After reporting on Rob Bell's tour last month, Chad Hall has been wondering about the influence of young Christian leaders like Bell. Are these "new bishops" the result of a generation searching for leaders outside traditional church structures, or are they a product of publishers and slick marketing?
I've been thinking lately about how influential a few leaders are in evangelical Christian America – especially among younger Christ-followers. Such leaders exercise a tremendous amount of influence on the thought and practice of other church leaders. I've come to think of them as the real bishops of today.
Just like the earliest church fathers, today's bishops earnestly seek to discern what faithfulness is and then dispense their discernment among followers. Oh yes, and just like the old bishops, the new ones sometimes disagree and dispute what it means to be faithful and the dispute can carry over to their followers (as an earlier post re: Rob Bell and Mark Driscoll demonstrated).
So what gave rise to these new bishops? Three primary factors…
First, denominations are waning and few church leaders look to denominational leaders as experts on how to think theologically or practice church ministry well. Even in traditions who ordain bishops, the influence of these leaders to affect the thought and practice of those they serve is diminishing.
Second, geography has shrunk through the use of media such as the internet and especially the blogosphere, thus giving the masses access to leaders they'd otherwise never have encountered. And unlike TV and radio, the internet allows followers to interact with one another and reinforce allegiance to bishops. Getting a following today doesn't require years of moving up the church hierarchy, but the ability to get attention and keep it.
Third, there seems to be a growing populist mindset among our generation that prefers to select our leaders rather than have them selected for us. I'm sure this has a lot to do with distaste for institutions and hierarchy and all of that Strauss and Howe generations stuff.
As Christ followers, what are we to make of this era of new bishops? Is this good or bad or somewhere in between?
I'm not pessimistic about the advent of these new bishops, but one thing disturbs me: this could dissolve into theology by majority. While I suppose the church has always relied on the Spirit to sway folks toward beliefs and practices that best reflect God's will, the current circumstance seems somehow more precarious. With book deals and conference invitations based on who will buy what, the consumer ambitions of publishing houses and conference promoters (and ad-revenue blogs like this one!) may drive choices more than ambitions of faithfulness. And while Christ-followers may think they are choosing their bishops, they may really be taking some marketing bait. In this context, the marketer who gets us to buy something may also be getting us to buy into someone.
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