Bread & Circuses

The recent implosion of James MacDonald’s ministry is a sobering reminder of how easily beguiled the church is by a pretty voice. Not only is the unfolding debacle painful to watch, it also ought to send a chill of fear down the spine of pastors and church leaders. MacDonald was no heretic. He was and is a biblical conservative. His failure, if the reports are true, was one of leadership character. I am not saying this as a mitigating factor. The pastoral epistles are clear that character and leadership style are as important in determining whether someone is fit to lead as doctrine.

My point is that the church is easily swayed by those who are compelling speakers. This is not a new problem. Paul complained about it in the Corinthian letters. Church history’s hall of shame includes many notable pulpit masters who made a name for themselves as speakers while engaging in behavior unbecoming to their office. What is surprising is not that these leaders sinned but that the church found it so easy to overlook their behavior.

We often plead grace in our attempt to excuse ourselves. Our preachers and leaders are sinners like us. They are “wounded healers.” We are sometimes reluctant to apply the biblical standards of leadership too rigorously to them out of fear that we will condemn ourselves in the process. But more often than not this kind of talk is just a smokescreen that obscures the real root of the church’s failure which is due to something far shallower. Simply put, we like a good speaker. If that requirement is met, we often don’t care about much else, as long as their weaknesses are not so public that they force us to take note of them.

The simplest explanation for such a one-sided evaluation on our part is that we have to listen to these people week after week. We would much prefer to listen without feeling that the experience is torture. But I do not think that this simple explanation is adequate. The opposite is more often the case. Many congregations tolerate preaching that is mediocre or even less because they are being cared for by a genuine shepherd.

I believe two other factors have caused the church to elevate speaking ability over spiritual leadership and even moral character. One is the church’s marketplace orientation. The other is the congregation’s growing tolerance for a distance between the church’s pastors and its members. These two are related. Churches tolerate good speakers who are weak pastors because they rely on the pastor’s speaking ability to market the church to non-attenders. This is especially true of churches that have grown large and where the pastor has become the brand. They  are “too big to fail.” There is too much at stake. The fortunes of too many people are tied to one personality to jeopardize it all by holding these leaders accountable. More than one fallen leader has sought protection from the consequences of their failure by threatening to bring the temple down on the heads of those who sought to expose them.

The popularity of the megachurch model, even though only a small minority of congregations can actually achieve it, has changed the way church members relate to their pastors. It has also changed the way Bible colleges and seminaries train for ministry (or don’t). We are being pressured to train performers and administrators instead of pastors. Those who attend megachurches do not expect to be pastored. They do not expect to relate to the preaching pastor at close range. They do not expect the pastor to invite them over to dinner or to show up at the hospital and pray for them when they are sick. They do not expect him to come to their home and ask about their spiritual well-being. They do not know what kind of office hours the pastor keeps if the pastor keeps any at all. They do not know what the pastor’s salary is, because it is masked in the budget, lumped together with all the other staff salaries. Indeed, the typical church attender has been trained to think that the pastor’s salary is none of their business. As a result, all the average worshipper knows about the preaching pastor is what they hear when the church gathers for worship. The resulting distance makes it impossible for the congregation to hold the pastor accountable for much of anything.

These cultural shifts are having a profound effect on the way churches think about pastoral ministry. The pastor is no longer a shepherd or even a preacher. The emphasis in today’s branded culture is on personality and performance. The difference is immediately felt when one hears them preach. One of my colleagues recently contrasted this new model with the pastors and Bible conference preachers of a generation ago. “Those old preachers were mostly men in grey suits, unimpressive in appearance but powerful expositors of the word,” she said. They were not interested in their image. They did not focus on style.

I do not think that she meant that they had no style. They certainly did, but theirs was the kind of style reflected in Philip Brooks’s definition of preaching as the communication of “truth through personality.” Brooks didn’t mean that the preacher should try to be a personality. “The truth must come through the person, not merely over his lips, not merely into his understanding and out through his pen” Brooks declared. “It must come through his character, his affections, his whole intellectual and moral being. It must come genuinely through him.”

There is more to what Brooks describes in these words than what is popularly called “transparency.” Brooks did not merely mean that biblical truth is expressed through the container of the preacher’s personality. Rather he meant that the preacher is someone who has been shaped by the truth. In the language that Paul uses in 2 Timothy 2:15, the preacher is someone who makes every effort to present themselves to God as an approved worker in the word, not only handling it rightly in terms of its interpretation but reflecting its truths.

These days instead of “studying to show ourselves approved” it is our preaching that has become studied. By that, I mean that our overemphasis on personality and style has made our preaching self-conscious. It is affected. From dress to tone to the way we stroll about the stage, we seem to be as interested in crafting an image as we are in communicating a message. The congregation is complicit in this. Like the ancient Romans, the average church member no longer sees it as their responsibility to weigh carefully not only what is said, but the one who says it. They have traded this duty for bread and circuses. What the preacher is off the stage does not matter so much as long he holds our attention while on it.

James MacDonald is not the first nor is he the worst preacher to be accused of incongruity between life and message. I am not saying this in his defense. But I do think that he is too easy a target for us. It is easy to pile on after the fact and demand an accounting.  But he was not the only culpable party. In this image-driven age, when the church prefers circuses over bread, why are we so surprised?

6 thoughts on “Bread & Circuses”

  1. I’m currently teaching two “Essentials for Excellence in Ministry” classes online, and this so confirms what the course content. Thank you for your good insights. Sadly, I have seen this too many times. Blessings, my friend. BTW, I grew up in SC and Dr. J Vernon McGee’s ministry and had to grin reading the comments about pastors of past generations wearing a gray suit. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Dave. I used to “get on the Bible bus” and listen to Dr. J. Vernon McGee on the radio when I was a young believer: “My God richly bless you my beloved.”

  2. I agree. While the Church is waiting for Jesus it has become (in some cases) impatient and has elevated pastors and made them the end rather than the means. At times we have become more exited about knowing someone famous than knowing Jesus in our daily, monotonous, holy living grind. We must be very careful when we applaud frail humans to the top, a place that’s only made for One.

    1. Thanks, Heidi. The overwhelming majority of pastors that I know are simply trying to be faithful to their calling. But I think we have all been affected by the cult of personality that pervades our culture today. Why else would I podcast? 😉

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