You Can’t Argue With Success

I’m listening to the Christianity Today podcast, “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.” Specifically, it’s the story of a Seattle based mega-church and it’s most prominent pastor, Mark Driscoll – how it started, how it grew, how it established a network of campuses/churches and then dissolved…or spontaneously combusted into a dumpster fire. As I’m listening to the episodes I am thinking about an old joke where a couple of older women are discussing the food at a resort and one says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.”

Only in this context I would tell it this way, “Boy the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says hungrily, “Yeah, I know; and such large portions!”

One of the themes of this podcast is how badly Driscoll behaved, how many people he hurt, how paranoid and vindictive he was as a person and leader, and how much damage he did to many people’s lives.

But we just couldn’t get enough.

This is the macro-theme – Driscoll isn’t an outlier, he’s the norm.

Our criteria for leadership is simply results based. If people are coming and the church is growing, we will make allowances for and excuse or even cover-up the bad behavior of leaders in favor of “the greater good.” If we can show you astonishing stats on baptisms, tell you stories about outreaches, assure you miracles are happening and we are having to add new meeting times, I can behave like a jackass, run people over and insult your wife and people are conditioned by our systems to keep coming back.

Again, this isn’t an outlier, this has become normative.

We have receipts. We know the names.

And for every one that finally crosses a line and gets called out – often from someone outside the system (forcibly removed or never enmeshed) – there are a lot of us pastors who are engaged in pastoral malpractice who carry on in our wounding, broken behaviors for one simple reason – our church is still growing.

This podcast historically traces a bit of that line – the story behind the story we find ourselves in. Another book that I’m currently reading that adds to our understanding of this situation is Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Mez. The big idea here is that we, the evangelical church, have created this environment where narcissistic personalities can thrive, where bullies are called “visionary leaders” and all manner of offense can be forgiven as long as we’re winning: the church is growing, finances are good, and congregational clout continues to grow.

Who doesn’t want to be a part of the “happening” church in town?

Living in another place at another time I once asked a couple who were visiting our church for the first but not last time, “What brings you here today?” and their response was, “We’re new to the area and I asked someone in the coffee shop where the liveliest church in town was – they said they’d never been here but they’d heard a lot about your church.” Let’s be real, who doesn’t want to hear that? The danger is that in hearing that we ignore all the other red flags, internal issues and clear actions that harm others and themselves.

Because it’s working. We’re winning. And as the adage goes, “You can’t argue with success.”

 We exist in a time now where one of the chief characteristics we’re looking for in a church planter is an “entrepreneurial spirit.”

Let’s just sit with that for a sec.

I’m regularly encouraged to send my keenest leaders with entrepreneurial mindsets off for a conference to learn how to plant a church.

I’m never asked or encouraged to send my leaders with the deepest commitment to Christ or with the most Christlike attitudes or with a clear pastoral vocation to those same meetings.

The above mentioned podcast develops the idea that Bill Hybels, of Willow Creek fame and infamy, boasted about the entrepreneurial or business model of building a church and in light of the apparent success of his approach, this became the method du jour. In a consumer culture, it’s easy to see how this makes sense. In a kingdom culture, not so much.

In the kingdom, the question isn’t “does it work?” In the kingdom of God the question is, “do we see Jesus in this?”

When Jesus says, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave.” He’s offering an alternative way to be in the world. A kingdom way.

And perhaps he was serious about that.

Someone once told me that the atmosphere you permit is the product you will create. Or to say it another way – what you put up with is what you’ll get. Or to put it still another way – the way the kingdom comes is the kingdom that’s coming.

The Mark Driscolls might build a mega-church but they are never the point of access for people to experience the kingdom of God. The Billy Hybels might be able to build a seeker-driven empire, but it is not God’s kingdom they are making a way for.

Doubtless we want to point to all the good that got done by these and other men. We want to cheer for the great things their churches and church networks have accomplished. After all, Paul says as long as Jesus is preached it really doesn’t matter.

It matters. And whatever Paul meant, we know he also told the elders in Ephesus that they should, “…guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock—his church, purchased with his own blood—over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as leaders. I know that false teachers, like vicious wolves, will come in among you after I leave, not sparing the flock. Even some men from your own group will rise up and distort the truth in order to draw a following. Watch out!”

In the current climate it seems that our attitude is that as long as the net gain of the flock is greater than our losses, what’s a few roast lamb dinners for a successful, hungry, hard-working shepherd?

We are a collective family who has normalized abuse to the extent that as long as we get our Disney trip every summer, what are a few broken bones or bruises?

Being treated as less than is not the Jesus way.

Being ignored until you are useful is not the Jesus way.

Being told that loyalty is more virtuous than honesty is not the Jesus way.

Please don’t mishear what I’m writing about. I personally know pastors who have really big churches – the mega-variety. They are men of integrity. I’m not writing against big, I’m writing against the idea that in order to be a big church we have to compromise our integrity. That we should make allowances for or cover-up the bad behavior of those in the pastoral vocation simply because “it’s growing.”

The other easy out here is to say, “Well, I don’t know any pastors who don’t have people complaining about them.” And that may be true. It may be true that when you engage with people who are coming from all kinds of backgrounds with all kinds of baggage that you will inevitably disappoint them all at one time or another. But that’s not the same thing as an observable pattern of bad behavior that consistently wounds people and demonstrates an authoritarian orientation.

Sadly, in my own movement we have this clever phrase our founder used to describe pastors: benevolent dictators. Wimber did a lot right, got a lot right but he wasn’t infallible and using that phrase may have been him at his most fallible. You can’t put the word “benevolent” in front of hurtful things and magically make them better. Let’s try…

Benevolent abuser.

Benevolent jackass.

Benevolent tyrant.

Benevolent liar.

Benevolent cheater.

Benevolent creep.

I’ve known benevolent pastors who have put the sheep through the meat-grinder over and over and over but as long as the church was in “grow mode” all was tolerated. It was only when people began to flee to other churches, new and old, and money started to become tight that leadership was forced to address pastoral malpractice.

But let me suggest that it was the culture that kept that person in place and until that culture changes the root problem remains.

The kingdom of God won’t come into the world through dictators, no matter how benevolent they may perceive themselves to be. And we cannot escape the primary vocation of any pastor, which is to be like Jesus. And if we behave in hurtful, hateful, vindictive, paranoid and self-centered ways, we are preaching with our lives that this is what God is really like.

You can catch the podcast episodes by clicking HERE. I’d recommend giving them a listen.

Published by APastor'sStory

Trying to squeeze this life for all the juice I can get out of it.

One thought on “You Can’t Argue With Success

  1. Thank you for this honest reflection. “Benevolence” is truly in the eye of the beholder and trying to change a pastor whose gauge of benevolence comes solely through their own lens, or those of their “fans”, is so hard. And when the denominational authorities see church size and budget as their primary metric, it takes a heroic effort, and time, to bring about a healthy change.


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