I like to frequent church websites. It’s a good way for me to see how congregations other than mine do the things they do (services, membership, preaching, etc.). I find it to be very informative and helpful as I discover many churches who do things much better than mine. But every once in a while, I run into sites which make me feel a little uncomfortable for a very specific reason – the gratuitous parading and promoting of the senior pastor.
Maybe you’ve seen those sites. The pastor’s face is anchored everywhere – blog, sermon series, Facebook, Twitter, men’s retreat, even women’s retreat – ad infinitum, ad nauseum. In addition to his omnipresent image, how he’s portrayed also raises an eyebrow or two. This is pastor as celebrity – highlighted hair well-streaked and coiffed, a mouth full of veneers so perfectly aligned and incredibly radiant that his smile can be seen from 40,000 feet, and decked out in the latest and greatest offering from Urban Outfitters. In other words he looks just like the people he shepherds, right? Now before someone reminds me of my glass house address, let me say that I’m not suggesting pastors who really love Jesus are those who look like they stepped right out of a time warp, caring nothing about their appearance. I’m also not saying that churches shouldn’t ever leverage the personality of their pastor. Consumers have always better related to a person than a product (e.g., Bill Cosby’s Jello, George Foreman’s grill, etc.). It may be very well that churches use this cultural inclination advantageously for the gospel. I simply wonder if the advantage is really about the gospel or just the pastor. Is this for Jesus or simply to fulfill his desire for fame? After a few minutes on these types of websites, one gets the feeling that the senior pastor is the most important part of the church. Like the sun to the the solar system, he is the person (or should I say persona) about whom everything in the church revolves.
This, I’m afraid, is the pastor-centered church.
The problem though is that the center of the church isn’t the pastor, it’s Jesus. At least that’s the way it’s supposed to be. The apostle Paul summarized his message to the church in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 saying,
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
The message, and center, of the church is “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” In other words, it’s the gospel. We don’t want to have pastor-centered churches. We want to have gospel-centered churches.
Now, let me shift gears here. I think in reading my over-generalized and poorly parodied description of a pastor-centered church many readers who are lead pastors of blossoming new church plants have connected with what I’ve said and think, “Yup. Those kind of pastor-as-celebrity churches truly are pastor-centered congregations. My church isn’t like that at all.” Indeed, you may have felt led to plant a church because you wanted to offer something in direct contrast to those types of churches. Good! But can I add that yours can be a pastor-centered church too? And you don’t even have to buy veneers. In fact, you don’t have to do anything that fits the description I offered earlier. The reason is because there are other roads that lead to the pastor-centered church.
For example, take your leadership. Another way to have a pastor-centered church is to lead in such a way that you never really “pass the ball” of leadership to others. You make all the final calls, remind everyone the buck stops with you, and spend more time making decisions instead of developing decision-makers. You are a pastor-centered church when you spend more time working in the ministry than on the ministry. Now, it’s one thing to endure this type of pastor-centeredness when you are starting a church. Frankly, it’s likely necessary for more reasons than this post will allow. But if over time, you’re not willing to expand the circle of leadership responsibilities to include others (and yes, this includes preaching), then it doesn’t matter if you buy your clothes at Walmart and sport a $5 Pro-Cuts mullet, you lead a pastor-centered church. This goes for churches of 70 to 7,000. Think about it, if Pastor [fill in the blank] suddenly dies, will his church “die” with him? Will people leave in droves to saddle up with the next latest and greatest pastor? If so, maybe the reason is due to the fact that the church built its ministry around the wrong person?
So take heed when you see a church website that looks more like the pastor’s personal brochure, you may be doing the same thing by the way you lead.
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.
– 1 Corinthians 3:5-7
What kind of church do you lead? What kind of church do you attend? Is it gospel-centered or pastor-centered?