October 5, 2023

Hey Aussie Church: Watch out for the COSTCO Narcissists

The COSTCO version of Mars Hill: coming to a city near you


You all know COSTCO, right? Perhaps some of you have even shopped there (let me know in a DM if you’re too ashamed to admit it in public).

Here’s the thing about COSTCO though – the really great thing: It doesn’t pretend to be more than it is. It’s cheap and cheerful and it’s a budget version of the more refined supermarkets. Everything comes in bulk, fairly standard fare and not flashy at all.

There’s a huge COSTCO near the airport here in Perth, hanging out with all of the other hangars. And it looks like, well, it looks like a lot of churches these days! Big car park, a warehouse and a stream of cars.

I was reminded of COSTCO when I read this timely, and sobering article from the theologically astute Gary Millar, the Principal of Queensland Theological College, in a The Gospel Coalition article. It’s entitled “Enduring Lessons From the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill”.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not insinuating that Gary’s article is cheap, cheerful and on the budget side of writing. It’s not. It’s a great piece. Right up there with the flashy supermarkets that stock GF stone-baked sourdough.

COSTCO Narcissists

Narcissistic leaders in churches are all too prevalent

But what I was reminded of was just how prevalent the issues that Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll presented, are in our wider evangelical scene, albeit on a budget scale. In other words COSTCO narcissists in our COSTO evangelical scene. I was reminded of it because I’ve been through it, helped others through it, and have watched on the side-lines as others get shafted by such COSTCO narcissists.

But when we’ve all read (and listened) to the scary bogeyman of Christian narcissism it’s kinda gets easy to walk past the big, bad smoulder wreckage shaking our heads and going “Tsk, tsk! Look how bad that is!” And the result is that it’s very easy to build the tombs of the prophets and insist that if it happened in our time we would not have killed them.”

And I guess that’s the point of Gary’s article; What about us? What are we overlooking in our own local, kinda COSTCO, scenes? Why is institutional leadership and denominational hierarchy so squeamish about this issue and so unwilling to tackle bad leadership in our midst? In our COSTCO midst?

The sign of a good leader, or a good leadership structure, is that it is willing to take a hit for the people below it, and to put self interest, and favouritism (being a respecter of persons) aside for the sake of godly, yet costly, decisions when it comes to dealing with bad leaders. Yet so few do. So few want to put their necks on their line, or their long term friendships on the line over this matter.

You know, the bloke you went to theological college with? Yeah he was kinda awful to people at college, but I am sure as he has grown older, and been involved in more ministries, he has gotten over that.

Not if someone hasn’t called him out, he hasn’t. Not if someone hasn’t asked him the hard questions about why so many staff leave his organisation and find themselves out of ministry, or in therapy because of him? Yet this is what I meet all over the church in Australia.

And rest assured, I can usually pick when someone has left an organisation who is problematic, or lazy or ungodly. That comes through loud and clear. And I can pick when someone is just being disciplined by a leader and doesn’t like it.

But I can also pick the weeping wife and her emotionally shattered husband who has come up against a harsh man, a rough sheep who is more than willing to drink the sweet water in the brook and then muddy it up for everyone else. The rough sheep who takes an almost perverse delight in butting heads with someone – and winning. The rough sheep who breaks bruised reeds and snuffs out smouldering wicks.

So what about us? Why is there such a prevalence of COSTCO toxic leadership doing the rounds of our churches? They’re not Mars Hill in terms of influence, though some of them sure wish they were, but they are constantly breaking something or someone.

These cheap, cheerful, average-sized churches and organisations don’t make a huge splash, but they sure rack up a body count on a budget. And then they cover it up and start all over, partly because they don’t make enough of a splash, and their victims aren’t big enough cogs in the ministry wheel, and partly because no one has the will power or the spine to tackle them.

That’s COSTCO narcissism. It might not be the expensive brand we have all come to know and take a perverse glee in exposing, but it’s popping up all over the place like a COSTCO franchise. And it’s time something was done about it.

The COSTCO Narcissist Shopping List.

So have a look at Gary’s list again:

  1. Be Careful When Focussing On Numbers
  2. Do Not Excuse the Gifted
  3. Do Not Assume All Young Leaders are Teachable
  4. Beware of Manipulation
  5. Uphold Formal Accountability.

In the big sexy supermarket chains of North American evangelicalism it’s often easy to see where that is occurring. And we non-USA-types really love to look down our noses at how gauche it all is over there. But let’s stop making ourselves feel better with our faux-outrage and ignoring what is happening here.

Cos all the elements are among us, they’re just more COSTCO. And especially so among conservative evangelicals who, by dint of our culture, are happy to dial down the fancy packaging, and dial up the theological content. As aside, we’re COSTCO to the core on a whole bunch of stuff we shouldn’t be!

My experience is that theological acumen and orthodoxy is no barrier to COSTCO narcissism in our Reformed evangelical churches. It is either overlooked “Cos we’re theologically on the money“, or it is weaponised and used as a shield by the COSTCO boys themselves. Gary is on the money when he states:

We may not use the same kind of language as Driscoll, but it is all too easy to push younger brothers and sisters in the directions we want them to go by appeals to ‘spiritual wisdom’ (almost always ours!), or by telling them they are ‘blokes worth watching’ or women who are clearly ‘gifted for gospel ministry’. 

Heed the warning. Heed the COSTCO warning. Stop doing narcissism on a budget. And stop allowing it. Whether it’s COSTCO or the local quality grocery with grain-feed beef, the price is way too high.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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