What happens when you blend God and consumerism?
As I’ve written often on The Roys Report, the result is something called the evangelical industrial complex, a network of ministries, Christian celebrities, media, and megachurches all working together ostensibly to further the gospel—but also to build multi-million-dollar enterprises.
Recently, I was invited onto the Love Thy Neighborhood podcast to talk about the evangelical industrial complex with the person who coined the term—speaker and author Skye Jethani—and podcast host, Jesse Eubanks.
Also joining the podcast was Ingrid Schleuter, who witnessed the wrath of the evangelical industrial complex when her former boss, radio host Janet Mefferd, called out disgraced celebrity pastor, Mark Driscoll, for plagiarism. J.R. Briggs of Kairos Partnerships joins the discussion, as well, and talks vulnerably about the pressure he experienced as a pastor to built platform and influence within the complex, and why he opted out.
This podcast is one of the best examinations of the evangelical industrial complex I’ve heard and I highly recommend it. My thanks to everyone at Love Thy Neighborhood for their excellent work, and to The Holy Post, who partnered with them to produce this episode.
MALE 1, JULIE ROYS, DR CHUCK DEGROU, EMILY KIRTSINGER, JANICE LAGATA, MALE 2, JESSE EUBANKS, FEMALE 1, FEMALE 2, SKYE JETHANI, ANNA TRAN, FEMALE 3, DAVID BENNER, ERIC ROSEBERRY, Speaker 1, PRESIDENT DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER, INGRID SCHLUTER, SPEAKER, J.R. BRIGGS, ANNA
The White House and the Office of the President of the United States will present an address by Dwight D. Eisenhower.
JESSE EUBANKS 00:11
So in January 1961, President Eisenhower gave his final speech to the nation, and a large part of that speech, almost half actually was about war.
PRESIDENT DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER 00:20
We now stand 10 years past the midpoint of a century. That has witnessed four major wars among great nations. Three of these involved our own country.
JESSE EUBANKS 00:30
So after World War II, America created a new industry, an arms industry, that would permanently manufacture weapons and tanks and necessary materials for war. Which came in handy because we then fought in the Korean War, and then in the Cold War. And Eisenhower recognized the necessity of being able to supply ourselves for conflict.
PRESIDENT DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER 00:51
We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportion.
JESSE EUBANKS 00:56
But Eisenhower, he also recognized something else. That an industry employing 1000s of Americans that was dependent on war? That could have really negative consequences. That this had the potential to become something that could disrupt the very fabric of our society.
PRESIDENT DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER 01:10
We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications.
JESSE EUBANKS 01:19
I never wanted to warn the American people because they never faced anything like this before. And he had to give this new effort a name.
PRESIDENT DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER 01:28
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex.
JESSE EUBANKS 01:38
Military Industrial Complex, a term for a self-sustaining industry that depended on the expansion of armed conflict in order to benefit our economy. And Eisenhower? He was right. The US would go on to be the largest military spender in the world – out-ranking other countries by almost three times the amount. And even though we thought it was going to be great for our economy, it turns out that a 1% increase in a country’s military spending, actually results in a 9% decrease in economic growth. We would have done well to heed Eisenhower’s warning. But today, there’s a new warning. And it’s not regarding the military. It’s regarding Christians. And not impacting economic growth, but the growth of the church. Because over the last 50 years, we have created our very own evangelical industrial complex. You’re listening to the Love That Neighborhood podcast. I’m Jesse Eubanks. Today’s episode is where the gospel meets the evangelical industrial complex. This episode is in partnership with the Holy Post podcast. So one of our hosts, our friend Skye Jethani is joining me in the studio today. Hey Skye, it’s good to have you back.
SKYE JETHANI 02:53
Hey Jesse. Thanks for having me.
JESSE EUBANKS 02:55
Okay so this topic is one you’re passionate about and that you’ve written on multiple times. Why is this topic so important to you?
SKYE JETHANI 03:01
Well, I’ve been on both sides of it as a local church pastor. I came to recognize how much the evangelical industrial complex shapes the faith and lives of people in local churches. And having been an editor and a writer I’ve seen how business really drives a lot of the American church.
JESSE EUBANKS 03:15
Well, let’s go inside the evangelical industrial complex. What is it? Where did it come from? And how does it impact our personal faith? Welcome to our corner of the urban universe. So all the way back in 2012, you wrote an article in Christianity Today called The Evangelical Industrial Complex and Rise of Celebrity Pastors.
SKYE JETHANI 03:44
That’s right. It’s actually a two part series and I wanted to give language to this phenomenon which I saw happening throughout the Evangelical Church.
JESSE EUBANKS 03:51
And that phenomenon, being what exactly?
SKYE JETHANI 03:53
Christian churches and organizations and pastors distorting and controlling reality, in order to protect their own interest. Which is why I liken it to the Eisenhower statement about the military industrial complex in his speech.
JESSE EUBANKS 04:06
So you’re saying, in the same way that the military industrial complex would need to influence society and promote war in order to stay in business, the evangelical industrial complex needs to influence what happens within the evangelical circles, in order to stay in business.
SKYE JETHANI 04:24
Yeah. I think business is a good word to use because a lot of time this protection of self interest is tied to money, but it’s also tied to power,
Speaker 1 04:32
Well I guess a comforting truth to know is that this isn’t the first time God’s people have been concerned with money and power. So in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is telling parables about God’s kingdom. The famous Prodigal Son story is recorded here. And then Jesus tells this strange parable about a dishonest manager. And Jesus concludes the story by saying this: No servant can serve two masters. For either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.
SKYE JETHANI 05:08
Many of us probably heard that verse before, but I wonder how many have heard the verse right after it, which says the Pharisees who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed Him. And He said to them, You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts.
JESSE EUBANKS 05:26
Yeah, they made fun of Jesus because they knew that he was disrupting their way of life, a life that involved recognition, status, power, money.
