The Cult of Personality
Dr. James Emery White
- 2013 May 20
A growing phenomenon within the ranks of churches, large and small (but mostly large), is the cult of personality.
What is a cult of personality?
It’s when a person becomes the center of attention rather than Christ; an individual looms larger than a mission; a figure is given more status than the organization itself.
Sometimes this “cult” is so egregious it’s hard to believe, such as reports from some churches that staff must rise when the pastor enters the room, aren’t allowed to look him in the eye, can never talk to him or engage him unless he takes the initiative, or must refer to him by title and never simply by his first name…
...all in the name of giving appropriate “honor.”
Beyond such ridiculous antics, the greater dilemma is how many attenders of such churches would adamantly deny that a cult of personality is being intentionally fostered. Too many allow being fans, and having enthusiasm about ministry, to cloud their judgment.
So consider the following ten signs, in no particular order, of a cult of personality at work in a local church:
1. The demand for special treatment, special honor, special recognition. In other words, there is an active cultivation of being treated differently than others.
2. The website is focused on an individual. A person’s quotes, their picture, their books, their activities, their blog, their…well, you get the picture. It’s pretty clear who, not what, the “church” is about.
3. No one is allowed to question the leader without retribution. There is a “thin skin” evident toward any and all critics, who are often written off as “haters” or simply those who are envious. There is a bubble that prevents constructive criticism.
4. If the leader were to leave, die, or fall into scandal, there is little doubt in anyone’s mind that the entire enterprise would collapse. Those who flooded in via transfer growth to be part of the “next, next thing” would flood right back out, because the “next, next thing” was a personality, not a true mission or movement.
5. The line between “look at what God is doing” and “look at what our leader is doing” is almost non-existent. In other words, God isn’t getting the glory, an individual is.
6. The name of the leader and the name of the church are inseparable. The leader is as much of a brand – or even the brand - as the ministry.
7. Image is paramount. Clothes, camera angles, prepared one-liners, manipulation of media; the leader is presented, handled and then “performs” as a carefully handled celebrity.
8. There is no sense of team leadership, team teaching or team mentality. There is a single person or leader, and then there are implementers. No one is to question the leader’s vision. It is seen as God-given, sacrosanct, and thus anything the leader says or does in pursuit of that vision is never to be questioned.
9. The person travels in an entourage, often with personal security, and is seldom accessible.
10. Their speaking/teaching often revolves around themselves (there is even a name for it – “narcisgesis” instead of “exegesis”), and guest speakers feel compelled (and sometimes are compelled) to laud the leader as part of their presentation.
Some of you are scratching your head, saying “Really? This exists? People are actually engaged in ministry leadership like this?”
More than you might imagine, and yes, it’s repugnant.
Let’s state the obvious. Christian pastors are servants, not rock stars. They equip people for ministry as opposed to basking in the adulation of others watching them perform.
But even more pressing is that all glory and attention should be on making God famous, not a person. Fame should not be cultivated in the name of “influence;” if anything, it should be feared in view of pride coming before a fall.
Finally, cults of personality can lead to heresy creep. With a leader firmly entrenched in people’s minds as God’s superstar, there is little practice along the lines of the highly-commended Bereans.
Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. (Acts 17:11, NIV)
Here people were commended for checking out what an apostle, no less, had to say in view of the Old Testament scriptures.
Few cults of personality end well, and when they don’t, the wider church and Christianity itself suffers a black eye. So let’s abandon any and all cults. Not just the ones you’ve associated with Jim Jones, the Moonies or the Branch Davidians.
But the one you might be part of yourself, and unknowingly, even propagating.
James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.