I am of Paul. I am of Apollos. I am of John Piper or Jim Wallis or Jen Hatmaker or Nancy Leigh DeMoss.
It was a first century problem, and it is a twenty-first century problem. It is perhaps most pronounced in the Protestant world. Our very spiritual DNA contains a desire to divide. As we lack a single hierarchical authority structure on which we can all agree, we are tempted to form our own tribes.
Today, our Bible teachers and Christian communicators are brands™, driven as much by personality and marketability as they are by doctrine. We are far less inclined these days to be discipled by denomination, and more inclined to be fed and formed by the offerings endorsed by a Christian leader who has a platform on the conference circuit.
It wasn’t all that long ago that many young male seminarians in my acquaintance were quoting and emulating Mark Driscoll’s particular style of testosterone-fueled neo-Calvinism. Women of my generation (Boomers, older X-ers) filled arenas for the Women of Faith events; the books and study materials published under their banner offered audiences a positive ‘n encouraging conservative suburban Evangelical approach.
Buying into a communicator’s brand can serve as a filter for the dizzying array of theological choices facing a well-meaning believer who is seeking to grow in his or her faith. Aligning with a particular leader offers adherents more than theology. It can also define the spiritual aspirations of those in the tribe. John MacArthur’s conferences tend to attract a more crew than Andy Stanley’s events do, for example. They’re not just buying books and conference CD’s at these events, but are carrying home with them a picture of how their lives, families, and communities can be based on the image they get at these events of both teacher and fellow adherents. I’ve known women who aspire to be the next Beth Moore or a Christine Caine clone, and try to copy their particular look, content, and style of ministry in their own context.
It rarely goes well. Certainly a word about the greater spiritual responsibility of those who teach is in order here, as well as a reminder that some of those in our congregations are being discipled from afar by high-visibility communicators with whom they have no relationship in real life. Celebrity Christian voices are an idealized mirror of who their followers want to be.
The apostle Paul told the Corinthian Church, “Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me.” (! Corinthians 4:15-16, italics mine) Paul recognized his role as disciple-maker. He also affirmed that there is a place in the spiritual growth process to attempt to copy the leader.
In her seminal 1947 essay The Lost Tools of Learning, Dorothy Sayers called this the Poll-Parrot stage:
The Poll-Parrot stage is the one in which learning by heart is easy and, on the whole, pleasurable; whereas reasoning is difficult and, on the whole, little relished. At this age, one readily memorizes the shapes and appearances of things; one likes to recite the number-plates of cars; one rejoices in the chanting of rhymes and the rumble and thunder of unintelligible polysyllables; one enjoys the mere accumulation of things.
While we assign this kind of imitative learning to young children, there is a correlation in spiritual development, too. As a young believer in the 1970’s, I watched The 700 Club (don’t judge me – it’s been four decades since then!) and saw the way Pat prayed for people on the air. I wanted to be a spiritual giant like Pat, and so I approached prayer like it looked like he did. I aspired to be an exemplar of submissive trust to God, so I tried to be the sotto-voiced, modestly-dressed Elizabeth Elliot I read in books and listened to each day on the radio. Yes, at the same time as I was trying to be Pat. It was as awkward as you might imagine.
There was no one discipling me at the time, so I looked to these far-away icons to show me the way of Jesus. I was a Poll-Parrot, not yet capable of critical analysis and unsure of my own identity, gifting, and place in the Body of Christ. My two-dimensional disciplers may have fed me information about the spiritual life, but their real power was as a reflection of who I wanted to be as a follower of Jesus at the time. Moving past the Poll-Parrot stage took a long time for me, as I think it does for most of us.
If you’re in a church or gathering marked by devotion to this person’s teaching or that particular conference, or conversely, your local assembly is being influenced negatively by pressure from followers of celebrity teachers to be more like whatever model of church or faith these teachers are representing, it might be a helpful exercise to consider what it is that their adherents are looking to reproduce in their own lives. And then consider the question for yourself – what far-off teachers do you most admire, and why? Or what have you parroted in the past, and how have you grown past this stage?
Michelle Van Loon is the author of Moments & Days: How Our Holy Celebrations Shape Our Faith. Follow her writing on facebook, michellevanloon.com or patheos.com.