SKYE JETHANI 05:34
And elsewhere Jesus compares them to dirty dishes, saying you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self indulgence.
JESSE EUBANKS 05:43
So these spiritual leaders, they look good on the outside. They look like they were being honorable. But, make it inside, and you’ll see corruption and manipulation.
SKYE JETHANI 05:52
And that’s not a bad description of the evangelical industrial complex.
JESSE EUBANKS 05:55
Okay, so I’m realizing that saying evangelical industrial complex is a mouthful and I don’t know that I want to say it over and over again the whole episode, can we shorten that to like the complex or something?
SKYE JETHANI 06:07
Yeah, actually I shortened it to the EIC.
JESSE EUBANKS 06:09
Okay yeah, EIC. OK, so Skye, how would you define the EIC?
SKYE JETHANI 06:14
The EIC is really a network of churches, Christian leaders, publishers conferences, Christian media that together decide which voices to platform and promote; not based on a biblical model but more of a business model
JESSE EUBANKS 06:29
So more about metrics not really about maturity.
SKYE JETHANI 06:32
That’s right and so we shouldn’t be surprised that the outcome of this isn’t always spiritual maturity or healthy churches or disciples, but just really big revenues for certain companies and ministries.
JESSE EUBANKS 06:44
Okay, so, I think that maybe a story will put some flesh on this, and help us better understand exactly what we’re talking about here. So let’s take a look at the story of a woman named, Ingrid Schluter, who ended up coming face to face with this EIC. So Ingrid spent most of her life working in ministry, and Christian radio to be precise.
INGRID SCHLUTER 07:06
I had been working in since actually 1988, and have done both production and co-hosting another national talk show called Crosstalk.
JESSE EUBANKS 07:17
So eventually Ingrid leaves that job and goes to work part time for another show called The Janet Mefferd Show.
INGRID SCHLUTER 07:24
A lot of what I did had to do with current issues, breaking news stories, that kind of thing. We were dealing with everything from cultural war issues, education, all those changes that were being made in our country, apologetics dealing with the defense of the faith, and a pluralistic society, and things of that nature.
SKYE JETHANI 07:42
Actually, that sounds a lot like this podcast and my podcast, The Holy Post.
JESSE EUBANKS 07:45
Yeah, they were using their journalism and their Christian faith to look at current issues. But then there’s this one day, Janet, the host of the show, she comes to Ingrid with a news story that she wants to air.
INGRID SCHLUTER 07:57
She had alerted me to the fact that she was working on plagiarism case of a plagiarism situation with Mark Driscoll.
JESSE EUBANKS 08:05
Okay. So for those that don’t know, Mark Driscoll is a pastor who has been the subject of a lot of controversy including abuse of power, bullying, he talked a lot about sex from the pulpit and in his books. He’s perhaps best known as a pastor of Mars Hill Church. And he was actually removed in 2014 due to formal complaints of abuse. But this situation that we’re talking about with the plagiarism, it actually happened a full year before all of that.
SKYE JETHANI 08:31
Okay, so what was he actually accused of plagiarizing?
Speaker 1 08:34
Okay, so Janet was already scheduled to have Driscoll on her show for an interview. So in preparation for that interview she read what would have been his latest book at the time, A Call to Resurgence. That’s the name of the book. And in that book, Janet saw 14 pages of plagiarized material taken from another source that she was familiar with. Again, here’s producer Ingrid.
INGRID SCHLUTER 08:56
She also interviewed Mr Driscoll, and with him on the radio, the recording of the program and the airing of the program, asked him point blank and allowed him to respond to the fact that she identified whole passages of his book from other people.
SKYE JETHANI 09:12
Wow, so she asked him on the air. That’s a pretty bold move.
JESSE EUBANKS 09:16
Yeah, in addition to bringing it up in her interview, Janet also posted about it on her website. Okay so Skye, what would your response be if you heard a big name pastor accused of plagiarism?
SKYE JETHANI 09:29
Well, I would probably want to look into it to see if it was valid if it was true or not.
JESSE EUBANKS 09:34
Yeah, that is the common normal person response. Like I’ve heard this accusation, I want to investigate it, I want to figure out if it’s true. So, Ingrid saw no problem with the reporting that Janet had done. The facts supported her.
INGRID SCHLUTER 09:47
The evidence Janet assembled was on unassailable.
JESSE EUBANKS 09:50
Here’s the problem though. The radio network? They did not agree.
INGRID SCHLUTER 09:55
The response of her boss was that this was unacceptable. She was told to take it down off her website, where she had, you know, proven what she was alleging, and was also told to apologize on the air for the interview.
SKYE JETHANI 10:09
Okay, well, the Bible has a thing or two to say about what to do with accusations against leaders and I can understand why some were uncomfortable with the way Janet handled that on the air. But that’s separate from the accusations themselves about whether or not there was plagiarized materials in Driscoll’s book.
Speaker 1 10:26
I mean you look at this whole thing and it’s kind of just strange. Like here’s a Christian radio network with shows committed to seeking the truth. Janet’s evidence was good, the reporting was clean. Eventually what ended up coming out was that Driscoll’s team had made a mistake. The story is that they did not cite his notes correctly and that it was an honest mistake that he did not mean to do it. But it still stands that Janet’s accusation of plagiarism was true. Intentional or not, plagiarism did take place, and her radio network essentially responded by saying, We want you to go on air, and apologize, and say that your accusation was incorrect.
SKYE JETHANI 11:04
It just seems like there had to be more going on behind the scenes
Speaker 1 11:06
I mean well you’re right. I mean here’s the thing, Janet show was part of Salem Radio Network. Driscoll’s book was published by Tyndale House, and it was later reported that Tyndale House had some sort of media partnership with Salem Radio Network. So another way of saying this is that these two entities were business clients, they were making money off of one another.
