Over the past ten years, “The Joy Congregation” has grown to more than five thousand members. John is successful! I notice that John and Abigail have a certain magnetism about them. Part of me wants to be just like them.
After not seeing John for five years, I unexpectedly bump into him again. In October 2001, I attend a national meeting day about church unity in the city. Suddenly, I hear my name being called out. As I turn around, John quickly approaches me and gives me a big hug. He looks good, dressed sharply in a suit. His hair looks as if he just left the barber’s this morning. He exudes charisma and success, greeting me with one of his radiant smiles. I can’t help but notice how sparkling white his teeth are.
I feel a bit awkward. I’m simply wearing jeans and a neat shirt, but compared to him, I feel like the ugly duckling, while he’s the shining swan. He’s now one of the most successful church leaders in the States, a rising star in the evangelical-charismatic realm. “Good to see you, man. How have you been?” I tell him about our church planting plans in a disadvantaged neighborhood; we’ve just started and have hardly anyone in our congregation yet. I share this somewhat sheepishly. Rumor has it John’s church is now at 5,300 members. It feels silly mentioning our fledgling congregation in comparison.
“We’ve now affiliated with Life, a megachurch in Colorado. Thankfully, we got rid of those broken, consumerist spirit-seekers.”
John hasn’t followed my ecclesiastical journey as closely as I’ve followed his. I think to myself, “If only you knew the things I’ve heard about you.” I feel like a private investigator. As we converse, we sit down for coffee. I ask about G12 and how that’s going. “We’re no longer involved with G12,” John says. “We’ve joined Life, a megachurch in Colorado.” He enthusiastically tells me about this American megachurch of 15,000 members, led by anointed senior pastor Michael. John and Abigail have visited four times this year. They even got to stay at Pastor Michael’s ranch. The congregation is now focusing on youth, young adults, and young families. Everything has been revamped, and now everything is minutely directed. They are now concentrating on high-quality sound, film, and lighting. “It should be as good as in a disco or nightclub.”
I notice that what John describes about his church now is very different from the days of the Toronto Blessing when their services sometimes lasted four hours, with spontaneous happenings on stage and nothing seemed scripted. “How do the church members feel about this? It must be quite different from during the Toronto Blessing,” I ask. “Yes, but those people have happily left. We never intended to attract those kinds of people. You know, back then, we had those revival evenings. Suddenly, these people wanted to be part of our church. But, you know, they’re spiritual seekers. You can’t build a congregation with them. They just want to consume. Really, they’re not useful. They’re broken individuals always seeking their next spiritual fix.”
As I listen to him, thoughts race through my mind: “I don’t think it was that sudden. Couldn’t you have stopped them? Or sent them back to their original churches? Didn’t your ego get stroked seeing your church grow so rapidly? Did you not benefit financially from them? Perhaps they’re consumers, but you’ve consumed from them just as much.”
“I feel like a coward not confronting John. I just nod politely.”
Of course, I don’t voice these thoughts. In that respect, I’m a coward. I think such things but just nod in agreement. I feel quite hypocritical. But here’s the thing: John is someone who always assumes a dominant role, forcing you to either confront him or take on a subordinate role. I avoid conflicts. I know it’s a weakness, but what ammunition do I have? I could tell him the rumors I’ve heard, but he’d dismiss them as gossip and potentially accuse me of being swayed by such talk. All the information I have on him is secondhand. I can’t confront him with that. So, I just nod along.
John continues, “When we introduced the G12 model to the congregation four years ago, many of these religious spirits left. They only wanted freedom but resisted the cell groups.” “They didn’t want to be ‘cell’ed in,” I joke. John gives me a dubious look. My jokes don’t land with someone like him. I try to explain my jest, “Perhaps they felt trapped in your model. Maybe they perceived it as a prison cell.” I can tell from John’s eyes that we’re on different wavelengths. “These people don’t want to submit to anyone. They’re like the Jews in the desert, always wanting to return to Egypt. You know what happened to them.” “What happened?” I ask, trying to gauge his direction. “The ground opened and swallowed them. These individuals, with their insatiable religious spirits, will be doomed too.”
