Cardboard Elvis

Icardboard elvisn an antique store about four miles from where I used to live, Elvis Presley greets you as soon as you step inside. No, he hasn’t quit his job at the car wash in Grand Rapids and works here now. This Elvis is not the real thing, not even one of the many impersonators making their living imitating the legend. This Elvis is cardboard, a six-foot-tall printed image. But he looks just like him adorned in black leather with a silk scarf around his neck, and sporting the unmistakable Elvis smirk, he stirs the heart of every Elvis fan he greets. Looking from the front of the store you might think it was the real thing, especially if you wanted to believe its him. At least that’s what I’m told. The owner says he sells a couple of cardboard Elvis’s a month at $30 bucks apiece. Die-hard Elvis fans are quite eager to lay down the cash for the mere image of greatness.

Who is greatest in the kingdom?

 Steven Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, identifies two types of greatness – primary and secondary. Primary greatness, he writes, is essential greatness; the greatness that emerges from a person’s character, from the inside out. He or she is the essence of greatness in every dimension and in every place.

 But secondary greatness is the fame and renown that results from the person’s personality and gifts, from the outside out. He or she is not really great in the essential sense. There may be serious flaws inside, thus they only appear to be great. A cardboard Elvis so to speak.

And from the front of the store (or sitting in the audience) it’s hard to tell the difference. Jesus warned about people who capably exercised spiritual gifts but whose personal intimacy with God was absent. He scorned those whose lives were whitewashed tombs full of dead men’s bones. Christ placed a substantial premium on reality all the way through, from the outside in and from the inside out. Greatness from the outside out, no matter how flamboyant, holds little pull with God.

But there are any number of us who are quite eager to buy into an image of greatness, even if it’s no more substantial than the cardboard Elvis. And that gets me “all shook up.” We want to believe that our celebrities are as great as their image and so the mere image of greatness too often substitutes for essential, actual greatness. The on-stage performance (in our setting its most often preaching, prophesying, or healing) too often misrepresents what really is a paucity of greatness backstage. Unfortunately the system is skewed in favor of the performer. Followers (and fans) are too assuming and leaders are too quick to play on those assumptions. We’re too accommodating of their inadequacies, in fact, too often we don’t even want to know who or what they really are. We resist discovering whether their greatness is primary or secondary. And too often, way too often, the Christian celebrity is much too willing to exploit our assumptions.

The very existence and concept of celebrityism is dangerous. Humility has been displaced by promotion, either self-promotion or, for the more indirect, by ads and articles. Doubt what I say? Just browse the pages of Charisma or Ministries Today magazines and look at the claims made in full-color advertisements. Read objectively newsletter and organizational magazines about what that group is doing. One prominent leader once told me that no other organization in the world had the impact and effectiveness that his did. At first thought he was joking then I realized he was dead serious. It was backdoor self-promotion. How often did Jesus tell those He healed and delivered not to tell anyone where they found their healing or deliverance?

So different from what we see modeled today. Someone said that a celebrity is well-known for being well- known. Their real contribution to the eternal scheme of things is much smaller than they would have you believe and very much smaller than they believe about themselves. But their public performance is only part of the problem. Now, I know some people will say to me, “Don’t Be Cruel.” And I certainly don’t want to promote “Suspicious Minds” within our ranks. We want to be loving and trusting, but it will take more than a “Big Hunk O’Love” to overcome the failure of Christian leaders to live worthy of their calling. The all-too-painful collapses and on-going escapades of prominent Charismatic ministries only reveals a pandemic cancer within our ranks. As I write this letter, Tammy Faye and her husband du jour have launched a new counseling “ministry.” Just call a 900 number  and for a few dollars a minute you can hear wonderful words of wisdom from Tammy. Spare me, please, the religious rhetoric. This is no more a ministry than elephants can fly. Haven’t we already given these people enough money? And she still claims that neither Jim nor she did anything wrong. But good taste and sense notwithstanding she’ll probably do quite well in her new endeavor.

