The Fruit of a Culture of Personality

Well-documented by Susan Cain in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking is the shift in America from a culture of character to a culture of personality.  At the turn of the twentieth century, the modern industrialized world began to emerge.  People like Dale Carnegie began to lead the discussion on leadership in a very new direction contrasting with the existing “outdated” paradigm.  In her description of the cultural shift, Cain borrows from cultural historian Warren Susman.  Listen to her summary of the shift:

In the Culture of Character, the ideal self was serious, disciplined and honorable.  What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private.  The word personality didn’t exist in English until the eighteenth century, and the idea of “having a good personality” was not widespread until the twentieth.  But when they embraced the Culture of Personality, Americans started to focus on how others perceived them.  They became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining.  “The social role demanded of all in the new Culture of Personality was that of a performer,” Susman famously wrote.  “Every American was to be a performing self.”

The American culture had become enamored with personality.  As the broader culture goes, so goes the church, typically several steps behind.  Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) has often been criticized for this reality.  It apes the culture but always follows, never leads, and is always a bit out of date.  As the culture of personality hit the American church, the form of leaders began to change.  Less and less was it about character and sound teaching, doctrine and life, orthodoxy and orthopraxy.  Now it had become, like the culture around it, about having charismatic, winsome, dynamic, gifted leaders capable of increasing numbers and the bottom line.  The church became less about being a pillar and ground of the truth and more about feeding a need for an increasing consumer mindset to be entertained and inspired.

What we are experiencing today is the fruit of our acceptance of an unbiblical preference for personality over character in our chosen leaders.  In biblical criteria for the qualification of leaders, character traits are first and foremost.  In practice, character has been replaced by personality and not without some serious consequences.  Recent trends have caused destruction to the reputation of the American evangelical church for both insiders and onlookers.  Winsome, gregarious, engaging dynamic leaders have been found connected to sexual scandals, child abuse, financial impropriety, plagiarism, bullying and a host of other ills that have been the fruit of our exalting people to leadership thrones who lacked the personal character or integrity to act as under shepherds of Christ.  In short, these leaders didn’t really look much like Jesus.  In a very real sense, we have received what we as a society have deserved.  Not that their innocent victims were in any way deserving of either what was perpetrated against them or of being secondarily wounded by the systemic cover ups.  As a community, we always get the leaders we deserve, the ones that reflect our real values.

This obsession with golden-tongued speakers and larger than life personalities isn’t a new thing for the church.  In the first century, no less than the apostle Paul was criticized for his not charismatic enough preaching style by the metropolitan community at Corinth.  Many preferred Apollos, the more dynamic speaker that might have been a bit off on his theology, but was so fun to listen to, so captivating, that his lighter content was a lesser concern.  It was Paul, after all, that had offered the warning to young Timothy about a coming generation and their unhealthy appetite for the wrong kinds of leaders:

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. [2 Tim. 4:3-4]

The church always lags behind the broader culture.  American thought leaders in the business world began to question this false ideal of personality-driven extraverted leadership a few years ago.  Peter Drucker wrote about this myth of charismatic leadership in 1996.  Jim Collins saw it in 2001 and concluded that extraversion had nothing to do with level 5 leadership.  The questioning continues.  Many contemporary thought leaders (Susan Cain, Adam Grant, Simon Sinek et al) are pointing us back to a culture of character as the healthier expression of the higher ideals of our humanity.  The personality culture driven by self-centeredness is being replaced by a more humane, other-oriented culture of character in many American companies.

If the church follows the culture, as it normally does with a significant lag time, one can only imagine what the next twenty years of Evangelicalism in America will look like.  God help us.  When will the church in America return to a character-based definition of leadership?  Will she repent of her folly in light of reaping the fruit of an unhealthy desire for personality-based leadership?  It remains to be seen.




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