The current situation in large segments of American Evangelicalism is dire. Let me explain. Some time ago, American pastors became enamored with the corporate methodologies and success they envied in the business community. They longed for that kind of financial security, for that kind of fame and notoriety, for unbridled power and control. They inquired of the oracle that had informed the corporate world and followed the advice faithfully. The problem? This thing, “American megachurch,” bears no resemblance to the New Testament model. Let me demonstrate this with one of the grossest examples I have ever heard. One “very successful” megachurch “pastor” recently said the following from his pulpit. What’s wrong with this picture?
“Here’s what I’ve learned. You cast vision for your mission and if people don’t sign up you move on, you move on. There are people that are gonna die in the wilderness and there are people who are going to take the hill. That’s just how it is. Too many guys waste too much time trying to move stiff-necked stubborn obstinate people. I am all about blessed subtraction. There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus. And by God’s grace, it will be a mountain by the time we’re done. You either get on the bus or you get run over by the bus. Those are the options. But the bus ain’t gonna stop. I’m just a guy who is like, “look, we love you, but this is what we are doing.” There are a few kinds of people. There are people who get in the way of the bus. They gotta get run over. There are people who want to take turns driving the bus. They gotta get thrown off because they want to go somewhere else. There are people who will be on the bus, leaders and helpers and servants, they’re awesome. There’s also just sometimes nice people who sit on the bus and shut up. They’re not helping or hurting. Just let them ride along. You know what I’m saying. But don’t look at the nice people that are just going to sit on the bus and shut their mouth and think, “I need you to lead the mission.” They’re never going to. At the very most you’ll give them a job to do and they’ll serve somewhere and help out in a minimal way. If someone can sit in a place that hasn’t been on mission for a really long time, they are by definition not a leader and so they’re never going to lead. You need to gather a whole new core. I’ll tell you guys what, too. You don’t do this just for your church planting or replanting, I’m doing it right now. I’m doing it right now. We just took certain guys and rearranged the seats on the bus. Yesterday, we fired two elders for the first time in the history of Mars Hill last night. They’re off the bus, under the bus. They were off mission, so now they’re unemployed. This will be the defining issue as to whether or not you succeed or fail. I’ve read enough of the New Testament to know that occasionally Paul puts somebody in the wood chipper. You know . . .”
That quote ought to shock you. It sends chills down my spine. If that sounds like biblical church leadership to you, then you haven’t read the New Testament or for that matter, the Old. What it is, in reality, is not even well-disguised bad corporate philosophy brought front and center into a supposedly evangelical church congregation. Notice the weird connection with Moses and the wilderness wanderings. Many of these contemporary deliverers identify with Moses and his unique and solitary reign over the multitude. Notice also that to disagree with the leader is to be part of the multitude that perished in unbelief. The obvious disconnect. This leader isn’t Moses. And many of the people that got run over by the bus aren’t faithless, but rather good honest people trying to bring this mess back toward some semblance of an actual biblical paradigm.
What is interesting is that the business community has for some time been diagnosing this problem and beginning to move itself toward a healthier picture of leadership. As is often the case, the evangelical community that thinks it is cutting edge is often twenty years behind current thinking. Many noteworthy thought leaders in the business world of twenty-first century America are bringing forward a much healthier model of organizational health than this megapastor.
In 2012, Patrick Lencioni stated emphatically that organizational health trumps everything. Daniel Pink showed us in 2009 that the old idea of motivating employees with reward and punishment, carrot and stick, was outdated and outmoded and would no longer work in non-repetitive, highly creative work environments. He informed the business world of their need to utilize motivation 3.0, the intrinsic motivation in the pursuit of the joy of the work itself. Most recently, Simon Sinek followed up his breakthrough book Start with Why with Leaders Eat Last where he advocates for our need to move back toward real human relationships and away from the cutthroat corporate culture that treats people like abstractions and mere numbers on spreadsheets. He advocates for the need to no longer use layoffs to balance the books but rather for a much more holistic and family model of organizations. “You don’t lay off your kids,” he says. At least this megachurch leader uses the metaphor of the bus, borrowed probably from Jim Collins. But I’m reasonably sure this wasn’t the picture that Collins advocated either. So, nice try to connect with the business literature but way misapplied.
While current thought leaders in the business world advocate a return to a kinder and more human organizational model, leaders like the one quoted above continue to operate off of the old playbook. They continue to treat members of their congregations and staff people as abstractions, numbers on spreadsheets, and not valuable human beings that are intrinsically interconnected to them as parts of one body. Paul says each part is “indispensable,” especially the “weaker” parts. [1 Cor. 12:22] We, as participants in the culture described above, amputate parts of our body, or throw people under the bus, and keep rolling as if everything is fine. We are bleeding out, whether we recognize it or not. No wonder our neighbors aren’t excited about “coming to church” with us. They discern the core problem being that we can’t or won’t allow ourselves to see, a huge mismatch between our rhetoric and our practice. If we actually started to treat each other as we ought, we would begin the long journey toward regaining the trust and credibility we seek with those who look on to the scene of a bloody bus accident.
Maybe you think this particular example is not indicative of the whole. Maybe this guy is really an isolated example. You may not feel tempted to be influenced by this line of reasoning. My contention is that this may be one extremely clear example of a subtle problem present in many evangelical contexts. You may not have the following and notoriety of this guy, but some of the influencers that have made him who he is are on your book shelves as well. This bad business and organizational thinking has come into the church in different Trojan horses. We haven’t distinguished between this “worldly wisdom” which is actually “foolishness” and the true picture of the body given to us in Scripture.
The church is not a business. Mega pastors are not Moses. There is only One qualified to be the true Leader of the church. My concern is that the real Shepherd said He’s coming back to see how we’ve taken care of his flock. I’m not sure He’ll be happy to hear us talk about the trail of dead sheep behind the bus, considering He knows each one by name and has written each name on His hands.