The benefits of institutions over charismatic authority for evangelicals

American evangelicals may often prize celebrity pastors and figures but sociologist and college president Michael Lindsay argues institutions provide more lasting impact:

Weber distinguished between different kinds of authority. Traditional authority is what the Queen of England has. You inherit it from your parents. Rational-legal authority is what President Obama has. You’re on top of a major bureaucracy, and that’s how you get things done. And then there’s charismatic authority. This is the authority that Billy Graham had. It’s the authority that Jesus had. It’s the authority that gathers and collects around an outstanding individual, a persona.

But in order for that person to have lasting impact, Weber says, it has to be routinized; in other words, it has to be channeled into an institutional form. The authority of a charismatic individual has to be transferred into a rational-legal bureaucracy. So, for instance, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is a great example of the routinization of charisma. After Billy Graham is gone, his ministry will continue. Charles Colson died two years ago. But much of his work is continuing in Prison Fellowship even though the founder is no longer there.

So, while it is true that evangelicalism does prize the personality, and there is a cult of celebrity in the church, what we are witnessing is evangelicals coming to appreciate the importance and the primacy of institutions.

Charismatic leaders are rare and it can often be difficult to take the better things they do and imbue that into institutions. Yet, institutions can have incredible staying power and operate at a broader level of society.

While evangelicals may be showing more interest in institutions, such a viewpoint rubs against the typical evangelical tendency toward individualism. The charismatic leader can fit the American story of working hard and making something of oneself. The attractive leader can pull in individuals through new technologies as evangelicals effectively used the ascending radio and television scenes. (Interestingly, I’ve seen much less about evangelicals effectively harnessing the Internet for their ends. Perhaps such an analysis can come with time.) Appealing to institutions requires both leaders and adherents to turn their focus more to the communal than their own interests. This is a difficult switch, particularly in certain areas like Smith and Emerson demonstrate in Divided By Faithwith the inability for white evangelicals to beyond the individual to the social dimensions of race in America.

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