In case you missed it (don’t worry, you weren’t alone), Spire Network held their second annual SpireConference event earlier last month. (You can still see it here)
Spire’s superior corporate leaders, knowing more about what church leaders need than they do, engineered the virtual event around a Christianized version of ‘woke’ indoctrination. Recent surveys suggest that 25% of young Christians are dropping out of church due to its views on political and social issues. Capitalizing on this, each conference presenter was assigned a culturally progressive topic, affording Spire’s producers the opportunity to congratulate themselves for daring to shine the light wherever fairness is withering in darkness. Radiating more heat than light, the self-regard was simply the background assumption for obsessive preening and aggressive marketing.
To be sure, staged between each segment was a panel of equally ‘woke’ millennials, recruited to marvel at the passion and empathy of each contributor, while credulously nodding along in complete uniformity (apparently incapable of offering a single critical thought or independent insight.)
In organizations like Spire where change is the raison d’être, it is a matter of faith that Spire’s leaders are innovators and revolutionaries liberating the Church from stultifying orthodoxy. That is their orthodoxy. They fashion themselves as trendsetting vanguards of modernity; industry-disrupters; leaders of leaders. The truth is few Independent Christian Church leaders look to Spire for inspiration. Most view them as a symptom of what currently plagues evangelical Christianity.
Every congregation these cultural elites plant, mentor, or reform end-up with a copy-&-past marketing message, cynically stoking antipathy for the past while highlighting their supposed brand of independent thinking. “This is not your parents church!” “A church for the rest of us.” “We aren’t just playing church.” “We do church differently.” It’s like the scene from Monty Python’s: Life of Brian where a crowd of simple-minded denizens ironically repeat in unison “We are all individuals!” and “We all must think for ourselves!” It should be self-evident that there is nothing even remotely unique about their cookie-cutter pragmatism. Nor are their viewpoints – as the marketing suggests – in the minority.
Let’s be clear, Spire Network and their ideological brethren now control most of the ICC’s national institutions —national periodicals, financial institutions, multisite churches, academic institutions, and what was once our national convention — and yet it doesn’t register as victory because there is no limiting principle to their revolution.
The orchestrated tone of the conference was set by Dave Dummitt who, preferring to be introduced primarily as an “entrepreneur,” spoke on the subject of personal evangelism. Taking his inspiration from Nehemiah’s expression of grief over the degradation of Jerusalem, Dave implored his listeners to overcome their apathy toward personal evangelism which, he seemed to suggest, is all too common among his peers. He described how many pastors artificially “put on,” dissembling their lack of concern for the lost, while “ pretending to be something they’re not.”
And then, in what was surely meant to be a moment of inspiring vulnerability, Dummitt – erstwhile pastor of the 2/42 multisite/megachurch “ranked six years in a row as one of the fastest growing churches in America by Outreach Magazine,” director of the global church-planting network NewThing, and recently appointed senior pastor of the world renown Willow Creek Community Church – admitted with an air of heavy regret that he had not been involved in personal evangelism . . . for twenty years.
That’s right. Dummitt, twice referred to during the conference as “an evangelist at heart,” and promoting himself as a global church-growth guru wants to remove the speck of indifference from the eyes of his peers while failing to deal with the plank of apathy in his own.
After Dave’s segment, one of Spire’s millennial panelists (attempting to praise Dummitt, but unwittingly undermining him) summed it up this way, “if we don’t have a personal, white-hot evangelism for people, if we can’t literally . . . personally in our everyday lives . . . continue to lead people to Christ, then what are we reproducing?”
What are we reproducing?
Surprisingly, in another rare moment of clarifying candor, Spire presenter, Carey Nieuwhof, provided some much needed, and often omitted, insight on this issue. According to the data, the multisite/megachurch movement has, at the very least, had as much to do with consolidating existing church-goers as actually producing new ones. Researchers inform us that church-goers who once attended various small-to-medium denominational churches, migrated to ‘big-church’ as soon as it came to town. In other words, so much of what Spire touts as ‘personal evangelism’ and ‘church growth’ – isn’t.
Instead, multisite/megachurches saturate local markets with slick, mass-produced and digital advertising campaigns, merely rearranging the deck chairs on colossal, more amenity-filled cruise ships – enormous, inorganic institutions ever-responding to the comfort-lust of America’s Christian subconscious.
