I won’t delve into the details of what has been going on with RELEVANT, a Christian media outlet that caters to white evangelical, exvangelical, and progressive millennials. There has been much written about what has happened already (by people closer to the situation than I) and Cameron Strang, the CEO of RELEVANT whose leadership was called into question, has issued an apology. You’re free to take from all of this what you wish. The details of this issue matter little because it is the same tired old pattern on a different day, in a different ministry, with a different white male face.
With one notable exception, my time serving in ministry—since 2003—has been under male leadership. I have served with some gentle, humble men who have mentored me and who have been great colleagues. I’m not talking about these men. I have also worked for some organizations that, while not perfect, were life-giving and rewarding to work for. I’m not talking about these organizations.
However, the problems that have come to light concerning RELEVANT are in no way unique. We should not view them as anomalies. We should not say that this is one leader with issues. This problem is bigger than one organization and one particular leader. Throughout my time in ministry, I have observed—and unfortunately experienced—similar toxic patterns of leadership and organizational culture.
Something that I have observed is that certain factions within Christian culture prize (and even fetishize) youth. In some circles there is a certain amount of value placed on plucky young men (its almost always a male) with “big” callings and “big” vision. Many leaders and laypeople are impressed by smooth talking young men who believe that they are God’s man of power for the hour. Often, but not always, these young men have doors open to them because their fathers are also well-known in their circles and displayed the same amount of pluck and savoir faire in their youth. I call Christian culture’s fetishization of young male leadership the Timothy Complex.
An unfortunate consequence of this obsession with youth is that these young men are placed in charge of (or start) ministries, churches, and parachurch organizations before they have experienced the requisite growth and character formation that can only come with age. As a former youth pastor, I certainly don’t want to disparage young leaders or bring their calling into question. A calling is something that is only received from God and I am no one to tell people what their blessings are. The problem isn’t youth, but rather, the church’s failure to form and provide accountability to these young leaders.
When you’re young, scrappy, and hungry and you see a level of early success, there is pressure to keep that success going. If your church grew to 1000 people seemingly overnight, there is pressure to keep that same energy. If your worship ministry or evangelism has gotten noticed by the big names in your circle, there is pressure to keep it going. If your publication has garnered national attention and has influenced a movement, there is, I would assume, a lot of pressure to keep it going and to stay…well…relevant…
Along the way, you stop seeing people as people and start treating them as assets to help you keep feeding the machine of Christian fame and notoriety. To be fair, the goal might not always be fame. The goal might be to build the best ministry that you can build. You might not even realize how much your identity and self-worth are tied up in what you do.
To be sure, I am not blaming toxic, abusive leadership on the larger Christian ministry machine. Leaders have the ability to choose their actions. This isn’t a case of “the devil made me do it.” My point is that there is a toxic culture that keeps reproducing toxic people. And those toxic people keep hurting people. And, as we saw with RELEVANT, it is marginalized people who bear the brunt.
It’s not just RELEVANT that has these issues. If it was, this would be a one and done and we wouldn’t have to worry about it. The issues at RELEVANT came to national attention because of the platform’s influence in the Christian world. But this isn’t the first time that a white male leader has stepped away from leadership (or been ousted) because of pride and/or toxic leadership practices, and it won’t be the last. The worst part of this, in my opinion, is that for every John Piper, Mark Driscoll, and Cameron Strang there are untold numbers of local church pastors and ministry leaders who are perpetuating the same patterns of toxicity and inflicting harm upon the people in their employ and under their pastoral care. It has to stop.