The Cult of Church Worship

Do you worship your church leadership?  Don’t think so?  Here’s how to find out.

Does your church team photo look like this? I’ve seen these photos on church websites (minus the hugging) promoting the church leadership and I always wonder what are they promoting?  I almost went to a church that had a leadership picture like this on their website (minus the hugging.)  But I kept looking at that leadership picture.  And don’t get me wrong, everyone was smiling, everyone’s makeup was spot on, they even had coordinated outfits.   But what I didn’t see was any significant diversity, not age or race.   And this church wasn’t in a non-diverse location.  I’m sure there were plenty of non-twenty-early-thirties somethings around.    But the leadership wasn’t made up of any of them.  So again, I asked myself, what are they promoting?  Good question.

Lebron fans react to him leaving ClevelandWhen Lebron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010, the residents of Cleveland didn’t react well.  There were riots over Lebron leaving the town and even a man set himself on fire with Lebron’s jersey on.  After all, Lebron promised Cleveland a championship, but he didn’t deliver.  So fans were obviously upset about him leaving and expressed their disappointment with anger and violence.  The person Cleveland fans worshiped, ‘King James’, was leaving for another team.

And as members of the Christ church, we often can take that same mentality to the church meeting. We have our own Lebrons, Michael Jordans, Mike Krzyzewski, Dean Smith’s at church. That one person who may be the reason we go to that church meeting.

In one accord, Mold.

When a church cast the team leadership from one mold, that leader is asking for one type of person to come to that church.

 If we are to reach all people, then we can’t as a church, target certain groups for inclusion in our church meeting … Jesus said, go out into all the world.  And that may require having church leadership that comes from the world we live in, not just the suburbs. 

While visiting a local church, my wife and I were chatting up some church folk in the hallway.  I asked their children’s pastor about the program for kids.  She began describing the fun kids had during children’s church.  Then she told me that children’s church was for grades kindergarten through third grade.  I asked about kids ages four and was told those kids are in the nursery to play.  Then two ladies standing nearby started telling us how wonderful the pastor was, that they were just ‘glued’ to his messages every Sunday.  The pastor speaks very well continued one church lady.   I said, ‘thank you,’ smiled politely and walked away ruminating on a couple of take-a-ways; 1) kids under the age of kindergarten don’t really need the message of Jesus and 2) the biggest thing this church has going is a great pastor who has great messages.  While my thoughts were mildly sarcastic and somewhat inconsiderate, they did have some truth to them.  But is that really what that church believes?  That young kids don’t matter and the greatest thing about the church is the pastor?  I doubt it, but if I wasn’t an over-seasoned-preachers-kid and instead was a non-Christian, those would have been my take-a-ways.  Instead, I get it.  They really like their pastor who is very popular.  And their children’s program is really great, even though outdated.  Because after all, if we know anything from the well-established science regarding the psychological and sociological development of children; learning, especially behavioral, happens at a very young age.  So of course, children under the age of kindergarten can learn about Jesus and should be taught in their way at an age-appropriate method. But not at that church.


The Cult of Worship

In Living Colour a rock band from the 1980s and 90s had a hit called, Cult of Personality.  Which while on a grander philosophical plane, talked about how people follow others based on personality.  Here are some of the lyrics.

“Look in my eyes, what do you see?
The cult of personality
I know your anger, I know your dreams
I’ve been everything you want to be
I’m the cult of personality
Like Mussolini and Kennedy
I’m the cult of personality
The cult of personality
The cult of personality”

Throughout human history, people have followed other people based on personality.  In the church, we call it ‘charisma.’  Charisma is that ability or approach of a leader to connect emotionally with folk, to smile, to have a standout presence when in a room that is like a magnet for other people.  So, when churches pick leaders, ministers, youth pastors, the personal trait of charisma is always important. Because it is important to connect with the church folk currently attending, but also connect with those who may visit.  And in the grand scheme of church work, there’s nothing inherently non-biblical about having non-offensive church leaders or at least leaders that are non-offensive for the wrong reasons.   The last thing the church body needs is a curt, abrasive, or intrusive personality.  Or maybe it’s the first thing we need.  Let’s examine scripture.

I like to start with Jesus and his approach because often in today’s church mainstream, Jesus has gotten a bad reputation. … The Jesus of scripture spoke the truth, got angry, was counter-cultural and lived a life of service ultimately dying on a cross in one of the most humiliating ways.  And yet, it is that life that we are to use as a guide.

Let’s look at what Jesus said when asked about himself.

As Jesus started on His way, a man ran up and knelt before Him. “Good Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18“Why do you call Me good?” Jesus replied. “No one is good except God alone. Mark 10:17-18

Jesus points to his Father.   If Jesus teaches us that God the Father is to be the focus of our attention, then why do we put it on others? When we go to church, do our leaders point to God as Jesus does, or is their charisma based on flair, hairstyle/color, the clothes they wear, etc.  Do our church leaders reflect any or all attention to God?

Unfortunately, sometimes in today’s post-postmodern church, Jesus is portrayed as loving everyone, not offending anyone, and not representing the reason he came, which was to save man from sin.  Why is that?  In some churches, sin isn’t even mentioned. When is the last time your church leader spoke about the cross, sin, and forgiveness?  If they do, be sure that someone, maybe even you or me,  will get offended.  At least that’s what some people call it.  Biblically speaking, that offense is actually the Holy Spirit’s conviction or pointing out our sin telling us we need to change.  That’s what Jesus does to us in the face of our sin, we get convicted spiritually because of our wrongdoing.  That’s also what Jesus said while on earth. But today, if people get offended, they just leave the church.  Like leaving a movie early because we don’t like the subject matter.

