Is Your Church Plant Just a Celebrity Fan Club?

To be a church planter, you need to have vision to see something that doesn’t exist yet. You also need to organize your life around the goal of seeing that vision become a reality.
There are a million temptations along the way, mostly having to do with trying to take control of the process, attempting to make things happen instead of cultivating the right conditions for God to work. Ironically, in our zeal to see God do great things, it’s easy for us as leaders to resort to tactics that actually mitigate against the kingdom of God.
One way we get off-track in church planting is by unwittingly creating a “celebrity fan club” culture instead of a culture of true missional movement. It’s way easier to do than most church planters realize.
Let’s take a look at how this dynamic works biblically, and then we’ll talk about how to avoid it in your church plant.

Saying “no” to the cult of personality

At the beginning of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he is addressing the serious problem of division among the people (1 Cor 1:10-18). People are affiliating themselves with various Christian leaders, staking a part of their identity on the leader they follow.
Some are saying, “I follow Paul,” and others, “I follow Cephas,” (the first denominations?).
We know this impulse, right? This should feel very familiar. We’ve got all kinds of ways to distinguishing ourselves from “other” Christians who follow different leaders, and believe slightly different things, etc.
That’s why it’s a bit shocking to see Paul start his letter by stating in no uncertain terms that cultivating this kind of division is categorically wrong.
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Claiming celebrity status

Interestingly, in the midst of this call for unity, Paul tells them he is glad he only baptized a couple of them. To baptize someone is a powerful thing. I imagine the temptation was to claim special status based on who baptized you. People would wear it as a badge of honor: “I was baptized by Paul directly.”
Isn’t it the same today? We take pride in being associated with famous Christians. We feel that contact and conversation with celebrities will somehow transmit celebrity fairy dust to us as well.
We call them our “friends,” or find ways to casually mention when we had lunch before the conference. We humble-brag on social media about how blessed we were to have a conversation with so-and-so after their talk.

Collecting fans or mobilizing missionaries?

But Paul says he wasn’t sent to baptize, but to proclaim the gospel. In context, it seems that because of how people were misunderstanding baptism, Paul is attempting to minimize its importance in the life of the believer.
He’s essentially saying, “You think it’s so important to be baptized by the right person, and people are trying to build up their fan clubs by baptizing lots of people… tell you what, I’m not interested in baptizing anybody, if that’s what it means! I wasn’t sent to do that kind of ‘baptizing.’ I was sent to proclaim the good news of Jesus.”
The Corinthians’ practice of baptism was creating competing fan clubs. But Paul’s proclamation of the gospel was releasing a movement. “Corinthian baptism” collected and colonized people on behalf of their celebrity leader. The gospel, though empowers and releases people to follow Christ.

What a fan club sounds like

So how can you tell if your church plant is collecting fans or mobilizing missionaries? How can you tell if you’re running a fan club or empowering a missional movement?
Here’s a simple test: Listen to the people you are leading – What do they talk about? What do they take pride in? What is it about your church that they habitually draw attention to?
For example, are people saying these kinds of things?

  • “I love my church!”
  • “Our church has been serving people lately by…”
  • “I just love our pastor! His sermons are so good!”
  • “Our pastor has been preaching on _____ this month.”

Those are actually fairly common things for people to say! And I’m not saying they’re categorically wrong, but notice that the subjects that these statements are drawing attention to:

  1. A specific church, and
  2. A specific leader.

This is exactly what Paul said was so divisive and unhelpful. If these are common things that people talk about, you may be building a fan club for your church’s “brand” rather than truly bearing kingdom fruit.
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What a missional movement sounds like

In a missional movement, though, people talk a little differently. They talk a lot about:

  • How they love Jesus and what he does in their lives.
  • How they love being disciples of Jesus sent to their city.
  • What Jesus has been doing lately in their neighborhood and relationships.
  • How Jesus has been at work in their life and church lately.

Notice how the subject isn’t the specific church or leader? Rather, the subject is Jesus, and the leader/church are just a part of that bigger picture.
Fan clubs are all about celebrity leaders and church brands. Missional movements are all about Jesus.

Missional movements and the local church

Please notice that none of the missional movement talking points exclude involvement in a local church with a name and a pastor!
What Jesus has been doing lately will most often be manifested in what the church has been doing, and what Jesus has been teaching them will very often come through someone preaching in a local church setting.
So we don’t need to disband our church organizations, take down our websites, demolish our church logos, and refuse to name leaders. That’s not the point (and it wouldn’t actually be very helpful).
It’s just that in a missional movement, leaders and followers all recognize together that Jesus is the one who is doing his work, and they all just get in on it. Through the work of the local church, Jesus draws people to himself.

Questions for reflection

I’m writing a follow-up to this article that talks about how to root out the celebrity fan club culture and cultivate a missional movement culture, but for now it’s probably worth sitting with this contrast for a bit.
Here are some questions to aid your reflection:

  • As you compare celebrity fan club to missional movement, what do you notice about your church plant?
  • If you see evidence of some celebrity fan club culture in your church plant, what’s your immediate response to it? Do you get defensive or angry? Do you despair? Do you beat yourself up? Just notice what your response is without getting lost inside it.
  • How is God at work in your church plant to create a missional movement? Just because there may be celebrity elements in your church plant doesn’t mean that’s all that’s happening! It’s important to discover and pay attention to where you see evidence of God at work. Notice those things and thank God for them.

About the Author
Ben Sternke

Ben Sternke

Ben Sternke is an Anglican priest, church planter at The Table, leadership coach/consultant with Gravity Leadership, and also helps churches and nonprofits hone their messaging and cultivate their online presence with Lifesize Digital. He lives in the Indianapolis area with his wife Deb, their four kids, and a little dog named Edith.

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