Jesus and the Marlboro Man

kinnon —  November 27, 2011 — 21 Comments

I’ve been away from blogging for a little longer than I intended. More on that in a later post.

Marlboro man as Pastor

I originally mindmapped this post in the spring with plans to make it part of the Celebrity Driven Church series (which has multiple mindmaps but no prose as yet).


My decision to sit down and finally write this was triggered by a recent post from my blog world friend, JR Briggs. The post was about his response to the image on the right – you can see a much larger version of it at his blog. He wrote this,

I absolutely love this image.

It reminds me of the role of the leader, the visionary, the church planter, the pioneer, the entrepreneur, the kingdom fire-starer, the person with an apostolic wiring.

Visionaries do the hard work of going ahead, going before and creating paths that no one else has thought about or dared to travel . (Emphasis in original)

I asked, in the comments, whether he was being ironic. No response. So. I’m assuming he wasn’t.

The image he professes to love leaves me cold. It’s an image that fits with America’s love of the mythic super-hero. The one who saves the damsel in distress and by extension the world.

This is the myth of the rugged individual and it is one, I’d suggest, that has done more damage to the church in the west than we care to realize.

As I was lamenting JR’s post, an email from Leadership Network arrived in my InBox talking about the latest study by Thuma & Bird on Mega Churches. This bulleted point from the email reinforced the American Church Leader myth:

— The leader at the helm makes all the difference.

Seventy-nine percent say the church’€™s most dramatic growth occurred during tenure of current senior pastor.

It’s all about that one man at the top, now isn’t it. (The document tells us that these leaders are, on average, 51 and male.) As my friend Sonja said in an email exchange,

As I read that report all I could think was, “well, of course, most of that data is self-identified. I wonder if the surveyors did any kind of independent quantification of those markers?” That’s what you think when you’ve grown up with a statistician for a dad ;)”

And as I read the report, I was reminded of the saying popularized by Mark Twain, “There are lies, damned lies and statistics.” And yes, I have used that one here a time or two before.

TheChurchPlanter book coversmaller

However, the original trigger for this post was Darrin Patrick’s book, Church Planter. Note the image from the front cover. The mythic pattern persists. Darrin, a leader in the Acts29 network promotes the prophet, priest and king model of church leader.

Kings develop strategies for bringing the vision and mission of Christ-centered living to fruition. They tend to ask the question How? They function like executives of the church because they spend a great deal of time and energy building and executing plans to sustain and grow a healthy church. Church Planter (Darrin Patrick) Highlight Loc. 1464–71 (Kindle)

I don’t quote Darrin approvingly. In fact, I heard this same kind of language in my charismatic mega church days and witnessed (first hand and otherwise) the kind of damage done by this warped belief to both the “kingly leader” and his subjects. (Jesus’ powerful statements on servant leadership in Matthew 20 and Mark 10 are strangely missing from Darrin’s book. ) Darrin writes a lot about the need for and qualifications of elders – but then focuses on the single person church planter/senior pastor (with hopefully a wife supporting him.)

The full title of his book is Church Planter — The Man, The Message, The Mission.

The Man and thus my concern with those who buy this message and buy the myth that they are singlehandedly called to plant God’s next great church in whatever neighbourhood.

Believing they are called to be, in J.R.’s words, visionaries (who go) ahead, going before and creating paths that no one else has thought about or dared to travel. No wonder so many of them fail.

This is far different from the Matthew and Mark passages mentioned above, as well as the equipping and sending that Jesus does in Luke 10. A hint, he sent them out in twos “into the harvest” with no resources other than prayer. The single “harvester” on the front cover of Darrin’s book runs counter to what Jesus teaches in this passage. How odd.

The American church (along with its global acolytes) has bought the myth of the rugged individual as conqueror and builder,€” represented well by the iconic Marlboro Man a character created by Ad Agency, Leo Burnett. It’s a fabulous marketing image… for selling toxic substances.

A final aside: A horrible irony is that two of the men who portrayed the Marlboro Man died of cancer from consuming what their images had been promoting.



A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

21 responses to Jesus and the Marlboro Man

  1. Bill, you have a wonderful way of calling a spade a spade. Good to see you writing again. Your post should be a must read for church planters to engage their own cultural paradigms before they get any visions of grandeur.

  2. brad/futuristguy November 27, 2011 at 7:20 pm

    Bill – would it be okay to say that you are “the man” without you having to be “The Man”?

  3. Bill, did you read the entire book, Church Planter? I can’t imagine that you did with regard to what was in it versus what you wrote. Chapter 6 about the shepherding man clearly addresses servant leadership. Chapter 13 which is about compassion clearly shows this as well. WIth regard to empowering leaders chapter 16-17 talk about how to care and transform a cities through various empowered ministries.

    Regarding the cover, I can see your point, but almost all apostolic movements begin with a leader that then empowers others.

    You have some good points, but I think using Patrick’s book isn’t fair to him

    • Sammy,
      Thanks for commenting. I respond to your primary point further down in the comments.

      Regarding, “almost all apostolic movements begin with a leader that then empowers others“, I’d like examples I can respond to, please.

  4. Welcome back, Bill.

  5. Great post Bill. Welcome back!

    The first thing I said when seeing the image is “But the road just leads to him!” which you drove home. I’m sure to show my ignorance here, but are we given the explicit command to define ourselves along the lines of prophet/priest/king? Jesus is the prophet, the priest and the king, that’s enough for me. It would seem the more we define ourselves along those lines, the more we see ourselves as mediators. It’s a subtle pride that will tell you you’re the rock, the cornerstone and the one lone man… out standing in his field.

    • Thanks, Damian.

      With you, I would argue that the present church leadership focus is very much one of creating mediators between God and man.

  6. Spot on Bill…welcome back!

  7. Having listen to Patrik preach a few dozen times via podcast and having read his other book, For the city, I concur with sammy. Patrik definitely practices and encourages servant leadership. Based on a recent talk I heard, his church is decentralizing into missional communities (with leadership teams of eight) which he said was the future for how they plant churches.

  8. Sammy and Johnny,
    Forgive me that I was not clear in my post. I do not doubt Patrick’s compassion. My issue is the model of leadership he’s promoting. And the reference(s) to servant leadership I’m making are not about service – but, in fact, about positional authority and how Jesus addresses it.

    Matthew 20: 25- 28

    Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” [emphasis added, obviously]

  9. I wonder if this is why “church” has evolved into a “thing” – an entity, an institution, a program, a kingdom. Passionate and visionary men can conquer and lead a kingdom or an institution. Church is almost an end in itself. We program it, defend it, and grow it.

    Many would argue that the church is not an end in itself, but instead, it exists to create disciples, to encourage Jesus-followers, to develop spiritual lives (many ways of say the same thing). I’m ok with that.

    But developing a spiritual life is elusive and dynamic. It can’t be controlled or developed through recipe. Weekly programs, lectures, and concerts might be helpful, but they’re often not. Maybe we disagree on that. But there are no guarantees.

    So, it’s in this environment of ambiguity and inability to control outcomes, we zero-in on what we can control. And so the passion is focused on creating and controlling events and programs, as if church was something other than simply a collection of Jesus-followers trying to help each other along.

    I’m not being clear. My thoughts are still in progress and not quite ready for public consumption, perhaps. But as one who’s been outside the church for awhile, I can’t help but be frustrated that church-people are so passionate about church, as if Jesus created church – end of story.

  10. Hi Bill,

    I completely agree ‘in theory’ but my challenge is having watched my church go from the personality driven leader to ‘in theory’ an elder governed model. The problem with this broad approach to leadership is that it manifests itself in one of two ways. Either nothing gets done because no one will take responsibility for getting it done. Or, we instinctively default back to the one full time staffer we have, where we won,t call him a pastor but expect that because he is getting paid that its his responsibility.

