May 16, 2008
Church Celebrity Deathmatch
Why young people are tired of personality-driven churches.
I haven't seen MTV in years, with no regrets, but I recall a show on the network that impacted me like a train wreck. It was awful, gruesome, and terrible - but I couldn't look away. "Celebrity Deathmatch" featured clay-animated celebrities in a wrestling ring where they pummeled, grinded, or dismembered each other into a bloody pulp of scarlet Play-Doh. It wasn't exactly wholesome family entertainment.
We can pick apart the moral depravity of the show (which is all too easy), or we can talk about why it was so popular with the young (which is probably related to its moral depravity). Let's simply draw this conclusion - the younger generation isn't enamored with celebrities. They aren't cultural gods to be worshiped and respected. They're more like rodeo clowns trying not to be impaled by the paparazzi beasts we unleash to devour them for our own entertainment.
The anti-celebrity sentiment of the younger generation, and the culture as a whole, may be taking root in the church as well. There are two seemingly opposite trends occurring among evangelicals that relate to this. One is the movement away from hierarchical leadership structures. The other is the movement toward hierarchical leadership structures. Let me explain.
The spring issue of Leadership includes an interview with the pastoral team at The Next Level Church in Denver. After building a booming church around the dynamic gifts of a senior pastor, TNL imploded. The senior pastor/preacher left amid controversy and the church's attendance dropped like Wiley Coyote from a cliff. In the aftermath, the remaining pastors reorganized TNL sans senior pastor. They've opted for a team approach with leaders sharing equal authority and responsibility.
They're not alone. Other young church leaders are forgoing the traditional senior pastor model. They prefer a flattened structure with shared responsibility where a team, rather then an individual, has the steering wheel. Thus no one achieves celebrity status in the congregation. Even in next-gen churches with a visible leader there is a trend away from the "Senior Pastor" title. The reason is linked to the scary rate of failure seen among senior pastors. Like "Celebrity Deathmatch," the evangelical church seems littered with the corpses of leaders who've been beaten beyond recovery.
Brian Gray from The Next Level Chuch says, "I wasn't at TNL during that crisis, but I also saw a senior pastor model entirely fall apart at my previous church. It got really bad. I began thinking there had to be a better way to do church. There is something systemically unhealthy about becoming dependent upon a single leader."
Having a single "face with the place," a senior pastor who fills the pulpit and whose personality permeates the entire congregation, has been the popular model for evangelicals, but these ecclesial celebrities crash and burn at a rate greater than a sub-Saharan airline. As Gray points out, the problem is the system and not just the pastors. So many younger evangelicals are seeking churches liberated from the celebrity death spiral.
But this is only half of the phenomenon.
In my area we are seeing a striking number of younger evangelicals move toward high-church traditions - particularly Anglican. This has been discussed in the pages of Christianity Today as well as U.S. News & World Report. Some are calling it the "return to ritual." At first glance one might see this as being completely out of phase with the trend outlined above. After all, high church traditions are all about structure and hierarchy. There are priests, and bishops, and even archbishops.
But a closer examination reveals that this trend may also be coming from the same discontentment with personality-driven congregations. Anglican worship is built on a time-honored liturgy that emphasizes prayer, Scripture, and the Eucharist. While preaching is certainly present, the preacher and his/her personality does not dominate corporate worship. The same could be said of the worship leader. Personality takes a backseat to tradition.
Similarly, while some churches are trying to minimize risk through a team structure, high-church traditions protect congregations from the failures of a single leader through a hierarchy that stretches far above the local church. This is one example where the much-derided denomination still has an advantage over non-denominational churches.
What does all of this mean? Here are a few thoughts. First, a lot of churches are itching to jump on the liturgy bandwagon. They think that incorporating these traditional worship practices will attract and/or retain young people. Before making a radical shift in your church's worship format do some deeper investigation. Are the young people in your congregation/community really hungry for liturgy (which is certainly possible), or are they actually reacting against a personality-driven, celebrity pastor culture?
Secondly, don't assume every problem in your church is related to personnel. Believe it or not, the senior pastor may not be the issue. It could be the leadership system or structure your church uses. Most churches simply expect way too much from a single leader - that may lead to burn out, isolation, and even moral failure. A structure of shared authority, both in the board room and the pulpit, may prove much healthier for everyone. And it may keep the younger folks engaged in the church by allowing them to have an influence.
Finally, be willing to ask yourself and your church why there is an instinctual desire to elevate one pastor? Why do we put our leaders on a pedestal and then stand in horror, and sometimes amusement, when they fall? The younger generation of evangelicals seems willing to put this culture of church celebrities to death, and that may not be as unwholesome as it sounds.