The Power of ‘Personality Cults’

Power of Personality Cults

Less-known names in lesser-known churches have had unbelievable overnight success.  Popular magazines and websites create lists of the biggest of the big names and the fastest of the lesser-known names. They interview the leader, then hold events to celebrate and award plaques to be hung in the lobbies and offices of these outstanding churches & leaders.  Admittedly I have even worked at one of these churches with those plaques on the wall.

Associations and groups hold these seemingly above-average leaders up as heroes, or even scarier are when associations and groups begin to form around them. Solely based on the person and personality, the crowds flock to lead just like them.  Books are written along with websites and training videos. Conferences are hosted to be the next (fill in the blank) church and (fill in the blank) leader.

Then suddenly, or at least so it would seem, it all implodes as the leader themselves implode.  Look back just a decade at some of the lists mentioned above. You will see buildings left emptied; congregations left lost and confused.  Staff members were devastated and jobless.  Even more recently, there has been a series of different documentaries and podcasts dedicated to the study of these downfalls.

What is the worst of all is the impact of Student Ministry, the next generation of children and students betrayed, and leaving not just that church but Christianity behind. 

My email box and social media, and messages are filled with stories of hurt people in ministry, being hired to work at what seemed like a growing, successful church led by a dynamic leader.  The attractive position and opportunity that is almost too much to resist.  The appeal is always the same: come work for this fresh new church, only ____ years old, led by a leader everyone adores.

Many of the stories end the same, however.  Even some of my own stories and experiences echo others’ experiences; this is why I end up having others share with me.  Maybe you are reading this, and you have even been starting to feel this weird unrest in your spirit about where you are or someplace you are interviewing with.  (*I John 4:1) 

We leave college with a calling in our hearts for students and to serve the church.  We have been taught what we think are the clear lines between weird cults and solid churches.   We hear the word “cult” and think of an oddly dressed guy with a crazy look in his eye with an adoring, mindless group of followers meeting in secret.  His words are never questioned, and when he speaks, everyone listens. He asks his followers to talk in a certain way, dress in a particular way, and live according to his rules.

We as smart, educated youth workers would never fall for that?  Or would we?

A while back, I wrote some thoughts about “key leaders” and why they fail; as you look back at that list, I think you will see echoes of what many call “Personality Cults” inside today’s church.   It is not a new thing in history, and it is not even a new thing in the Bible (*I Cor. 3:18-23)

What we are seeing, as more and more churches move away from the denominations and associations, there is less leadership accountability.  While multi-sites offer accountability within their own structure, many of these spring up from a central/original site that was founded by a person without accountability or accountability that is no longer in place.  Even with these churches, elders/leadership boards are no longer chosen by the congregation but by the leader.   Staff members often are hired from only within the church with the guise “of leaders that were raised up within” or “knowing our unique culture.”   What even should be more alarming is when leadership teams, paid and unpaid, represent only a leader’s family, friends, and relationships. A place where no outsiders are allowed as insiders? The most problematic may be when a “ministry school” is formed around these churches and leaderships to shape the next generation of leaders without any accreditation, promising a “certificate” or recognition in place of a degree.

As a leader in a ministry, choosing to lead under another leader, while leading the next generation it is so very important that we Beware of the Power of “Personality Cults”.   Here are just 4 quick thoughts, from my own experiences and the experiences of some many others:

  1. Beware of Following the Personality. If a church is founded and shaped on and around a singular person and personality, beware!  Personality shapes leadership. Organizations take on the personality of their leaders; it is somewhat inevitable.  Beware if personality, personal preference, and even personal pride are the overwhelming persona of a church.
  2. Beware of Following the Practice. If a church is so locked into a set of human practices/traditions not described in scripture, beware.  We all face the “we have always done it this way” in ministry.   Watch out if the sacred cows become divine golden calves that move from the backroom to be elevated to the stage to be worshipped.
  3. Beware of Following the Preaching. If the speaking ability, style, and content of the “preaching” is the only voice that can be heard, beware.  We should seek a church with great teaching and preaching that we agree with and grow us.  If a church is so tuned into only one voice of one person that no other person can be heard, there may be a problem.
  4. Follow Only the Power of the Cross. The head of the church is and has always been Jesus. It is who we follow. the power of the cross is what gives our church power.  It is upon the rock, Jesus, that every church should be founded, not the latest little rock star leader- Peter, Paul, or Apollos. Beware, my friends, of the power of following only a human leader and missing the opportunity to follow Christ with your calling to this next generation.