Must the Pastor Be a Superstar?

Meet Pastor Jones, superstar. He can preach, counsel, evangelize, administrate, conciliate, communicate, and sometimes even integrate. He can also raise the budget.

He handles Sunday morning better than any quizmaster on weekday TV. He is better with words than most political candidates. As a scholar he surpasses many seminary professors. No church social function would be complete without him. His church, of course, counts itself fortunate. Alas, not many churches can boast such talent.

I confess my admiration, perhaps slightly tinged with envy. Not because of the talent, really, the sheer ability. But for the success, the accomplishment. Here is a man who faithfully preaches the Word, sees lives transformed by Christ, sees his church growing. What sincere evangelical minister would not like to be in his shoes? Not to mention his parsonage.

I think of all the struggling, mediocre pastors, looking on with holy envy (if there be such), measuring their own performance by Pastor Jones’s success and dropping another notch into discouragement or, perhaps, self-condemnation.

For after all, the problem is plain, isn’t it? The church needs more qualified pastors, better training. More alertness to guiding those talented young men God may be calling into the ministry. Better talent scouting to find the superstars.

But—what if? What if the problem is not really the lack of superstars? What if there is something basically wrong with the traditional concept of ministry in the church? Is the problem really a lack of ecclesiastical superstars? Or do we have unbiblical concepts of what the church really is? Can it be that our structures quench the Spirit? Take Pastor Jones’s church. There is Bill, who has unusual speaking ability. Won a debate championship in high school. He would be capable of preaching, but nobody ever thought of that. He’s an usher.

Then there is John. Nice guy. Everyone’s friend. People naturally go to him with their problems; he has a knack for listening; he even listens with his eyes. With a little training and encouragement he could have a real ministry of the healing of persons. He would also need a little more time; he’s on three church committees. Or Bob the accountant. Naturally, he is church finance chairman, and he does an excellent job. No one knows he is also something of a self-taught Bible scholar—a seemingly superfluous talent.

In fact, looking into the lives of the several hundred members of Pastor Jones’s church, we make a startling discovery: every one of Pastor Jones’s talents is equalled or surpassed by someone in the membership. A wealth of gifts lies buried because these talents are seemingly not needed. True, no one in the church comes close to being a superstar like Pastor Jones. True also, for each talent there is probably a corresponding hang-up. But maybe God could use those talents and heal those hang-ups if we thought differently about ministry.

What about the early church? Paul had a dramatic put-down for the superstar idea:

There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are varieties of service, but the same Lord. There are many forms of work, but all of them, in all men, are the work of the same God. In each of us the Spirit is manifested in one particular way, for some useful purpose. . . . For Christ is like a single body with its many limbs and organs, which, many as they are, together make up one body. . . .

A body is not one single organ, but many. Suppose the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it does belong to the body none the less. . . . But, in fact, God appointed each limb and organ to its own place in the body, as he chose. If the whole were one single organ, there would not be a body at all; in fact, however, there are many different organs, but one body. . . .

Now you are Christ’s body, and each of you a limb or organ of it. Within our community God has appointed, in the first place apostles, in the second place prophets, thirdly teachers; then miracle-workers, then those who have gifts of healing, or ability to help others or power to guide them, or the gift of ecstatic utterance of various kinds. (1 Cor. 12:4–7, 12, 14–15, 18–20, 27–28 NEB)

Got that? “If the whole were one single organ, there would not be a body at all.” If the pastor is a superstar, then the church is an audience, not a body.

I had read many times what the Bible says about the gifts of the Spirit. I never understood. I could not figure out why the whole thing really did not make any sense for the church today. It did not seem to fit. Could it really be that these words were written only for the early church, as some affirm?

Then it struck me. These words are for the church in every age, but to the church today they seem superfluous. For we have got all the gifts organized. We do not need the Spirit (Dreadful thing to say!) to stir up gifts of ministry. We just need superstars to make the organization go.

So we depend on our structures and our superstars. And we know the system works—just look what the superstars are doing in their superchurches! We have the statistics and the buildings and the budgets to prove it. There is only one problem. There are not enough superstars to go around. Thousands of churches, but only hundreds of superstars. Thank God for the superstars! They are of all men most fortunate.

But the church of Jesus Christ cannot run on superstars, and God never intended that it should. There just are not that many, actually or potentially, and there never will be. God does not promise the church an affluence of superstars. But he does promise to provide all necessary leadership through the gifts of the Spirit (Eph. 4:1–16). If a denomination must depend on pastoral superstars for growth, there is something drastically wrong with its structure and, more fundamentally, with its understanding of the church.

Pray the Lord of the harvest that he send forth reapers, not foremen.

Cheer up, discouraged pastor, discouraged layman. The problem really is not your own inadequacy. Go reread the New Testament with a question: After Peter and Paul, where are the superstars? How did the early church make it without our organization, cathedrals, or superstars? Young Ralph C––– has been thinking of going into the ministry, but he hesitates because he knows he is not a superstar. (What if your churches did not require superstars?) Chuck is thirty-eight and has a good job with an electronics firm; I know him well. He is frustrated and would like some kind of significant ministry—something more challenging than a Sunday school class. But he thinks he would have to quit his job and go to seminary first. (What if more pastors had secular employment and on-the-job training, as in the New Testament?)

Let’s face it! James and John and Philip and Bartholomew could never have made it in the twentieth century. At least not within our churches. Neither would Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, or Luke, some friends of Paul (Philem. 23). These were no superstars in their day; they only look that way through the mists of history and tradition. But they were used of the Spirit, each according to his gifts. Their congregations had not heard that they had to have a superstar up front, so all believers worked together building up the community of faith. There were many ministers in each congregation. Like a body, each part exercised its proper function. Do our structures quench the Spirit?

“So, for the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God” (Mt. 15:6). The Word of God is not bound—unless we bind it. What, then, does the unfettered Word say about the church? It is time to go back to the Word to find a biblical ecclesiology, a biblical concept of the church compatible with the new stirrings of the Spirit in our day.

Let both the Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”

Excerpt from Howard Snyder’s 40th Anniversary Edition of The Problem of Wineskins. This book is perfect for pastors seeking to assess their faithfulness to biblical ministry; lay people exploring non-professional ministry; the pastor’s library. Get your copy from our store now.

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International Representative, Manchester Wesley Research Centre in Manchester, England. Formerly professor of the history and theology of mission, Asbury Theological Seminary (1996-2006); Professor of Wesley Studies, Tyndale Seminary, Toronto, 2007-2012. Has taught and pastored in São Paulo, Brazil; Detroit, Michigan; and Chicago, Illinois. Dr. Snyder's main interest is in the power and relevance of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom for the world today and tomorrow. Works include The Problem of Wineskins, Community of the King, and most recently, Jesus and Pocahontas: Gospel, Mission, and National Myth.

2 COMMENTS

  1. This was a much needed article. As an employee and member of a very large church within the conference, this article refreshed my perspective on ministry. Members, especially those who work for their churches, can become very cynical due to their overexposure to church business and the cadre of staff personalities. This article reminded me to look past the gifting of the superstar and focus on the individuals that comprise the body of Christ. We may be able to keep superstars alive much longer if we employed this biblical principle. On the other hand, we may encourage others to become more involved in ministry if we relinquished “control.” Great read!

    • Thank you! In later chapters in the book I explore some of the practical implications of pastors functioning as God intends (e.g., Ephesians 4).

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