There's a Pandemic in the Church and It's Not Covid
Updated: May 23, 2022
There is a soul sickness in the Church that stems from substituting knowledge about God for intimacy with God. It has led us to a new form of "works righteousness," one where holiness is determined by metrics, rather than sanctification. The balm for this soul sickness is self-examination and reformation.
For several decades now, we have seen symptoms of a sickness that has gone viral in our congregations. Names like Ravi Zacharias and Bill Hybels, just to dredge up the most recent scandals, stir up a cesspool of emotions: anger, hurt, betrayal, confusion. The usual reaction is, understandably, outrage and condemnation.
We do our best to learn from these scandals--we talk about things like pornography, power inequity, misogyny, and an endless litany of other sins. Then we preach the installation of behavioral safeguards against them, such as Internet firewalls, polity/policy changes, therapy, accountability groups and more. I am not against these measures, but I think a nagging question still haunts our collective soul: if these are effective measures, then why are our leaders still failing? I think the answer is becoming more clear...because the pandemic in the Church is not one of behavior; these are merely symptoms. The true sickness is one of the soul.
In 2014, Pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle resigned amid accusations of emotional and spiritual abuse--perhaps the first high-profile evangelical Christian leader asked to step down for abusive behavior outside of the sexual or financial realm. In the same year, Peter Scazzero released his book "Emotionally Healthy Spirituality," and it struck such a resounding chord in the Church that it has now spawned an entire empire with titles such as, "Emotionally Healthy Discipleship," "Emotionally Healthy Relationships," "The Emotionally Healthy Church," "The Emotionally Healthy Leader," and others.
More recently, in 2020, Chuck DeGroat published his book, "When Narcissism Comes to Church," and then, this summer, Christianity Today launched its podcast, "The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill," an in-depth individual, organizational, communal, and cultural autopsy of the dissolution of Driscoll's church at its pinnacle. These three resources posit that the pandemic running rampant throughout the American Protestant Church is, at its root, a plague of the soul.
It would be easy to slap labels on these leaders and their failings, point fingers, blame, and condemn so that we could feel better about ourselves. But the narcissism and misconduct rampant in our Christian leaders is fostered by the bizarre phenomenon of Christian celebrity that is unique to our age and allows it to fester and grow until it explodes like a gargantuan, sin-filled abscess, spewing its purulence for all the world to see. We must look beyond others’ behavior, into our own souls, and ask, "What can and should be done? After the blame, after the call for accountability--what now?" I would like to make three suggestions:
Repent of idolatry. American Protestants are now just as savvy at self-promotion as the rest of the world. As a result, some of our most revered leaders have been elevated to the level of demigods. Lines are drawn in the sand as to which demigod we follow and battles are fought over which demigod is right. Not only does this stoke the fires of narcissism in the hearts of leaders, it quenches the Holy Spirit's ability to be heard in our own hearts. Sometimes we know that we would make terrible gods, so we make others gods instead. Consciously or unconsciously, they give us the false hope that someday, with enough work, dedication, Bible study, prayer, and social media "likes," we too could attain Christianized celebrity status.
Beware the leader who cannot live the truth John the Baptist spoke of Jesus in John 3.30: "He must increase; I must decrease." Yet we must also beware of our own tendencies to do the "increasing" for those leaders by putting them in a place that should only be reserved for the Head of the Body of Christ. And if we are those leaders, we MUST cultivate safe spaces to confess our basest tendencies to pride and self-centeredness--the areas in our hearts where we crown ourselves king or queen. Who are the people we allow into our souls to hold up mirrors to us, not so we can vainly preen ourselves, but so we can see the ugliness of our own hearts when we believe our own hype?
Repent of focusing on spiritual gifts instead of focusing on spiritual fruit. Many fallen leaders and their followers have said, "But look at our fruit!" By fruit, they meant the good works that the Church was accomplishing under the leadership of these now discredited leaders. The decisions for Christ, altar calls, baptisms, recommitments, lives turned around, and ministries started were all submitted as evidence that these leaders' abuses were a small price to pay for the glory of God--when in actuality, the glory more often went to the leader. We have mistaken spiritual gifts (and I would argue these were actually skills and talents more than spiritual gifts in many cases, but that is for another blog post) for spiritual fruit.
Our churches have done a better job of marketing and making Jesus cool than they have of fulfilling the Great Commission to make disciples. We equate making disciples with counting bodies in churches and the two could not be further apart. We see in the Gospels that Jesus, who arguably had the first megachurch when he fed the 5,000, would say the most outrageous and offensive things when his numbers got too big, so that he could whittle his followers down to the most committed (John 6.66). Nowhere in Scripture does it say that the fruit of the Spirit is quantitative--the fruit of the Spirit is solely qualitative: thus, are we producing leaders and followers who exhibit and embody love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control?
Cultivate the care of our souls. Ruth Haley Barton interviewed her friend Adele Calhoun in season 13 of her podcast “Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership,” stating, “‘Church’ means spending years believing all the right things, and learning how to believe all the right things, and defending all the right things, but all the while, lacking a sense of being invited into God’s own heart, and by definition, being invited into the deeper spiritual journey. How does Church actually help us, in the end, AVOID God? How does this happen?!?”
Calhoun responds, saying, ultimately, the Church’s tools of education and information are not enough to produce the transformation of a believer into a disciple of Jesus. Intellectual assent and theological truth is not enough to produce the spiritual fruit expected of a follower of Jesus. We, the Church, leaders and followers alike, have failed because we have not learned how to heed the call to encounter Jesus, to “abide” in him (John 15). The public behavioral failings we have witnessed did not flow out of hearts that did not love God enough, but hearts that had not allowed themselves to be loved by God enough.
Nobody in their right mind would ever tell a sick person to merely read about their illness, research the cures and famous doctors, and then to just act as if they had recovered from the illness--yet that is essentially what we do in the Church. If we want to truly be well, we must not only identify what ails us and learn about it, we must actually meet the Healer and allow him to touch us, perhaps even perform surgery on us! The only way to be healed of a soul sickness is by direct interaction with Jesus; no amount of reading and learning or acting well will make us well.
I am not saying theology is unimportant, or megachurches are inherently wrong, or that victims of abuse are to blame. My point is not dismissal of orthodoxy or condemnation of the fallen or abused, but that all of us, from lil’ ol’ me to the highest-profile pastor, must unlearn the habit of substituting working for Jesus for being with Jesus.
I hear Jesus asking us, individually and corporately, “Do you want to be made well?” (John 5.6). He is inviting us to individual reformations so that a corporate one can be brought about. So let us come and say “Yes!” to, as Barton puts it, God’s invitation to the deeper spiritual journey into God’s own heart. When we do, we will find it is Jesus who makes us well, not us and our "gifts," and the pandemic within the walls of our Church will begin to subside.