What to Do About Personality-Driven Churches

Fact: personality-driven churches exist.

Whether you like it or not, we cannot escape it.  While I have tried to deny its reality, it is inescapable.  With every passing tweet, book, podcast, and social share, each of us can become more and more known by the personality of our leader or the DNA of our specific church rather than the person of Christ.

Let’s not argue whether or not personality-drive churches exist.  Let’s figure out what to do about it.

The internet reminds us concerning this reality.  It is full of posts concerning facts and opinions about many churches and many leaders.

I believe that the social media sharable world that we live in currently has caused us to share the highlights of our churches so much that others can relish in their ability to share the pitfalls of them as well.

This Needs to Be Addressed

While there are so many examples, it is hard to condense them.  Honestly, some topics in the Church at large need to be discussed.

Incorrect doctrine needs to be addressed.  Unrighteous leadership needs to be confronted.  The manner in which we do that is debatable for sure.

I have often struggled with how to deal with a church or a pastor that disgusts me from afar.

One of the biggest conflicts for me as a pastor is how to differentiate between a wolf in sheep’s clothing and an ignorant shepherd.

Both of those exist today.  And I am called as a pastor to protect the flock (1 Pet. 5:2) and rebuke incorrect doctrine (Titus 1:9).  The New Testament is full of commands of what we are to do concerning those straying from biblical truth (If you want to see a list of verses, you can check out this post on “Drive-Thru Sermons“).

There are wolves out there that need to be stopped.  And there are ignorant shepherds that need to be lovingly shown correction if they are willing to listen.  But there is a difference between the two.

As we decipher between these two, we are constantly bombarded with evidences of people who credit other people for what is happening in their lives.  While God uses people, we can tend to make it look like people use God.  It is that preacher that I love to hear.  It was that message that saved me.  It is that church that I champion.

Unfortunately, we find ourselves shouting the names of our pastors or the names of our churches louder than the name of Jesus.

It reveals to us that our culture is easily susceptible to aligning ourselves with a personality of a pastor more than the person of Christ.

Case Study of Mars Hill

Mark Driscoll

The end of Mars Hill Church was nothing less than a tragedy.  Mark Driscoll was a polarizing pastor if there ever was one.  Whether or not you liked his style or approach, his ability to communicate was uncommon.  His ability to preach hour-long conservative sermons in the heart of liberal Seattle was impressive.  His evident intellect was inspiring to many.

While Mark Driscoll had publicly repented of many of his ministry transgressions, the continuing conflict surrounding his pastorate was so great that apparently his friends, his ministry associations, and some of his co-workers had to address it.  Though the elders of Mars Hill Church never fired him or found ongoing immorality in his life, Driscoll resigned from the church he founded.

While that was shocking, the next event showed how serious of a problem personality-driven churches are.  Within weeks of his resignation, Mars Hill Church closed its doors.

Since its beginning in 1996, Mars Hill grew to 13,000 weekly attendance.  Driscoll had 260,000 sermon views each week.  To expand, they had 15 locations throughout 5 states that would broadcast video sermons.

In order to plant these congregations, they thought it would be more effective to have a video Driscoll preacher rather than a physical not-Driscoll preacher.

When the controversy hit, attendance immediately dropped down to 8000-9000 people per week which led to dramatic decrease in giving.  Within weeks, they had to close 3 of the campuses and cut 30-40% of staff.

In a short manner of weeks, the church decided to make each campus autonomous and let each congregation decide if each one would continue, merge, or disband.

By the grace of God, many of these congregations decided to continue on and have a new pastor leading them.

What is shocking is that the leadership of Mars Hill knew right away that there was no way to sustain this ministry momentum with another personality behind the pulpit.

The quick disbandment revealed an honest and humbling confession: the success of the church and the personality of the pastor were dangerously interwoven.

I grieved and I rejoiced at this event.  I grieved at the legacy of Mark Driscoll and pray that he will finish strong and be used by God in some way.  I grieved at those who left the church.

I also grieve the American church system that somewhat created this mess.  We think we need high-profile personalities to grow a church.

So, I rejoice that there are now 11 churches that are picking up the pieces and moving forward with the gospel.

And I also rejoice that maybe this will cause us all to do some serious reflection on the danger of personality-driven churches.

It begged me to ponder the question: if a pastor went away, would the church survive?

Let’s not even talk about leaving due to reasons of immorality.  If a pastor of a church dies in a car crash, can that church make it?  If the church focuses on the gospel and on the Word, I believe it can.  But if the church is dangerously interwoven with the personality of the pastor, the congregation might be in trouble.

Why this frightens me is to think of all the momentum, success, and investment that a church could make in a community only to disband when a pastor goes away.  That is tragic!

This epidemic is found in all types of churches.  It is represented in pastors’ names on marquees, pictures on publications, and the conversations associated concerning the church.  Personality-driven churches can be traditional or contemporary, plant or existing, multi-site or single site.

The Early Church Celebrities

Personality-drive churches are not a new phenomenon.  Did you know that the Corinth church was divided over their favorite preacher?  Some liked Apollos.  Some liked Paul.

1 Corinthians 3:1 But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.

A few things to note concerning this passage:

  1. People who were partial to certain preachers are described as immature in Christ.  Paul said he could not address this group as spiritual people because they were not ready for this solid food.  They were still acting according to their flesh because they were making church about what they got out of it.  They liked certain preachers and didn’t get anything from others.  That is spiritual immaturity.
  2. Personalities should never be confused with the message.  The people were letting their preferences of preachers dictate whether not the teaching was successful or not.  The Lord assigned both of these preachers, and so we shouldn’t let our preferences determine which one is successful.
  3. A person or a program can never change a life – only God can do that.  Paul planted the gospel seeds, Apollos watered what Paul started with, but at each and every turn, God was the one who should get credit for the growth.

Paul fought the early church celebrity status by teaching people: “It’s not about me, it’s about what God is doing!”

So What Do We Do?

As ministers and church members, as churches and groups, we must constantly lift the name of Jesus higher than any other name.

We must constantly lift the name of Jesus higher than the name of our ministry brand.

When success happens in our ministry, do we give honor and credit to Jesus or to our programming?  When lives are transformed, do we highlight the message of the gospel or the messenger of the gospel?  When people describe our preaching, would they highlight the Word from which we preach from or the personality with which we preach?

I know as a pastor and a church member, I am trying to point more and more to Jesus.  If the sermon was great, I try to highlight the passage because that is where the power comes from.  If I celebrate what happened among us, I want to thank Jesus for it rather than equate it to an individual’s role or a creative element.  I think it is fine to publicly thank someone or honor someone, but if we do it at such a level, it sends a confusing message to who is truly responsible for what is happening.

Obviously, at some level, we can’t stop personality-driven churches from existing.  People are going to gravitate to certain personalities, but it is the responsibility of those personalities to point to the person from which life change can actually happen – Jesus.

Maybe your pastor planted.  Maybe the leader of your group watered.  But let us never ever forget that it is God who causes the growth.  And let’s do what we can to honor him.  I think he deserves that.