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The modern evangelical church is sick. Here's where it fell apart

The modern evangelical church is sick. Here's where it fell apart

Courtesy of Darvin Wallis

It was a simple sign on a slow Monday morning. I was walking into the megachurch I was working at, fumbling with my coffee, spilling it on my skinny jeans. There in the doorway was the sign that began to reshape how I viewed the church. The sign was a promotion for a church leadership conference. It is a slight miracle I even saw the sign. As a pastor I have attended so many conferences through the years that I barely even notice them. Like all these conference signs, this one was plastered in rows of pictures of celebrity speakers. One picture made me pause. What stopped me was not just that someone who was not a Christian was a keynote speaker, it was that this person had been fighting a public battle against Christian values.[1] I stood there staring at the sign for an awkward amount of time. In my meetings that day I brought up the sign, only to find no one shared my apprehension. In fact, one coworker chastised me for being concerned. On my way out of work that day, I stopped in front of the sign again. My view of Christian leadership has never been the same since.

There are only about 1,500 megachurches in the United States today.[2] Meaning, there are only about 1,500 pastors of megachurches. Yet, somehow, it seems that every week we hear of a new Christian celebrity pastor failing. The rate of failure is stunning. The number of moral failures as a percentage of megachurch pastors should be statistically impossible. Personally, through my years in ministry, I have worked under three of these lead pastors. All three have had moral failings. This year, only two months into 2021, the news has already been filled with high-profile Evangelical leaders guilty of fraud, affairs, abuse, and even rape. Many people assessing the situation point to the pressure placed on pastors, and the fact that we are all personally flawed. But, this assessment merely leads us to change nothing as we throw up our hands in helplessness. Meanwhile, instead of focusing on each isolated event, we need to realize that this shocking failure rate points to issues that go way past any particular individual pressures. There is something structurally sick about the modern Evangelical church. Evangelicalism is having a crisis in leadership, and the whole world is watching. But why? Why are so many of these pastors failing? Strangely, I have come to see that simple sign as a perfect summary of why Christian leaders are morally failing out of ministry at a continuous rate. Let me explain.

A Shift

I went to my first church leadership conference while in my twenties. I walked into a dark sprawling room with colored lights dancing along the walls. 5,000 grown men, pushing past the capacity of the room, all sang song after song together in unison. My favorite worship band at the time was on stage. Speaker after speaker took the stage, each captivating. There was something intoxicating about the whole event. I was hooked. In between sessions my friends stood in line to get autographs from their favorite celebrity pastors, while I stood in line to purchase their books. This sent me on a path of pursuing this form of Christian ‘leadership’ for years. I read dozens of Christian leadership books (and to this day have an entire bookcase full of them). I began to listen to three different Christian leadership podcasts every week. I attended Christian leadership conferences every year. It felt like I was getting to hear a secret that had always been kept from me.

It is likely that few church goers are aware of the Christian leadership industry that has arisen within Evangelicalism over the last three decades. While seminary prepares pastors for scholarship, we graduate with nearly no knowledge on how to practically lead a church. This is where the podcasts, books, and conferences come in, each helping to create this new budding industry. And, as a result, this leadership industry is forming the ethos of the American church. Our values are shaped by our leadership, our leadership is being shaped by this new industry, and it is clear what is shaping this church leadership industry itself.

