Celebrity Pastors and Community

How often have you heard these types of comments?

“The preacher is great.”
“I love the pastor.”
“She’s such a great leader”

The statements are usually genuine, reflecting an appreciation for strong pastoral giftedness that needs to be encouraged. This is a good. Yet underlying these comments is an idea of church and community that lives and dies with the pastor. And the better the pastor, the better the church.
This past Sunday I had the opportunity to preach at a pastor-less church - or at least, a church without a paid pastor (I sensed a pastoral presence lurking in the lay-folk - very encouraging!). The lectionary text that came up was 1 Cor. 1:10-18. The passage is about quarreling over strong leaders and who likes who more. Paul? Apollos? Cephas? Christ? Essentially, the Christians in Corinth were fighting over which leader had the best church.
The church I was sharing with is in the process of discerning next steps for leadership as a congregation, so the passage was timely. Paul reminds the Corinth church that unity comes not from good leadership, but “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 10). And it’s the “power” (v.17) of the cross of Christ that sustains oneness, not Paul or anyone else’s ability to fabricate unity.

And yet how easily we can fall into accepting a celebrity culture of pastoral leadership. If pop culture tends to be driven by public figures given far more influence on our values and actions then deserved, the same risk exists in church culture. A popular pastor - not necessarily a fault of her/his own - exists in a structure that elevates the pastoral role to a place in which this modern conception of pastoral leadership determines the well-being of a church.

Consider this: what first comes to mind when you read this list of churches?
  • Willow Creek?
  • Saddleback?
  • The Meeting House?
  • Mars Hill? (both of them!)
  • Redeemer Presbyterian?

No doubt many thought of people, specifically pastors. Bill Hybels. Rick Warren. Bruxy Cavey. Mark Driscoll or Rob Bell. Tim Keller. All celebrity pastors in North American Christianity, with current or past successful churches and ministries. All doing many great things (and some not-so-great things at times - even celebrity pastors aren’t superhuman!). All individuals having a significant (this can’t be overstated!) impact on their churches. This doesn't mean popular pastors are bad. Or attending a church with a celebrity pastor is wrong. But it does make community more complicated.

And this isn’t just a megachurch issue. Anyone who attends church needs to reflect on their own experience and expectation of pastoral leadership. And be honest: celebrate the good, but don’t celebrate the celebrity. Preaching, music, teaching, leadership – all great things in service to the church – can become about an individuals ability to perform and garner a following. In the New Testament, pastors have a role, no doubt. But a role alongside everyone else (Eph 4:11-13). We need to stop elevating celebrity Christians to a certain special status, lest we accept what Paul is rejecting for Corinth: a church “of Paul” or “of (insert name of your favorite pastor)”. This doesn’t mean get rid of pastors! But Christians do need to recognize that the pastor doesn’t create or can’t replace the community of Christ.

When it comes to the church I spoke at, they have decided not to hire a pastor for now. They have a committed leadership team and gifted staff, so instead of rushing to become a pastor-led but potentially community-less church, an alternative model of leadership is right for them at this time. And as I alluded to above, this doesn't mean they don’t have pastors, just none that are paid.
This was my prayer I left for them, one which I offer for all churches:
Who and what are you looking for? May your discernment lead you to realize you are dynamic group of Jesus-followers called to gather in life together regardless of who leads you. Your church’s success does not depend on the pastor. You are a church, united solely “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.


Defining Culture: Participation

As I discussed in my previous post, our attitude towards culture will influence how we define culture. 

Generally, my attitude towards culture is quite positive. I’m naturally an optimist, so I tend to look for the best in people, situations, and the world around me. Yet as a Christian, I also think there is some ground to have hope for the cultures in which we find ourselves. While sin, death, and brokenness can wreak havoc in countless ways in history and across cultures, I don’t think such cultural trauma comes without glimpses of goodness. I’m convinced that God’s  “good” declared upon the world (Gen. 1:31) echoes forward in time, pulling us ahead with a vision of God’s intent for all cultures. Even today, then, we get glimpses of goodness.

All this to say, I”m not ready to give up on culture. I’ve recently encountered two definitions of culture that inspire my hope. In his book Culture Making, Andy Crouch discusses culture as something that is historically rooted, visible, as well as moldable. We can learn and influence our world if we know the culture. Examining culture can tell us much about the world we live in, but also how we continue to inform and create this culture. In this view we aren’t passive recipients or stationary residents of culture. Rather, our cultural task as citizens is to be culture creators. We help produce the artifacts for our time. We make the culture. Looking at tangible things (i.e. “artifacts”) in the culture can be one way we engage this culture we create. Crouch offers a list of questions that help guide this engagement:
  1. What does this cultural artifact assume about the way the world is?
  2. What does this cultural artifact assume about the way the world should be?
  3. What does this cultural artifact make possible?
  4. What does this cultural artifact made impossible (or at least very difficult)?
  5. What new forms of culture are created in response to this artifact?

