I know people who pepper their spiritual talk by quoting Beth Moore's pithy observations, Joyce Meyer's motivational aphorisms or Mark Driscoll's take-no-prisoners bluntspeak. I've known others who take their Christian life cues from radio personality Nancy Leigh DeMoss, social activist Shane Claiborne, Charismatic teachers Heidi and Roland Baker, or simply borrow the convictions of their favorite pastor.
While these "Christian famous" speakers may be seated at the same banquet table at the marriage supper of the Lamb someday, a fair number of us point at what's on the plate of a favorite teacher and say, "I'll have what she (or he) is having."
Leaders aren't immune to the imitation bug. During a conversation with several staff members from a large local church, I noticed each one of them spoke with the same gee-whiz speech pattern and aw-shucks mannerisms of their head pastor. One of them joked about it, noting that like the Borg characters in Star Trek, resistance to the clone trend in their church culture was futile.
Admiring the words and lifestyle of a teacher, preacher or leader is one thing, but if we allow the words or an idealized image of a local or national Christian celeb to form both boundary and substance of our own faith experience, we will drift from the person God has called us to become. He doesn't need a fleet of Nancy Leigh DeMoss wannabes to do his will. He just wants you.
While the problem of branding ourselves by our teachers or theological camps isn't new, our propensity for subdividing into tribes based on our taste preferences has particularly public, painful consequences today.
The author of Ecclesiastes observed, "…of making many books there is no end." This writer might modify it today to note that there is no end to the tweets, comments, blogs and books written by those who are in the painful and disorienting process of shedding their former brand devotion to a particular teacher or stream of theology.
When I read a book or blog written by someone who has survived an extreme, toxic or otherwise destructive church experience, I can hear the pain of someone who was once a true believer in a particular leader's message now struggling to figure out who they are and where they're going now.
Early in my Christian life, I became a member of what I now understand was a spiritually abusive church. The congregation's leaders were heavily influenced by the Shepherding Movement and insisted on exerting control over members' job choices, finances, and relationships. As a young believer, I longed for community and wanted someone to show me how to follow Jesus faithfully. I was ready to adopt without question what these leaders offered me because I believed they were living faithful, mature, committed lives. So I read what they read. I went to the conferences and classes they recommended. I learned to disdain the "weaker believers" who didn't swim in the same cultish stream we did. My former church leaders created a culture that celebrated a perpetual state of middle-school followerhood among members.
Despite all of this and because of God's faithfulness, I did grow spiritually – to the point where my husband and I realized that preserving our faith and family meant leaving the dysfunctional congregation and reclaiming our identities, parts of which had been put on hold during the years we belonged to the church.
Being on the receiving end of the shunning and gossip of the group was difficult, but the process of unlearning the group's definitions of what was spiritually acceptable turned out to be much more challenging. I had to unlearn my mistrust of all those who weren't in our former theological camp, and learn to trust the Holy Spirit to teach me was true. I left the church sadly deficient in understanding how to hear God's voice, or value my own.
Throughout our lives, whether we are tracing ABCs or practicing scales on a piano, we learn by imitation. However, imitation is only step in the direction of maturity. It is not the final destination. My experience has given me a lot of compassion for my friends who appear to live in the imitation zone. I cannot tell them to snap out of it or convince them it's time to push beyond that. God alone causes spiritual growth.
But he can use me to show others there's life beyond parrothood by asking questions, listening well, being willing to express my own doubts, admitting I don't know all the answers, and modeling gracious openness to the ideas of people who don't share every jot and tittle of our theological convictions, trusting the Spirit and not fear to filter out the chaff. Dallas Willard once said, "I am learning from him how to lead my life in the Kingdom of the Heavens as he would lead my life if he were I."
He doesn't need another Beth, Joyce, Mark, or an aw-shucks senior pastor. He wants you.