charisma, fairy dust and our addiction to kings

blog charisma fairy dust and our addiction to kings and queenslast week we hosted a small gathering of co-pastors from 5 different communities/4 different states. it was a lovely, simple time centered on sharing the ups and downs of shared leadership and pastoring these kinds of nutty churches.  i have a lot of respect for people who co-pastor because it is a very unpopular & rare model in a world that loves to follow one strong charismatic leader and is used to being clear on “who’s really in charge.”

i have a theory that as humans we are always looking for a king, someone strong and powerful and certain who wil tell us what to do and how to do it.  this theory isn’t just mine; there are countless stories in the bible that demonstrate this point.  just recently, i was reading to my 12-year-old twins out of the old testament (easy reading) and we came upon the part where God said, “but you don’t need a king, they will rule over you in a way that’s not good for you” and tried to convince the israelites they were looking in the wrong direction, toward an earthly king instead of God  (1 samuel 8). but the people demanded one and eventually he gave them what they wanted.

today, still, we are addicted to hero worship and intoxicated by charisma.  look at who leads most every popular ministry. if they aren’t good looking (which is an extra bonus), then they seem to have the secret ingredient to success in a lot of contemporary christian ministry–charisma.

charisma in and of itself isn’t bad.  like everything, it has a light side and a dark side, a strength & a weakness. when it comes to the church, i believe charisma has been used for more bad than good because it creates a falseness to what kingdom living is all about.   i have seen people who will move heaven and earth to get to church when a certain pastor is speaking and drop that church like a hot potato when the pastor ends up resigning or getting fired.  i have seen people willing to ignore affairs, horribly damaging power plays, crazy unhealthy leadership, and a ton of other flaws for the sake of getting a sunday morning charisma fix.

i am not dismissing that many people are drawn to God in a very sincere way through these leaders, but that doesn’t change my belief that we have developed an unhealthy & damaging reliance on them.

i can’t think of one megachurch that doesn’t have three central ingredients: a charismatic teacher/leader, awesome music, and an amazing kids program. take out the music & kids program, and a charismatic leader can still sustain it.  take out all 3, and it’s almost guaranteed that things will dwindle.  fast.  give them up over the long haul and eventually everyone can see what’s really left–dedicated people who want more than charisma.

i also know that so many people don’t even know they are currently under the spell or how aware of how strong the pull is.

i’ll always remember how a few years ago i was at a party and bumped into a pastor who had done some pretty serious damage to a lot of people.  we had a brief conversation and when i got into the car, i shared the conversation with my husband, jose, and started singing his praises; it was kind of freaky.  jose was like, “listen to yourself, kathy, im telling you, he just sprinkled his fairy dust on you!”  he was so right!  i knew better, but in a snap i was under the spell.  unfortunately a lot of us don’t have joses around to remind us of reality.

i know of so many churches right now–small and mid-sized all over the place, not only in denver–who are struggling deeply right now because a whole bunch of people somehow became mesmerized by a charismataic leader’s teaching and left their local churches to feed an inspiration addiction.  it makes me so sad, but that’s what we have created as a system over the years.

we give people what they want in the moment, not what they need for the long haul.

my dear friends who gathered here in the mountains last week aren’t perfect.  none have the end-all-be-all solution to solve all of the ills of church, but i highly value each of them because they have chosen to use their charisma and influence as leaders to model things sorely lacking in the body of Christ–leaders who humbly share, men & women side by side as equals & friends, pastors dedicated to sacrificing growth in numbers to center on growth in relationship, people who diffuse power instead of amass it, servants who serve instead of expect to be served. 

yeah, there’s nothing wrong with charisma, but there’s a big difference between using it to cuiltivate The Kingdom here on earth or using it to build A Kingdom.

the sure way to know the difference is if you take out a powerful dynamic speaker, awesome music, and flashy kids program and see what’s left.  my guess is it won’t be long before an awful lot of people are looking for a king and jonesing for some fairy dust.

* * * * *

ps:  a lot of people i know have been hurt by mis-used charisma or by systems that abused power and did spiritual damage to people’s souls.  no matter how big or small the hurt, one thing feels more clear than ever–church wounds can really do a number on our heads and hearts.  my friend and partner in creating safe online spaces for healing, phyllis mathis, and i are facilitating another round of walking wounded: hope for those hurt by the church starting november 6th.  it’s a safe space to process some of these feelings without judgment, spiritualizing, or fixing. 4 weeks, a mix of video & reflection questions & hope.  registration is now open, $79 for some really helpful tools for moving forward and getting unstuck, way cheaper than therapy.  feel free to email me if you have any questions.


Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • Kathy – thanks for this post. I SO wish this was not true about charismatic leaders in the church, but your perspective is so right on. We so want a king, or maybe a fantasy figure who, for a few brief moments every Sunday morning, will sweep away our pain and fear. Hmmmm, sounds like we need Jesus a whole lot more than the dude preaching the sermon!
    Thanks for the courage to articulate this. I pray that the Church would change, that there would be tons more co-pastors figuring out how to disperse power rather than how to amass it.
    Brian Newman

    • thanks, brian, so great to hear from you here. i had a feeling you might be able to relate to this one 🙂 unfortunately! i think you nailed it “we so want a king, or maybe a fantasy figure who, for a few brief moments every sunday morning, will sweep away our pain and fear…” hmmm is right. hope to see you soon!

  • Nice way to call it out! I’vebalwaysnwondered, why do people go to church? All the various answers seem to have interesting threads attached……..ones that don’t want to be pulled on!
    Will we ever come to a time and place where these very human desires have no place?

    • thanks for sharing. the reasons why i go to church have changed over a big chunk of years but i’d say now i go to see my friends and get challenge & hope to keep changing and growing. it is a place for me to know others & to be known and practice love. i am not sure what threads are attached there but i do know that if i didn’t go to the refuge i’d still somehow be trying to gather with other friends that way because it just helps me somehow, to be with others on this crazy road of life somehow.

  • Perhps this is not inconsisten with my thinking recently. After now having left or being asked to leave 5 different churches, I am finding a belonging in creative environments. As I reflect on the reasons for leaving, there inevitably has been a common theme on each occsion. An initial attraction has dwindeled and when challenging any particular leader in no less of a wy than being challenege by their serons, it leads to difficulty. What earlier on in my walk with the lord I had been willing to defer to others about as a perceived conduct issue on my behalf is something I increasingly question when it arises.

    Which then leads me to think – while yes I agree with wht Kathy says about the charisma. I would also see it as an important eleent in attracting people to the church. Someone who is in a respected position in leadership will often (althougth not exclusively) have had some form of acdemic training. In academia often a very deconstuctive approach is taken to others views in order to argue for one’s own. On top of that, we in the west live in a celebrity culture. the two thus become an intoxicting mix. When challenged, it seems to me that the leader throught fear of being exposed as a superficial charleton or themselves being deconstruced or an alternative to their own view being expressed in front of their “own people” risks the popularity of thier following waning (and no doubt book sales to boot).

    We see people following ledears rather than Christ, something the apostle Paul is abhorrant to in 1st Corintihains, nothing new under the sun. And there being hostilty within the body of Christ between different groups with these celebrities at the head, such as much is made over disagreement over secondary issues rather than the unity and peace to be had in Christ.

    I wish I had answers to this – all I can say is that for myself, I have learnt to be more guarded and less invovled in church circles and find creative environmnets for belonging and expression of faith, choosing more carefully who in the church as individuals I share such things with. I just came from a meeting yesterday where it was commeted on in the stand up comedy I do that it ws good that I could be relied upon for not being offensive. Whereas in churches, my humour often has been considered to be inappropriate! Is that an issue of my conduct or others being convicted not likeing what they hear from me in churches nd remaining unrepentant?

    Ultimately we know that Christ came that we might have life in its fullest (Jn 10:10). Sometimes that is found in surprising places and sometimes in the places where we might expect it to be found, we see something quite different and misleading.

    • thanks, adam, for sharing. yes, it is so true, we are “attracted” to celebrities and woo. it’s all a nutty culture and doesn’t feel very consistent with the simple & relational & counter-cultural message Jesus infused us with. i appreciate your sharing & i hope you can find spaces to just be you and share your work and feel freedom to use your gifts without fear or judgment. peace.

  • Sometimes Christians forget that the body of Christ is not self insulated and self absorbed and come to church not to serve but to be served.

  • “church” has become just what our culture (we and those before us) dictated.
    we have such a great opportunity.. to sort-of, walk uphill here together, swim upstream…
    to practice a new law, “a law” of love. freeing– and beautifully constricting at the same time.
    build community from the bottom-up. easy? nah. sexy? flashy? fast? nope.
    but when is real, significant-transformative relationship any of the above?

    Kathy, one of your consistent discussions is: men and women, side by side. for real. leading, serving. deciding, experimenting. this is huge. imagine… if we used our love for others, if those who are especially “charismatic” were to use it for this new K.O.H. social experiment? diverting attention to the bigger “us,” and away from the “me?”

    thanks for this. the more we read. and talk about this togather. the more our views change. our actions begin to conform with what we are becoming.

    • thanks, bill. yeah, definitely not easy, sexy, flashy, or fast! but yes, men & women side by side for real leading, serving, deciding, experimenting. that seems to be the most beautiful and healing thing i am learning and such a powerful reflection of what it means to be brothers & sisters in the family of God. equals. friends. thanks for sharing & your encouragement and story helps me in more ways than you know!

