The Rise of the New Bishops
Who has chosen the new crop of celebrity church leaders—the people or the publishers?

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.

December 14, 2007

Displaying 1–10 of 22 comments

Bil_

December 20, 2007  1:20pm

I agree with the sentiments of Christine and John..."Bishops" is a poor term. The Scripture quoted by Christine refers to the role of an elderly person, to "manage public affairs and administer justice." To the ears of my heart, this new movement is not a movement of "bishops" but rather prophets. And G_d seems to raise up prophets when his people begin to stray. I find it ironic how many say, "Get back to the basics" when historically, that's what these movements are about...correcting churches that has lost their way in bureaucracy and "oversight." (Yeah, I know, I know...spoken like a "true post-modern"....)

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Chris

December 20, 2007  9:57am

Wouldn't those writing books be more like apostles writing epistles than overseers/bishops? As I see it, an apostle doesn't even need a publishing company if he uses the Internet. Now, if he wants to join/found a large org like CT, he might need a site and some ads to keep the site online, but he can go it completely alone if he wishes. With these apostles, the publishers are removed and all we have to do is test their words against Scripture. So I think the best way to keep an apostle accountable is to keep the responsibility and motivation for his words with him and only him. Sure, he can have financial and social ties with a larger group (as the apostles of old did), but he should 1) hold a job down to support himself and 2) only accept money from the larger group for ministry. The group should hold him accountable for where ministry money goes.

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Bob

December 19, 2007  8:51pm

Coming from a tradition that has Bishops, I can say that they certainly are not (nor should they be) self-designated. The notion of a populist Bishop is an oxymoron at best. As regards the democritization of the faith, I am reminded of the time in which Saint Athanasius stood as a Bishop in exile and in hiding virtually alone against Arianism. "Athanasius contra mundi"- Athanasius against the world. We need more bishops like that. I cannot imagine being in a faith system without the oversight, leadership, perspective, and accountability provided by a good Bishop.

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Steve A

December 18, 2007  2:35pm

Theology by democracy is fine if you are Mormon, but it doesn't work so well if you are a Christian. Christ never called the disciples together and said "Hey, I'm going to return to the father soon, and in my absence, you guys will need to decide what is right among yourselves. So whenever a tough question comes up, vote on it, or just do whatever will make the most people happy." At the same time, preaching a populist, and popular message will fill pews on Sunday morning. And if nickels and noses (or votes) are your metrics of choice then you will appear to be very successful, even if the comforting, impotent, soulless community you create isn't particularly Christian, or can't even be distinguished from the GOP. The reason we allow faithful leaders to select bishops, and other leaders, is not to support some sort of hierarchal structure, or to piss off the populist baby-boomers, but to try to ensure that those who best know the message, and have a track record of standing up for it in spite of opposition from the populist mobs, are the ones put in positions to be most influential. We do not need the blind leading the sighted.

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David

December 18, 2007  2:28pm

Are they truly following God's call or are they self-appointed? Are they consumer-driven or Holy-Spirit driven? I sincerely hope that they are more than the motivational speakers many new pastors seem to be that you see on TV. All flair and no substance. Telling the people what they want to hear rather than the cold, hard facts of the gospel - you know the conveniently overlooked need for repentance?

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John

December 18, 2007  1:27pm

I understood church to be a gathering of believers in a particular place, in which God placed people with gifts of leadership as "overseers" (sometimes translated bishops). These overseers are to care for the flock (1 Peter 5:1-4) of which they are part. A person who writes books, publishes DVD's etc. cannot be called a "bishop" because they cannot care for the flock as required by scripture. Overseer was originally intended for the local gathering of believers, no more. It is the unfortunate mating of the church with the secular power that led to the positions we now understand as "bishops". Wow, it took 12 comments before someone (thanks Christine) ever got around to referring to Scripture. You see, it's not our "Church" It's Christ's. We don't have the authority to do with it what we want, it isn't OURS. Follow the Bible or call it something else.

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Chuck

December 18, 2007  1:25pm

All traditions are not good traditions. One thing that the new leaders have is an ability to come across as relevant and current in their marketing and delivery of the word.

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Chad

December 18, 2007  11:03am

FROM THE AUTHOR... I think Christine's comment (It is the unfortunate mating of the church with the secular power that led to the positions we now understand as "bishops") carries a lot of meaning beyond the obvious. In the way church/politics mated in the early church to lead to the position of bishop, church/economics mate today to redefine the role. I wouldn't go so far as to say that this mating is entirely "unfortunate" – there may be some good involved in the church adapting her systems and structures according to culture in order to be most effective. However, the ever-present danger is that adapting will become accommodating and that the tail of culture will wag the dog of the church (poor metaphor, but hopefully it communicates). As for the role of publishers... my experience is that they want to capitalize (I mean that in the economic sense of the word) on a leader already having a following rather than help create a following for a leader. This is because it's easier to sell books by an author who has a wide network of would-be buyers. Yet, publishers certainly have the ability to propel leaders toward larger audiences. But at the end of the day, responsibility remains with those of us who are followers/consumers ... we must make wise choices when it comes to who we buy into. And the comments that note that this "new bishop" thing isn't all that new are right on, in my opinion. Popular leaders of great influence have impacted the church for a long time. Media and market forces seem to have taken it to a new level and blurred the line between Christian and consumer. Thanks for the discussion!

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Christine Ballard

December 17, 2007  5:00pm

I understood church to be a gathering of believers in a particular place, in which God placed people with gifts of leadership as "overseers" (sometimes translated bishops). These overseers are to care for the flock (1 Peter 5:1-4) of which they are part. A person who writes books, publishes DVD's etc. cannot be called a "bishop" because they cannot care for the flock as required by scripture. Overseer was originally intended for the local gathering of believers, no more. It is the unfortunate mating of the church with the secular power that led to the positions we now understand as "bishops".

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sheerahkahn

December 17, 2007  11:43am

I think the rise of the new Bishop's isn't going to be doing anyone any favors...I forsee further fracturing of an already crumbling church. Perhaps, what is happening in the United States is what happened during the 4th to 10th century Europe in terms of the Church splitting up into so many "denominations." I wonder when our own Religious Conflicts will begin...hmm, nothing says "I BELIEVE IN G-D!" like killing the apostate/heretic for the Lord, ain't that right, everyone.

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