Darrin Patrick, vice president of the Acts 29 church planting network and founding pastor of The Journey megachurch in St. Louis, has been fired for violating his duties as a pastor.
The Journey cited a range of ongoing sinful behaviors over the past few years including manipulation, domineering, lack of biblical community, and “a history of building his identity through ministry and media platforms.”
The wording sort of makes it sound like building your identity through ministry and media platforms is a bad thing. Is it necessarily a bad thing? We hardly begrudge the late David Bowie having forged a variety of personas through media platforms. But then Bowie seemed to be acutely aware he was creating personas. Pastors who are media savvy seem to create personas that are to be taken for the people who have fashioned them.
The word "platforms" may be the thing to ponder. Permit me a digression to Alastair Roberts' old piece:
If the theologian of the 16th century was a lawyer, the theologian of the 21st century is an ad man.
For this is what Rob Bell is. If we are to understand Bell, it is imperative that we recognize the sort of movement in Christian discourse that he exemplifies.
The ad man doesn’t persuade his customer by making a carefully reasoned and developed argument, but by subtly deflecting objections, evoking feelings and impressions, and directing those feelings and harnessing those impressions in a way that serves his interests. Where the lawyer argues, the ad man massages.
Rob Bell’s theology seldom approaches you head on. It typically comes at you couched in a question, insinuated in an anecdote, embedded in a quotation from one of his friends, or smuggled in a metaphor. Its non-confrontational and conversational tone invites ready agreement. Even if you don’t agree, Bell hasn’t pinned himself down. He’s only asked a question, quoted an acquaintance, or related an anecdote, and could easily distance himself from any of them.
Roberts was discussing Rob Bell but the observations Roberts made could apply to Mark Driscoll or many megachurch pastors.
Now building your identity through Christian service and love of neighbor hardly seems like it would automatically be a bad thing. But "platform" introduces a new component. The phrase "ministry and media platforms" could evoke more about the "platforms" than the other terms. When writers here and there talk about how the gloss of the megachurches isn't appealing to this or that subset of humanity the punches seem pulled, even if we grant the point has merit. It might be more blunt to say that the problem with contemporary megachurch culture is that the marketing is too easy to recognize, and that marketing can be taken for another term, propaganda. Whether left or right in theology or politics Christian celebrities are propagandists first and pastors possibly never.
A persona that can be steadily cultivated through a variety of platforms can last however long it lasts but the persona is not the person.
When Jacques Ellul wrote about half a century ago he was discussing propaganda in formal politics. It's a bit depressing to note here in the 21st century that what he had to say could be applied fairly easily to megachurch pastors and other Christian celebrities:
PROPAGANDA: THE FORMATION OF MEN'S ATTITUDES
Translated from the French by Konrad Kellen & Jean Lerner
Vintage Books Edition, February 1973
Copyright (c) 195 by Alfred A Knopf Inc.
page 24... Thus the propagandist is never asked to be involved in what he is saying, for, if it becomes necessary he may be asked to say the exact opposite with similar conviction. He must, of course, believe in the cause he serves, but not in his particular argument. On the other hand, the propagandee hears the word spoken to him here and now and the argument presented to him in which he is asked to believe. He must take them to be human words, spontaneous and carried by conviction. Obviously, if the propagandist were left to himself, if it were only a matter of psychological action, he would end up by being taken in by his own trick, by believing it. He would then be the prisoner of his own formulas and would lose all effectiveness as a propagandist. What protects him from this is precisely the organization to which he belongs, which rigidly maintains a line. The propagandist thus becomes more and more the technician who treats his patients in various ways but keeps himself cold and aloof, selecting his words and actions for purely technical reasons. The patient is an object to be saved or sacrificed according to the necessities of the cause.
... In the very act of pretending to speak as a man to man, the propagandist is reaching the summit of his mendacity and falsifications, even when he is not conscious of it. [emphases added]
Mastery of the elements of a media persona are not the same as mastery of the biblical texts, the languages of the biblical texts, the doctrines of the Christian faith, or of those other tools of learning and socialization that could help a pastor discern whether something calls for pastoral care or licensed psychological assistance.
The path to failure for a propagandist, according to Ellul, was essentially what we'd now call the mistake of believing your own hype or forgetting that the character that you are before the public is not who you ultimately really are. A pastor who does not necessarily attempt to "connect" to an audience but explains the biblical text thoroughly may seem less exciting but that can be for a good cause--we may become increasingly wary of "gifted communicators" because the skills of persuasive and emotionally charged rhetoric can be picked up independently of other virtues.
It's a strange irony that Darrin Patrick was part of the Acts 29 board that posted the long-since retracted public request that Driscoll step away from ministry and get help. Now it's Darrin Patrick's name that has gone scrubbed from the Acts 29 web presence. But then high profile members of the network have been ret-conned off the web presence going as far back as founder David Nicholas, whose move away from and out of Acts 29 after Mark Driscoll's star began to rise has never been explained in much detail.
Driscoll quit in 2014 and then spent the year of 2015 on the road explaining how he totally agreed with the Mars Hill board's decision and restoration plan. It's just that if he really agreed with it and to it there might still be a Mars Hill. To the extent that Patrick hasn't cut and run and told people on the conference circuit "God said I could quit", there may be more basis for optimism than for Driscoll.
I've been beating this drum for a good part of this year, obviously, but I think it's important for Christians left, right and center to come to terms with the possibility that our Christian celebrities are probably most accurately described as propagandists.
And perhaps the greatest danger to them all for their spiritual and emotional health, in addition to the potential social harm they can bring to some of the rest of us, is that they actually believe their own hype. If it's difficult to watch your life and doctrine closely without being a Christian superstar, as a celebrity who is a propagandist it may actually be impossible.