Corporate America. Over the last three decades Evangelicalism has experienced a dramatic shift in leadership norms. The direct link between Evangelical leadership practices and corporate America is impossible to miss. Christian leadership conferences are dominated by corporate personalities. At the Global Leadership Summit, founded by Willow Creek Church in 1995, among the 2019 keynote speakers, two were pastors. Six were corporate CEOs and entrepreneurs. At one 2020 Leadercast conference there were four corporate personalities and one pastor. Catalyst conference describes having keynote speakers who are anywhere between, “world class business leaders to renowned biblical teachers.”[3] Christian leadership podcasts are similar. There are three Christian leadership podcasts I believe are most widely listened to by pastors. Collecting data about the guests listed on the podcasts’ websites reveals that about half of the guests are corporate personalities. The same holds true for books. On the list of top ten books every church leader should read, written by one leading voice in Christian leadership, eight of the books are written from a corporate or business perspective.[4] Zero are from an intentionally Christian paradigm for leadership. The first leadership books recommended to me, and still the books often most discussed in these circles, are written by James Collins and Patrick Lencioni. Both are brilliant authors, but both are corporate leadership researchers and business management authors. The functional leadership systems in most megachurches are now also a direct reflection of corporate America. Take a moment to review the website of the closest megachurch to you and you will likely find a system directed by a board, with an executive team, a CEO named Lead Pastor, and a hierarchical power structure taken right from the pages of a fortune 500 company.

I say all of this not to say that Christian leaders have nothing to learn from non-Christian leadership. We certainly do. I simply want to make this point clear; we are hiring corporate experts to teach our pastors how to lead their churches. The Christian leadership industry has intentionally embraced the corporate business paradigms as the primary norms of leadership.

And it is easy to see why. The thing about corporate leadership principles in the church is . . . it works. It works really well. Just like growth in a corporation, enacting corporate leadership principles in the church leads to growth. More attendance, more giving, more of everything. But there is a dark side to this embracing of corporate leadership principles in the church.

Corporate Leadership

Corporate America is an older, more developed concept than the megachurch phenomenon. For generations corporate America has developed leadership strategies to accomplish its only goal; maximizing shareholder value. The bottom line is the only line that matters. As a natural result, leaders are selected and formed for the goal of increasing the bottom line. Forbes identified a number of corporate executive personality traits, including taking risks, being strategic, achieving goals, having a clear future vision, self confidence, and high performance.[5] [6] [7] A study by Harvard Business Review found that corporate executives often possess a certain set of traits that include neuroticism, extroversion, emotional instability, impulsiveness, ambition, dominance, and being excitement seekers.[8] Forbes tells us that the percentage of corporate CEOs that are clinical psychopaths could be as high as 12%, a rate more in line with prisons than the general population.[9] This explains why corporate America has constant headlines of fraud, sexual abuse, toxic leadership, and narcissism. Corporate scandals like Bernie Madoff, Jordan Belfort, and Kenneth Lay are not random anomalies.

Instead, scandals are a natural side effect of the risky corporate leadership structure. Which begs the question, why does corporate America continue to identify and develop leaders towards these traits? Simple, the bottom line. The same Harvard Business Review study found that CEOs who are more neurotic risk takers actually return a better bottom line for their corporations when compared to more emotionally stable and conscientious CEOs.[10] Corporate moral scandals are not anomalies. They are calculated inevitabilities baked right into the leadership system for the purpose of profit.

Not an Anomaly

Back to the church. For about three decades now, the Evangelical church has embraced corporate leadership paradigms. This has worked wonders for the bottom lines of attendance, giving, and the number of reported conversions. Yet, it has also created a crisis in leadership. As the church continues to identify and form leaders to fit into the corporate executive mold, we have seen an epidemic of those leaders going through the same types of scandals we see in corporations. Church scandals like Bill Hybels, Mark Driscoll, and James McDonald are not random anomalies. Scandals are a natural part of the risky corporate leadership structure. We have accepted the corporate, bottom line goals for the church. We have accepted the corporate personality traits for our church leaders. We have created a corporate leadership industry for how we form our leaders. Is there really any doubt why we are seeing a pattern of scandals in the church that rival only corporate America in their frequency and depravity?

