What If Life Was Complex?

This month, I thought I would use this column to indulge in a little thought experiment. What, I wonder, if the conservative evangelical church world came to be dominated by a symbiotic network of high-profile and charismatic leaders (think more Weber than Wimber), media organisations, and big conferences? What if leadership, doctrine, and policy were no longer rooted in the primacy of biblical polity and the local church? What if, in other words, all of this became a function of an Evangelical Industrial Complex?

It is an important question. It is probably a year or so since I raised the question of the impact of celebrity on evangelicalism. As I was told then, celebrity either does not exist in the evangelical subculture or is of no real importance there. Thus, I suspect the Evangelical Industrial Complex either does not exist or exerts no influence; but it is entertaining to imagine what would the signs be that it was a real issue (which, I am sure you will agree, it is not).

The aesthetics of success would subtly and imperceptibly supplant the principles of faithfulness or would indeed come to be identified with the same. The rhetoric of faithfulness would be retained, but the substance would be less and less important. Thus, the key leaders would be the men at the big churches or with the ability to pack a stadium or to handle media with slick sophistication. Fruitfulness and faithfulness would be rhetorically opposed in a way that would be ridiculous if we were talking marriage, but which somehow seems plausible in a church context.  

The key books on pastoral ministry would be written by men who either have no real experience of anything approaching normal pastoral ministry or have not had such for decades. Students at seminaries would rarely, if ever, name their own pastors as the most influential preachers in their lives. Multi-site video churches would spring up, as the desire to be connected to success and to the Top Men, rather than to serve as part a local body, would become a significant factor in church life. The pastors held up as models of ministry would have little personal contact with most people in their churches. Of course, the Complex may make space for criticism of this type of church and churchmanship; but it will not do anything about it, thus making the matter yet one more area where we can — must — all agree to differ.

Leaders would gradually and sometimes self-consciously become brands. The instruments of fostering that intimacy of strangers which is such a part of celebrity culture - for example, the faux-chumminess of all those tweeted exchanges and retweets, lives lived as soap operas mediated by the internet - would feed smoothly, humbly, and imperceptibly into the building of one's brand. Another sign of this branding would be that publishers and conferences would recruit writers and speakers not on the basis of competence but of market appeal. Some writers would thus write the same book over and over again (using different titles, of course). Some topics would not be considered sufficiently or definitively addressed until the Complex's own brand names had had their say. Few, if any, thoughts or sermons of the brand names would pass unpublished.

Overall control of the evangelical world would in practice lie in the hands of select groups of unelected  leaders, captains of industry, answerable to nobody but themselves and with no transparent accountability beyond the constituency's ability to give or withhold funds.    

As a corollary of this, ordained office would be of little significance in the world of the Evangelical Industrial Complex. Character, personal orthodoxy, a transparent, stable, loving family life embedded in a particular congregation, prioritisation of hard work in the local church setting (evidenced by far more Sundays serving in your home church than anywhere else), ability to teach the local church, accountability to a local session, elder board or presbytery - these things would be at a discount. One might even come across key leaders who had left their local calling precisely to further their 'ministries.' Paul's list of elder qualifications in the Pastorals would be of secondary interest compared to the ability to handle communications media, to attend board meetings, to attract a crowd, to sell a title, and to network. And the average age of the key movers and shakers would slowly but surely decrease.

Criticism would be effectively stymied. Most critics would lack the stature to present a threat and could thus be safely ignored. Those who carried influence could be internalized by being offered a cool speaking gig or a place at the table or inside the tent; they might even be allowed to voice their criticisms there - but only as members of the club, in which role they would demonstrate the Complex's openness to discussion. The fear of missing a true movement of God would ultimately keep them from actually doing anything to upset the PR strategy. Finally, those who could not be ignored or internalized could be rendered irrelevant through linguistic demonization: they would be decried as 'haters', 'ivory tower academicians', 'ranters' and 'envious.'

Along with this, a more positive rhetoric would also be developed to pre-empt criticism. A term like 'gospel centered,' for example, could easily be turned from a helpful description of a ministry into a kind of mantric shibboleth, implicitly ruling as imbalanced, malicious, or unbiblical any criticism of those who own its copyright. 'Confessional orthodoxy' would be wrested from its historic ecclesiastical context, with its connotations of elaborate theological formulation connected to clear polity built upon a Pauline view of the church and her officers. Instead, it would come to be whatever the careful negotiation between the captains of the industry, the media moguls, and the marketplace would determine it to be.  

Grand visions always create large overhead costs. Money would therefore play a larger and larger role in who is in and who is out, who gets to speak and to write and, indeed, what therefore comes to be spoken and to be written. Further, production of commodities is never simply a response to market need but is often creative of the same. After all, nobody needed a smartphone or an iPod until someone invented one. Thus, the captains of the industry, the big conferences, and the key media outlets would come increasingly to set the churches' agenda.  Supply would shape demand.

Creation of new markets would therefore play a large part in determining what issues are addressed and which are ignored. For example, everyday problems would be subject to mystification so as to place them beyond the competence of the minister and elders and deacons (and thus beyond the church as Paul envisaged it) and therefore to require specialized training and help. And guess who is there to provide the quasi-Gnostic knowledge necessary? It can be purchased, of course, from the members of the Evangelical Industrial Complex. And this would in turn feed into further marginalization of biblical polity and ordained office.   

It is a bleak and disturbing scenario. One can only be glad that it is not really happening.

Dr. Carl Trueman is the Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary and the pastor of Cornerstone Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Ambler, PA.