How to Spot a Personality Cult

In the modern West the church has an issue with its public image. With the rise of digital media and heightened technophilia, the image we often present to the world is not Christ but ourselves. We build up mini-celebrities in Jesus’s name, calling for the world to follow along. At times, whether Jesus is actually glorified can become negligible.

A focus on celebrity has devastating effects on congregations, church members, and leaders. In some North American churches, congregants have fallen into cults built on personalities who promote their glory under the ruse of gospel proclamation.

Congregants have fallen into cults built around personalities who promote their glory under the ruse of gospel proclamation.

If the church is to reclaim its power as a countercultural witness for Christ, we must assess the effects of this sort of idolatry. We must learn how to spot cults of personality, whether large or small.

Effects of Personality Cults

  • If a personality is bigger than Jesus, so too is the personality’s message. As personalities rise and gain influence, they become the unquestionable arbiters of truth, even to the point that they can defy a command of Jesus.
  • When this occurs, the church’s prophetic voice is lost. The personality, rather than God’s prophetic Word, becomes the voice of authority. The power and truth of Scripture are exchanged for human words. When the church elevates the words of one charismatic leader, the words of Christ diminish.
  • The church’s faith is no longer built on Christ, but on a personality. Rather than trusting in what Christ has said through his Word, people trust in whatever the personality says. The church’s faith is now in a perilous position, as it has been detached from Christ.
  • If the faith of the church has not already been severed from Christ, it is dangerously anemic. Now the sustaining factor for the church is the leader’s personality. The church will not grow into the fullness of Christ’s body, but only a cheap imitation of the personality leading the church. If Jesus is not treasured above all else in the church, start donning your funeral attire.
  • In the most idolatrous personality cults, the church begins to evangelize the personality, not Jesus. This is blasphemy.

Many of these effects can occur in churches that appear healthy and successful on the surface. It can happen even in churches affirming historical, orthodox Christianity. Therefore, as wise Christians, we must learn ways to identify when personality cults are forming.

How to Spot Cults of Personality

  • Shameless self-promotion: This is perhaps the telltale sign of a personality cult, and it’s usually the easiest to spot. Look at the social media or webpage of the personality or church. Is it filled with photos of the personality on stage and in front of large crowds? Personality cults force your attention onto a single person, and he’s not from Nazareth. Personality cults offer you many opportunities to become a subscriber, follower, or customer. Often this is not evangelism or discipleship, but advertising.
  • Numbers matter most: The number of followers or the amount of money raised is a matter of regular attention and justifies the personality’s work. This many people can’t be wrong, you may be tempted to think.
  • A trail of dissenters: If those who raise questions or concerns are silenced or pushed to the margins, you may be dealing with a personality cult. Cults of personality rally around a single person. Anyone who is not on board—who challenges, disagrees, or dissents—is usually forced out.

Some Diagnostic Questions

  • Is the personality humble, approachable, and servant-minded? Is the personality only in front of people but never beside them?
  • Do social media encourage you to follow Jesus, or the personality?
  • Do you see candid photos of the personality, or only images of success?
  • Does the personality share leadership with others?
  • Does it seem that by following this personality you are buying a product that makes you an insider?
  • Does the personality show any accountability?
  • If the personality left the faith, would you feel compelled to do the same?

There is only one person worthy of such fame and attention: Jesus. When we build our churches around any personality besides Jesus, we rob him of the worship he is due. In him we don’t see someone clawing for attention, fame, and influence. We see a humble Savior, willing to become nothing so that he could be our everything.

Is the digital age making us foolish?

Do you feel yourself becoming more foolish the more time you spend scrolling on social media? You’re not alone. Addictive algorithms make huge money for Silicon Valley, but they make huge fools of us.

It doesn’t have to be this way. With intentionality and the discipline to cultivate healthier media consumption habits, we can resist the foolishness of the age and instead become wise and spiritually mature. Brett McCracken’s The Wisdom Pyramid: Feeding Your Soul in a Post-Truth World shows us the way.

To start cultivating a diet more conducive to wisdom, click below to access a FREE ebook of The Wisdom Pyramid.