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Are You a Church Planter or a Mythic Hero? Five Cautions:

There is a standard storyline in American evangelical church that goes like this:

Young man is a natural leader (these leaders are always male – in particular “alpha male”). Young man gets saved and has powerful conversion experience. Young man has a “vision” to start a church to change the world. Young man in mesmerizing fashion begins to challenge his friends and acquaintances into coming along with him to plant this church “wherever God might call” (read “launch team” here). Young man visits some prime spots and says, “We looked around this place and found no vibrant alive church here.” (This irritates all the other small churches to no end). Young man puts out a video and raises money. They purchase a state of the art sound/video system. Young man is attractive, a weight lifter, and therefore, attracts all the younger people from the launch team’s various churches to come to this new one.

Then the launch team does something positively out of the ordinary/even outrageous that draws attention to the church launch. Media takes notice. Enough people disgruntled/disengaged from other churches show up. A crowd (especially a young crowd) draws a crowd (most people don’t go to a church for the service – they are seeking connection). A mega church is born. Young man is lifted up as the exemplar holy man leader. People all talk about him with reverence (even though few people actually know him). From here, the staff works tirelessly producing programming to keep the activity going. The pastor has to produce enough catchy sermon series (which is why he often hires marketing type people on his staff) to keep the illusion ongoing that something positive is happening in people’s lives. A slick video production crew has to find the best stories (out of thousands of people, we only need one) and produce it so that the hundreds of people gathering can vicariously participate (hyper-reality is the best way to experience Christianity without having to change your life). Often, this young man will build staffs of other people around him who idolize him. Dissent is rarely encouraged. Mantras are generated that create an “ideological” consensus, a buzz: “One Church, One Mission, One Goal” or something like that.

From here, the aura of our mythic hero is enhanced through books, Web sites, DVD’s, going on speaking tours. And somewhere along the line, we produce this story and make it so appealing that every American young seminarian thinks he has to be one of America’s top 100 fastest growing churches, or he is a failure.

If you are a church planter, I’d like to offer 5 reasons not to do this.

1.)  This way of “church” too easily becomes about the mythic hero and not about who Jesus is and what God is doing in and through the work of Jesus Christ in the world for the salvation of the world (and so when he leaves, dies, or has a moral failure – the church collapses – proving it was not really a viable church in the first place).

2.)  The mythic hero becomes elevated upon a pedestal. His life now too easily becomes an image to be managed as opposed to a real life lived among a people. This will make the mythic hero’s life into a living hell (eventually).

3.)  This route of church planting has been tried. There are many mega churches around as a result. Many of these mythic heroes are in their fifties now. This approach worked well in the 70s and 80s as the country was full of disenchanted Catholics, Lutherans, and Bible church boomers. It makes little to no sense as the “market” for disenchanted pre-churched people is shrinking in the North East, North West, other urban centers, and Canada. It still works however in the southern United States and to some degree in Alberta Canada. So if you choose to go this way, know your chances of success are shrinking. And you are now being put into the position of “competing for that market.” In my mind, there is nothing worse than being caught up in competition with other churches for attendees. It’s disingenuous and bad (very bad) for your character.

4.)  The mythic hero will become a workaholic. His whole identity will become the success of this “enterprise.” His life and ministry will not incorporate everyday relationships as part of a normal healthy life (because of reason number 2). As a result, he will become a candidate for massive burnout, abusive behavior, and/or moral failure before he is fifty.

5.)  Because the mythic hero has no relationships (because people everywhere call him “pastor” with the aura of the man lifted up on pedestal), the mythic hero must suppress any doubts he has about life, ministry, God, or even himself. He has no relationships to work out everyday life, stress, and sin. Because of this cocoon, the mythic hero becomes incapable of receiving criticism apart from a well-scripted defense and deflection. This is also is a recipe for a nervous breakdown.

Now don’t get me wrong. There are many sincere believers and Kingdom-seeking “young men” who are involved in church-plants that look like this. I just think we need to be careful – really careful. There are plenty of church planter videos out there (just Google for them) that script this mythology. They need to be chastened. It is very tempting to look at these Hollywood crafted videos and get sucked in. I say, “Don’t do it.” Look to the simple ways God works to change lives and to know this: the revolution, the real revolution, the revolution that will move beyond a cultural evangelicalism, the revolution of the Spirit, where lives, towns, and villages are changed, this revolution will not be televised. It will happen low, on the ground, beneath the lights, in the daily cultivation of life in the Kingdom. And occasionally, a mega church might result.

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David Fitch is a bi-vocational pastor at Life on the Vine and the B.R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary.