of the latest hotshot, knows-everything, successful pastor.  They sincerely thought that Christianity was all about Jesus. 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 proclaim 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 seems 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 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 ever to 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, agnostics, and humanists especially those who are not as well-known as Richard DawkinsDaniel DennettSam HarrisDan BarkerDan Savage, Jerry DeWitt, et al. When groups like the Freedom from Religion FoundationAmerican 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 us to devalue those who are not considered successful (however we define success).

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9 Comments

  1. Ami

    “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)”

    You can tie that to politics and sports teams, too.
    Strange world we live in.

    “He may be an asshole, but he’s OUR asshole! Let’s vote for him!!”
    “Yeah, he’s a rapist/animal abuser/thief but gee, he sure can play ball! I love our team!!”

    Reply
  2. Karen

    I grew up in the Catholic church, where pastors are assigned by the church and can be reassigned at will (though I never noticed much reassignment in practice). My mother was a devout Catholic and my father a nonreligious Lutheran. My mother was easily influenced by authority and charisma, and would go on and on about a favorite priest. Father Whatshisname was wonderful, who spoke nothing but words of wisdom. I still remember the shock in the church when one particular Father Whatshisname threw in the towel, quit the priesthood, and promptly got married. It shook my mother badly.

    During her last years she once again had a favorite Father Whatshisname, and the kindly nun in charge of such things for the parish arranged for this priest to officiate at my mother’s funeral. He obviously didn’t know her, didn’t give a rat’s ass about her, and gave the most insensitively generic eulogy I ever heard. I don’t even recall him greeting my father and me after the funeral, which was probably all to the good since I might have told him what I thought of him.

    A pox on personality cults!

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Thanks for commenting, Karen.

      Reply
  3. Troy

    Actually I think you left out one reason people might not like the new guy. He might be an asshole. A brief anecdote about my parent’s experience. They were on the council of their church for many years. (A Lutheran, non-fundy church) They actually went through a few pastors until “Pastor J” came along and was quite blunt that he wanted to grow the church even if it meant there might be a loss of existing members. He got his wish many people left and started a new church. The last straw for my Mother (who like you mention was driving 35-40 minutes to get there) was when “Pastor J” was provincial and condescending about using the church facilities.

    Reply
  4. Steve

    All so true, Bdude. And, sadly, our atheist world is turning into the same thing. I’ve said the same thing before too, that we need speakers like myself who can’t even afford to attend their precious conferences. I’ve learned that atheists are just like the IFB on loving conferences & speakers with big penises

    Reply
    1. Marco

      How often did I hear in my old IFB church “Doctor Bob said…..”

      Reply
  5. Pingback: Scattered Ramblings on Handling Success | James' Ramblings

  6. Ted

    This article is correct….Jack Hyles always said heroes are important. Lee Roberson was one of his, because of numbers. When I drive by a Catholic Church, I rarely see the name of the Priest…its almost irrelevant, but then again the Pope gets a lot of attention in the RC church.

    As Bruce pointed out Atheism also has its heroes. …Conrad Black touches on this in today’s National Post .

    http://news.nationalpost.com/2015/03/21/conrad-black-the-shabby-shallow-world-of-the-militant-atheist/

    Reply
  7. JR

    In my city young christian men revered Mark Driscoll. He was even invited to a conference here so we could bask in his glory first hand. I didn’t go but eagerly listened to a recording my pastor played to me – 16 things wrong with the church in the UK.

    One of his points ‘you have no christian celebrities'(he dressed it differently but this was the point.)

    Years on his words come back to haunt him. Look where his obsession with his own celebrity got him.

    Reply

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