Borrowing Strength Builds Weakness

If character is, as one author has put it a collection of values, then we obviously have not gathered the Biblically important values. Our character is the sum of all we are and do, not just what we appear to be. Judging according to appearances is a fatal indulgence. When we rely on image we borrow strength and build weakness in these ways:

 First, by allowing our leaders (we might even say we’ve encouraged them) to borrow strength from position and image, we build weakness within them. In order to maintain and further the “ministry” they must exploit the position and image more and more. It becomes increasingly imperative to prohibit anyone from really knowing them closely lest the public discover what’s what and who’s who. They turn up the heat on the public performance to bolster support for the image. The reality of His Nature, the Essence of His Character is obscured and the leader is gradually, but continually weakened from within. The result? Ultimate collapse.

Secondly, because we borrow strength from their weakness by investing in their image, hype, and celebrityism, we build weakness within ourselves. We sing grand and glorious songs about warfare and victory, yet live lives of illusion. Ensnared by base passions, greed, materialism, worldliness, we fear that the bubble of blessing will burst and we’ll lose what few trinkets we’ve gained. We lose touch with who we really are and rely on outward imaginary strengths; volume, noise, and religious practice. Were many of us to face a real enemy we would collapse. You may remember the hyped up Hantavirus last summer called Navajo flu. Every mission here suffered setbacks because teams canceled in fear of an imaginary epidemic. The strength we tout, the militancy we proclaim deflates quickly when ticked by the enemy’s smallest thorn.

Thirdly, we build weakness into our relationship with God because we’ve staked a claim in acres of air. Superficial groupieism displaces the depth and intimacy of a personal relationship with God. We become adherents of Benny Hinn, Jimmy Swaggart, Kenneth Copeland, or whomever, but lack any real, meaningful, and communicative intimacy with God. Celebrities are our devotional source. Therefore His Person, which is the only source of true greatness, never affects us because we have virtually no exposure to it. Then primary greatness becomes rare, secondary greatness common.

Fourthly, because our hearts, motives, and opinions are heavily invested in image, not character, we lose contact with truth. We believe something to be true which may or may not be true. If it is discovered that what we believed to be true is not really true, if it is discovered that the confidence and expectations which we held prove us to be fools, we shoot the messenger who revealed the truth to us. Remember the reaction of Christians when the PTL and the Swaggart scandals came to light? Remember the reaction when Prime Time Live revealed the tricks of the trade in three prominent TV religious personalities? Many fought it as a device of the Devil to discredit and diminish the ministry. Since when is the Devil an advocate of the truth? Does not the Bible identify him as the father of lies? To be on the side of true truth (not perceived truth) is to be on the side of God. If you’ve time, read John 8: 12-32. John’s account of Christ’s encounter with the Pharisees clearly demonstrates the peril of relying on secondary greatness. The Pharisees did all the things that made them appear holy, righteous, and in touch with God. The problem was because they really didn’t know God they judged according to appearances (verse 15) and lived lives patterned after the right image. They convinced themselves that image was everything. After reasoning with them about the folly of their convictions, He speaks the famous “You shall know the truth …”command. The truth is not only He who is Truth, but it also includes the truth about what pleases the Father.

Fifthly, when we focus too much on a leader’s talents and gifts and too little on his character we allow, perhaps even promote cardboard heroes who look just like the real thing. Unsung heroes labor ignored in their unglamorous places of service. We then build weakness within our ranks because the truly great are ignored while hype is rewarded. Many are the great who labor in obscure places, whose preaching skills are mediocre at best, whose pulpit and platform style are anything but flamboyant, but whose intimacy with God is real and deep. We build weakness within our ranks because we reward the celebrity but punish the hero. 