What was most worrisome about Dummitt’s message, however, was not the revelation concerning his own indifference, but his remedy for it. After recounting how a legitimate act of empathy and compassion led a local hair-stylist to visit his church (which is laudable), he stated this: “I no longer want to do ministry from here [points to head], I want to do ministry from here [points to heart].” And what’s more, he encourages us all to do likewise.
This, dear reader, is a false dichotomy, and a dangerous one. Don’t get me wrong, empathy and compassion are essential tools of ministry (if not life), but without the tempering influence of the mind, they become weapons of demagoguery.
When we think of empathy we think of acts of kindness. But empathy, out of balance, can also facilitate war. Look at the Middle East today. When Arab, Turkish, and Persian demagogues arouse popular passions for the Palestinians, they are using empathy to foment antipathy for Israelis. It is a pernicious kind of demagoguery that employs a nice, saccharine, more-in-passion-than-in-anger kind of rabble-rousing.
This kind of empathy operates like a drug, it distorts our perception of reality. It acts as a spotlight, illuminating a specific group, causing us to get disproportionally worked up about that group, plunging everything and everyone else into darkness. Adding to this, it has the power to distract us from rational thought and meaningful compassion.
Consider recently how empathy’s spotlight on the legitimate complaints of African-American males triggered profound moral blindness for the plight, and even the humanity, of those who serve in law enforcement, of business owners, or even property holders. And vice versa.
In the same way, church leaders caught up in social justice activism use empathy for certain groups to arouse antipathy for orthodox Christianity . . . or even for God Himself. But you need not take my word for it. In his book, What Made Jesus Mad, Tim Harlow addresses the intractable issue of the role of women in the church, professing that God is “discriminatory” against women. You see, rather than beginning with faith in the Word of God and going forward – seeking to understand how God’s design in creation anticipates the needs of humanity – empathy begins with how a person feels and works backwards, projecting on to the Bible subjective ideas about how one thinks it should be read.
As you can see, used this way, empathy is often biased, pushing us in the direction of parochialism and false assumptions. It leads us off the narrow path of principled living. After all, what principles do you actually adhere to when you believe, at the end of the day, that you can simply consult polls, or your own feelings when considering the ponderous mysteries of life? What value is principled living if you just up-and-decide that the Bible affirms something you desire, but you can’t state what principle supports your point of view?
In fact, in a recent post I conveyed how I found it unconscionable that Caleb Kaltenbach would rhapsodize over Harlow’s book while assiduously avoiding its most controversial claim. In Kaltenbach’s reply, found in the comments section, rather than address the issue head-on by providing a prayerful, principled, well-reasoned defense, he chose to change the subject altogether – quibbling over whether or not he, himself, might be described as a ‘celebrity pastor.’ Unaware of his own irony, he even boasted of how he enjoys “dialogue” with people who hold views different than his own, assuring me he’d “be in touch.” Sadly . . . never happened.
Unfortunately, this is all too common. Whenever I encounter people who criticize in bombastic terms the doctrine of Complementarianism, I can never get from them a serious argument of what principle they are advocating.
When all is said and done, all they are really saying is the Bible is a Rorschach test for fairness. If, at the end of the day, it’s just your feelings, then you don’t have a principle outside of your own arrogance.
That’s what we saw last month at the Spire conference. Over and over again, Spire’s presenters waved their own versions of the bloody toga with each speaker instantiating (through the authoritative use of research, surveys, and opinion polls) the unfair treatment of particular groups while provoking antipathy toward the orthodox church.
We heard from Kadi Cole who, wanting to “move the church’s needle forward on diversity,” shined the spotlight of empathy on a survey that reports 43% of women do not feel any kind of emotional support from their church. She then adds, “one of the reasons I am so passionate about helping churches develop their female leaders at every level is because women are the minority in leadership but they are the clear majority in most of our church congregations.”
In other words, according to Cole’s outcome-based, distributive justice, Complementarian churches are assumed to be wrong because it’s unfair that there are Complementarian churches in the first place. This is clearly a case of question begging.
Then we heard from Tyler McKenzie about how his church, prioritizing the world’s physical needs over the church’s weekly worship service, has poured “millions of dollars and thousands of hours into their city.”
