How To Get Out of the Church Planting Celebrity Trap

In a previous post I talked about the subtle but powerful temptation to plant a church with a celebrity fan club culture instead of a missional movement culture. I talked about how to diagnose whether a celebrity fan club culture is creeping into your church plant.

Now I want to talk about a few concrete actions you can take as a church planter to move against the celebrity fan club culture and invest in your church plant becoming a missional movement.

Drifting into fan club mentality

Because it’s not difficult at all to slip into celebrity fan club mode. It’s easy to draw people to your church’s “brand,” and to yourself as a leader. It’s easy because we all like the celebrity fan club arrangement!

As a leader, it feels good to have people say nice things about you and look to you for guidance. And people will want to put you on a pedestal and treat you like a celebrity because it will feel good to them to be associated with such a godly, anointed, talented leader as yourself!

But this temptation must be resisted if we’re going to build a missional movement.

Listen to how people talk about being involved in your church. If you hear lots of Jesus-talk, you’re probably building a missional movement. If you hear a lot more church/pastor-talk, then it’s probably time to make some changes to your culture.

Here are 4 ways you can start shifting your culture toward a missional movement today.

1. Model “movement” talk, publicly and privately

Sometimes as leaders we unwittingly coach people to do the exact opposite of what we are hoping for.

Talk a lot about who Jesus is for you and what he’s teaching you. Talk more about being a disciple of Jesus than being part of your specific church. When you ask people for their testimonies, don’t have them share what the church has meant to them, have them share what Jesus has meant to them.

I remember when I decided I would share more of my own journey of discipleship with my first church plant. “Here’s what Jesus has been doing in my life lately…” It actually helped keep me accountable to continue growing as a disciple, because I wanted to continue to have more to share!

People will often respond by imitating your example, or at least be provoked toward a life of discipleship from your example.

2. Deflect misdirected praise

Even when people have had a genuine encounter with God, they’ll often look for someone to thank, and that someone will often be you, pastor!

When people praise your preaching or talk about how glad they are that they found your church, attempt to graciously deflect the praise they aimed at you and your church toward Jesus and his kingdom.

Dallas Willard once modeled this very well for me. I had a chance to meet him during a small conference he was speaking at.

I wanted to thank him for writing The Divine Conspiracy (a book that literally changed my life). But I felt that kind of nervousness you feel in the presence of a “celebrity,” and even though I was trying to play it cool, I’m pretty sure my attempt at thanking him turned into a slightly embarrassing gush-fest from a fan-boy.

I think I ended up saying something like, “I’m sure you get this a lot, but I wanted to let you know that your writing has literally changed my life.”

Dallas’ response was gracious and genuine. He simply said, “I thank God for that.”

Something about the way he said it made me believe it was more than a “supposed-to-say-that” response. It wasn’t a false piety; he was genuinely thanking God for the transformation in my life.

It was such a great example of how to graciously deflect misdirected praise toward God in a humble, genuine way. I’ve imitated it a lot since then!

3. Refuse to do everything

This one is so important. One of the main ways we cripple our congregations is by doing all the things.

There are so many little reasons this seems to make sense, though! We think:

  • I am being paid to do all the things.
  • I am better trained to do all the things.
  • Everyone likes it when I do all the things.
  • The last time I let Gertrude do one of the things, it didn’t go well.
  • When I have other people do some of the things, I get emails questioning why they’re paying my salary.

Here’s the truth: it’s not your job to do all the things. It’s your job to equip the saints to do all the things. Specifically, “the work of ministry.”

Sometimes the only way to let people step into ministry is for you to simply stop doing certain things, and see who is most bothered by it. Perhaps they’re supposed to step into that area of leadership?

For example, when we first started weekly worship in our current church plant, we decided to rotate the preaching duties among six people, four of whom we were training to preach!

The sermons weren’t as rhetorically excellent as they could have been if only I and my copastor preached, but I think we cultivated something much more valuable by starting this way. We had put a stake in the ground that said we were not going to organize our church around the “awesome” preaching.

Learn how to leave strategic leadership vacuums, and then intentionally train those who step into the gaps, equipping them for the work of ministry. That brings us to the final point:

4. Learn how to train others, and release them

Instead of hoarding authority, always be seeking to give it away to qualified people.

This is what Paul was talking about when he wrote to his young protege Timothy: “The things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.”

This means you can’t just delegate things to people willy-nilly. It means you have to invest time, energy, and money into training them as leaders so you are truly multiplying the life of Christ in your ministry. (This is essentially what it means to make disciples, by the way.)

This was one of the biggest ministry shifts I had to make when I was learning to make disciples. I knew how to teach people, but I had to idea how to train people. They are very different skill sets.

This is why coaching was so important for me. To learn how to train others, I had to be trained myself, and books can’t train people. Digesting information alone never trained anyone. Content doesn’t train people. People train people.

Training and releasing is what Jesus did and does. He didn’t just give his disciples new information, he trained and equipped them to do the exact same things he was doing.

Then, when the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost they realized it was the presence of Jesus empowering them to do the kingdom stuff and train others to do it, too. A constant discharging of authority. Power being pushed to the edges and given to those with no power.

That’s the “flow” of the kingdom: Jesus has all authority… and gives it to his disciples. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom,” he says. “Everything I received from the Father I have passed on to you… Whatever you ask in my name I will do… You have my authority – just request what you need as you go about my work.”

So don’t be shy about giving away as much as you responsibly can! Train people to do the stuff as you learn how to do the stuff, and you’ll find yourself operating in the flow of God’s kingdom, where “all these things” are given to you as well.

Stumbling toward missional movement

Transitioning your church from a fan club to a missional movement will take awhile, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t see immediate results.

Whenever I’m tempted to give up because change is taking too long, I take great comfort in Jesus’ seed parables. The kingdom of God is like a seed, not a building project.

The seed is small, unimpressive, easily overlooked. The seed is planted in the ground, which is actually a death. The seed dies in the ground, but then is transformed and begins to grow. Slowly, but surely, the seed grows into a plant that fills a garden with fruit.

That’s what change will be like in your church. Plant the kingdom seed of a missional movement, and just keep tending to it. You can’t make it grow, but you can give it the right conditions for growth. It will eventually grow into a beautiful plant that gives life.

Which is way better than managing a fan club. Go for missional movement by planting the kingdom seed in your church!

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Ben Sternke
Ben is a church planter who also trains, coaches and consults with leaders to help them build Jesus-shaped cultures in their churches, communities, homes, and businesses using simple, reproducible tools that are proven, practical, and powerful. He does this locally through a church he is planting in Indianapolis called The Table, and more widely through an organization he co-founded called Gravity Leadership. He also writes at bensternke.com. He lives in the Indianapolis area with his wife and kids.
Ben Sternke

1 Comment

  1. David Hicks Dec 8, 2017 Reply

    “Learn how to leave strategic leadership vacuums.” So true!
    Really good article, Ben.
    Cheers,
    David

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