Chris Rock once shared in an interview how he develops new standup material. Like many established comedians, he shows up at small comedy clubs and gets on stage with five or ten minutes worth of jokes, developing one or two at a time and stitching what works into his next tour or special.
Rock knows the audience is as likely to react to the fact that he’s Chris Rock as they are to the actual jokes. So, when he does these drop-ins, he tells the jokes with as little personality as he can. He wants to believe they “could be done behind a curtain,” he said. If those work, he knows when he ramps them up with his onstage persona, they’ll kill.
I’ve thought of this often while working on CT’s podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. It’s the story of the Seattle megachurch that shot to prominence in the early 2000s, attracted 15,000 people in 15 locations, then shut its doors after founder Mark Driscoll resigned in 2014. In many ways, Mars Hill was an outlier. In many important ways, it wasn’t.
Driscoll was a uniquely gifted communicator and provocateur, but the phenomenon of the celebrity pastor is endemic now in megachurches. Mars Hill innovated in its use of music and video production, technology, and social media, but what it pioneered has been widely adopted and largely defines influential churches today.
The tools of technology and celebrity that built Mars Hill continue spreading, and they are every bit the temptation in smaller congregations as they are in big ones. We’ve missed the lesson that these tools formed a fragile architecture: The church couldn’t outlive Driscoll’s exit.
These tools are understandably seductive. They put a zip on ministry the way Chris Rock does with his (very un-churchy) persona. And while technology isn’t necessarily evil—the printing press gave billions of ordinary people the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and hymnals—it’s also not neutral. It can tap into our bodies and our imaginations in ways that undermine a gospel message that is about dying to ourselves and humbly putting others’ needs before our own.
So we embrace image-magnifying video to project larger-than-life pastors and worship leaders, never asking what other messages a technology mostly used at rock concerts and political rallies might be communicating. We import chest-rattling subwoofers and fog machines. Leaders read on stage from smartphones and tablets. Worship ministries distribute style guides for what band members should wear onstage (I am not making this up), and we gather in windowless, climate-controlled environments that stop time like movie theaters and casinos.
In that context, if the majority of Christian leaders we encounter are young, charismatic men and women with perfect teeth, what happens when we encounter someone soft-spoken, meek, and not made for Instagram? Someone who possesses neither the presence of celebrity nor a staggering conversion story? Someone with the kind of spiritual authority that confused the first-century world when Jesus didn’t demand power or demonstrate it on command?
I fear we’ll miss it. We might even outright reject and condemn it. Perhaps we already have.
Driscoll often said that he hated listening to most preachers because they were boring and unengaging. Instead, he learned from standup comedians, including Rock. It turns out, though, that he missed the deeper ethic of Rock’s craft: that the substance of the material was more important than the presentation. It had to work without him.
Chip Stam, a mentor of mine before he died in 2011, told me, “A mature believer is easily edified.” He meant that if Christians found themselves in a place where the Word of God was being preached, Jesus was being worshiped, and the Spirit was present in the hearts of his people, then they ought to leave encouraged—whether the experience was shallow, loud, quiet, or unfamiliar.
I’ve come to think of this as an invitation to “mere church,” a posture that recognizes that the most meaningful things in a church gathering are the things that could endure the collapse of a church or the collapse of a civilization—as they have already.
In the aftermath of a decade of moral collapse from Christian leaders, what might it look like if the church renewed its commitment to something like this vision of mere church? If instead of the manufactured experiences of high-production-value Sunday gatherings, we gathered around Word and Spirit, confession and assurance, bread and wine.
It may feel like a desert season, but the church has overcome this before. I hope—and I believe—that we can do it once again.
Mike Cosper is CT’s director of podcasts.
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