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Our Misguided Worship of The Pastor

Let's Go Crazy

The climax of the classic 1980”s film, Purple Rain, has a jam-packed Minneapolis nightclub resolving into pseudo-worship as The Kid, the enigmatic androgynous performer played by Prince, the enigmatic androgynous superstar upon whose life the film is allegedly based, warbles through the indecipherable lyrics of the film’s title track. For most of Prince’s early career, I assumed he was wise. I assumed I was the one behind the curve and that his song lyrics merited study and scrutiny and, yes, research in order to divine their truth and hidden meaning. Thirty plus years later, I’ve decided Prince was just winging it. That he had no real skill with lyrics beyond crafting an interesting and memorable hook. Prince was strong conceptually, If I Was Your Girlfriend bordered on profound, but the lyrics to Purple Rain were, in the final analysis, meaningless. I only want to see you laughing in the purple rain… What the hell does that mean? What gave his lyrics weighty significance was the smoke and mirrors Prince excelled at projecting to his audience; so enthralled were we by his performance that we just assumed the actual writing had depth it never had. The brilliant staging of the final club scene in the film, of crowds of partiers cooled to stoic resolve and swaying to the guitar strums, told us, “this guy is a genius.” And, in many ways, Prince is a genius. But, at the end of the day, we, or at least I, imbued his work with meaning and substance it never had. He was just winging it.

It’s no accident that this operatic moment of the film evokes an atmosphere of worship. The scene only works because it resonates with our very real nascent worship experiences in the African American church. Experiences which, for many of us, seem increasingly distant as our churches today seem increasingly less relevant and less in touch with reality. Too many of us find comfort in ritual, in the resonance of a worship experience rather than in actual worship. Some of us have grown up, in recent generations, having never known the actual worship experience most of our churches are simply emulating without actually experiencing it. We’re just cast members of Purple Rain, swaying on cue because that’s what we saw someone do once. That’s what we remembered growing up. And we continue to assume the pastor is a kind of mystic, magical leprechaun—all-wise and all-knowing—and if we don’t get his teaching, it’s somehow our own fault.

I have long ago outgrown the capacity to see the church pastor as anything more or less than a human man who, in the best case, is doing his best to support and grow a local community. Too often, we see the worst case, the ego, the greed and the pandering to ignorance, our pastors allowing if not encouraging us to worship them instead of God while making their investment in 1965 because that’s where their own economic security lies. Education and enlightenment works against a black pastor’s economic interest because, ultimately, these things threaten his job security. The more enlightened the congregation becomes, the less magically delicious the pastor seems. Our pastors protect themselves by projecting mystery and terror—the Wizard of Oz or Prince with all that smoke. They rely on our ignorance and laziness: so long as we do not study, do not read for ourselves, we are reliant upon them to pierce for us the mysteries of faith and truth. But, neither faith nor truth is actually a mystery at all and we don’t need some shaman to decipher these things for us. The bible says the God is a rewarded of those who diligently seek Him [Hebrews 11:6].

Kingdom Of The Cult

In the run-up to the 2011 Christmas holiday, I was made aware of a church pastor who, after browbeating his congregation to raise $100,000 by December 15th—demanding they forego family travel plans and gifts—instead used the money (less than $30k came in), claimed to have been for a down payment on a building project, to rent a local arena for a glittery Christmas show, complete with the pastor himself dressed as Santa Claus (no, I am not making this up) and tossing cheesy “gifts: to his adoring faithful. The church, struggling with debt, paid the pastor a five-figure Christmas bonus and green-lit a purposeless, over-the-top extravaganza at the arena which starred, yes, the pastor. The pageant opened with the pastor’s voice eking out of the darkness as smoke billowed up from the stage, and the pastor being lowered in from the rafters on one of those Michael Jackson cherry pickers as the band struck up the music and the choir began to sing. I remember hearing this account firsthand from persons at this debacle and wondering, how stupid are the people following this man? Thankfully, this pastor’s ridiculous reputation has now been salvaged by “Bishop” Eddie Long, who was actually crowned “King” last week to the cheers of his adoring faithful. It is a real struggle, for me, to actually believe this stuff is going on. It’s an even greater struggle for me to believe people are gullible and ignorant enough to sit there, cheering like monkeys, while it does. My ire, usually directed at black pastors (after all, I’m not hearing any prominent or even local black pastors denouncing this behavior), is now targeting Ignorant Church Folk. Write this down someplace: These People Are Not Christians. They do not worship Christ. They worship their pastor. And he allows it, making him a liar and a phony. If you’re in one of these churches, if you see this kind of idolatry going on, and you just sit and hold your peace, you’re just as big an idiot as they are, and you deserve the certain condemnation you will most certainly receive.

Too many of our churches are actually cults if personality. The unfathomable egoist Eddie Long now borders on becoming a false prophet by allowing his congregation to proclaim him aking.” This is antichrist behavior. The worship of the pastor offends God [Exodus 20:3]. And the only way people like this prosper is by our ignorance and submission. By our laziness. By our refusal to seek God for ourselves but to rather sit around on our fat behind allowing Balaam to tell us Who God is.

At the end of the day, when the music stops and the smoke machines are turned off, Prince is just a short guy with a woman’s haircut. That doesn’t make him a less brilliant performer, but he is not magical or even mysterious. He’s a human man named Prince Nelson Rogers who has made a fortune convincing you he’s on the inside track to relevance and truth. This is the kind of nonsense we absolutely must outgrow if the black church in America is ever to have true meaning and relevance. The pastor is to be respected, reasonably supported, and trusted. But he is not a prophet. If he claims he is, he is lying or lost and you need to hit the door fast as you can. There is no biblical model for the pastor-as-prophet. He was a guy. An overseer. A human man, flawed as Peter was, as Paul admittedly was. Neither man levitated or performed magical feats. They got some things right, some things wrong. They were, in many ways, first among equals.

The church needs to find its way out of this heresy of pastor-worship and our emulation of the bygone years and reconnect to God in a meaningful and honest worship experience. At the end of the day, the lyrics really do matter.

Christopher J. Priest
20 May 2012

Essentials 2012   Hardware   Form of Godliness   Vagina Monologue   American Gothic   Racism   PRINCE WAS RIGHT   Christians & Islam   Trayvon Martin   Fiscal Cliff