SKYE JETHANI 11:27
Yeah, they were making money off of one another and they were probably both making money from Mark Driscoll in the sale of his books. So there it is. That is the evangelical industrial complex at play.
JULIE ROYS 11:31
Instead of us using our relationships with each other to hold one another accountable. Instead we use our relationships to protect one another when we’re in trouble.
JESSE EUBANKS 11:50
So this is Julie Roys. She’s an investigative journalist and started The Roys Report, which is an independent Christian media outlet. And she’s done a lot of reporting on the EIC.
JULIE ROYS 12:00
Well, it’s money, and its power and its platform.
SKYE JETHANI 12:04
And here’s why something like a relationship between a publisher and a radio network would be so important.
JULIE ROYS 12:10
Take the Moody Radio Network for example. They receive hundreds of thousands, I don’t know it might be millions, I don’t know the exact numbers that come in, but I know that all of the preaching programs that they have at the Moody Bible Institute. Every single one of those preaching programs are run by a ministry that pays money to put their program on Moody. So Moody Radio gets money from the ministry to platform their ministry on the radio, and then that ministry is able to ask for donations by getting platform. So it becomes a very lucrative kind of arrangement.
SKYE JETHANI 12:48
So you pay me money; I promote you. And you make more money. I make more money. It’s a sort of symbiotic relationship which can actually be a smart business model when you look at it.
JULIE ROYS 13:00
it’s not necessarily evil in and of itself,. If it were done ethically where it’s like, you know, just because I have a business relationship with you, doesn’t mean if you do something wrong, I’m going to protect you. I’m going to do the right thing. But the problem is all the pressures in the wrong direction.
Speaker 1 13:18
I think we need to make a distinction here. We’re not saying, like, all major Christian organizations, all megachurches, all publishers, all big name pastors are evil and should be avoided. Because I don’t think that that’s true. I mean we have plenty of examples of well known, honorable people – John Piper, Tim Keller, John Perkins. We have a megachurch here in Louisville that does wonderful work loving their neighbors. Do those people make a lot of money? In some circumstances, yeah. I don’t think that’s the problem.
SKYE JETHANI 13:49
That’s right. And the problem is when we take good things like money or status or influence, and we make them into ultimate things. And I do think we need to be more discerning because the larger something grows, the stickier can become to know what’s right. I’m the head of a big ublishing company; of course I don’t want the author that I just published to be accused of plagiarism. Not only because it affects the author but because it could affect the hundreds of people that I employ as a publisher. So we need to ask ourselves, are we seeking comfort or the status quo or are we really interested in seeking the truth? Because within the EIC it’s all about promoting the big names that bring in lots of money, and sometimes silencing anything or anyone who gets in the way of that.
JESSE EUBANKS 14:30
Which is exactly what happened with Ingrid and The Janet Mefferd Show. They started receiving hate mail, getting bashed on Twitter, receiving little to no support from Christian media. And even though Ingrid was just a parttime producer on the show, she was the one that was caught in the crossfire.
INGRID SCHLUTER 14:46
I was very displeased with any broadcast company that tells a talk show host, particularly one that claims to be Christian, that would not be immediately concerned about a plagiarist being promoted as a great spiritual voice speaking into the culture and publishing books. I mean, I’m not comfortable with working in that setting.
JESSE EUBANKS 15:09
You know, Ingrid was in a tough spot because at the time, her husband was looking for work, and her family needed that small income Ingrid was bringing home. But Ingrid just couldn’t justify a paycheck if it came with looking the other way when there were issues, or promoting big names at any cost. And so less than a month since the report first aired, Ingrid resigned from the show,
SKYE JETHANI 15:30
And I’m assuming Janet did as well?
JESSE EUBANKS 15:32
Yeah. So here’s a part of the statement Ingrid gave with her resignation. It says, I was a part time topic producer for Janet Mefferd until yesterday when I resigned over the situation. All I can share is that there is an evangelical celebrity machine that is more powerful than anyone realizes. You may not go up against the machine. That is all. Mark Driscoll clearly plagiarized, and those who could have underscored the seriousness of it, and demanded accountability, did not. That is the reality of the evangelical industrial complex.
SKYE JETHANI 16:08
So both of them are now without jobs, likely defamed publicly, to some extent, but what happened to Mark Driscoll? Did he ever admit to plagiarism?
JESSE EUBANKS 16:17
Okay, so after three weeks Driscoll gave a statement, and, in part, it says, Mistakes were made that I’m grieved by, and apologize for. Tyndale House, his publisher stated, Because of the biblical manner in which pastor Driscoll has handled this situation, Tyndale strongly stands behind him and looks forward to publishing many additional books with him.
SKYE JETHANI 16:37
When you look back at the situation with the plagiarism you realize that it was just one red flag of many that arose about Mark Driscoll and his character and his ministry. And given the way it ended, it’s pretty apparent now that those in authority who had the ability to platform him on the radio or in publishing, probably should have taken more care before deciding to give him an even larger platform.
JESSE EUBANKS 17:01
Yeah, and I think that the issue is like Driscoll represents this bigger issue, this bigger issue within the EIC. So you know we’ve seen that this EIC exists. So I guess my next question is just this like when did it start? And why is it gotten so dang big?
SKYE JETHANI 17:19
I may have some answers for that, after the break. We’ll be right back.
Hey LTN listeners, it’s Anna, the media editor. Recently we asked some of our alumni how serving with Love Thy Neighborhood has impacted them. Like Emily Kirtsinger. Emily served with us for a summer, and during her term with Love They Neighborhood, she learned the value of investing hard work into her faith, her job, and especially in relationships with the people around her.
EMILY KIRTSINGER 17:47
I think real growth and change only happens when we’re willing to do the gritty work of actually doing life with people, and especially doing it like Jesus would. Surface level conversations and the bare minimum is not going to produce life changing relationships or experiences with the people around you, and I think that’s why we’re here. We have to love people and point them to Jesus.
If you want to find your internship for social action and Christian community meet, head over to Lovethyneighborhood.org, and apply today.
JESSE EUBANKS 18:28
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SKYE JETHANI 19:52
And I’m Skye Jethani. Today’s episode is where the gospel meets the evangelical industrial complex.
JESSE EUBANKS 19:57
Okay, so we’ve taken a closer look at what it is. And we’ve taken a little bit of a look at how it works. But I’m wondering, how did we create this thing in the first place? Like has this always existed?
SKYE JETHANI 20:09
That is a good question, and one that I asked investigative reporter Julie Roys. And here’s what she said.
JULIE ROYS 20:16
I think that the media platforms did a lot to create this. The media platforms and the mega church, and we sort of see them growing together at the same time.
SKYE JETHANI 20:27
So, megachurches have been around for a long time; they go back centuries. But the big media platform is something a bit more modern. It really took off in the 1970s with televangelists like Jim and Tammy Baker. Having a well known TV platform, they became almost like celebrities and they made tons of money. They had fame, but not surprisingly, it all came crashing down when Jim Baker was found to be having an affair.
JESSE EUBANKS 20:50
And sadly, that is becoming an all too common narrative in the Evangelical Church, you know, in particular with big name mega church pastors.
SKYE JETHANI 20:57
Well think about it. When you mix the media fame with the megachurch numbers and suddenly you’re a perpetual source of cash flow, you can sell thousands and thousands of books and speak at hundreds of conferences. All of which supply money, and Julie finds this aspect in particular, really troubling.
JULIE ROYS 21:14
What we have right now are spiritual leaders who are great rhetoricians right? I mean their their rhetorical powers are amazing, but their character is abysmal. You become a spiritual leader because you’ve got a million followers on Twitter or on Facebook, and you’ve got the connections, right? And you’re selling the books? That’s how we’ve chosen our spiritual leaders and it’s a really really bad criteria for choosing a spiritual leader.
JESSE EUBANKS 21:42
Okay, so I think before we go further, let me just paint two pictures, real fast. Imagine, like an escalator. And at the very beginning is somebody who’s not very well known. And at the end, that same person is very well known. How do they get from one point to the other? One way that that can happen is that, let’s say that there’s a young pastor or a seminary student. Over time they began to develop a whole bunch of social media followers, or they begin to grow their congregation. And basically what happens is that it’s a numbers thing. The bigger that their audience gets, the more likely that a publisher is going to come to them and say Hey, we would like to publish a book by you. So they write a book. And then if the book does well, of course the audience grows. And if the audience grows and the book does well, the next thing is, hey, we’d love for you to teach workshops at these conferences, hey we would love for you to be a keynote speaker at these conferences, we’d love for you to be on these podcasts. And all of a sudden, this pastor isn’t actually at their church much anymore. They’re busy podcasting and writing and speaking at conferences and the audience gets bigger and bigger. But here’s the thing. If you follow this trajectory, there’s not really a place on this escalator where they were necessarily discipled by somebody or that they grew in spiritual maturity. What we know is that they had a big audience, and they communicated a message that the EIC is comfortable selling. And so it’s really an issue of metrics, and money. Second scenario, imagine that there’s an older pastor but a pastor for 40 years. They’re beloved in their city. Everybody knows who they are, they’re wise, but they don’t spend much time on social media because they’re literally busy pastoring. Like they’re literally with people so they’re not doing a whole lot of growth. Maybe their church isn’t all that large. Chances are, they’re not going to get approached by a publisher or they’re not going to necessarily get approached to come speak as a keynote at a conference, because numbers are what decide things, and they just don’t have the numbers. These are just some examples of how the EIC works.
SKYE JETHANI 23:55
So something that goes hand in hand with the EIC is the whole celebrity pastor phenomenon. Now, it’s a little hard to tell which happened first; it’s sort of a chicken and egg scenario, but there’s these two things: the EIC and celebrity pastors, and they feed off of one another. And as a pastor myself, I know the temptation and the draw to become big, to make a name for yourself, to have greater influence.
JESSE EUBANKS 24:19
Yeah. I spoke to several pastors while prepping for this episode, and all of them talked about the pressure to grow in greatness, and I’d actually like to share one of those stories.
ERIC ROSEBERRY 24:29
And when I thought about you know what it meant to be a pastor, all the successful pastors I looked at and who had ruined churches. They wrote, and they spoke, and they traveled and that just seemed to be the kind of thing you did if you were the pastor of a growing, thriving church. It was just part of the job description in my head.
JESSE EUBANKS 24:47
So this is Eric Roseberry, he’s a pastor in Indiana to a congregation of about 800. And when the church was just starting out, Eric did what I know many pastors do.
ERIC ROSEBERRY 24:59
I remember sitting down and kind of writing out, Alright, where’s the church gonna be in five years? in ten years? And my expectation was continued numerical growth, that we would continue to see people added, more baptisms. More, just a little bit more of everything, year after year, and that with that personally for me would come the opportunity to write a little more, speak a little more, have a little bit more of a platform. That those two things would just go hand in hand; the church would grow, I would have more opportunities.
JESSE EUBANKS 25:26
In some of that, like persona stuff, comes from his own heart and motivations, like from a bad place. But also like, if you’re a pastor and you’ve spent any amount of time around other pastors, you know that platform and growth are the two things that are always talked about.
SKYE JETHANI 25:43
Constantly we were having those kinds of conversations. Yeah, What are you guys doing to attract more people? What are you doing to reach more people? What you know how many more churches are you planting? What’s the budget looking like for the coming year?
JESSE EUBANKS 25:55
Yeah, so one of the other pastors I talked to told me about this website called Klout. It would analyze your online presence and then rate you with a social influence score. And he actually said that when pastors would get together, that they would actually compare their Klout scores to one another.