The other definition of culture comes from the wealth of insight in James Davison Hunter’s book, To Change the World. For Hunter, defining culture is complex, not limited to one particular point. A single definition or understanding won’t suffice. He acknowledges the diverse ways culture develops in various parts of history and different places in the world. In doing so, he articulates seven key characteristics that describe the complexity of culture:
  1. Culture is a system of truth claims and moral obligations
  2. Culture is a product of history
  3. Culture is intrinsically dialectical
  4. Culture is a resource and, as such, a form of power
  5. Culture is governed by quality, not quantity
  6. Culture is generated within networks
  7. Culture is neither autonomous nor fully coherent

The word “participation” describes well how I understand our role as humans in the world and in our faith. I find participation a helpful word for how I define culture as well. Culture is composed of the complex areas of our world that continually shape us, both directly and indirectly, but areas that at the same time, we also shape. In this sense, we participate in culture. We aren’t merely passive recipients of culture, but nor are we rulers over culture. In culture, we both create and are created. And as a Christian, Jesus’ prayer for his followers sums up this dynamic well: 
I have given them your word and the culture has hated them, for they are not of the culture any more than I am of the culture. My prayer is not that you take them out of the culture but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the culture, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the culture, I have sent them into the culture. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified (John 17:13-18).

Defining Culture: Attitudes

I spend a lot of time talking about and reflecting on culture and faith. Over a ⅓ of the posts on this blog are labeled “culture.” I have a Masters degree in Christianity and Culture. I direct an urban discipleship program oriented around cultural engagement. To say culture interests me is definitely an understatement.

Yet rarely do I pause to examine what exactly culture is.

Over the past several months as I’ve continued to read and reflect on Christianity and culture, I’ve tried to also focus on developing a framework for what culture actually is. Yet such a project quickly reveals just how malleable the concept is. Factors ranging from geography to politics, to the arts, among many other things, all combine to create what we loosely call culture. So while I feel far from grasping a clear definition of culture, there have been interesting insights along the way. I’ll share one now, and then a few more in the next post or two.

First, I find that the attitude from which a definition of culture is presented will have significant impact on how culture is actually defined. This is particularly evident when culture is discussed among Christians. For some, culture simply refers to all that is foreign, other, or even evil in the world. Culture, therefore, is meant to be feared and avoided, or at best, tolerated. The best Christians can hope for is to create and sustain some sort of parallel culture. This is often impetus behind the various forms of “Christian culture” we encounter. I remain convinced that the presence of a Christian subculture, while normal and good in some cases, can be one of the more insidious barriers to Christians faithfully living in the world.

On the other hand, others only see the good in culture, optimistic that everyone possesses the best intentions for society. Absent is any sense of critical evaluation of ways culture reflects values contrary to Christian faithfulness. If a Christian subculture is a danger for the pessimists, cultural optimists can risk losing any definitive qualities of Christian faith and practice.

One more alternative is the reality that some people have no attitude towards culture, unaware of culture’s influence in shaping who they are as people. Culture, if thought of at all, is simply a neutral aspect of life in the world, and definitely irrelevant for faith. The result, however, is human identity can change at a whim, dependent on current cultural interests and values. Ignorance isn’t bliss; ignorance is just a false sense that human identity exists independent of experience in the world.

Christians across historical and denominational have displayed these attitudes in different ways to various degrees. And I’ve noticed, which I’ll explore next, how such attitudes can direct how we define culture itself. 

What's your attitude towards culture?

What Now?

In the days and weeks after Christmas, as life gets back to “normal” (whatever that is!), we can sometimes experience an emptiness or uncertainty. The wonder of our celebrations are met with, well, nothing. January feels anticlimactic. Christmas is but a memory, leaving little imprint in our lives.

And so we wonder, what next? We are prone to look ahead. In fact, the Christmas story itself pulls us ahead (e.g. the Magi’s visit, Joseph and Mary fleeing  to Egypt to escape Herod’s violence). For Jesus, the journey to Jerusalem has begun. And much of the New Testament looks ahead to the 2nd Advent. As Christians we are journeying towards the New Jerusalem, awaiting a final fulfillment of Christ’s reign in the world. In this sense, “what next?” is entirely appropriate in the days following the nativity story.

We also look ahead in much of In life as well. Working at a college, I’m adapting back into the rhythm and routine of a new semester. A new year often involves reflection and possibly resolution for our lives - next steps personally, in relationships, or work. It’s safe to say that much of our lives are future-oriented (we never really “arrive”).

And while this constant future orientation can be a good thing, we do risk getting caught with so much focus on the future (planning this or dreaming that) that we neglect the present.
It’s interesting, then, to consider how the first Christians looked forward. Where our gaze can distract us from the present, in the New Testament, “What next?” was paralleled by another vitally important question: “What now?”

As Christians, the future determines the present. We don’t wait for the future in the present. Sorry Jon Mayer, but we don’t “keep on waiting.” No, the present is where we live in the reality of the future.

Much of the time, eschatology (the study of the end) is greatly misunderstood. Revelation, with all its profound symbols for the future of our world, is primarily about inspiring faithfulness in the present.

Earlier this, the church entered the season of epiphany, a time to recognize God’s manifestation in our world. And while the Biblical narrative leads through Jesus’ life toward the cross – the most profound “next” in the Biblical narrative – the reminder of epiphany is for now. God is with us. God is with us now!

As we leave Christmas behind and enter a new year, we don’t just ponder what next, but need to ask, what now? And then recognize it is not what we see or hear. It’s who we see and hear. God’s love continually present with us in Christ through the persistent work of the Holy Spirit. Our hope for the future as Christians is a hope realized in the present.
What now? Immanuel, God with us!

O come let us adore him…

This post is adapted from a chapel talk at Columbia Bible College.


Today is Epiphany in the church calendar. This clip reflects on the hope we have living in the reality of God's manifestation in the world.