The perils of a pastor-centric church
And the current implosion of the neo-evangelical megachurch
There’s a lot of controversy in the church right now.1 But this latest firestorm is happening in a sector of the church that has seen pretty constant growth since the 1960s or so… The neo-evangelical megachurch.2
It’s curious - the keyword ‘ex-vangelical’ is popping up on more and more social media bios. Religious deconstruction might be our new pastime here in the US.
Now, before I get going here, know that I am no church historian. I’m merely sharing my current observations as well as the things I’ve gathered over the years. There’s a lot more nuance and detail that I’m surely ignorant of. So take this post for what it’s worth…
There was a decade or so in the 1950s where mainline protestant churches (‘mainline’ meaning Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian) were at capacity on the regular. But studies show that was an anomaly. Our country was coming out of a world war, the industrial revolution was in high gear, and the cultural revolutions of the 60s hadn’t happened yet.
But then, the dominoes fell…
The partisan left-leaning folks who tended to frequent the protestant mainline churches went the way of secular higher education and modern industry while the partisan right-leaning folks went into the Baptist and Pentecostal traditions and doubled down to form these giant auditorium-sized megachurches we have today.3
As I said, since the decline of the mainline protestant church, the neo-evangelical megachurch has been in a state of overall growth, collectively speaking (in the US). Since the 60s, there have been two main camps in protestant churches: the less frequented more traditional mainline church and the booming neo-evangelical megachurch.
I’m in the mainline protestant camp.4 This means that I don’t follow megachurch neo-evangelicalism much. But somehow I must’ve fallen into their algorithm lately because I’m learning that the megachurch world seems to be imploding.
There’s the Mars Hill controversy (and NOT Rob Bell’s Mars Hill, BTW) which has climbed to the top of the podcast charts. Then the Hillsong situation, which seems to be ever-worsening. It’s a real shitshow over there and I can’t help but reflect on what’s happening.
Now, I don’t like to opine on modern culture or the news. I prefer keeping my material evergreen. But like I said, this IS evergreen. The church has forever been a mess. But here’s my two cents on the current situation…
First of all, we need to lower our anthropology. We need to get comfy with the fact that Christians are just as flawed as anyone else. Theology has been so watered down and whitewashed in our culture that many Christians have turned a blind eye to our flaws thanks to a lens of contrived piety and purity. A lot of these guys up there preaching5 (yes, in the neo-evangelical world, ALL GUYS up there) have fooled themselves and their parishioners into believing that because they’re the pastor, they can do no wrong and they’re closer to God.
Well, this is where that leads. The pastor ends up becoming drunk on their fame. They see the church growing and the messiah syndrome kicks in. Soon enough, they don’t need Jesus, they think they ARE Jesus. The people in the stadium seats end up buying into it. Soon, THEY don’t need Jesus because they have the asshole on the stage either feeding them what they want or keeping them entrapped in a codependent relationship.
In my Evangelical Lutheran tradition, the pastor confesses their sin right along with the congregation. The pastors intentionally try to remember that they are just as susceptible to human brokenness and bustedness as anyone else. It’s written into our ancient liturgy.
Christians are flawed. We are not Jesus. We NEED Jesus.
Christians have gotten this twisted over the years. My particular mainline protestant tradition is FAR from perfect (always will be). And we know it. We carry quite a low anthropology.
This is why we don’t hold the pastor as the focal point of the Sunday service. Rather, we hold the gospel of Jesus Christ as the focal point.6
I’m just saying that the pastor’s job is to merely give words to that. I think that’s why our mainline protestant Evangelical churches, as sparse as the butts in the pews are these days (though they’re actually in a growing trend now!), have been relatively free of big controversy over the years.
BUT, my point is this… The point of the church has never been to worship any single Christian above others (thanks be to God). The point of the church is to worship Jesus.
So… Deconstruct if you will.7 I get it. I’ve been there. And I wish you the best.
But maybe what you should be deconstructing is the idolatry of a flawed and broken pastor. Not Jesus.
In Comfort & Joy,
As I write this, I realize how evergreen that statement is. The church has always been in a state of controversy.
We Lutherans are trying to reclaim OUR title of ‘Evangelical’, but the cultural current is a strong one to swim against. Personally, I call the modern American megachurch camp ‘Neo-evangelicals’ (or ‘new’ evangelicals). Sorry. We had it first.
Please know that I’m generalizing here. Plenty of partisan left-leaning folks went to megachurches and partisan right-leaning folks to mainline ones.
It’s interesting, looking back over my life, how attracted I’ve been to declining institutions and things. From working in the golf industry (a game on the decline) to becoming an Aikido practitioner (a dwindling martial art), and now… A Lutheran clergyperson in the Christian church (a seemingly dying institution). Hmmm. Makes me wonder.
No, not ALL of them.
Now, I know that a lot of neo-evangelical churches say they do the same. But when I watch those sermons on YouTube, I dunno.
Though my opinion is, WE don’t deconstruct; rather, we are ARE deconstructed. I believe that God is really good at taking our idols and tearing them down. This is when deconstruction just… happens.