In recent months I have watched two very prominent and very successful pastors have their integrity called into question. Steven Furtick, pastor at the 14,000 member Elevation Church in Charlotte and Mark Driscoll, pastor at Mars Hill Church in Seattle, which also has an attendance of 14,000 per week spread over their 15 locations, have recently both been the subject of intense scrutiny of their character. In Furtick’s case, the examination has to do primarily with his decision to build a 16,000 square foot, $1.7 million home for his family and questions about the Elevation practice of “spontaneous baptisms.” Driscoll’s case is far more involved and includes questionable practices in promoting his books, his general demeanor toward others, and even extending back to behavior he engaged in nearly 15 years ago.
My goal in this short piece is not to uncover some new detail about either man. Nor is my goal to pile on either of them. They have enough to do in responding biblically and graciously to the challenges at hand. Rather, I suggest that at least part of the reason these relatively young men (Driscoll is 43 and Furtick is 34) are embroiled in these controversies is due to something more sinister and subtle: our desire to follow (and promote and even worship) successful people even to the extent that we are willing to look beyond some obvious issues.
As much as we might like to deny it, we – other pastors and Christians – love a success. We want to be a success and we want to be surrounded by successful people. When we find someone who can draw a crowd, can motivate them and move them with his speaking, and can build an organization, we give them wide latitude in other areas. We are willing to call it “edgy” when a guy cusses in the pulpit, as long as he is reaching thousands and agrees with us theologically. We look past one who is tempted by the allure of material possessions (what else is a 16,000 sq ft house?) because there are other good things his church does (like donating millions of dollars to charities in and around Charlotte).
The scandals that occurred among proponents of the prosperity gospel was easier for conservative, orthodox evangelicals to live with. After all, we had significant theological problems with Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Robert Tilton, Oral Roberts, Richard Roberts, Joyce Meyer, Creflo Dollar, Paula White and others. But, now we have discovered that the problem is not solely theological in nature. No, it is deeper than the ability to check the “orthodox” box next to your theology. It is a problem of the human heart. It is a problem that Paul addressed to young Timothy when he told him flee the temptation of money and material possessions (1 Tim 6:9-11). It is a problem of a Christian subculture that loves a rock star.
I have a few suggestions as to how we can mitigate the rock star phenomenon among us.
1. Serve in a small, traditional church before you plant a church.
I served in two small, rural churches that were run by just a few families. Nothing will kill a rock star mindset like Mrs. Charlene reminding you that “pastors come and go, but the church stays the same.” Most of the rock stars in our midst planted the churches they now serve in. While I am not opposed to church planting, it gives a young pastor a false idea of ministry. I planted a church too. And, I recall a mindset of the church being “mine” edging in on me; after all, I planted it, I built it, and no one would be here if they didn’t like me and my preaching. And, I was only in a church of 180. Imagine 10 or 100 times that many.
My heart breaks when I hear the old saying, “it is easier to give birth than to raise the dead.” Of course it is. And, it’s more fun too. The problem is, there are lessons that one only learns during the hard labor of working with folks who do not see you as the answer to all their problems. There is a leadership incubator in a small, rural church that cannot – under any circumstances – be replicated by a church planting boot camp. Indeed, I would argue that if you cannot effectively lead in a small, rural church, you ought not plant a church. The leadership lessons are that critical. Spend five years or so in a small, traditional church before you decide to plant that megachurch, multi-site, world-changing church in a major city. Your ministry will be better for it.
2. Find an older pastor to mentor you
John Walden, Noel Taylor, James Baldwin. These are names that will be remembered by only a handful of family and friends. But, these three men were instrumental in my life. They were all local church pastors who took me under their wing and shared ministry insights with me that were not taught in a classroom. They were not rock stars.
I remember one leadership decision that did not go as I intended. As I shared the story with Dr. Baldwin, he asked me who I thought was to blame. I immediately launched into accusations about the chairman of deacons, the family who “ran” the church, and the unwillingness of stubborn people to follow good leadership. He listened politely and then said, “Well, you got it all wrong, son. The problem is you.” He then painted a picture of how to lead people, not just tell them what I wanted them to do. The lesson made a significant impression on me.
When young, hip, cool pastor types experience success the only people they seem to listen to are other young, hip, cool pastor types. That is a prescription for disaster. I would suggest that every young pastor – no matter how hip or cool – find an experienced, small church pastor who can share wisdom with him. Who can teach him how to navigate difficult leadership decisions and how to guard his heart from the temptations that come with great success.
3. Remember you are only a steward.
When I was getting a little full of myself about planting a church in a town of 3,000 people that were 78% churched – and it growing from 23 to nearly 180 in 5 years – I needed a reality check. What brought me back to reality – other than God’s grace – was a visit to one of those country churches I had previously pastored. It was there God reminded me that I was but a steward in His kingdom. He reminded me that the church I helped to plant had better be bigger than me, or it would not last. He reminded me to hold any church I serve with an open hand, because the church is designed for his glory, not mine.
Brothers, we are not rock stars. We are servants of the King, who demonstrate our love for Him by the way we love the people entrusted to our care. These things have helped me. What has helped you to beat back the rock star mentality?