Cults of Personality: I Promise I Only Talk About Steven Furtick a Little Bit in This

I was sitting in one of those ugly, overly lit conference rooms that literally every hotel on the planet has. The ones that are huge but feel cramped because of their low drop ceilings, where the carpet is always a hideous, mass-produced Victorian-esque pattern, and the walls are pockmarked with pee-colored folding dividers and the ceilings are cheap, foamy tile studded with fluorescent lights.

I was at intern and staff training for Reformed University Fellowship, the Presbyterian Church in America’s campus ministry program.

I was also bored out of my skull. This session was geared toward staff ministers, and I was there as an intern, but they told us to sit in on it anyway. “You might learn something,” they had said. So I sat in the back, working a crossword puzzle and passing notes back and forth with my wife, glancing occasionally toward the table with the water pitcher that was perpetually empty. Outside it was a sweltering Atlanta day, and the air conditioning was grunting and straining to keep up, pooping out constipated lumps of cool air that we greedily grabbed and soaked into our skin.

It’s weird how a windowless room makes you feel blind, no matter how brightly lit it is.

It felt like I’d been sitting there for hours, but my watch told me it had been about 20 minutes. The session leader was droning in a monotone, saying thousands of words that only meant something to the ministers-in-training, but a handful stuck out and have buried themselves in the crags of my skull.

“We need to talk about cults of personality,” he said. “If students are gathering around you instead of gathering around Christ, you need to get out of there ASAP.”

My ears pricked up at that, I guess because I was confused. Presbyterian cults of personality?

Presbyterians can have cults?

Presbyterians can have personalities?

I wish I had listened to the words more carefully, because when my wife and I stepped off the U-Haul two months later, into our mission field of Tulsa, we were stepping right into such a cult.

I should have known what was happening from the first time we visited our overseeing minister. The group was centered around his house, not around campus, and the place had a weird, frat-party atmosphere, where students were over partying at all hours of the day and night, hooking up LANs and passing around shots of liquor.

I should have known from the way he was grooming interns from his own fold of students, deliberately violating RUF policy and ignoring my wife, his actual hired intern.

I should have known from the way he was openly categorizing students as first-tier and second-tier Christians, making it clear who his people were, and who needed to be working to earn his approval.

I should have known, but how could I? I had never seen a cult of personality before, so every time I felt weird or awkward about things, I told myself I was the problem, that I needed to be more okay with different ways of doing ministry, that I needed to try harder.

Neither I nor anyone else said anything, so the corruption followed the same path corruption always does: it continued to spiral out of control, until those charged with overseeing it could no longer turn a blind eye. The leader was caught taking physical advantage of a student, and summarily defrocked.

And what can I say, except thank God there was a presbytery to do it?

Meanwhile, my wife and I — and many others — were left drifting in Tulsa, wounded and confused.

And I don’t know if there’s an easy lesson to learn from any of that, except maybe that when the Church is gathered around anyone other than Christ, it’s probably time to start worrying. Like, for instance, if your church starts publishing coloring books like this one:


That picture has been making the Internet rounds lately, and apparently it’s a genuine coloring book published by Elevation Church, which I admit I’d never heard of before last week. Evidently, though, they’re a Southern Baptist-affiliated megachurch in Charlotte, North Carolina — and they’re a church so big they manage to get away with having their own creed. Part of it is on the page above:

Elevation is built on the vision God gave Pastor Steven. We will aggressively defend our unity and that vision.

And there’s a lot of snark I could insert here (my favorite: “I’m pretty sure God stole that vision from Rick Warren, Pastor Steve”), but my most visceral reaction is just to mourn what a colossal joke of a failure the Protestant Reformation has been.

It wasn’t that long ago — a few centuries, which in Church history is nothing — that we all walked out of Rome, flipping the Pope the bird and insisting we could interpret Scripture for ourselves. But it took us about five minutes to realize that Geez guys, interpreting Scripture is HARD, and then to start setting up our own popes.

Like Jan Matthys, a Radical Reformer who claimed God spoke to him directly — less than 20 years after Luther’s 95 theses.

Or his successor, John of Leiden, who declared himself king by divine right of Muenster and took 16 wives.

Or William Miller. Or Joseph Smith. Or Harold Camping.

Or pretty much everyone in the UCC, who’ve adopted the hilariously audacious motto “God is still speaking,” which, in practice, means “God is in favor of whatever is trendy right now.”

I mean, come on, guys — at least the real Pope has some historical evidence to back up his claim on authority.

We all liked the idea of sola scriptura, but we couldn’t actually agree on what Scripture said, so we all just schism’d and schism’d and followed whichever leader was the most compelling to us. Some of us of Paul, and some of us of Apollos. Instead of simply following the Scripture we all insisted was perspicuous, we all just chained ourselves to our new favorite papacies.

And I have no idea what to say about that.

Except, I guess, as Calvin said: “The human heart is a factory of idols.”


More stuff to read:

Majestic Protests from a Magisterial Protestant; or, someone needs to harass Don Miller some more, so it might as well be me

Equality is Medicine, Not Food.

A Break-up Letter to Matt Walsh

8 thoughts on “Cults of Personality: I Promise I Only Talk About Steven Furtick a Little Bit in This

  1. As Les and I have worked through the wreckage of that time in our lives, the word “cult” has definitely sprung up more than once. Like you imply, it’s easy in hindsight to wonder “Why didn’t I notice/bring up these warning signs sooner?” It’s hard when you are in the middle of that experience, hard when it’s centered around a charismatic person who takes interest in you. As one on the inside, I can tell you that even there it was not a safe place, but I definitely feel the worst about those, like you, who were somehow made to feel like they were on the outside, that it was their problem and not that sickening decay that had rotted through the whole institution. You and Julia in particular have cropped up in my thoughts often when I go back and revisit those days (which is as infrequently as possible), and I just cannot imagine what you went through. Thank God that He is merciful in the midst of incredible pain and sin, and that He ministers to us in the midst of our drifting. Frankly I think it’s close to a miracle that as many of us that were wounded by that are still in the church as are.

  2. Man. I don’t fear as much for people who do not know Jesus as the people who claim to know Jesus and then blatantly disregard everything He taught. In our hearts we know that what these people teach are wrong but then blame ourselves (Just like you said, that you must have been the problem). I guess the scary part is when they go out and teach others their flawed doctrine. No wonder so many people have a hard time believing in God, when what they are seeing isn’t actually Him =(

  3. late to comment here, but A. mentioned this post to me and I’m just now reading it. wow, it’s really good. I remember SO WELL the crippling depression triggered by being on the outside, and I remember the shock and relief of talking to other “second tier” types and realizing “I’m not the only one who felt this way?!” I do think, thankfully, that over time I am moving away from cynicism and toward a healthy sense of questioning and thinking for myself, and being wary of cults of personality… but it’s hard; there’s definitely still a lot of bitterness I work through.
    anyway, just wanted to say thanks for eloquently voicing a lot of things I’ve thought to myself!

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