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From Celebrity Pastors to Christ-Centered Community: Navigating the Shift in Church Culture

How to navigate the evolving landscape of church leadership from celebrity-driven pastorates back to a Christ-centered, institutionally anchored faith community amidst current challenges and moral reckonings.

My heart is heavy because there have been shocking allegations against and confessions from some of America’s most influential pastors. I will refrain from identifying them because I don’t like bringing wood to the public burnings of other believers. Yet, we can’t help but wonder if our spiritual leaders should receive our trust. And maybe that’s the problem: We have put our ultimate trust in the wrong place.


From Institutions to Individuals


Let’s remember how we arrived here. There was a time when we were known by the church we attended—XYZ Church. But beginning around the 1980s, we changed our allegiance from churches to pastors—“I go to John Doe’s church”. Moreover, we stopped planting churches and began planting ministries—John Doe Ministries. The celebrity pastor culture was born, and he became the focus of the congregation as opposed to the institution, let alone Christ.


So, here we are today with churches facing collapse because of the moral failings of our shepherds. Certainly, there were moral failures in the past, but because the churches were more institutionally driven than personality driven, they were able to weather the storm. However, today’s church is more vulnerable because the institutional church has been supplanted by charismatic pastors. Now, to be fair, this is as much our fault as it was Israel’s when they wanted a king based on his outward appearance as opposed to the character of his heart (1 Sam. 10:23–24). For we drove by the parking lot when we heard that the pastor was out of town; we left the service early when we learned that he wasn’t preaching that day; and we said, “I go to John Doe’s church” instead of XYZ church. So, we fed the beast that now besets us.


Jesus Is the Only Impeccable Human


The question we must ask ourselves is: What are we going to do? After all, pastors are a biblical office and gift given by Christ to the church. They are responsible for caring for our souls through preaching, teaching, and discipleship (1 Pet. 5:1–4). And they are worthy of our admiration and respect. Thus, we need our pastors until the Chief Shepherd appears. While we wait for Jesus, we must keep our focus on Him because He alone is perfect in His humanity.


In Hebrews 4:14–15 NASB, the writer exhorts, “… let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.”


The writer was seeking to encourage a community of believers who were facing persecution, resulting in their trust in Christ wavering and some of their group turning away from the faith. They were discouraged and hard pressed by their experiences and needed to be encouraged to keep the main thing the main thing: holding fast to their allegiance to Jesus.


As a part of His ministry as our High Priest before the Father, Jesus is also the offering for our sins. He could only be the sin offering because He was sinless. In His humanity, Jesus experienced temptation but never yielded to its lure, making it possible for His righteous standing before the Father to be credited to us by faith in Him (Rom. 3:21–26). Consequently, Jesus is the only human to ever live a sin-free life.


We and our pastors, however, were born with a sin nature, which we inherited from Adam because he sinned against God’s commandment in the garden of Eden (Rom. 5:12). That sin nature is the force that operates in every human being who is not born again, and even born-again believers must wrestle with the remaining sin that works in our souls and bodies, though our spirits have been sanctified by the Holy Spirit.[1] 


Now, this is not an apologetic in defense of wayward pastors, but it is a reminder that Jesus is exclusive in His impeccability, i.e., His inability to sin because He is God. Our pastors, like us, are human and not divine. They, like us, will sin. For as the apostle John warns us, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8). Yet, he goes on to say, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (v. 9).


Jesus came because there was no human who could bring righteousness in the earth—not Abraham, the father of our faith; not Moses, who spoke with God face to face; not even David, the man after God’s heart. God had to come Himself. As it is written in Isaiah 59:16: “And He saw that there was no man, and was astonished that there was no one to intercede; then His own arm brought salvation to Him, and His righteousness upheld Him.”


Moving Forward with Fallible Spiritual Leaders


So, given our fallibility and that of our leaders, what are we to do? There are at least three things that we can do in the wake of the disruption we are experiencing in the leadership of our churches.


1. Keep Our Eyes Fixed on Jesus. Jesus is the head and foundation of the church. He is the Chief Shepherd, the Good Shepherd, and the Author and Finisher of our faith (Heb. 12:2). The moral failings of our leaders are a reminder that our trust should always be in Jesus. We follow them as long as they follow Christ (1 Cor. 11:1), but we are ultimately called to follow Him.


Keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus is about looking to Him for our inspiration and impartation as He works through the leadership gifts He has given to the church to equip us to do the work of the ministry so that the body of Christ is built up (Eph. 4:11–12). Having a fixed focus will keep us tethered to Christ through the turbulent times of life, so that we are able to stand in the evil day (Eph. 6:13). So, while we love and revere our leaders, we look to and live for the Captain of our salvation, Jesus Christ (Heb. 2:10).


2. Remember Our Pastors Are Human. It is easy to confuse spiritual giftings and anointings with the people who are the recipients and stewards of such divine graces. But we should never confuse the people operating in their gifts with the Person distributing those gifts. Scripture is clear that Jesus gives leadership gifts to the church for our spiritual growth and development, and the Holy Spirit partners with Him to provide spiritual gifts to the church for the benefit of the body (1 Cor. 12:4).


Yet, Scripture also gives us examples through the lives of the great men mentioned above of their human frailties despite their larger-than-life personas in the history of our faith. Abraham didn’t always tell the truth, Moses was a murderer, and David was an adulterer and a murderer. It is not their perfection that we admire but their faith and obedience during the critical points in their lives. Similarly, our pastors are not divine; they are struggling with the same temptations we are. But they also have a higher accountability because of their gifts and calling. So, they in no way get a pass, because they are called to be ensamples to the flock (1 Pet. 5:3). However, they face the struggle to pray, study the Scriptures, and live godly like every other Christian. By remembering that only Jesus is fully divine, we can prevent the urge to deify our spiritual leaders.


3. Recalibrate around the Institution and Not Individuals. I mentioned above about the shift from church life being institutionally driven to becoming personality driven. This is not to say that leaders don’t make a world of difference, because they do. The great men and women of the Bible affirm that some of God’s people have greater impact than others. Yet, they were always clear that Yahweh was the star, and the kings, priests, and prophets were His humble servants. When the church in Corinth was being engulfed by the personality-cult of Paul, Peter, and Apollos, and later the super-apostles; Paul had to recalibrate them to the person of Christ.


Now, I can hear some questioning my appeal to recalibrate around the local church as opposed to the pastor as still missing the mark, noting that Christ is the center. And I agree and is why I started with a call to focus our attention on Jesus. He remains fixed as the head of the church (Col. 1:18). What I am arguing for is how a church operates organizationally. It can either be built on a single individual, whose tenure is only temporary, or it can be built around the generations of people who make up the congregation and will continue with each successive generation, providing continuity. So, when I say focus more on the institution than the individual, I am calling for the church to have organizational staying power because it is ultimately made up of families, whose children and grandchildren maintain a heritage of generational blessings—no matter what individual is leading the congregation at a particular time.


Institutional Longevity over Individual Legacies


In the book Next, William Vanderbloemen and Warren Byrd suggest that a new pastor should immediately begin planning for his successor with the church’s board.[2] While it may not make individual sense, it does make institutional sense because it underscores the sober reality that every pastor is only an interim. The church, if it is led well, will continue long after the current pastor has left. And given the cancel culture that is accelerating the frequency with which our churches are experiencing resignations, leaves of absence, and firings, we would do well to put more emphasis on institutional longevity over an individual’s legacy.


As more leaders find themselves falling from grace before our eyes, we must pray for them, be careful what we say about them, and remember that Jesus alone is the exalted Savior to whom we look as we await His glorious return to rid our creation of all evil for all of eternity.[3] Hallelujah!


Dr. Isaac Hayes is an Assistant Pastor at the Apostolic Church of God in Chicago, Illinois, and author of Men After God’s Heart: 10 Principles of Brotherly Love. He also has a Doctor of Ministry degree from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Follow Dr. Hayes on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube at @RevIsaacHayes.

[1] Paul David Tripp, Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 98.

[2] William Vanderbloemen and Warren Bird, Next: Pastoral Succession That Works (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014), 29-30.

[3] Christopher J H. Wright, The Mission of God's People: A Biblical Theology of the Church's Mission (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2010), 41.

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