What can we learn from the Mike Guglielmucci scandal?

I guess most of you like me are still trying to process the whole Mike Guglielmucci scandal. The more you think about it the stranger it becomes. This was not just a slip of the tongue or a white lie that got out of hand. This was seemingly a well planned, well researched, and well executed deception. 

Strangely not long ago I watched a re-run of Seinfeld where Jerry and George’s friend Gary pretends to have Cancer. When I watched the episode, I thought to myself “Who would pretend to have cancer?’ It seemed implausible, it seemed too bad taste” Little did I know that such an episode would break into real life.

As the son of a cancer survivour, questions have been going around in my head, like how on earth do you get your hands on medical oxygen if you are not sick for your faux performance at Hillsong? How do you fake all of your hospital stays and visits?  We may never know the answers to these questions, the Adelaide Advertiser reports that the Australian Christian Churches have told Mike Guglielmucci to report to police.

This is not the first time that such a scandal has occured. In the early 1990’s evangelist Mike Warnke claimed to be a former Satanic Priest, his testimony lead many to the Lord, but he was exposed and his story duped thousands.  Sadly faked healings have a long history in Christianity.

When things like this happen it is important to react in compassion and grace and I encourage you to read Mark Conner’s response to the situation here. However when situations like this occur we must also turn bad into good by asking what do we need to learn from this, we must as the people of God ask ‘Is there something that God might be teaching us here?’.

On one level this is a very personal sin, yet as I have prayed and meditated on this there is also a systematic and cultural failure occurring here. There are too many cultural idols in this sad tale to leave unnamed. My fear is that this kind of ‘success at all cost’s’ moral failure, could be a kind of new fall that other young leaders may face (albiet less publically) if left unwarned. The world into which young leaders are emerging contains a number of traps which we must be aware of.

1) Celebrity Obsession. As a culture we have an obsession with celebrity that borders on the pornographic. Websites, magazines, radio, and television fill our waking hours with millions of bytes of information about the lives of celebrities. Just by living in the soup that is 21st century culture we imbibe the idea that that ultimate meaning in this life is found in  becoming ‘known’. Sadly this belief has filtered its way into Christian culture. With my work with young leaders I have discovered that many have bought the lie, and believe that Christian leadership is an avenue to Stardom. (for more read here).

2) Stardom by any means. Young Leaders grow up in a world in which Hollywood star’s anti-social behaviour is celebrated, making them more famous. A world in which it is not just enough to be a gold medal winning Olympic athlete, today you also have to do the raunchy photo shoot in a men’s mag to be really ‘known’. A world in which being filmed smoking crack cocaine increases your record sales or helps you land more modelling contracts. In his book Celebrity sociologist Chris Rojek notes that many today are happy to be notorious as long as it gets them fame.

3) Life as acting. Young leaders today emerge into a world in which we act all the time. You can pretend to be someone online that you are not, you can make your life look more awesome on your myspace or facebook than it really is. There is tremendous pressure to live as though we are acting. Media theorist Neal Gabler in his book Life the Movie notes that today many live their lives like they are acting all the time. Young leaders live in a world where young people live in a perpetual spotlight, they are their own media channels, their own brands, and their own public relations firms. In such a world who you are on the inside is irrelevant, instead we act out a life script our audience is our peers.

4) ‘Making it’. Many young leaders I encounter are obsessed with ‘making it’, the problem is that our understanding of success is defined by culture rather than by scripture. As I get around consulting, leaders of Churches, Mission Agencies, and Christian Aid Agencies tell me that they have no problem with young leaders wanting to get involved, what they have a problem with is finding young leaders who want to do the hard yards, who want to be unsung heroes. God only calls a tiny handful of leaders to have a public profile, what we need is an army of leaders who are happy to obediently be invisible servants, who are happy to have their good works only seen by God.

5) Living as a Contradiction. A number of recent surveys have found that large segments of Evangelicals privately do not hold to evangelical beliefs. Ron Sider’s book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience points out that Evangelicals behaviour is no different to that of those who do not hold to faith and in many cases worse. One of the traits of contemporary culture is what Danel Gergen in his book The Saturated Self calls multiphrenia, that is the ability to hold contradictory beliefs at the same time without a sense of guilt or cognitive dissonance. Sadly Christians have begun to mirror this phenomenon. Many young Christians and many young Christian leaders pick and choose what parts of the gospel they want to adhere to and seem to not feel the guilt that past generations did about doing so.  

6) Partial Accountability. The trend in Christian circles in the last 20 years has been one of high accountability around the area of sexual sin. Many leaders have accountability partners who ask them about their struggles with lust, there are even technologies available to keep leaders accountable in terms of their internet usuage, you can purchase systems which will remove sexual content from the movies that you watch. All this for many is very helpful. However we have not seen an accompanying concern about the sins of selfish ambition, self obsession and arrogance, all of which can be just as damaging as sexual sin. Sadly often such traits are encouraged as mark’s of leadership, and humility seems to be passe. Gen Y’s confidence is a wonderful resource for the kingdom yet it like all gifts contains a dangerous counterpoint of ambition and arrogance if left unchecked.

7) Therapeutic Faith. Many of the people whom I have spoken to feel some sense of confusion over what has happened. How do they process the fact that they felt so moved by Mike Guglielmucci’s testimony, that particularly his appearance at Hillsong was so moving. They ask the question how could something that feels so right be so wrong? The short answer is that we all got played like suckers by a seemingly premeditated and well acted charade. The reason that so many of the young adults feel so torn over this is that we have taken on what some label as a ttherapeutic faith, that is a faith in which feelings rule over facts, in which the heart beats the head. A faith that is built only upon feelings can truck along nicely until the rough weather comes along, and this whole scandal is rough weather. Our culture values pleasure and feelings over almost everything else, we need faith’s in which our hearts and our heads work in tandem. A faith that is only heart driven has no discernment. the word warned of false prophets, we must take everything we feel and experience back to scripture to be weighed.

As we examine the Mike Guglielmucci scandal we can see the all of these elements coming together. It is a tragic situation which has hurt thousands. However some good can come of this. My prayer for young leaders and for young believers, is that a new style of leadership emerges, one that rejects the traps of our culture, one that shuns the glittering lights of hyperreality and instead lives for a mustard seed revolution. In which the first victories are private; the ones that we win in our own lives, in our families lives and in our neighbourhoods. A revolution that models a different reality, a way of living and operating that stands in stark contrast to our world’s values.

We need to rediscover what it is to be kingdom leaders.


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