In-Sight: Dethroning the Personality Cults

I wrote yesterday about Andrew Sullivan’s article in the April 9th issue of Newsweek: “Forget the Church, Follow Jesus.”

One of Sullivan’s accurate critiques is how much of North American Christianity has become enamored (captured) by “personality cults” which form around leaders.  In Sullivan’s mind, this phenomenon has gone to seed and is doing serious damage to the perception non-believers have of Christianity.

In an attempt to move beyond diagnosis to cure, I propose (once again) a revival of liturgical worship.  For in this style, it is the Story not the story-teller that establishes and maintains center stage.  Look at any liturgical order of worship, and you will see that it is the Christian message (centered in Christ) which is the focal point and sustained emphasis.

Jeannie and I experienced this on Easter.  We were out of town, but worshiped at Trinity Episcopal Church in St. Augustine.  In addition to Word (all four Scripture lessons) and Eucharist, the service also included a very meaningful infant baptism.

For more than an hour (and no one was in a hurry to leave), we worshiped God in relation to Scripture, Sacrament, and Story (the liturgical statements, prayers, etc).  Even the priest’s sermon (which was very pastoral and relational) was set in the context of the larger “Sermon” which the liturgy preaches every time people gather.

No human being could have been considered the “focus.”  The Holy Trinity was the focus, and the full Godhead was celebrated by individuals, the congregation, the choir, and the priests and deacons who guided the worship service.

I completely understand that for some folks, a liturgical style “takes some getting used to,” but when you lay it all out in the open, don’t we really want to leave church connected to Jesus much more than to our “celebrity pastor?”  (OK—I understand it doesn’t have to be a strict either/or, but you get the point I’m trying to make, I’m sure)

I don’t know of a better way to dethrone the personality cults Sullivan is describing than to worship where the opening words of worship are, “The Lord be with you”—and the experience which that invitation provides remains constant through the Benediction.

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 45 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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4 Responses to In-Sight: Dethroning the Personality Cults

  1. Laura B. Robinson says:

    “The Lord be with you..”
    “–And also with YOU”!
    Not only is liturgy able to point the focus where the focus needs to be (on God), but it also reminds us that we are Community; we are (gathered as) the Body of Christ.

  2. robgoodridge says:

    No argument here. Anytime leadership grows “too big for its britches,” God hands down stiff reminders. Anytime leadership surrenders to the real authority, blessings flow.

  3. revbillpyatt says:

    Good to remember the main focus.

  4. Todd Bardin says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I see this in my own congregation. We follow the liturgy. Christ is the focus. Even if the sermon tanks, the story, our story is still told. Also, the more liturgy we embrace, the more my church is growing. Coincidence? I think not. Time at the table of Jesus is formative. Grow church, grow!

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