    Granted this could just be our dysfunctional approach to leadership but its frustrating in seeing things just stagnate or worse, having a bunch of people who love input but then choose to take no responsibility.

    I really wish I knew the answer as we are seriously suffering in this ‘leadership vacuum’ regardless of which model we are using.

    • Without knowing the specifics of your situation and everything, I don’t know how useful this will be, but I think that individuals can still be accountable without there being a single personality driving that accountability. If that’s not happening then maybe you’ve not moved away from the “personality-driven” model as much as you think, maybe you’ve just left a void at the centre where that big ego used to be.

      • Thanks Dan, yes I can see the void of sorts for sure and that is definitely part of the issue.

  11. ” – The leader at the helm makes all the difference.”


    The servant at the helm makes all the difference.

    Following the path that God has already prepared. Calling the lost to find it. Helping the hurting to walk it. Encouraging the pilgrims to share it. Crawling along it all the way without turning to the left or the right.



  12. That prophet/priest/king stuff has been on my mind for quite some time now. I keep plotting to write some more about it than what I’ve already written. I am not convinced that PPK as it gets trotted out in neo-Calvinist land is even a particularly reliable way to discuss that metric. It’s one thing to say Christ is king, prophet, and priest, and altogether another thing to claim any of the minions have this or that gifting or office. Most of the definitions I’ve seen plugged into what PPK are are just that, plugged in.

    Trying not to ramble at too long a length here but Roy Baumeister has suggested the value of men to a culture is their disposability. Enterprises frequently end in failure so all these ambitious church planter types should not have illusions about the likelihood of their success if their measure of success is church as entrepreneurial model. If these guys really wanted to model church an an entrepreneurial model they’d take a word from folks who have done entrepreneurial work and noticed that marriages, dating relationships, and families often fracture if the venture succeeds and that the venture often fails. If that’s how it is then maybe more church planters should be single guys, eh? 😉

    • Prophet-Priest-King has got to be one of the most distorted theologies among the Young Restless and Reformed or whatever we call Gospel Coalition fanboys this week.

  13. Good to see you blogging again, Bill.

    My first thought when viewing that photo was:
    “Pave paradise – put up a parking lot…”

  14. Can you point us forward a bit more here? How might we better understand the purpose, shape, and practice of apostolic/visionary leadership along the lines of Matthew 20? What might a Pauline sort of leadership look like in our present context? (You know I’m asking these questions as one who’s totally w/ you right?!)

  15. Thank you for articulating this. We have been running from western leadership philosophies for over ten years now. We have been in “Ministry” for 21 yrs, half of which was spent in Africa. But have seen the damage that this burdensome, often impossible, philosophy of leadership is placing on people with a BIG KINGDOM heart.
    Strangely, even here in Mali, West Africa, this “View” of leadership has already worked it’s way into the leadership of the few, but very Western influenced/funded, assemblies, in this Islamic region.
    Interestingly, a buddy of mine working in Burkina Faso sent me the link to this article. Sounds like we all share a similar story/journey of sorts.
    For us personally, to get free of this leadership path, we had to step away from a paid position, and go back to our roots as a Commercial fishing family in Eastern Canada. From there we have connected with others on a journey to something more “community”, in both Canada, and among this Islamic people we live among here in Mali. I assure you in church planting/growth agencies I have been a part of, when it comes to leadership- It’s a monologue. Only one “view of leadership” is out their right now, and it is at the helm of most of this stuff. We wish them all well, but we can live with Jesus as the visionary, one who sees farther into the future than we can. We can’t bear that burden, and I’m not sure we were met too. Funny, that visionary was able to bring us to an unreached Islamic people with one known Christ follower.

  16. Good post. Your characterization, observation, and commentary on the American church seems to be true in some instances and has got me thinking. Thanks for providing me with another perspective.


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