SKYE JETHANI 26:11
Yeah, I’m not surprised. I think this problem is only gotten a lot worse because of social media. We’re not just measuring the size of our congregations anymore but the size of our online influencing congregations. You and I talked about social media in a previous episode and just the comparison trap this constant need to compare yourself to others is real for all of us, including pastors.
ERIC ROSEBERRY 26:31
I hated going to events with other pastors for years. I just felt so insecure in what I had accomplished up to that point, in what our church looked like a couple years in, that I didn’t want to see anyone else who was in ministry because all I could do when I saw them was compare myself to, to what it was that they were achieving up to that point.
JESSE EUBANKS 26:50
So Eric did all the things that you do to stay relevant in today’s society. He engaged on social media, he started a blog on his own website. He started his own podcast and naturally those things started to take up the majority of his time.
ERIC ROSEBERRY 27:06
I did find myself consumed by, you know how many people are listening?, how many people are engaging on social media?, how can I brand this particular message? And I found myself realizing, those were the questions I was constantly asking. Not really the more pressing spiritual questions I needed to be asking for the sake of our church or for the sake of our people
JESSE EUBANKS 27:27
Eric said that he sees such a fine line between motivation to spread the gospel and motivation to promote himself.
ERIC ROSEBERRY 27:35
Most of the time, I was able to convince myself, Of course you should be doing this! You’re spreading the gospel, more here and people are hearing the gospel preached, more people are having the opportunity to be ministered to. Why wouldn’t you devote your time to this? And had people encouraging me to do that.
SKYE JETHANI 27:50
And that’s what’s so tricky and sinister about this stuff. We can dress it all up in spiritual language and we can convince ourselves that we’re doing it all for the right reason and it’s all about promoting the mission of God and the Kingdom of God, gets really weird.
ERIC ROSEBERRY 28:06
Justifying a growing platform or promoting yourself, I think is easier to do in ministry for a Christian than almost any other avenue. Because when we see it in other people, not in a ministry context, we can see it as, That person’s trying to attract people to himself. When a pastor does it, it can always be justified under the kind of reasoning of, No, this is for the sake of the gospel.
JESSE EUBANKS 28:32
I mean, Skye, like in your line of work, you know you’re an author, you’re a podcaster, you’re a speaker. In what ways have you felt the pull of the EIC on you?
SKYE JETHANI 28:45
Oh. I feel it all the time. I remember when I wrote, and released my first book, the publisher wanted me to do a lot of promotion of that book through social media and other things. And I’m terrible at it. I’ve never been a good marketing person. And I felt uncomfortable doing it. And finally the publisher came to me and said, Listen, do you believe in the message of the book you wrote? And I said, Yeah of course I do. They said Well then you need to get out there and really sell it, you need to promote it because it’s not about selling yourself, it’s about selling the message that you know the world needs to hear. And they began to convince me that all this self promotion was really for God and for the mission of the church, and made it easier for me to swallow it. And I think we underestimate how formative that is when you do it day in and day out, and the line gets blurry like Eric said it’s not a good thing.
JESSE EUBANKS 29:33
Yeah, I mean it hurts us, it hurts the people around us. And while we may convince ourselves that it’s all for the growth of people’s faith, sometimes the opposite is actually what happens.
JANICE LAGATA 29:43
it’s appealing. It seeks to be attractive and it is attractive.
JESSE EUBANKS 29:49
This is Janice Lagata. She became a part of Hillsong in 2005, and eventually even helped launch the first Hillsong Church in the United States – Hillsong New York City.
SKYE JETHANI 29:59
Hillsong New York City, that’s where Carl Lentz was a pastor. He was all over the news a couple of months ago.
FEMALE 1 30:05
GMA did a cover story. Carl Lentz was a prominent pastor at Hillsong Church until he was fired after he admitted to an affair.
JESSE EUBANKS 30:12
Yeah. So Carl Lentz was fired for what was called “leadership issues and breaches of trust”, plus a recent revelation of moral failures. Here’s the deal Carl Lentz did play a part in Genesis Experience. But just as important, was just the culture of the church as a whole.
JANICE LAGATA 30:31
Hillsong motto, I guess, is you know love God, love life, love people. So yeah like that’s what we thought we were doing. And that just feels that it feels right, and it feels good and it looks good. I said it’s, it’s fun, it’s attractive, it’s relevant and relatable. And it’s all about, you know, allegedly bringing people to Jesus and making that as attractive as possible.
JESSE EUBANKS 30:56
Janice served as a stage manager. She served on the worship team. In the hierarchy of Hillsong New York City, she was farther up the ladder than the average attendant. She even knew Carl Lentz personally, and from the beginning, there was this celebrity status she says that was placed on them.
JANICE LAGATA 31:13
And there was like kind of this immediate wall put up between them and us. Like not everybody could talk to them or approach them or ask them things. Like there were lots of middle managers, immediately.
JESSE EUBANKS 31:25
And Janice noticed other things early on that didn’t sit well with her. For example, the VIP section of seating in the front of the auditorium. It was reserved for any celebrities that came to worship.
SKYE JETHANI 31:37
Here’s what’s crazy. Jesus specifically addresses this this exact thing in Luke 14. In the parable of the wedding feast he talks about sitting in places of honor. And that anyone who exalts himself will be humbled and the one who humbles himself will be exalted. And then the Apostle James talks about this in his letter where he says, When people come into our churches we shouldn’t give them special treatment because they look wealthy or they’re famous, and we shouldn’t diminish the value of someone else because they look poor. This is a value that permeates the New Testament.
JESSE EUBANKS 32:09
Yeah and Janice knew those verses, but she was assured that popularity was actually a part of God’s will.
JANICE LAGATA 32:15
The bigger the numbers, the more people are coming; well, God must be pleased right? He’s entrusting us with all these people. So God is here, God is pleased with this.
JESSE EUBANKS 32:25
In fact, these sorts of mixed messages, often made Janice second guess herself when she saw problems arise within the leadership, or the structure of the church.
