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.



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