So if we can’t use personality as a draw for churchgoers, then what’s the solution to keep the church meeting popular?  One solution is to take the focus off of God and put it on programs, great music, well-thought messages.   And that requires church leaders to take the focus off God and put it on church leadership, have a popular leadership.  Have lots of programs that rest on generating ‘likes’ if you will by leaders that are very popular.   What did Jesus say about his mission?  He came to divide, to separate, to cause people to be at odds with each other.   That was his program.  That goes against every happy-go-lucky-Jesus-loves and hugs-doesn’t offend post-postmodern church’s message on the planet.  Our church meetings ought to a place of personal change, we shouldn’t be comfortable in our day to day lives.  We should be challenged by church leaders at our church meeting to change.   Church leaders should put the gospel first and not worry about losing personal popularity.

-‘That popular youth program is awesome! Our church band is the best in town, the music is so memorable, our pastor tells some amazing jokes, did you know our pastor has a Ph.D.?’-  And so on it goes.  But what we should hear is; ‘people’s lives are being changed because our church loves on hurting folk.  Did you hear how many people in need we are helping this month?   I’m better because my life is challenged and changed each week.  Let me tell you about Christ, I hear about him every week at church. Our leaders are so busy taking groups out to love on the elderly.’-

Big difference.

Spiritual equality

21 But now, apart from the Law, the righteousness of God has been revealed, as attested by the Law and the Prophets. 22And this righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no distinction, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Romans 3:21-24

We are all sinners. We are either still sinners and not following God, we are sinners saved by Grace and have turned from our sinful ways.   But we are all sinners in need of saving, and as Paul points out, saving not by ourselves but through the grace of God. So why do we look up to those leaders in the church?  Well, we’d like to think they’re perfect maybe.  Or we hope they have an answer we are looking for.  Or do we just like the way they look, sound, act.  Whatever the reason we look up to them, they as leaders should be looking up to God in such a way that when we look at them, we see God.  That comes from true humility and leaders always pointing to God for help and salvation in their messages, actions, methods, programs.

I often wonder about messages from pulpit that don’t directly explain how to reach to God for an answer.  Back in the day, we call them altar calls. This is a special time after a sermon-message where everyone prays for help and those who need special prayer get a special prayer.  Where did the altar call go?  That’s probably another blog post all to itself, but suffice to say, if leaders who speak from the pulpit aren’t wrapping their messages up in a way for folk to have a connection with God, then what’s the point?   If your church leader isn’t consistently and constantly pointing to God for everyone’s help, then the question arises, who is the focus?  Who is the object for our help?

So the next time you see your church leader, remember, they are sinners just like everyone else.   And they are either pointing you to God for help or pointing to themselves as the object for your affection.

But What about Billy Graham?

His personality and following, in the millions. Very true.  And there have been countless patriarchs of the Way since Jesus that have had large followings.  But about Billy Graham; his message followed one line of thought, salvation through Christ.  His message always pointed to Christ, he always pointed to Christ.  And God worked through the efforts of Billy Graham to bring millions to Christ.  Billy Graham called for those to receive Christ at the end of his messages.  So a large defacto following is not a symptom of a cult of personality or worship, it’s a large following. Today, Billy Graham has moved on from this life but his works are still here, his messages still watched, his following hasn’t fallen away, but kept moving on because Billy Graham followers, unlike Jim Jones’s followers, always knew it was about God and the message of Jesus through Salvation and the works of Billy Graham were ultimately the works of Christ.

So what is the Cult of Worship?

It’s easy to find with one mental exercise.   Pick a leader in your church. If they were to leave y our church, would you go elsewhere?  What about two leaders, what about the youth pastor?  If they leave, will you stay?  If your answer is ‘Yes’, then who is being worshiped?   Throughout history, people have followed people.  And the church is no different.  When a pastor or other church leader leaves a physical church, some people love/worship him or her so much, they leave with him.  It happens all the time.  Certainly, there are good reasons people leave a church meeting group, heresy, God calling people elsewhere and so on.    But what if God was actually the most important Person in all our churches.   What if humility was the claim to fame for a church meeting leadership.  What if people were so busy doing the work of Christ, that if a leader left, no one else did.  Possible? A worthy goal and one that Jesus himself gave us. The disciples were sad when Jesus left, but he told them to go and continue working for God.

The Wrap

What is your/mine/a church focus all about?  What is the draw for people to belong?  The ‘pseudo-friends church team picture’ I saw at the church website left me out because I only saw a nondiverse twenties-early-thirties something team.  I just kept thinking of the Friends image cast over and over.   And good-intentioned people can do the wrong things for the right reasons.  Like having a church leadership made up of one demographic can send the wrong message to anyone visiting or wanting to visit. In fact, there is nothing Biblically-based about it.  Regarding diversity, Jesus chose his church leadership from a wide socio-economic base.  And Jesus chose his company from even a wider range of demographics.  So much that he was even socially maligned by the church for hanging out with the sinners of his day, something very unpopular in his day.

It’s unfortunate that we as human and Christians use our visual perception to choose where to go and not go to church, but that’s the way it is. We like this person, so we go there.  We don’t like the way this person is dressed, so we don’t go to that church. Growing up, we had people leave our church meeting because the music minister’s wife wore too much makeup.

The Solution is to have the main focus not be the leaders themselves, but God’s works through that leadership.  This is how we should live as well.  Our trumpet in life should not be about ourselves, but Christ.  Practice humility in the church that puts leaders on the back burner and the service, dependence, and worship to God at the forefront.  This requires a radical refocusing of the ‘grand’ point of the church.

When the man focused on Jesus, Jesus pointed to his Father, why should we be so different.

Great video from John Christ


About the author:

Steven Davis is a long time well-seasoned-preachers kid, recovering social worker, musician, and media producer.

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