Recently I've stumbled across a podcast called 'The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill'. It was very insightful and challenging as the presenter delved into the toxic culture of a mega church called Mars Hill and how its impact continues to hurt many people even after it has finally closed its doors.
As I reflect on each episode, I think I've come to understand two things. Firstly, we love to love a human figure which is why we have so many celebrity pastors in the West. And secondly, the cataclysmic rise of a celebrity doesn't usually just happen. There are always factors - intentional or unintentional, that propels the popularity and fame of an individual. From what I've learned from the podcast so far and from my own reflections, here are four factors which I think contributes to the 'Making of a Narcissistic Celebrity Pastor.'
1. SUPPORT THEIR VISION
The reason why we're attracted to celebrity pastors is because they always have a very clear vision that inspires us to follow them. There's a dream or ideal that we want to be a part of and if we follow this pastor and join the church, we can be a part of it. There's something to live for, nay, there's something worth living and dying for.
These pastors are usually quite charismatic because their eloquence in speech sells the vision well. It's simple and memorable and it’s spoken with passion and urgency. They often tap into a psyche that is targeted to Christians in that particular culture.
It's great to be part of a vision that so many people support, and it's great to be a part of a vision that puts God's Kingdom in the centre of it all. But those are often futile words that promotes the 'spirituality' of the leader rather than God and God's Kingdom.
2. TURN A BLIND EYE
The Bible talks about how we are like sheep and rightly so. We blindly follow others without considering carefully why we follow them. It's one thing for the church to follow a narcissistic pastor but it's another when leaders, who are held to a higher standard, turn a blind eye to the actions of the narcissistic celebrity pastor.
In 'The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill', ex-leaders of the church contemplate on what happened and how it ended so terribly. One of the things they keep coming back to was that they didn't see how Mark Driscoll's actions were harmful because they saw lots of people getting saved.
I don't wish to cast judgement on these ex-leaders because if I was in the same position I may have also fallen for the same thing but it shows how easily we can contribute to the making of a tragedy if numbers are important to us - or worse, if numbers are synonymous to success for a church.
3. GO ALONG WITH IT
It's sad to see how often congregants (and not just in megachurches!) have blind faith in trusting their church leaders.
In the podcast, I've heard many times ex-congregants and leaders reminisce that "Mark has a gift of preaching". They said it as if they were shocked that a 'gifted' preacher could be so abusive.
As I listened to people recount their stories and their impressions of Mark Driscoll, a thought keep coming back into my mind: These people are theologically-uneducated! This was not just in Mars Hill but in my own experience and encounters with other Christians, I am baffled at how little Christians read the Bible and their lack of depth in thinking through God's Word.
In the West, when someone says 'So and so have a gift of preaching', they're usually enamoured by their charisma. Anyone, even a non-Christian, can fool a church to believe he or she is a gifted preacher by having some charisma. This was so cleverly demonstrated in a 2014 movie called 'Believe Me'.
I'm not blaming the people who naively hung on and believed every word that Mark Driscoll said. Rather, I feel so sad that their plight is a reflection of a bigger crisis Western Christianity faces.
We have delegated the role of understanding God's Word to a few leaders or preachers in the church. Once upon a time people were not allowed to read the Bible for themselves because the Catholic church wanted power and control. Today, we have so much access and resources to read and understand the Bible but we trivially give that right away, making it even easier for power-hungry, charismatic narcissists to shape and manipulate our minds and devotion.
4. LET THEM USE THEIR WEAPON
Fourth and finally, something that Christians uniquely use to ensure they'll never be challenged is taking out 'God' as their weapon. When a Christian says, "God told me this and that", it's hard to argue with that because we can't ask God for confirmation.
Mark Driscoll, like so many other Christians (even non-pastors!), love this move. It's almost always a guarantee success. I've met people who broke up with their girlfriends because "God told me to" and I've met people who demanded a seat in leadership because "God told me to".
No doubt, when someone uses this weapon to get their way, it'd be delivered in a way that makes the person seem 'spiritual' and 'humble' but it actually screams alarm bells and your guard needs to be up.
I'm not doubting that God can speak to us in supernatural ways but I'm very cautious when I meet people who like to speak in that way willy-nilly. What we do know with absolute certainty, is that God speaks to us through the Bible. Let's start there.
I am particular passionate about this subject matter because pastors and church leaders do have a strong influence over their congregants and if leaders abuse their power, the harm they cause can lead someone to eternal damnation. That's why the Bible also warns us: "Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly" (James chapter 3, verse 1).
Rachel is the children and youth pastor at Northern Life Baptist Church in Sydney. She loves volleyball, reading and a good TV drama! She has recently finished studying a Master of Divinity at Morling College and she’s continuing further studies towards another Masters.