George Marsden, writing on the evangelical movement in American culture, points out that we have achieved the dominance in American religion by a crusading spirit. Evangelicals have thrown themselves behind a succession of social reforms–Anti-slavery, dropping the gold standard, temperance, anti-Communism, abstinence, and anti-abortion. We define ourselves by our ability to move the masses to change. Marsden suggests that, while Evangelicalism has been effective in changing culture, it has been poor at maintaining change when it has happened. I believe he is correct.
The thrust of our message has been social, not individual. Joining Jesus means joining the church. Joining the church means joining a cause. We are invited not only to come to the Cross, but to join the people who are crowded around the cross, and to act, think, and vote just like them.
We measure success by numbers. How many people came the altar? How many people joined? How many people voted? How many CD’s, books or study guides were sold?
Social movements need institutions and institutions need money. Leaders must become symbols, ideas become slogans, and illustrations become icons to clearly promote a brandable cause. Everything becomes simplified and sloganized in order to attract a crowd. The pastors cease to pastor. Instead, the pastor becomes the “fundraiser in chief.” He must push vision constantly in order to keep the workers and money coming. Preachers must dedicate their lives to maintaining the growth of the institutions instead of being humble followers of God. Modern religion centers as much around hero worship as God worship. When the hero fails, people blame God and abandon the church.The sins of the leader become the sins of the church.
I pity these leaders. They often find themselves trapped inside a golden cage. How can you continue to be a simple follower of Christ when thousands of people depend upon your voice just to make it through the day? If, when what you say does not please them, they then blame you, God, and the church?
No one can take this kind of idol-worship forever without it going to their head. When we put our leaders on a pedestal, sooner or later they will stumble and fall.
What’s the solution? There’s no easy one. Here are some suggestions, though:
Stop thinking of the pulpit as a pedestal for super saints. Lifting up leaders sets them up for moral failure; it practically guarantees it. Attention is as addictive as heroin to many preachers. The more they get it, the more they crave it. We need to quit lifting up leaders and do a better job of lifting up Christ. The primary relationship in God’s economy is that between Christ and Christians, not Christ mediated through the leadership of a high-profile leader.
Encourage real humility and vulnerability in church leaders. Humility is a missing virtue among evangelicals. We seldom hear sermons on humility. Instead, we preach about how important we are, how visionary we are and how desperately God needs us, instead of how desperately we need God. Our preaching tells people that God must have their money and their participation or His work can’t succeed. This is a denial of the power of the living God. We celebrate saints based on how they transform the world, not on how they were transformed by the Gospel. Most young seminarians see themselves as world-shakers and are terrified that God may send them to minister in small places in slow-growing communities.
Break up big churches. I know this is a radical and unpopular idea, but even so. The larger the church, the more it acts like a corporation. Leaders of large churches have little time to be pastors. Their minds must be on keeping the institution going. Leaders of large churches have a harder time staying humble before Christ when they are given so much attention and control. Members are not individuals so much as cogs in the big machine. There is little accountability to the members. People never get close enough to see their real hearts. They only see the image that is projected on the screen.
There are strong arguments in favor of big churches. One of them is that big churches are able to accomplish so much more than small churches. They have excess money and members who can be devoted to the works of transforming the world. But being a Christian isn’t about what we contribute to the world. It is about who we are in the world. Big projects and big accomplishments can warp our perspective when it comes to Christ. In our concern for outer action, we neglect the virtues of inner submission: silence, solitude, self-examination, contemplation, and most of all humility.
Small churches have the same problems. It doesn’t matter what size the church but who is in control. They are often just as worldly and power-hungry as big ones. But in small churches, everyone knows each other, and at least have the possibility of praying for each other, loving each other, and calling each other’s bluff when they become too self-important.
If we must have large churches (and we probably must), then we need to make sure that there are small groups of people who hold each other spiritually accountable within the big organization.
Build people, not programs. Programs in the church are things we do to help fulfill the calling of Christ. But programs are not the end of anything. Building people into people who look, act, and think like Jesus is the goal of it all.
If we have a successful youth program with hundreds of young people, yet one child feels excluded or left out, then our youth program is a not doing it’s job. If we have a hundred men coming to our men’s breakfast, but those who come are not becoming better people, we are not being what we should be. If we have a women’s Bible study that fills the sanctuary, but our women are still lonely, isolated, and divided by gossip and backbiting, we are not successful.
Being successful in ministry is not about being larger but being more Christlike. It isn’t about keeping institutions going, but becoming more like Him.
It doesn’t matter who runs the church, so long as it is Christ. He is the one true leader. The rest of us are just followers.