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The Evangelical Cult of Personality

church size matters
Cartoon by David Hayward, The Naked Pastor

Originally written November 2015. Updated, corrected, and expanded.

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 various groups saying that they were a follower of Apollos, Cephas, Paul, or Christ. In First Corinthians 1:13, Paul asked:

Is Christ divided?

Two thousand years later, we can answer Paul’s question with an emphatic YES! The followers of Jesus Christ have spent the past 2,000 years fighting amongst themselves. Their internecine warfare has caused schism, splits, and divisions, leading to the establishment of thousands of 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. 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 life, and almost every Christian sect thinks it has the way, truth, and life market cornered. Pick the wrong sect and, according to many sects, you will miss Heaven and spend eternity in Hell being tortured by God.

Evangelicalism, an inherently fundamentalist religious belief, (please see Are Evangelicals Fundamentalists?) has a unique problem in that its churches are generally a blend of sectarian divisiveness, Madison Avenue advertising techniques, and movie-star devotion to pastors, evangelists, and other “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? Sign after 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, the Apostle 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 a different 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.

Megachurch pastors, in particular, are getting rich off the ministry. 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 do they realize that their defense simply illustrates my contention that Evangelicalism 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 hub around which everything turned. 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 southeast Ohio, people would drive 30-45 minutes to hear me preach. Our church was exciting and growing, and I — uh, I mean God — was the reason.

What drives the cult of personality? Here in the United States, we are enamored with success. We tend to give respect to people who appear to be winners. One need only look to Donald Trump as an example of someone who gives the appearance of being a winner. 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 mailing list 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. Numerical 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 he 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 that these successful pastors never write a book years later detailing the fact that “God’s blessing” didn’t last and their penis size shrank dramatically?

American Evangelicals love their conferences. Hundreds of Evangelical conferences are held each year. Who are the speakers? 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 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 that they become tired of everything being about the pastor or of 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 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 to me that Evangelicalism is all about the pastor’s kingdom and not the kingdom of Jesus they say they follow.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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  1. Avatar

    “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!!”

  2. Avatar

    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!

  3. Avatar

    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.

  4. Avatar

    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

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

  6. Avatar

    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 .

  7. Avatar

    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.

  8. Avatar

    Conversely, when numbers are low it’s because Satan is leading people astray because our teachings are just so gosh darn True Christian. That was basically the excuse the Christian school I attended gave as their enrollment dwindled each year as newer, less strict Christian schools came onto the scene and thrived.

    • Avatar
      Cindy Freeman

      Your comment reminds me of a thought I had back several years ago when a hurricane struck where we lived. There was a small IFB church(pastor and wife BJU grads) nearby which was flooded. I could already hear the pronouncements, “Satan is attacking us!” But I knew that if the same happened to a “liberal” church, the same people would’ve said, “Maybe God’s trying to tell you something!” LOL

  9. Avatar

    So, because Toyota, General Mills, Apple, GE are all profiting off of the pitiable general public- and are pathetically bedazzled by their marketing, I should stop driving my Camry, eating cereal, using an iPad, and ligjt bulbs?
    Obviously they are for-profit entities. However, far be it from me to allow their shameless profiteering to affect the benefit I receive from transportation, nutrition, communication, and light.
    My choice to trust the Biblical God is entirely independent of others’ poor.choices.
    It is an external excuse that betrays a more fundamental choice to reject Biblical faith.
    Respectfully, let us hear more of that and get at the real reason.

    • Avatar
      Brian Vanderlip

      Well, the real reason I do no rest my faith in the Bible is that the Bible is simply a book of stories told over many many generations, all kinds of stories that every Christian kindles in their own heart into a fire of one, a singular glow of belief that is not the same as the next fellow’s burn, even if they go to the same church and sit in the same pew on the same Sunday morning listening to the same preacher tell them what the Bible means. The fact that the preacher may be or really is a perverted liar makes little or no difference to the believer’s faith in the Bible.
      This might not be rational but it is very human. When God ‘visits’ and speaks to the biped, the biped must believe the voice they hear and/or the image that confronts them. The Bible is not that visitation or that image but a bunch of writings that sometimes have to do with an encounter with something other, some mystery, a glow called divine or whatever. The mystical men and women, the special people throughout history live on, shadows cast by the mystery. Some people call them God and some Christians insist that theirs is the only God. I prefer to allow the Mystery that is awe in human life, the unexplainable light cast that stops us in our tracks or seems to almost give us the words to explain wordless things like a wave of human love.
      That, MPIndy, is why I do not rest my life in the Bible alone…. well, not exactly the reason but a brief stab at it.

    • Avatar

      MPIndy, I reject Biblical faith because I don’t “do” religious faith, not only Christianity but all other supernatural belief systems as well.

      By the time I encountered the Bible, around age six and on my own initiative (no childhood indoctrination!), I was already starting to sort out fact from fiction. One would think that a book inspired by a god would just reach out and grab you. Rien. Nada. Nothing.

      By the time I was seven and a half, I had figured out that Hell was a myth that could conveniently be used by rulers to keep the populace in line.

      My inability to “just believe” has been integral to my life ever since (I’m now 62). It was never about the corruption and abuse that infests all too many groups, religious and secular alike. It was always about my total inability to wholeheartedly believe in world-drowning floods, magic boats full of animals, undead rabbis, and Talking Snakes™, regardless of the alleged cost of not accepting an undead rabbi as my saviour.

    • Avatar
      John Arthur

      Well, you can have your ‘biblical faith’ but I wonder whether you have read the bible through. Much of this book was written by very violent, bloodthirsty, barbaric and very ignorant savages who have no idea about compassion, tender mercy and loving-kindness. These authors created a god in their own likeness. Would you follow a book where its god is supposed to have commanded the slaughter of little children and babies? Would you support a book where its god commanded a raped woman (previously a virgin) to marry her rapist, provided he paid the bride price to her father? Would you follow a book that enables slavery of foreigners? Would you follow a book where its cruel god tortures non-believers with everlasting torture by burning them in some Lake of Fire? The god of your book is a moral monster, not one of everlasting kindness and deep compassion.

  10. Avatar
    Jared I'ver

    I’m just a passerby, but I found this article and wanted to share my experiences with evangelicals. My parents have bit the bait on the one called Andrew Wommack. I guess he’s a televangelist that has some sort of mockup ‘college’ in CO, and he’s completely hooked my parents. They rapidly fell into watching every single video he’s put up every single day. I’m not even kidding–all day… every single day. They just sit there. Not as an insult, but they’re basically useless.

    We’ve been going through tough times since ’09 and I’m assuming my parents are desperate for anything. I’m not religious anymore, but my parents kept theirs. Fast forward to last year, and they found Andrew Wommack. Out of all the evangelist heads I’ve seen, he has got to be the most toxic. He’s feeding my parents lies in order for them to fork over their scraps of money laft over after the bills, and they ironically believe that this will help them in the long run. Now, I may be rusty with my knowledge of Christian values, but I don’t think giving peasant money to a rich dude that praises himself is a very good thing at all.

    Andrew Wommack loves to sport stories about “back in ‘Nam” and such, where everyone would be doing drugs and banging the locals while he was being a good boy with his Bible. Nothing inherently wrong with that,if that’s the way someone chooses to live I can respect that. But not him. He tends to go on to tell many stories of how pure and holy he is because he isn’t dumb enough to “succumb to muh carnal senses”. However, to give some sort of hint that he’s being realistic, he would tell stories of how he god mad one time, and somehow everyone feels like he’s relatable now. On top of that, he EXPLICITLY states that he’s more successful than his viewers because he lives a holier life than them.

    One of the worst parts is how he shames people for feeling human things. Before he starts going off on one of his billions of “controversial means it’s the truth” opinions, he likes to say “I know this is gonna offend somma y’all…” Just to get people mad, and to somehow prove that they’re only mad because they’re wrong. The last time I checked, true and original Christianity wasn’t about “offending” people. It wasn’t about stating unpopular opinions (but I digress). He loves to shame people for going to the doctor, or for worrying about money to care for your kids instead of giving it to him.

    My parents are brainwashed from this guy, and they’re totally less tolerant of everyone else because of it. To be completely honest, he’s pretty up-there on my list of “people who I’d love to see on LiveLeak”. He’s successfully managed to create a hivemind that will believe anything this ‘sweet old countryman’ says because he has convinced them that he is absolute (a la cult of personality, like you mentioned). I’ve been shamed by my dad for struggling to ask for help at my difficult job about a month ago, and he told me that it was because of my pride. He’s managed to change the meaning of this word for my parents, because there is no pride involved. It’s shame and fear for being disappointing to my boss. I’m digressing, but I hope you get what I mean when I’m saying that he’s brainwashed them.

    I know it sounds unproductive to complain about this, but I just wanted to get this threat out there. I’m glad I found such a good article, Bruce. I may be an ex-Christian, but I’m glad to see that there are still good Christians in this country.

  11. Avatar
    John Arthur

    Hi Jared,

    I’m so sorry that your parents are being scammed by this Word of Faith, Prosperity theology, Charismatic nonsense that Andrew Wommer promotes. He’s a charlatan who empties the pockets of vulnerable Christians. Thanks for exposing him.

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Bruce Gerencser