Bill Hybels, the founder and lead pastor of Willow Creek Church, was, in my view, the singular key figure in the early Evangelical leadership movement. He founded the Global Leadership Summit, a key conference for church leaders. To get an idea of this conference’s influence, over 400,000 people watched it in 2017.[11] The corporate leadership technique Hybels introduced produced stunning bottom line success. At its high Willow Creek grew to 25,000 weekly attenders and was named the most influential church in America several years in a row.[12] For decades, a whole nation of churches clamored to replicate Willow Creek. As a staff member at various churches I remember taking Willow’s surveys, listening to Hybels lectures, and participating in the Global Leadership Summit. But, you know the end of this story. Hybels was ousted from his position at Willow during a highly publicized scandal in 2018.[13] Behind the scenes Hybels had long been a sexual predator, preying on women and employees for years.[14] Hybels had also spent years living the life of a corporate executive. He flew around the country on his private jet and sailed on his luxury yacht.[15] To this day Hybels is reportedly worth about $40 million.[16] Some years ago, before Hybels’ downfall, I became friends with one of his personal proteges who had come to prominence through the Willow Creek System. He had parlayed his experience with Hybels into a Lead Pastor position at a prominent megachurch. At first, just like his mentor, he was successful. Articles were written about his leadership as his church became one of the fastest growing churches in the United States. But, behind the scenes, things were not alright. Our friendship was severed after I attempted to approach him about a series of lies. And, you already know the end of the story. He was recently ousted from his position after a scandal that included years of strategic deception, dishonesty, and abuse.

But, really, is this any mystery? Is anyone surprised by these downfalls at this point? Of course not. But this is what we can no longer avoid; the moral failures of church leadership are not anomalies. They are the norm because they are baked right into the corporate leadership paradigms the church has embraced.

The True Tragedy

The Evangelical church seems set on continuing in the direction of corporate leadership. When one pastor fails, another takes their place. Rinse and repeat, the scandals march on. But, what is being missed is the utter tragedy of it all. Yes, without a doubt, we must consider the personal tragedies. The lives of young women destroyed by sexual predators calling themselves men of God. The theft of millions of dollars from local churches. The individuals who, being deceived and abused by these men, have lost faith in their Savior. But, the scope of the tragedy is wider than we can imagine.

The world is watching. And they do not like what they see. When the culture around us thinks of Evangelicalism, they think of a group of people who work to force their moral views on others, but do not live by those same morals themselves. The emperor is naked, and it seems like only those who do not believe in Jesus can see it. Research by Lifeway and the Barna Group is constantly reminding us that one of the primary reasons people are leaving and staying away from the church today is because they believe churches are “full of hypocrites.”[17]

Here is the thing every modern Evangelical leader must realize. They are right. We are hypocrites. The leadership system we currently have in place is churning the church through continuous moral scandals. We are hypocrites for valuing the bottom lines of church attendance and revenue over the character of our church leaders. We are hypocrites for identifying and forming church leaders not by their faith, but by their dominance. We are hypocrites for becoming more interested in organizational growth than discipleship. We are hypocrites for adopting corporate level leadership norms, and expecting not to have corporate level scandals. And the true tragedy is that our hypocrisy is resulting in millions of people being turned off to faith in Jesus. Something must be done.

Moving Forward to the Past

I walked into the weekly executive team meeting at the megachurch I was working at. I sat down in my leather chair, and waited my turn. Eventually I piped up. I suggested a promotion for a particular employee. I described to the team how I had seen this employee’s humility as he served others, and how people were drawn to him. I described his prayer life and his genuine faith. Within ten seconds my idea was dismissed. Why? He did not have the right ‘personality traits’. Meaning, his humility and service were not the right mold for leadership in our church. We had to find ambitious, dominant leaders. And he wasn’t.

The sad confusion about the corporate leadership paradigms invading the church is . . . we already had better leadership paradigms. Paradigms that stand in contradiction to what we find in corporate America. Jesus was crystal clear on how we are to select and form leaders in our churches. In Mark 9:35 Jesus told His disciples, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”[18] In Matthew 20:26 Jesus said, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” Jesus then demonstrated this service when He washed His own disciples’ feet. To Jesus, leaders in His church must be faith-filled servants of others. The problem today is, a servant is the antithesis of a corporate CEO. And, our pastors have become corporate CEOs. Jesus never discusses leadership through the lens of strategies and skills. Jesus always discussed leadership through the lens of service. To solve the crisis of leadership we must move forward by moving back to our past. A past where Jesus dreamed of leaders as servants.

