Celebrity leadership is the death knell of the evangelical church in America
What can be learned by yet another Mark Driscoll fiasco. Is it even worth talking about?
The Poison of Celebrity Pastor Leadership
Forget the issue of Mark Driscoll’s plagiarism and his recent book. It’s the larger issue of celebrity pastoral leadership that bothers me. When a pastor is elevated into celebrity status, when he/she is removed from being among the people, actually knowing the people he/she ministers among, it inevitably distorts the church. The leadership itself becomes intertwined in power interests that are more broadly cultural. Such leadership can do little to lead the church forward into mission. It will at best hold the status quo, at worst cause division among followers of Christ into those who are for the celebrity and those who are against in order to gain more followers (or customers) faster. This is the way celebrity leadership works. Removed from the local workings of people’s lives on the ground, this kind of leadership becomes ideological. It leads in order to gather more people as fast as it can and then use that people for some ulterior purposes (fame, money, etc.) even when it appears (and probably intends) to serve the Kingdom. Celebrity leadership is poison for the church.
A while back, I got ripped because of some questions I asked of Rob Bell. Rob Bell had made an affirming statement about gay marriage which attracted attention because he was a Christian celebrity preacher. My concern was to show how celebrity leadership leads inevitably into antagonism, the taking up of sides, the arousing of all those who already agree to agree more firmly with what they already agree with, and the arousing of those who don’t agree to become more angry, more dug in their existing position and embittered towards those who don’t agree with them. IMO, There’s just no leading from this space. So celebrity leadership accomplishes nothing on the ground in terms of furthering the real discernment on the issues that are actually taking place in people’s lives and local congregations. It is not involved in the real lives of churches ensconced in real histories dealing with real life issues. Whether Rob Bell meant it or not, I feared his affirmation of gay marriage fell into these bad habits of celebrity leadership. For all these reasons, I asked Rob Bell, “Who he is speaking for/to whom in his affirming gay marriage?” It wasn’t his position on the issue I was questioning (that’s another post or book or something). It was the poison of celebrity leadership and what it does to the witness of the church.
The Tragedy of Driscoll’s Plagiarism: The Evangelical Celebrity Machine
To me the tragedy of Mark Driscoll’s latest controversy is not the plagiarism. It is the afterwards development of the revealing of his plagiarism by radio talk show host Janet Mefford where Mefford was evidently called upon to recant. In the mean time Driscoll is silent and Mefford’s part-time producer resigns with the telling words: “There is an Evangelical Celebrity Machine That is More Powerful Than Anyone Realizes.” Here the power interests have been revealed. Here the money at stake is exposed. Here lies the eruption of the Real. And so the question really is NOT did Driscoll plagiarize or not (he did). It is, why doesn’t Mark Driscoll simply repent? Why doesn’t he just go before his congregation, lie prostrate on the ‘stage’ and confess his sins of plagiarism, greed, trying to do too much publishing too fast, and what he will do to rectify and make the situation whole. It’s what us Christians do? Of course this too could be used ideologically. But at least this would be the actual practice of the Christian faith (Matt 18:15-20, James 5:16) one step removed from managing the ideological factors (his public image, his sales etc.).
Instead Driscoll’s silence in this regard reveals that there is ideology at work. His clear avoidance of one of the most basic practices of the Christian life and the continuing charades surrounding him, the publishers and the lawyers to avoid dealing with the lies, illustrate how far the Driscoll’s book and leadership has been removed above the actual practice of on-the-ground Christian life in the form of a celebrity pastor, and has become a product to be sold, an image to be upheld. This is not Christianity, this is ideology, and (for all the reasons mentioned above) I believe cannot lead our churches anywhere.
So really, pastor Mark, I think it’s just real Christian life to repent before your local congregation, return the advance, and step down from pastorate for a while to work on some stuff with real people involved in your life. We all need to do this from time to time. It is no shame. It is the Christian life.
A Call to Reject Celebrity Leadership
One of the things I have found myself doing these past five years is paying attention to how ideology functions. My observation is simple. Once Christianity/church devolves into an ideology it ceases being an authentic embodiment of God’s Triune work in the world. It becomes a product. It works off antagonism (or lack) as opposed to being the overflowing of abundance of God’s work into the world. Ideology twists Christianity into a form of false consciousness, bad drives, insecurities, and lastly cynicism (I’m playing off Zizek a bit here). But the life we have been given in Christ under His rule is ultimately about overcoming all those things. Ideology is to the church of Christ as disobedience and idol worshiping is to the nation of Israel in the OT.
Celebrity leadership is the death knell of the evangelical church in America. It’s killing us. And so I believe it’s of utmost importance that everyone under the age of 35 reject celebrity leadership. Realize that once beliefs, products, preaching, leadership is extracted from the local life of the local concretely engaged church, it tends to quickly devolve into ideology. And we then are just a short period away from the death of that church in a swirl of inevitable contradictions, hypocrisy and moral failures that inevitably attend celebrity leadership.
Instead, the church that shall go on into the new challenges and unreached regions shall be led by organic on the ground leadership, in Gramsci’s terms: the organic intellectual. We need more of these kind of leaders. I continue to believe that the “revolution will not be televised.”
For those who are developing platforms, do it organically. There is a good way to develop a platform and a bad way, an organic simple way that develops from within on the ground relationships, and a bad way that plays off antagonism, trumped up activity and is devoid of local context. I contend the true leadership that shall lead into the future will come from the good way.
What do you do with celebrity leadership? What are some examples of organic local on the ground leaders that we can learn from? How can we all (including myself) avoid the pitfalls/desires of being a celebrity leader?
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