JANICE LAGATA 32:34
Hillsong is a very big check your heart culture. Anything you’re feeling, anything that’s happening, anything you’re unhappy about, it’s gonna come back on you. Like it’s about you. So you need to check your heart, because, yeah, where leadership God has put us here. He trust us, why don’t why don’t you trust God?
JESSE EUBANKS 32:54
So the churches activity, it was posed as this is God’s mission and you can get in the way of that.
JANICE LAGATA 33:00
So there would just be things that you would see, but you would just brush it aside. Because at the end of the day, again, it’s all about Jesus and people are coming to Jesus right? So you know you can’t make a cake without breaking a few eggs, right?
JESSE EUBANKS 33:15
But eventually, Janice saw Hillsong more and more as a brand name, rather than a church.
JANICE LAGATA 33:22
And I remember having this moment of, kind of like this, this flash of like someone, someone like getting to the gates of heaven, and Jesus is standing there, and they don’t recognize Jesus. And they’re like asking that they’re like telling Jesus Hey Ask. Ask Carl about me. Like Carl knows me. Um, because I just felt like, Oh, these people know, they know Carl’s catchphrases, they know Carl’s mannerisms, you know. They know how to do Hillsong. They know how to imitate Carl, but I don’t know that people are really meeting Jesus.
JESSE EUBANKS 34:05
Janice has since left at church. In fact, she’s actually left church altogether.
JANICE LAGATA 34:10
Now I consider myself exvangelical. I don’t go to church, I’m not looking to. I’m. I am deconstructing, figuring out kind of for myself, what I think about God, what I believe about God. I do still very much love the Jesus story and the idea of Jesus. I wish, I wish, Christians were more like Jesus.
JESSE EUBANKS 34:41
Because Janice now realizes she didn’t really see much of Jesus at church.
JANICE LAGATA 34:47
At the time, yeah, I would have said oh the culture is just just Jesus. It’s bringing people to Jesus. Now, the culture is very much almost like Instagram influencer culture. It seeks to be attractive. It seeks to sell what it’s selling, and yeah I guess that’s what I would say. In the beginning I would have said it was selling Jesus, and now I would say, no, it’s Hillsong is selling Hillsong.
JESSE EUBANKS 35:22
So Skye, we hear story like GeneJanice’s, and we see her describe the culture of her church like, what’s at stake, when we are approaching church in such a consumeristic flashy way?
SKYE JETHANI 35:35
Yeah, I think the, the problem is we forget that the church was instituted by God as a means to an end. It’s a vehicle. It’s supposed to transport us into communion with Christ and His people. But what we often get distracted by is we make the vehicle into a destination itself, and we start caring about the institution itself and the growth of it and the reputation it has and the expansion of its reach, and that’s where we get off track and in a weird way we actually end up making an idol out of the church which was meant to worship Jesus itself.
JESSE EUBANKS 36:08
I guess part of what I’m thinking about is like, so much of what Jesus talked about with the religious leaders of his day, were that they were deeply dedicated to looking spiritual and looking religious, but not actually interested in being spiritual and being religious. And I think that a lot of what Janice is talking about is that these are the clothes we put on. We put on Jesus clothes, but there’s not substance inside of that. Okay, so I guess that leaves us with this question. What is the future of American evangelicalism? You know is there a way to break out of this monstrous cycle that we have created? Well, stay with us.
ANNA TRAN 36:52
Hey LTN listeners, it’s Anna. Before we get back to the episode, I want to announce the fourth winner in our giveaways. Remember, every prize comes with a yearly digital subscription to Christianity Today, along with an LTN facemask. Today, we’re giving away another copy of Barnabas Piper’s book, Hoping Ffor Happiness. All right, Let’s see who it’s gonna be. Hey Rachel. spin the wheel. Congratulations, Jordan Dewold. Jordan, you’re our fourth winner, and we’ll be in contact with you shortly. Be on the lookout for an email from us. All right, there’s only one more chance for you to win. We’ll be giving away our last combination of LTN mask and Christianity Today digital subscription. If you haven’t already, sign up for our mailing list by going to lovethyneighborhood.org/ltnpodcast. That way, you’ll be entered into our drawing to get your name entered, two more times. Head over to iTunes and leave us a review for this podcast and our other show, the Anycast. Find all these details at lovethyneighborhood.org/ltnpodcast for your chance to win.
JESSE EUBANKS 38:07
Today’s episode of the Love Thy Neighborhood podcast, we’re talking about the perils of church. And one of the things that can be really harmful to church communities is narcissism. When people have an inflated ego and an exaggerated sense of importance, they can really hurt the people around them, especially when they are their spiritual leaders. Well if you’d like to explore this topic more, check out our other podcast Love The Neighbor Presents the Enneacast. And specifically check out Episode Number 43: Narcissism in the Eneagram with Dr. Chuck Degrou.
DR CHUCK DEGROU 38:41
People who we set out to be perfect to be larger than life to be blessed by God inspired and anointed by God. Now we’re actually beginning to name the reality behind it.
JESSE EUBANKS 38:53
You can listen to the Enneacast podcast on Spotify, Apple podcasts or wherever you prefer to listen to podcasts. Or head over to our website, lovethyneighborhood.org/ennacast. Welcome back to the Love Thy Neighbrood podcast. I’m Jessie Eubanks.
SKYE JETHANI 39:11
And I’m Skye Jethani. Today, where the gospel meets the evangelical industrial complex.
JESSE EUBANKS 39:17
So we’ve seen what the EIC is; we’ve seen the results. Where do we go from here?
SKYE JETHANI 39:23
Well here’s one of the key things I find missing in all of these celebrity pastor stories – community. And I’m not just talking about people know who I am sort of community, but the real honest authentic permission-to-speak-into-the-habits-of-your-life kind of community. We need people who will level with us and that we are willing to listen to that we will take correction from. Which was something my friend J.R. Briggs found lacking in all these big ministry conferences and events.
