The Problem With Pastors as Rock Stars

A lot of kids grow up wanting to be a rock star. These days, the term “rock star” is applied much more liberally than the days of heavy metal. Athletes are rock stars, movie stars are rock stars, software designers are rock stars. The rock star aesthetic has been democratized.

You don’t even have to live a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle to be a rock star. These days, even the most un-hip of occupations can achieve rock star appeal. Including pastors.

Somebody once said: “The Gospel came to the Greeks, and the Greeks turned it into a philosophy. The Gospel came to the Romans, and the Romans turned it into a system. The Gospel came to the Europeans, and the Europeans turned it into a culture. The Gospel came to America, and the Americans turned it into a business.” And business is booming. Millions of churchgoers file in to buildings each week, line up in rows like shelves at Wal-Mart and watch the stage. They come for one purpose:  to see a show and hear a pastor.

This, by uncritical standards, is success. But while this phenomenon increases, I believe it can be damaging to the spiritual vitality of the American church.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying pastors who look or act cool, or who speak dynamically, or who lead confidently, or who have large congregations are the problem. I’d have to rebuke quite a few of my friends if that were the case. And I am not against large churches. It is not the look, following or size of the church, but the culture of the SuperPastor that can do great harm.

Furthermore, I think any pastor of a church of any size can fall into the “rock star” trap. It is a sin issue and not just a size issue.

I see four general problems with the rock star pastor, and I will propose four fixes:

Personal Imbalance

No, not mentally. (Well, maybe mentally.) No, the problem of balance with a superpastor type is the distance at which ministry is done. Superpastors tend to either fly high above and lord over their ministries like detached dictators or they try lifting too much on their own. Both of these problems can stem from an enlarged ego. In the previous case, the superpastor thinks the normal work is for ordinary pastors, and in the latter case, the superpastor feels strong enough to handle it all.

Sometimes the superpastor is a passive sort who lets everyone else pass the buck to the pastor, afraid to delegate for fear of other people’s failures tainting the ministry. In the case of the “lord on high” superpastor, the leadership culture is just as toxic, because staff and member tend to affirm aloofness and enable dysfunction. In either case, the biblical view of equipping others for ministry is absent.

Hindering Community

If the church life revolves around one person’s speaking gift, it is incredibly difficult to move to community. A community “won” to a single voice is not won to community but to spectatorship. Thus, when pastors say, “It’s all about the weekend,” they tend to create an audience rather than a biblically functioning church community. This is still true if your church is an oft-criticized seeker megachurch or your verse-by-verse preaching point. Either way, if you get thousands sitting in rows but can’t move them to sitting in circles, true community is hard to find.

As a guy who travels around speaking, I understand how quickly it can happen. For the last few weeks, I’ve spoken at a church close to my own house while the pastor is on a short sabbatical. But even in delivering biblical messages, I’m not engaging in biblical community with those people. It takes more than a stage to create a community. The temptation must be fought that a mass of people gathered to hear one person speak is equal to biblical community.

A gifted communicator can draw a crowd, but biblical community will sustain a congregation. A great orator is fun to have at worship but cannot build community during the other six days and 23 hours of the week. Great preaching will be used by God to bring others to faith and sanctify God’s people, but it will also encourage the body to do life together on mission.

I’m not saying every person in the community should have immediate access to the pastor. But I am saying every pastor should be in some accountable biblical community.

Approval Addiction

Many rock star pastors enjoy having their egos stroked. When pastors become rock stars, it seems they quickly learn how to strut while sitting down. But when they become the face of the church, the church becomes identified with the pastor. Thus, the measure of success is tied to the pastor’s capacity to draw a crowd, sell books and speak at the cool conferences. The scorecard of the church shifts from faithful growth to publicity ratings.

An approval-addicted pastor develops the split personality of an insecure bully. Paranoid their reputation might be damaged by incompetency in others, the pastor resorts to pushing people around. Rock star pastors are addicted to measuring success by whether or not they get their way. Their measure of success becomes about meeting their personal needs, not submission to the mission of God. A rock star pastor is fanatical about approval—but not God’s.

Selling Out the Church’s Future

You can just check the headlines. When a rock star pastor falls, the church rarely recovers. When they do, it is through extricating their identity from that of the pastor’s abilities and personality. No pastor is indispensable. It’s good for pastors to remind themselves, “Others filled the role before you were born, and others will fill it after you’re gone.”