Because the people in the culture don’t have a good feeling “when they hear the word ‘church’ . . . The church has a PR problem . . . ‘White evangelical’ is not an emotionally neutral or politically neutral term,” he declaims. “We care more about the people we are trying to reach than the people we are trying to keep . . . And I believe one of the most evangelistic things we can do is put our hearts on the table in compassion and love for our cities.”
Here McKenzie, using empathy as his guide, tries to make friendship with the world. He acknowledges the Christian’s call to worship, but makes it clear he believes the church’s first priority is solving its public relations problem through social salvation. This is a direct contradiction of Matthew 26:6-13 when Jesus commends the woman at Bethany for worshipping Him in a single instance using perfume worth a year’s wages, while condemning the notion that the money would be better spent given to the poor. Once again, this is nothing new. Early in the 20th century Social Gospel activist and theologian, Walter Rauschenbusch, wrote, “That the church as an institution – in its activities, its worship, its theology – must in the long run be tested by its effectiveness in redeeming humanity from the social wrongs which now pervades it.”
Even Dr. Reverend Efrem Smith, whose crisp, insightful interview was otherwise well worth viewing, promulgated a ‘tipping-point theory’ published by an association of ‘Christian sociologists.’ The theory suggests that churches dominated by a single ethnic group, at or greater than the 80% ‘tipping point,’ prevent minorities from “feeling that they have a place” or “a voice” within the congregation.
Now, I have no doubt that this phenomena is a reality in some churches. But if the implication is that this is somehow inherently unfair, or that the solution to the perceived problem requires the manipulation of these percentages to swing back towards a more equitable distribution – that’s where I part ways. The problem with this worldview is that all the local circumstances tied to individual congregations are boiled away. Vast abstract categories of human beings are swept up into an assumption of collective guilt – or victimhood.
There is no guarantee that the feelings of ‘otherness’ among minorities will be resolved by manipulating skin-deep demographics. However, focusing on changing a man’s heart, encouraging all members to know, internalize, and faithfully apply the sound doctrines of racial unity has the power to transform not just a church, but an entire community regardless of whether circumstances change or remain the same.
The upshot of all of these indoctrinating perorations (with their canonical use of opinion polls and surveys) is that empathy for the plight of certain groups demands that Scripture be read through a specific lens which presupposes that any system producing unequal results is wrong – or discriminatory – and should be ignored or torn down.
I reject that. If, however, this fits with your idea of Christian leadership, then fine – by all means, do what you believe to be best.
But consider this, of Spire’s fourteen corporate leaders – seemingly obsessed with dictating to you and your church their ‘woke’ agendas – exactly none of them are women . . . zero. None of them are Hispanic. Not one. How about Asian? Nope. African American? Uh uh. In fact, thirteen of the fourteen leaders are well over the age of 45.
So much for their high-minded ideals. Social justice for thee, but not for me, I’m afraid.
And yet, what remains remarkably consistent is Spire’s continued quest to monetize the Christian faith. Revolutionizing church doctrines, preaching an antinomian gospel, fetishizing over the size and velocity of crowd-building, giving rise to and then utilizing celebrity, and now, stirring the next generation of leaders to lead with their hearts (which is just another way of divinizing your feelings) – all contribute to the tremendous prospect of Spire’s profitability.
Perhaps the duty of a Christian leader during these times is not to go-along-to-get-along but to rebuke these false prophets – these demagogues, these profiteers, the hangers-on, these greasy salesmen trying to sell you something that is already yours – the inherent self-respect that comes from being faithful to a lifetime of Christian ministry. There is nothing to be gained by comparing yourself to others because success is not determined by what your church does in comparison to Outreach Magazine’s fastest growing churches list. Success is determined by what you do in comparison to what God has called you to do.
What’s called for right now isn’t more business theories, technological advancements, or political philosophies but prayer and penance, discernment and faithfulness.
Terry Sweany has served as senior minister of Playa Christian Church since 2006. His education includes a MA in Marriage, Family, and Child Counseling from Hope International University and a BA from Cincinnati Christian University. He is author of the book Life In Ministry and his greatest joy is helping people deepen their relationship with God. Terry lives in Westchester, California and is a member of the LAPD Pacific Division Clergy Council. He and his wife, Patty, have been married 34 years and have a daughter and granddaughter.