J.R. BRIGGS 39:51
Everybody up on stage. They were all the heroes. They were the celebrities, they were the experts, and they talked about how difficult it was to open their seventh campus or what to do when their church grew to 5-10000 people. And I found myself going Man! I’m just trying to figure out how who’s going to be in the nursery watching the kids on Sunday, you know?
SKYE JETHANI 40:13
He’s not alone in this. In the year, 2020, an estimated 380,000 churches existed in the United States. Only 1500 of those were what we might consider mega churches, meaning that they had 2000 or more attenders any given week. That’s less than one half of 1% of all churches. Not even 1% of our churches fit in that model which J.R. saw displayed at all these ministry conferences.
J.R. BRIGGS 40:39
And I just said, Man!, we need a conference for for normal pastors. If the average church in America is about 62 to 65 people, how come I never go to a conference and hear a pastor whose pastoring a church about that size?
SKYE JETHANI 40:52
At the time, J.R. had a blog and so he thought it’d be funny to write a post about it. And he gave this fictional Christian ministry conference,, a name. He called it The Epic Fail pastors conference.
J.R. BRIGGS 41:04
And I remember sitting in the Starbucks near my house, and just pounding out this blog post of Hey! we should do an epic fail pastors conference. Somewhat satirical but it just tried to poke and prod a little bit behind the motives behind some of these pastors conferences.
SKYE JETHANI 41:17
The whole thing was sort of tongue-in-cheek. At least that’s what J.R. intended, but others didn’t see it that way.
J.R. BRIGGS 41:22
My phone was blowing up. I was getting comments like crazy. I was getting emails from all over the world actually saying so when is it?, and I said no no I was just kind of suggesting this kind of theoretically rhetorically.
JESSE EUBANKS 41:35
That’s funny. So people thought it was a real thing.
SKYE JETHANI 41:38
Yeah, they did and they were interested in it. They wanted to attend something like that.
J.R. BRIGGS 41:42
And people around me, some friends of mine, said no no this is a great vision, you need to do this. And I said well I was, I was really kidding but do you really think this could work?
SKYE JETHANI 41:52
So J.R. and some friends of his started planning the first ever epic fail pastors conference.
J.R. BRIGGS 41:58
We didn’t have famous people, we didn’t even announce the speaker lineup beforehand. There’s no swag bag, there’s no merchandise table. There’s no green room. This is a safe space for us just to connect and to be able to share in a raw yet honest way.
SKYE JETHANI 42:14
And this is the part I love. They didn’t even hold this event at a successful church. They met in 150 year old church that had been converted into a bar.
J.R. BRIGGS 42:24
And and so we just said well what if we hosted here, physically in a place that is a failed church? And we rented out the upstairs which is for concerts and raves on Saturday night.
SKYE JETHANI 42:34
And he knew from his initial blog post that there was interest in it. He just didn’t realize how much interest. 150 pastors and leaders came to this upstairs room in this small town outside of Philadelphia.
J.R. BRIGGS 42:46
One gentleman flew over from Australia, and I said, You’re kidding me? You’ve never been to America? You fly over for this conference and you’re flying home, at the very end of it, why? He said, I can’t find someone not only in my own city, not in my province, I can’t even find someone in my entire country where it’s safe enough for me to talk about pastoral failure and insecurities and inadequacies with. So I’ve got to come to America to do it. It’s haunted me. And I said, Man, I think we’re onto something.
SKYE JETHANI 43:16
So all these pastors are craving community where they could talk about the day in and day out of ministry, and not just how many Twitter followers they had.
J.R. BRIGGS 43:25
The amount of tears and the prayers and the healing that happened in the midst of that was something I’ll never forget.
SKYE JETHANI 43:30
In fact, J.R. continued hosting the Epic Fail Pastors Conference for several more years, even taking it to different cities. Eventually, he compiled the core elements of it into a book, and he simply called the book Fail. J.R. now works as a leadership coach listening to and equipping pastors and leaders to keep the gospel at the center of how they lead their own lives as well as others.
JESSE EUBANKS 43:52
Yeah, you know, author David Benner once said, Careful attention to one’s inner life is an indispensable prerequisite for caring for the souls of others.
DAVID BENNER 44:02
And one of the things that I’m concerned about are Christians and Christian leaders and church leaders and pastors, is that we have not paid careful attention to our inner life.
JESSE EUBANKS 44:11
And that’s what eventually helped Eric turn things around. So remember, Eric Roseberry? He was the pasto. He eventually became so dissatisfied and unhappy doing ministry because he wasn’t really doing ministry. What he was doing was personal public relations.
ERIC ROSEBERRY 44:27
There were years of my life where the main thing I was thinking was, How can I take this experience that I’m having with other leaders, that our church is having, these good things that God is doing, and how can I turn it into a social media post or a video or a picture? I need to make sure to promote this. I need to make sure to get the word out about what God is doing here. And I found very little joy in life living like that.
JESSE EUBANKS 44:50
He became so unlike himself that his wife actually urged him to get help. So Eric started seeing a counselor and the counselor told him that he really needed to get away.
ERIC ROSEBERRY 45:01
I got away to a monastery in southern Indiana for a couple of days. And I remember sitting in the church and I was trying to disconnect from everything and, you know, process, should I be doing this? Why am I doing the things that I’m doing? And I still remember sitting in the church and opening my Bible to John 5:44, and just reading these words from Jesus. How can you believe when you receive glory from one another, and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? I was broken in that moment, but it also was like a light bulb went on in my head, that this is what I’ve been doing. I’ve been doing ministry to receive praise from others and part of the reason it’s so frustrating is, I’m not doing it for God or to receive praise from God and if I continue down this path without changing anything, it’s just going to be this constant frustration and emptiness that I’m feeling in ministry.