In my limited experience I have been privileged to work at length with some of the most renowned and respected ministries in Charismatic Christianity. I can verify that there are those whose greatness is essential and real. But they are too few. One major figure is a master in a meeting. He speaks with authority and eloquence, prophesies with insight and power, and manifests the image of dedication, humility, and sacrifice; everything we like and want in a star. But his image is no more substantial than the cardboard Elvis. His personal life is a disgrace. His late wife was estranged by him and lived as a virtual outcast in her own home. As early as the mid-1980’s he had asked for a divorce which she refused to grant him because she believed for restoration until she died. In the last years of her life she would not participate with him in their public meetings because she was sickened by the hypocrisy he lived under. He persisted in conducting public ministry even though his personal family life was a disaster. When he was asked at those meeting where his wife was, he lied, made some excuse about her being with the family, and changed the subject. Very few knew about his hatred for her, about the language he used with her and the obscene names called her which destroyed her spirit.

Their children had nothing to do with him and considered him a failure as a father. But most  significantly they considered him a failure as a minister. In the headquarters office, the employees there testify he could not be a Christian and do the things he does. Most of the people that he hires to do top-level work with him will not stay for long and support the lie. (I want to point out that a major indicator of secondary greatness is the lack of a long-term key leadership team who work together on a day to day basis. When good men cycle through an organization, often it’s because they discovered that the image of who they thought they were going to work for bore no resemblance to what he really was. Usually secondarily great leaders blame the turnover on a lack of commitment and unreliability on the part of those who left. Actually the opposite is true. They leave because their commitment to morality, virtue, and integrity will not allow them to remain and validate a lie. Billy Graham has had key men work closely with him for decades, not so with the man I refer to here.) For the conferences his ministry sponsored, he selected speakers on the basis of their ability to draw the crowds and thus raise money. Only a few people knew the real situation about this man, but most tragically, that man’s board of directors and the organization which ordains him both are well aware of all of this and have done nothing to correct it. Their reason? “After all the anointing is so great, we have to overlook the faults in light of the great good he does.” I understood the Bible to say that a leader lives under stricter guidelines and requirements than anyone else in the Kingdom. Here we are told that they have greater slack and broader latitude because of their anointing. Unfortunately, too many Charismatic and Pentecostal leaders feel the same way. To them the most important thing is ministry and power. A recent editorial in Ministries Today magazine urged people to overlook heresy and unethical behavior because of the great good done by certain less-than-exemplary ministries.

We disagree. The ends do not justify the means. The collection of values which add up to the total of our lives cannot, indeed must not substitute image or ability for substance. If you doubt Jesus’ emphasis on this, just read Matthew 7:21-23. I wish the condition was limited to only one or two, but a great many leaders live the same way producing two dismal results. The first is that trusting, innocent people are misled, receive the wrong message (that gifts and talents are more important than character and relationship) and are ultimately devastated when the truth comes out (be not deceived, it will come out).

Another is that the capacity of the church to influence the world with the Gospel is neutralized because we have become so much like the world. But we believe that substance is more important than image and that personal relationship with God and family far more important than the “work” we do. We believe the church to which we minister and the world before which we: stand deserves more than the image of greatness. The first name of the third member of the Trinity is Holy and we believe that to be truly Spirit-filled is to reflect His holiness and not just channel His power. We also believe that it is ethically and morally wrong to mislead believing, trusting people. We are committed to essential greatness within ourselves and within the Body at large. By pandering to our basic propensity for self-accommodation and allowing the ends to justify the means, leaders have entered into a compact with the devil to attempt to gain the kingdoms of the world without the cross. And this is where Charismatic Christianity in America has fallen far short. We’ve neglected the ancient Christian tenets of self-denial, honesty, and repentance before God as the way to greatness. Instead, Charismatics have supplanted them with power gifts, hype, and image, none of which will withstand the destructive forces already assembled against us for the kill.

So “It’s Now or Never.” We can either change our focus and emphasis , demand holiness from ourselves and from our leaders, or we can keep on buying cardboard Elvis’s and allow ourselves to become maudlin fools who love only the dishonest image of greatness when the essence of greatness has long since left.

Jack Dunigan has gratefully retired from the ministry but continues to write and challenge readers. You may read more at







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