But the rock star pastor constantly needs more attendees, Facebook fans and Twitter followers. In a twisted bit of logic, they work to make the Gospel well known through their own fame.

Some have pointed to the multi-site movement as an illustration of how the church has sold out to make rock star pastors famous. Personally, I am not anti-multi-site. When partnered with church planting, it has great potential. Nevertheless, while I’m not “anti,” I do urge caution. At times, I’ve joked about “rock star celebrity pastors beaming their graven image all over the country.” If you are a rock star pastor, perhaps you believe the church simply cannot go on without you. You would be wrong.

Pride was inherent in the fall of Adam, and it rears its head whenever one person deems the church’s future to ride on their shoulders or voice. Multi-site, or any program, as a necessity derived from the attention needed by a rock star pastor is idolatry.

So what can we do to counteract the superpastor tendencies? I think four simple ideas will help.

1. Focus on Equipping

A lot of churches talk a big game on this issue, but few play it. First Peter 4:10 tells us, “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.” The lesson of 1 Corinthians 12 is even more extensive regarding the usefulness of all the parts of the body of Christ. We deal with this in-depth in Transformational Church, and I recently shared a message on this subject at the Verge Conference at Austin Stone Community Church. You can watch parts one and two here.

In a rock star pastor culture, only one is deemed capable for ministry. Maybe the rest of the staff can help, but they are secondary to the pastor. Only the pastor can proclaim God’s Word and shoulder the decisions of the church. It sounds exhausting. Worse than that, it sounds unbiblical.

By focusing on equipping the saints, we move back to the biblical position that every believer is called to the ministry and mission of the local church. When ego is removed, the refreshed pastor can help believers fulfill their role in God’s kingdom.

2. Take a Sabbath

Rock star pastors are notorious for pushing themselves to the breaking point. The stories of depression, adulterous affairs or just dropouts each month are heartbreaking. And they should be a wake-up call.

Not only should pastors take a permanent break from shouldering the entire weight of their church’s growth, they should periodically just take a break. Sure, a few pastors are lazy and spend too much time goofing off, but most rock star pastors take it to the other extreme of non-stop labor. Pushing themselves beyond acceptable boundaries, these Type-A personalities cannot stand to not be doing something. They won’t sit still.

Pastors: Sit still!

On my own blog today, I have written on the importance of rest in pastoral ministry, and you can find the article here.

3. Adjust with the Economic Times

The recession has hit churches hard. Giving is down and, to adjust, churches are cutting back on programs and personnel. This is an opportunity for the church to abandon the “clergification” virus that plagues us. You can read more about the need for de-clergification here. The mentality that only the professional clergy, especially the superpastors, can do ministry never shows up in Scripture. It is a holdover from pre-Reformation times and is damaging our ability to fulfill God’s mission.

When the church relies on one or a few paid individuals to do all of the ministry, most is left unattended. Interestingly, the two-thirds world does not suffer from the malady of clergification. Not having the financial ability to pay superpastors, more believers do the work of the ministry.

Pastors can lead their churches toward a better stewardship of their resources. Rather than paying staff to shoulder the load, teach all believers to minister. Instead of employing people to speak for God in the community, lead all believers to be Christ’s ambassadors.

4. Preach the Glory of God

Most rock star pastors don’t mean to not preach God’s glory. But they are, nevertheless, unintentionally preaching their own. For a pastor, being “out front” is a necessity that can become a danger. Their winsomeness wins over seekers; their way with words woos the weekly attendees. Charisma is an intangible gift but deceives one’s own heart.

Once when preaching, cheering broke out for John Chrysostom. He responded:

You praise what I have said and receive my exhortation with tumults of applause; but show your approbation by obedience; that is the only praise I seek.”

The decline in the church, perhaps, is caused by our satisfaction with earthly appeal. We should endeavor to present the glory of God instead of the cleverness of our abilities to edit movie clips, mimic the local CCM station or engage social issues. People can walk away from all of that unchanged. But nobody can encounter the glory of God and live the same as they did before.

The glory of God is a good place to end this article. Pastors (of churches of any size) need to worry less about their status and be concerned more with God’s mission and His glory. The glory of God should be your recurring song, and with that in mind, it’s OK for rock stardom to fade out and the Morning Star to rise in your place.

Read more from Ed Stetzer »

Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham distinguished chair of church, mission and evangelism at Wheaton College and the Wheaton Grad School, where he also oversees the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.