JESSE EUBANKS 45:58
So this year, Eric made some drastic changes. He’s hit pause on his podcast, he’s taken down his website for the time being, he’s put limits on his social media, and now he’s thinking more about the actual people in front of him instead of the 1000s of virtual people who might stumble across him on the internet, in one sense, his world is smaller, but he also thinks it’s more joyful.
ERIC ROSEBERRY 46:25
I think getting to a place where my first reaction to a move of God or a ministry when or a Sunday that goes well, that that first reaction isn’t, Well how do we promote this and publicize it? and it can simply be, How can we enjoy God’s faithfulness to us?
SKYE JETHANI 46:42
Now, we’ve talked a lot about leaders and their need for accountability and vulnerability. But we can’t pin this whole issue just on them. We also need to recognize our own role within the EIC. The Christian market is a $1.2 billion industry and that money is coming from us. Again, here’s Julie Roys.
JULIE ROYS 47:02
This is completely fed and fueled by the masses. So we can point our fingers at these organizations and say how dare they betray our trust. How dare they do what they did. And and that’s a valid feeling. We need to start taking responsibility that we can’t just give money to an organization and trust them, and then wash our hands of it and say we’re not responsible for what they do with it. We’re responsible to be wise as well.
JESSE EUBANKS 47:28
We put so much emphasis on the best orators; people that can communicate the best or the highest quality music, and we literally look at it almost in a talent function way. When the reality is that many many very godly people who could offer so much to our life, they’re not going to be the best public preachers, and they’re not going to be the best musicians on stage. But they can offer a substance that’s much greater than those things.
JULIE ROYS 47:58
I am deeply concerned for the movement, because we’ve been co opted by money. We’ve been co opted by fame. We’ve been co opted by politics. There are so many things that have absolutely nothing to do with the kingdom of God.
SKYE JETHANI 48:11
You know when you look at Christian history, the case has usually been that people grow most in their faith and learn the way of Jesus through relationships. It’s through life on life transmission of the values and teachings of Christ. It’s only recently that we’ve kind of outsourced that to distant leaders who we can never know because we only hear them through a microphone or on a screen. What we’ve begun to see is a fruit of outsourcing that to people we don’t know, and one way to correct it, these problems that Julie’s talking about, I think, is to make ministry relational again, and to make the church and our faith, primarily about the people that we do life with day in and day out already.
JESSE EUBANKS 48:52
I think that one thing that we can encourage people to do is to make sure that we are getting our spiritual nourishment and our community from the local church, not to depend on just books and YouTube sermons and inspirational Instagram posts for spiritual growth. Like there’s nothing wrong with those thing,s but Christianity is made to be lived out communally.
SKYE JETHANI 49:15
I agree Jesse and I think there’s a principle that is really helpful and that is we shouldn’t give more authority to people who have less proximity in our lives. Reserve the most influence for the people that are in closest proximity to your life; to the godly women and men that you know deeply and have seen the fruit of their character. They should have way more influence on you than the person you’ll never meet, who’s written a book or maybe has a popular podcast.
JESSE EUBANKS 49:40
I mean, you and I clearly we both host podcasts, we’re not anti books and podcasts and media, but we’re just saying, keep them in their place.
SKYE JETHANI 49:48
JESSE EUBANKS 49:49
You know, don’t let them become bigger than they’re meant to be. Don’t get caught up in the consumerism of our culture.
JULIE ROYS 49:56
I still believe in the church. I do, I believe in Jesus, I believe in the mission of the church and this isn’t the first time that church has been corrupted. And we’ve seen the church reform before and I do believe it can reform again.
JESSE EUBANKS 50:10
You know Jesus had harsh words for the spiritual leaders of his day and they eventually schemed to get him killed. Because they were caught up in recognition and in self interest. But Jesus offers us a better way. He tells us the greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled and whoever humbles himself, they will be exalted. God’s kingdom. It’s an upside down kingdom. We are free, free from clamoring for power, and for profit, because in Jesus, we are inheriting the richest and most powerful kingdom of all. If you’d like to explore this topic more, check out our episode on wealth, Episode Number 17, Where the Gospel Meets Wealth. For even more resources about the EIC or to hear other episodes of this podcast, go to lovetheyneighbrohood.com/ltnpodcast. Coming up on the next episode of the Love Thy Neighborhood podcast,
FEMALE 1 51:39
I would walk in every Sunday, and I would walk into the sanctuary and I would just cry.
MALE 1 51:47
The move into becoming more multicultural overall has been hard,
FEMALE 2 51:51
I wasn’t taught it when I should have been taught it. I mean yes we were taught Jim Crow laws and so forth but the emphasis wasn’t there.
MALE 2 51:58
Some people left our church because they could not take the conversation.
FEMALE 3 52:02
Racial diversity is good.
FEMALE 2 52:03
I just wish people my age would be willing to listen.
JESSE EUBANKS 52:11
Special thanks to our interviewees for this episode, Ingrid Schluter, Julie Roys, Eric Roseberry, Janice Legata and J.R. Briggs.
SKYE JETHANI 52:19
Our senior producer and host is Jessie Eubanks.
JESSE EUBANKS 52:22
Our co-host today is Skye Jethani from The Holy Post podcast. Skye, thank you so much for joining us today. You can check out Skye’s show The Holy Post, wherever you listen to podcasts or at Holypost.com. Our media assistant and editor is Anna Tran, and our media director, and producer and wears the BB eight sox, is Rachel Zabow. Music for today’s episode comes from Lee Rosavere and Blue Dot Sessions. Theme music and commercial music by Murphy dx. Apply for your social justice internship supported by Christian community by visiting lovethyneighborhood.org. Serve for a summer or a year, growing your faith and life skills. Learn more at Lovethyneighborhood.org. Which of these was a neighbor to the man in need? The one who showed mercy. Jesus tells you, Go and do likewise.