This isn’t a new sentiment from John. In the past, during seminars, I’ve heard him utter similar words about people who didn’t agree with his methods or doctrine. It always troubled me. I believe John is sincere in his desire to serve God. However, I can’t shake the feeling that he’s also driven by a lust for power and status. I don’t know if I would have been able to resist those temptations in his position. But I’ve always been critical of him. Maybe my reservations are born out of envy. After all, he is very successful. Why do I even compare myself to him? Why do I care?
“I noticed you have ‘CEO’ behind your name. I know it’s an abbreviation, but what does it stand for again?” “Chief Executive Officer,” John responds quickly. “Is this another name for senior pastor?”, I ask him. He looks at me as if I’m dumb.
I think he’s not used to people asking him these types of questions. “You see, Matt, we are not just a congregation anymore. In my role within the congregation, I indeed function as a senior pastor. But our work has grown so much in recent years that, besides the Joy congregation, we have a rapidly growing and well-developed children’s and youth ministry. We now also have our own childcare. We have our own television studio. We broadcast our services on local cable, but have plans for more. The school for worship is doing well with students from all over the country. Annelies and I lead this entire operation, hence the title CEO.”
I nod and hand him my card. Below my name it reads ‘church planter’. “Hmm, church planter huh!” He gives me a friendly punch on the shoulder. “It was really nice seeing you again. Let’s meet up soon. Give me a call sometime.” He gives me another one of his radiant smiles.
“John knows precisely when to ride a successful wave and knows exactly when to get off. Not very creative, I think. I could be successful that way too.”
On the drive home, I have plenty of time to reflect on my conversation with John. I let myself be impressed by him again. I noticed that, as a congregation, they consistently go along with the most successful trends in the evangelical and charismatic world. “John seems to be someone who can surf well,” I think with a smile. “He knows precisely when to ride a successful wave and knows exactly when to get off. With every wave, he seems to get a bigger congregation. Now they’re replicating this American megachurch down to the smallest details. Not very original or creative, but for him, it’s successful…”
I realize that I’ve found something to look down on him for. Creativity is very important to me. I love being creative. In our work, we try to do everything creatively. Copying is strictly forbidden. Smirking, I think: “Not very creative of them. I could be successful that way too…” Or am I just jealous?
For several weeks I debate whether to call him. I dread being the one to make the call. As if I so desperately want to contact him. I blame myself for not insisting that he should call me. Eventually, I muster the courage and dial the number on the card. I get his secretary on the line. Pastor John is currently unavailable. Can I call back the next day?
“You know how many calls Pastor John receives daily?”
A day later, I call again. Pastor John is now in a meeting. I ask if John can call me back. Oh, no, they couldn’t do that. I should know how many calls Pastor John receives daily. He can’t possibly return them all. Can I try again in a week? I call her a week later. Pastor John is out. “Please feel free to call another day.” I ask if I can send him an email. She doesn’t give me his personal email address but suggests emailing the congregation. I email him, but hear nothing back. “Never mind…” I think.
Read some background articles on why Evangelical leaders fall:
- The Anatomy Of A Christian Leader’s Downfall
- The Hidden Perils Of Spiritual Hero Worship In The Church
- The Prelude To The Downfall Of The Christian Leader
- Unmasking The Soul: The Authenticity Struggle In Leadership
Have you read some my other articles:
- Part 1: Evangelicalism’s High School Traits: Can Trauma Be the Key?
- Part 3: Please God Strike Evangelicalism On It’s Hip
- Part 4: Only By Facing Our Trauma Can The Evangelical Movement Reach Real Fatherhood
- Part 5: Why Evangelicalism Needs ‘Limping Courage’ On The Road To Maturity
Matt Vlaardingerbroek, a former seasoned church planter and pastor in Holland’s inner cities, brings Bible stories to life through ventriloquism and magic. He’s authored three books, and founded www.creativekidswork.com, providing over 1,500 innovative Sunday school activities worldwide.