The Leadership Crisis at the End of the Megachurch Era

Celebrity pastors face their own version of Batman’s dilemma: die a hero or preach long enough to be turned into a communications consultant. Or worse. While many of the innovative voices in turn-of-the-century evangelicalism have moved to a second career in self-help, coaching, and business strategy, others have fallen to scandal. Most recently Bill Hybels departed his enormous, and enormously influential, Willow Creek Community Church under a growing cloud of sexual misconduct allegations. Other prominent pastors have ended their careers amid accusations of misdeeds ranging from hiding sexual abuse to “a history of building… identity through ministry and media platforms.”

Behind both the scandal-plagued downfall and the exciting transition to new opportunities lie the same disappointed hopes of American Christianity. The megachurch movement arose, in part, as a response to secularization. Powered by charismatic, innovative leadership and up-to-the-minute styles of worship and organization, megachurches flourished all over the country even as smaller, more traditional congregations struggled. Their leaders dispensed insights, and their techniques became models for use by pastors and churches far outside the evangelical world. They had figured out how to outsmart the trend of religious decline. But long-term trends are both wily and patient. And as the megachurch movement faces its own moment of decline, the very models of leadership that were celebrated in its period of stunning growth are proving to be a fatal weaknesses. 

“Leadership” may be the defining occult art of our secular age, the key to every executive hiring process and political-column diagnosis of public dysfunction. Combining skill, knowledge, and charisma, “leadership” can make brute reality give way if found and wielded properly. We may not be waiting for a god to save us, but we may be open to an Innovator or Visionary who can shatter our paradigms.

As megachurch ministry patterned itself after the secular discourse on “leadership,” certain styles and their attendant dysfunctions emerged:

The Guru. This is a master, revealer, and publicizer of some rarified knowledge. The guru is not just knowledgeable; he performs knowledgeability. He has mastered the poetry of both the obscure and the obvious, transforming the one into the other through the medium of his own charisma (or, in modern terms, his “brand”). But his knowledge is not the attainment of a select few, but rather a commodity to be sold to the many. So the guru seeks not to make himself redundant to the learner, or even to replicate himself in the learner, but to continue being needed.

The Entrepreneur. Where the guru reveals, the entrepreneur makes. He innovates platforms, methods, models, and mobile apps. Where the guru introduces you to the power latent within you to lose weight—a power known to Socrates and the Berber herdsmen alike but long obscured to us—the entrepreneur invents a dietary or pharmacological regimen. In order to solve new or stubborn problems, it may be necessary for her to disrupt old patterns and old technologies. The entrepreneur’s world is a palimpsest, a kludgy assembly of provisional forms waiting to be written over by someone wielding insight and elegance.

The Strongman. This leader does not pontificate or tinker. He takes charge. He sees through the limiting taboos and hypocrisies of social convention. The strongman doesn’t traffic in insight or innovation but in force of character. He sends in the troops to get the hostages out. He locks Congressional leaders in a room and glowers over them until they come to an agreement. He makes the tough choices and gets things done. He combines virtue, wisdom, and willpower in a unity that requires no negotiation, and suffers no contradiction, among them.

In the midst of cratering trust in institutions and traditional sources of authority, these leadership roles can still be presented and accepted as public-spirited and idealistic. The guru facilitates “self-help,” the entrepreneur creates the “sharing economy,” the aspiring strongman wants to “make America great again,” all, we seem to imagine, without any stake in the matter, and all from no particular location in our society’s race, class, and gender hierarchies. And so “leadership” in our democratic capitalist language is, in each of these ways, a method of social control. They paper over the real conflicts and contradictions of our society. They promise power without responsibility. If my app wipes out your industry, that’s a you problem, not a me problem.

It is thus no accident that some of the most highly-touted models of church revival have been centered on one or more of these modes of leadership. And it is also no accident that some of the most prominent instances of abuse and failure in church ministry have borne their marks. Gurus faced the temptation to drift away from the difficult care of communities they didn’t create and doctrines they didn’t frame, toward a broader public with no such commitments and limitations. This has been, more or less, the path of Rob Bell, who left behind the big, influential church he founded in 2011 to freelance as a speaker and sage. 

Entrepreneurs turned locally-designed innovations into business enterprises and fell into the pitfalls of the CEO. This seems to have been the fate of Bill Hybels, whose church was a major force in the church-growth movement. He ended up accused of inappropriate behavior on his yacht and his personal plane, sounding very much like an executive of a major corporation, isolated by overwork, over-privilege, and lack of accountability, which, in effect, he had become.

Strongmen abuse their people, verbally or even physically, and shelter other kinds of abuse behind opaque leadership structures and authoritarian rules. Mark Driscoll, the butch young fellow who built a Seattle-area megachurch, was celebrated for his strongman style, which included using juvenile language against people whose sexual orientations and gender expressions he didn’t approve of (up to and including depictions of Jesus as “a guy I could beat up”). When he was widely and credibly accused of being a domineering egomaniac, his church swiftly fell apart.

These models of ministry were embraced out of evangelistic necessity. But they came at a cost. Whatever purposes distinguished churches from the growth ideology of capitalism, whatever modes of persuasion distinguished them from secular marketing, whatever egalitarian culture had resisted undemocratic organizational practices could, and often would, be dispensed with.

It became possible, or maybe necessary, to jettison some of the structures of oversight and accountability that had seemed to hobble the older, struggling churches. It was necessary to move on from the pious, weird, limiting ethic of American protestant ministrypart middle-class, part mendicant; part college professor, part undertakerto something bolder, more exuberant, and less apologetic. Power could be had, even in a nation of emptying pews, but only and especially without the responsibility that could restrain and limit its use.

The problem for the megachurch movement is that this ethic of leadership was ultimately in contradiction to the ethic of the Jesus they were supposed to be proclaiming. Many of the scandals, faults, and off-brand wanderings of these notable pastors would be tolerated or even expected in business or politics. But try as we might, we can’t seem to fully and finally subsume Christian discourse and practice into business or politics. There remain the words and example of Jesus, who tells his closest followers that they will be rejected and warns them in terrifying terms against the inevitable temptation to exalt themselves or abuse their authority. Where contemporary ideologies of leadership offer power without responsibility, Jesus promises the opposite: infinite responsibility, but no corresponding power to coerce or dominate. It’s absurd.

With church leadership no less than anything else, the medium tends to become the message. The megachurch movement flourished for decades on the premise that the infinitely flexible style could be separated from the enduring substance. But departure after departure and scandal after scandal suggests that it was not to be. If there’s another chapter left in American Christianity, it will likely require an embrace rather than a flight from the absurdity of its words and practices.