Monday, December 12, 2011

Personality Cults

I think one of the hardest things to do in the ministry is to keep churches from becoming personality cults. The itinerancy in Methodism helps put some checks on this, but there are still issues. The problem with personality cults is that once the minister leaves, people who are there because of them leave as well.

I don't want the church to be based on me, or to have attendance increasing simply because I am the minister, I want it to be more on the church and what people find in the church. But that is hard because so much relies on the minister. The simple fact is if you have a poor preacher people are less likely to come, and if you have a good preacher and a good service people are more likely to come. (some of this builds on my post on quarterbacks and ministers).

We record each service and make the service and the sermons available for people to take for their own use or to give to others. I have never had someone take the full service, but they take the sermons all the time. Is that building a personality cult? I don't know, but it's something with which I struggle.

What has me thinking more about this are the recent events at the Crystal Cathedral in California and the New Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta. Following Schuller's retirement at the Crystal Cathedral there has been a lot of turmoil leading them to recently sell their building. The future is unknown for them but they clearly are not the same without Schuller there, and their days as a "megachurch" seem to be clearly numbered. Eddie Long recently left his church as well, and there is a lot of conversation about whether that church can continue. Members are saying that they need to remember that a church is bigger than it's minister, but can they keep the same church and the same size without Long as the head? Like the Crystal Cathedral, the future is very uncertain.

Can megachurches sustain pastoral changes and survive as they have been? I think that this is something we are going to have to see. Will Saddleback be the same without Rick Warren, or Willow Creek without Bill Hybels, or even in the UMC will the Church of the Resurrection be the same without Adam Hamilton? How much of the participation in these churches is based on the church and how much on the pastor? Even if these pastors have passed over some of the responsibility to others, they still exert tremendous influence over the direction and operation of the church. Rob Bell's recent departure from Mars Hill will be a good indication of how at least one church does after the departure of a charismatic leader.

Clearly there are some pastors who thrive on the personality cult, and others who work hard to keep the focus on Christ and the church, but will that make a difference in the end? I certainly hope so, but don't know. In looking through attendance figures in the New England conference there was almost always a drop in attendance following a ministerial change (there were exceptions to this of course), which indicates to me that more people might be connected to us than we actually realize.

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