The Church in America is addicted. It is addicted to attitudes and mores of the society in which it inhabits. There are many symptoms of this addiction. The culture of Christian celebrity and mega-church centralization are just a couple examples. These symptoms aren’t the problem, however. Christian celebrity and mega-churches are not themselves the problem, but they manifest a deeper concern and ambition: empire-building in the body of Christ.
What do I mean by empire-building? It is firstly a metaphor drawn from political empires, such as the Roman Empire, in which there is a steady accumulation of different resources of power that gives them an increasing influence over a larger number of people. Empires don’t just accumulate, but they lay down the necessary infrastructure and groundwork to make their power and resource accumulation from a centralized place more efficient and effective, such as the Roman roads. Then, according to the Oxford Dictionary, it is used to refer to “the practice of obtaining more power, responsibility, or staff within an organization for the purposes of self-aggrandizement.” I don’t mean to refer to empire-building as simply self-aggrandizement, although that is a common motivation. But empire-building has a way of giving one or a few central figures increasingly more power and privilege, even if it is done in the name of some good motivations, even it is done genuinely for that purpose.
So what do I mean by empire-building in the Church? I am referring to the predilection for a small selection of Christian leaders to steadily accumulate greater and greater control over a wider array of resources and people, all in the name of Jesus Christ. The phenomenon is most readily exemplified in mega-churches where the founding pastor becomes a permanent pillar of the church they planted. Bill Hybels and Willow Creek is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Planted in the 70s, Hybels remained there for over 4 decades and created an empire amongst Christian circles; they and Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church were the two go-to resources for everything church in my college years. Now, we see some of the fruits of this in the numerous allegations of sexual misconduct and the failure of Willow Creek to adequately address these accusations and remove and/or appropriately hold Hybels accountable.
But the problem isn’t simply an issue of sexual misconduct. It is deeper and more pervasive. The will of God was never intended to be realized amongst empires; God can certainly use powerful figures and positions, such as King David, but this has never been God’s preferred method of enacting His will. Israel, which had memories of the cruel bondage under Egypt came to long for a king to be like the nations; they wanted to have power the way the other nations had power. God through Samuel accommodated the wishes of Israel but with a warning: it would come with great injustice.
We see the similar phenomenon among churches today. But instead of simply longing for imperial political power, which we witness among brands of conservative Christianity, we also witness a longing for the power of the corporation and its processes. Numerous churches are founded upon organizational principles and process of larger, successful businesses. Of course, many people have lamented this and even though trying to learn from businesses recognize that the Church is not a business. The compromise that is offered is something along the lines of adopting the processes but not adopted the messages and purposes.
What I am criticizing isn’t the accommodation of these processes
Apple was mined for wisdom in how to do church. But in doing so, they replicated not simply processes, for instance, but the style where a singular leader can impress, if not enforce, their own personality onto the life of the church and the people in it in increasingly efficient and wide-spread manners. But here is the problem: Apple
But if we compare Paul to the empire-building churches of today, we see something different. Paul does not rest in one place. He sees his job at laying the foundation of Christ; he doesn’t want to preach where Christ is known but he wants to make the love of God in Jesus Christ known in new places. Then, through instructions to Timothy, he seeks to make the churches sustainable on their own, perhaps hoping that one day they will not need to rely on him for instruction and guidance. Paul expands, but as he expands, he also lets go. Paul is no personal empire-builder, but he is a builder of the kingdom of Jesus Christ.
Contrast that with the mindset in churches today. Founding pastors of successful churches don’t generally go on to plant new churches. Rather, they tend to persist and remain in their place, to enjoy the longer terms comforts of the power they have and accumulate rather than using their giftedness for expanding in new places while relinquishing the current power they have. Sure, they preach Christ, but so did the Pope.
Now, the apostolic calling of Paul and church-planting are not exactly equivalent. Apostles were ambassadors coming to present the Gospel of Jesus Christ to places that were ignorant of what had happened in Judea. Church planters in the United States go to places where people are familiar with Jesus and attitudes about Jesus are already largely defined. A lot more work is necessary for someone who already has views about Jesus to come to a place of faith than it is for someone who knows nothing about Christ. So, church planting in the United States can come with a lot more time, energy, and effort in a single place if they are making new disciples. Church planters are not apostles.
But there is something important to take from Paul. Paul employed His giftedness in new places. While he certainly developed a social network that assisted him as he moved to new places and received assistance from the churches he had planted in the past, as he was expanding, he had to let go. Paul was no empire-builder; he couldn’t be even if he had wanted to. And if you pay attention to Jesus, he wasn’t an empire-builder either. He eschewed the attempts to anoint him to political power. He didn’t accept anyone and everyone who came to him; he often spoke in allusive ways that befuddled people. Much of Jesus time was spent mentoring the disciples to understand rather than trying to build a following.
Why? Because in the end, empire-building is inconsistent with the ethos of God’s Kingdom. The problem isn’t expansion; mega-churches themselves are not the problem. The problem isn’t people developing a higher status; Christian celebrity isn’t the problem. The problem isn’t success; having a big impact is not the problem. The problem is accumulation without letting go; this is at the core of empire-building.