A lifetime ago, I was steeped in the Contemporary Christian Music world and followed closely the output of Michael W. Smith. Late in my following of him, he put out the Go West, Young Man album and the song How Long Will Be Too Long? One of the first lines in the song is:
“Tell me, how long will we grovel at the feet of wealth and power?”
In 1990, when that song first came out and I was a newly minted Christian campus worker, I felt the power of the rebuke. We were at the beginning of the Neo-Reformed and Evangelical resurgence. Mainline churches were hemorrhaging members. Theologically conservative churches were growing in size and number rapidly. And while I felt the euphoria success in my circles, I also saw the excesses of leadership and the intoxication of money pouring into church coffers. How long would we bow to wealth and human authority? Seeing the Spirit move on a such a scale, I felt sure we would shed the trappings of this “golden calf” soon.
I was wrong.
In fact, the headiness I felt of those days may have blinded me to my own participation in handing Christian leadership, not to wise and mature men and women, but to people who could produce numbers in the pew and the bank account. In other words, we traded spiritual maturity for worldly success by embracing narcissistic personalities.
Don’t believe me? Look at the fruit it has born in the theologically conservative circles over the past 30 years: the fall of many revered Christian leaders (e.g., Ravi Zacharias, Bill Hybels, Mark Driscoll), the alienation of the Millennial generation – not with difficult doctrine- but by the scandalous behavior of Christian leaders and the trouncing of anyone who might raise a voice of concern within Christian institutions. We witnessed that dynamic in RZIM where whistleblowers who were working within the system were labelled as “insane.” We are watching the same dynamic at play with the recent exit of Russ Moore from the Southern Baptist Convention.
For those of you who don’t know Russ Moore, he is an American theologian, ethicist and preacher. He spent his entire ministry career working within the SBC and served as the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy arm of the SBC. In February of 2020, he resigned from the commission. Many thought he was forced out because of his criticisms of President Trump. The truth was far more disturbing. A letter written by Moore to the commission detailing his concerns about SBC executive leadership was leaked to the media recently. In that letter Moore points out the cover-up of sexual abuse as well as predatory and racists behavior. He resigned from SBC leadership and no longer worships in the denomination to which he gave the majority of his ministry career. Since the letter was leaked, institutional leadership within the SBC has attacked Moore and dismissed his concerns wholesale. (You can read more about this story in The Atlantic, The Scandal Rocking the Evangelical World, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/06/russell-moore-sbc/619122/?scrolla=5eb6d68b7fedc32c19ef33b4&fbclid=IwAR1DAPd-cOTrnMe82YBSMmQdXorhM4eRlpuHgJdKn6foeH-Y9GXyXSdp7ik)
Is this a question of Evangelical politics gone astray? Of fear that critique of our institutions will mean losing ground to the secular world? I believe that the root of this cancer growing within our institutions is much rawer and baser. We… love… power. And we will do what we have to keep it and keep exercising it over others. In the Atlantic article, one pastor is quoted as saying:
“Having grown up in the South, [I think] Southern Baptist culture is probably uniquely this way, but working in a church that isn’t in the South, this stuff still rears its head. Not as much the same presenting issues, but you still fundamentally get people who are in love with power and will take any means necessary to beat you down so they have power and you are subservient to them, not the Gospel.”
In my more recent ministry, I am working with folks some might call “de-churched” and “de-converted.” And I hear stories that make my stomach turn. Stories about abuse of power, of dismantling people’s sense of self and the need for therapy to begin functioning again, of institutions re-victimizing victims to protect toxic leadership or at least the reputation of the institutions they represent.
I am praying that Moore’s departure from the SBC will be one of many clarion calls to the leading institutions in Evangelicalism to take stock and repent of power-driven leadership. I personally call on my friends and colleagues in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), the Evangelical Free Church, the Reformed Church in America (RCA), and Covenant Theological Seminary to shed light on the dark places in our institutions that we might be healed of it. Sun-light is a great disinfectant. We need to stop being so afraid of the truth. We need to stop silencing those we have hurt. We certainly need to stop brutalizing those who love the Church enough to speak up.
The Spirit of God is bigger than our waywardness. His work is broader than the American nations. So, I have hope that good thing lay ahead for the Church in America. But one the days I hear more stories of manipulation, spiritual abuse and predatory behavior, I confess that resonant with that Michael W. Smith song when he sings:
“I feel my hope fading.”