The election and presidency of Donald Trump has reminded me again that the one who hangs the best paper often wins political favor.  In other words, your propaganda machine is every bit as important (and sometimes more so) as is the substance of your platform. President Trump ran a successful campaign based in large part on loud, bombastic, and even unrealistic promises. Particularly, his campaign was based in the self-promoting and self-accomplishing propaganda of his promise to “make America great again.” Such shallow and even hollow promises win elections, but are woefully insufficient to build a lasting legacy.

Unfortunately, churches are often propped up by shallow and human-centered methods. Too often “so-called” successful churches are the result of well-crafted popularity campaigns and a manipulation of those elements believed to be key in garnering attention and attendance.

Yes, we do know what makes for popular churches. These elements are not, in and of themselves, wrong – and in the proper context are helpful and edifying. However, when they are used as the means and strategy for gaining popularity and attendance, then they are nothing more than paper-hanging and produce human favor but little true faith.  A simple (and admitted unscientific) survey of the current church landscape yields several elements that mark out many popular churches.

Charismatic Leadership When it comes to churches today, the way the leadership positions itself is huge. People do not look for humble servants in leadership as much as they look for idols, icons, and superstars. In many people’s thinking the pastor should be a boisterous, driven, outgoing visionary with clothes, shoes, cars, and personality to match. They expect their pastor to be known by half the world and the other half to wonder what it is missing. We can only speculate, but it seems the early apostles would not be called to most pastorates today – not flamboyant or “charismatic” enough.

Exciting Music. Truth be told, most people don’t expect the music in church to be much different from the music they hear in the street. Yes, they expect a few lyrical changes where Jesus and God are exchanged for the expletives (bad theology is ok, but not bad language). Most expect to be moved and grooved the same way on Sunday as they were a few hours ago on Saturday. Music is so important to most people’s idea of church that many errors and a lot of foolish behavior is overlooked or covered up by talented musicians and a well-choreographed choir.  In fact, if you have good and exciting music, people will even put up with bad preaching.

Dynamic Preaching Few things have moved the needle in church popularity than preaching has. This is particularly true in the history of the black church in America. In fact, when most people think of a church the first thing that comes to mind is the preacher at that church. Churches are most frequently identified not by their location (as in the Bible), nor by their name, but primarily by the name of the preacher. Rather than Potter’s House, people say “T.D. Jakes Church.”  Rather than North Point Church, people say “Andy Stanley’s Church.” Popular churches are often marked out by effective communicators and engaging rhetoricians. Humorous, well-crafted, and delivered messages can usually expect a following.

Again, there is nothing wrong with the above-mentioned elements. Everyone wants a church where the leadership is charismatic; the music is exciting; and the preaching dynamic. In fact I would argue that most would settle for two out of three. If you have charismatic leadership and exciting music, people will forgive anemic preaching. If you have dynamic preaching and exciting music, people will overlook a weak leadership. If you have charismatic leadership and dynamic preaching, people will endure bland music.  But if you have all three, you will also probably begin  planning for satellite campuses and multiple services.

Brothers and sisters please don’t be taken in by human-centered propaganda. The popular churches are not always the best places to be. Look beyond the paper mache and the well-crafted platform and look for Christ. Look for places where Christ is really the focus of the preaching, the eye of the vision, and resounding chord in worship. It may not be the most exciting, charismatic, or entertaining place, but there you will find your soul well fed and your heart strangely warm by the Spirit of God through the preaching, leading, and singing of Jesus as all and in all.


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Tony Carter

Tony Carter

Anthony Carter (MA, Reformed Theological Seminary) is lead pastor of East Point Church in East Point, Georgia, an organizing member of the Council of Reforming Churches, and a Council member of The Gospel Coalition. He is the author of several books, including Black and Reformed: Seeing God’s Sovereignty in the African-American Christian Experience. Anthony and his wife, Adriane, have five children.

The Front Porch

Conversations about biblical
faithfulness in African-American
churches and beyond