But today, our church system actually degrades the service of leaders. Once, I was having a discussion with a prominent staff member at a megachurch about her lead pastor. She called him a servant. I asked her to give me an example. She said, “Last week he washed the cars of our whole executive team!” I thought this was incredible, so I kept asking questions. I came to find out what had really happened. The Lead Pastor had told his secretary to call a mobile car wash company. The pastor didn’t pick up a sponge himself, he did not make the phone call to the car wash company himself, he did not even pay for the car washes (the bill was footed by church’s tithes). And this passed for being a ‘servant’ in this church. On a regular day you could hear this pastor refusing certain types of more humble work because, “That isn’t my gifting,” and sneaking in his personal side entrance to the building to avoid coming in contact with his staff.

Our church leaders have drifted so far from being servants that the church does not even know what service looks like. But, if we have any hope of moving forward to solve the crisis of leadership in Evangelicalism, we must do away with corporate leadership, and embrace Jesus’ vision for our leaders. A vision of servants. How to do this is certainly the content of a very different article. But, we know this. We know why our leadership system is resulting in moral scandals. And we know the direction we need to move in to fix it.

The Poster

Evangelicalism is in a monumental crisis of leadership, whether we want to admit it or not. The continuous scandals that dot our headlines each week are destroying the perception of the church in the minds of a watching world, and undermining the faith of a nation. But, these scandals are not anomalies. They are inevitabilities baked right into the corporate leadership system the church has embraced the last three decades.

I still have the image of that poster in my mind. The poster that began to change how I saw Christian leadership and the crisis in Evangelicalism. The poster that convinced me that the church had rejected Jesus’ leadership paradigm, and accepted a corporate one. It is an image that reminds me that, as a pastor, I am not a CEO. I am not a celebrity. I am not a corporate executive. I am a servant.


[1] https://www.cnbc.com/2017/02/01/facebooks-sheryl-sandberg-donated-1-million-to-planned-parenthood.html

[2] http://hirr.hartsem.edu/megachurch/2020_Megachurch_Report.pdf

[3] https://www.catalystleader.com/

[4] https://careynieuwhof.com/11-leadership-books-every-leader-should-read-my-personal-top-books-list/

[5] https://www.forbes.com/sites/deeppatel/2017/06/15/7-personality-traits-every-ceo-should-have/?sh=573769841f02

[6] https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2017/12/29/if-you-want-to-be-ceo-material-develop-these-15-traits/?sh=7c3ad0934ed3

[7] https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2017/12/29/if-you-want-to-be-ceo-material-develop-these-15-traits/?sh=7c3ad0934ed3

[8] https://hbr.org/2019/10/how-a-ceos-personality-affects-their-companys-stock-price

[9] https://www.forbes.com/sites/jackmccullough/2019/12/09/the-psychopathic-ceo/?sh=44ca01db791e

[10] https://hbr.org/2019/10/how-a-ceos-personality-affects-their-companys-stock-price

[11] https://religionnews.com/2018/08/09/willow-creek-leadership-summit-goes-on-despite-mass-resignations/

[12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willow_Creek_Community_Church

[13] https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2018/april/bill-hybels-resigns-willow-creek-misconduct-allegations.html

[14] https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/breaking/ct-met-willow-creek-pastor-20171220-story.html

[15] https://mikefrost.net/should-a-pastor-ever-own-a-private-jet-or-a-luxury-yacht/

[16] https://www.dailyherald.com/news/20180411/how-does-a-church-carry-on-without-its-founder

[17] https://www.dallasnews.com/news/faith/2008/01/10/survey-finds-many-unchurched-disdain-hypocrites/

[18] NIV.

Darvin Wallis is the lead pastor of Mission Church, a church plant in west Denver metro. He is the founder of missionuonline.com, a platform providing free biblical education, and is the author of the book The Missing Key.

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