The Problem of Personality-Driven Congregationalism in American Evangelicalism

The Problem of Personality-Driven Congregationalism in American Evangelicalism July 15, 2015

As the American colonies congealed into a new nation, the founders undertook a “lively experiment.”*  The new nation refused to establish an official state church–or religion for that matter–allowing its citizens much greater freedom to determine their own religious affiliations than had been the case in Europe.  The young nation codified this commitment in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  No longer would one particular religion–or denomination for that matter–be given an overwhelming competitive advantage over others.  Rather, various groups would compete for adherents in the emerging American religious marketplace.  Through the majority of the nation’s history, these groups were largely Christian.

By the mid-nineteenth century, American Christianity had been “democratized.”**  In this newly established American marketplace, the people, rather than elites, would decide which religious groups would thrive. A group’s survival depended upon its ability to connect with the people and persuade them to embrace its particular brand of Christianity.

Evangelical groups flourished in this environment as leaders turned their penchant for appealing directly to the people in matters of conversion towards building up their particular denomination, ministry, or congregation.  The democratization of American Christianity meant that the people were the final arbiters of religious success.  Thus, groups had to appeal to the people, and the people had to find them appealing.  As a result, religious groups found success inasmuch as their charismatic leaders found success in promoting their cause.  This trend continues to the present day, trickling up from local congregational leaders to multi-site mega-churches, and a multiplicity of other ministries.  Rarely does a church or ministry find numerical success without a charismatic leader who can connect with the people in person, via audio, and in video formats.

The reality of charismatic, personality-driven leadership functions at all levels of ministry in American evangelicalism, including the level of the local congregation.  With some exceptions, evangelical laypeople choose a church based upon the pastor.  Denomination and doctrine matter to some extent for some people, but the person of the pastor matters most for most people.  Those who prefer an affable, personable leader choose a church with an affable, personal pastor.  Those who like a somber, serious-minded preacher choose one that suits their tastes.  True to form, the choice lies with them, not the bureaucracy of a parish system.

This systemic reality functions to empower the people while simultaneously putting them under the persuasive power of a charismatic pastoral leader.  In evangelical churches, such leaders often accumulate significant power over time.  At first, this power comes through their personal charisma and powers of suasion.  However, as the congregation grows numerically, procedural and governance practices that protect the pastor from criticism and critique are implemented.  Sometimes, this takes the form of an executive pastor who functions as a gate-keeper, protecting the pastor from the criticism (legitimate or not) of the people.  Other times, this takes the form of a carefully selected church council or board of elders.  The growing scope of the ministry “demands” efficiency and these changes provide the pastor freedom to act decisively, leading quickly and efficiently.  At the same time, they exacerbate the problems latent in personality-driven leadership as they create an echo chamber around the pastor, isolate him from the people, and eventually set him up as an untouchable celebrity.

A perfect solution to this challenge does not exist.  More hierarchical structures bring their own problems.  Yet there are steps that can be taken–by rank-and-file evangelicals and their leaders–to help mitigate these challenges.  First, no matter how much they love their charismatic pastor, evangelical laypeople need to insist on the transparency of governing processes and accountability for leaders in their congregations.  Second, local church leaders need adopt a long-term vision that looks beyond their tenure by putting into place structures of accountability that will work to guarantee integrity and accountability in their congregations–even if it means less efficiency for them in the short-term.  This takes an incredible amount of fortitude, patience, and humility.  After all, what charismatic leader wants to spend time on developing processes that slow down the implementation of their vision? And yet, by doing so, His kingdom is best served–even if theirs is not.

This post originally appeared in the wake of revelations regarding the heavy-handed, broach no opposition leadership style of the former pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, WA.


* Sidney E. Mead, The Lively Experiment: The Shaping of Christianity in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1963).

** Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991).


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  • D Rieder

    Maybe the problem stems from the illusion that when Jesus talked of “the church” he meant an organization with creeds, manuals, images and buildings.

    What if, for example, there were NO organized denominations, but rather all just home meetings. Maybe the government should, as part of religious freedom, prohibit buildings and edifices that make a public display (even if on private land) endorsing one or another specific set of God-beliefs. Outlandish? Maybe. But it would solve the problem and would allow us to see, once and for all, just how Christianity really can effect changes and make a difference.

    Or maybe a simpler way is to stop giving churches tax breaks except where their money or assets can be positively shown to be for charitable causes. A charitable institution has to show that their activity actually provides charity without a return service. The average tax payer and the corporation has to show that their contributions went to officially recognized charitable institutions with no return service. Why not do the same for churches? I think churches and denominations should not in general and automatically be considered charitable institutions. They are, for the most part, fee for service organizations where contributions go to keep the corporation going.

    How might that slight change in the tax laws affect the “mega-church, charismatic leader” dilemma? I really don’t know. I mean consider how readily folks pay for other entertainment..sports, movies and even hot-spots for recreational socialization.

    But at least the government would be making a bit of money off the churches and tax payers would no longer be able to avoid paying taxes on money they pay for, what I consider, weekly entertainment. How much money? The estimate based on googling being passed around is $71 billion! It seems those estimates might be from what might be considered skeptical websites.

  • Robin Warchol

    Just an observation and having been Protestant and now Catholic, it seems like the non-liturgical based Protestant Churches seem to gravitate to become personality based groups. When the focus of one’s Sunday service is no longer a set liturgy but the sermon and what the pastor is going to preach, then the focus drifts from either the communion or scripture reading and on who the pastor is and what he is preaching. This is coupled with the consumerism of our culture and religion becomes a consumer product. We also fall into the trap of measuring “success” by numbers. If the Church is larger or mega sized, then that pastor must be successful. Never mind if the pastor is faithful messenger to the Gospel. I think what Mother Theresa of Calcutta said is best, and I paraphrase, “Lord, make me faithful, not success”.

  • DC Rambler

    If you read the Facebook page of most megachurch’s, the comments lavish praise on their pastor and how he makes them feel. You rarely see comments about how the pastor called them to help others..People attend for a big glass of feelgood juice and these pastors know how to pour it..

  • SJ

    We’re living in the Pentecostal Age and God knew it would be a sinful age….That’s probably why He said to “study to be an approved man”….He already knew the denominational system would have sibling rivalry problems but why should that stop anyone really dedicated to pursuing a godly new nature in learning from Christ?

  • Jeffrey Krall
  • cvryder2000

    It’s not just the evangelical megachurches that have this problem. I’ve seen it in other churches that have had a longtime pastor. The church takes on the personality of the pastor and has a really hard time changing when that pastor leaves or retires. I happen to be Episcopalian (though currently attending an ELCA Lutheran church for reasons of proximity) and I’ve seen this in my own church. My former parish where I used to live is in a horrible mess after their priest of some 14 years retired and was found to have been keeping financial secrets, among other things.