  • Well, here’s a view from the other side of the fence… See, I go to the church that used to be the megachurch with the three central ingredients. Now all we have is the good music. Only we’re *not* left with just the dedicated ones who want more than charisma. It sucks. People are getting hurt, and the church is slowly dying from lack of leadership. King or no, charisma or no; you can not form a sustainable church without some one/ones being in charge. If there’s no bigger purpose beyond “being friends and loving Jesus”, people eventually either just drift away, or they go somewhere that there’s something that they can participate in.

    It’s not that I want the charismatic leader back, because that was painful in a lot of ways… I just want some leadership. I want to feel like we, as a community, are going somewhere; that we have a purpose.

    • thanks, wendy. it is so hard when a church experiences this kind of shift. so many wounds and confusion on how to carry on. but i guess my question is :aren’t there some leaders there who might be able to band together to lead you guys to a new place? within that remnant of people who believe in the body, are there not some people who might not have that one gift of charismatic teaching but might be able to partner together to cultivate something new? in an old situation i was in, there were plenty of amazing people left when we lost our pastor to carry on the work, but they weren’t empowered. instead, we were sort of told “we need to wait for the next person to take us to the next level” and sure enough, they found a strong charismatic leader who did indeed build the church to the next place but it just perpetuated the same model instead of breaking the pattern and helping the body be the body instead of only having a big powerful head. much peace and hope to you as you journey through this…

  • Definitely. I have my share of being hurt by the church stories. Some might qualify as spiritual abuse. Some would make you wonder why I never left for good….

    I think it depends on what spirit it comes from. If it truly is kharis, a gift from the Spirit, it will always lead us closer to Him, not lift up the leader themselves as god. True charisma points to the Giver, not to the gifted. Unfortunately, a lot of “gifted” leaders misuse their platform and it’s so hard to say “but what is the Fruit?” because then people tend to focus on numbers, which only say how effective their marketing is, not how correct/loving/spiritually sound it is.

    I’ve been a part of a great, Jesus-focused, world-changing, Spirit-fueled missions base and megachurch. They were cell-based with a strong emphasis on mentor-type discipleship for and by every age group, so I think that helped as well as having a large diverse network of teaching pastors, advisers and influencers. The very core of the church could pretty much be summed up as “small groups of broken people relying on the Spirit to do the impossible” and they would be the first to admit it was scary sometimes, but out of that came strong leaders (including new church plants all over the world), great music and overflowing age-specific ministries from babies to kids to teens to college to young adults… even grandparents had their own “zone.” 🙂

    So perhaps instead of looking at those three things as warning signs of “oh people are probably just here for the _____” or have been sprinkled with the fairy dust, we should look at where those ministries came from and the heart behind them? It takes intense questioning and skepticism and doubt and examining the whole situation from an unbiased viewpoint, but after doing all of those things with the megachurch I went to, I feel like I can confidently say they prove wrong the popular stereotype of “churches over 1,000+ must be cultish and manipulative….”

    • thanks for sharing, yes, it is so true that i can make generalizations and know there are exceptions to the rule for sure. its always awesome to hear about them. thanks.

  • I really think there is even more going on here than that. I think charismatic leaders pumping up a crowd of excited fans look like winners, and if we are among them, we must be winners, too. Even if the charismatic pastor is right-on biblically and calling people to discipleship, if everything else about the venue and the crowd and the whole setting is setting up this winner/achiever/consumer paradigm, that’s the message. As pastor of a small church who often ministers to people healing up from wounds received in churches like that, I have come to see them as a pretty negative force.

    • it is so true, everyone likes to be on the winning team. it feels good. i know that not being on the winning team anymore, which i was on for along time, has been really hard and i sometimes stil miss some of that high that you get from being on the champion team. peace to you as you keep living out a different way.

  • We are so, so glad we are totally not part of that scene! It reminds me of an opium den. When you’re in there, a part of it, it seems to make some sort of sense. Once you’re out, it doesn’t make sense for anyone except for those who profit from the enterprise.

    What you’ve described is what I think of as “mutant religion”. I wonder what it is about the human race that makes this sort of thing attractive to some – The deep desire to part of something big and spectacular? Whatever it is, it does not for some fabulous opportunities for kingmakers and those who would be kings to earn a king’s ransom giving the people what they desire.

    • it’s freaky, that’s a good word to describe it, mutant religion, but i think it’s hard wired into a lot of us and really goes beyond religion. think of sports and movie stars and all of the other ways we are willing to pay millions of dollars to have a hero. but i will always hold to the church should be the one place that’s definitely counter-cultural; unfortunately, to “survive” they have chosen this methodology…because it works (on one level of course).

  • We must keep trying to delineate power, redefine what it means to have it and give it away to those that won’t abuse it. I am done looking for a savior! Thanks Kathy

  • love that your bedtime story to your twins was, not a NY bestseller, but the OT

  • I appreciate the honest truth of this post. Our hearts were created to worship, but sometimes we continue to seek earthly people (or things) to fill that spot. Thank you!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *