Michael Murphy confesses that he had some misplaced arrogance when he started as senior pastor at Shirelive in Sutherland, south Sydney.
The former assistant minister at Hillsong confesses he “felt like I was a bit like God’s gift to Sutherland Shire,” after stewarding a “mini move of God” at Hillsong where young people were coming to Christ “like crazy.”
“No one, not Brian Houston, none of us could take credit for that. We just burst into something that God was already doing and did the best we could and we didn’t really know much, to be honest,” Murphy tells Eternity before heading off to the US last week.
“Then I moved into a church that was 40 years old, and I kind of cracked knuckles and said, ‘You’re glad to have me.’ God had to rebuild Michael Murphy and it was painful.”
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“God had to rebuild Michael Murphy and it was painful.”
With this kind of searing personal experience of leading growing churches, Murphy now declares the era of the celebrity pastor over.
Since leaving Shirelive (now called Horizon Church) in 2014, he has headed up Leaderscape, a leadership consulting business that has worked closely with 500 churches in the past couple of years and resourced thousands more.
With that kind of church experience, he feels able to diagnose the factors that played into the phenomenon of the celebrity pastor, from globalisation to a drift from discipleship.
“No one ever goes in saying, ‘I want to be a celebrity pastor,’ but I think that there’s a combination of things that have expedited the creation of the celebrity pastor,” he explains. “We’ve seen the size of churches and the speed of their growth probably happen quicker in recent decades than arguably any other time in the church’s history.
“Secondly, we’ve seen social media, which means that instantly there is a recognition of ‘success’ which is hailed and applauded.”
“When someone’s platform gets exalted beyond their character, there will be an inevitable falling over.” – Michael Murphy
Added to that is what he sees as a drifting away from discipleship – teaching what it means to be a follower of Christ.
“Not just in terms of performance outcomes, but is the word of God really my guiding light? Is the word of God really the dictator of my life?” he says.
“We teach pastors how to put handles on their disciple-making process, but never without the word of God as a foundation, never without them continuing to get whole on the inside.
“When someone’s platform gets exalted beyond their character, there will be an inevitable falling over. When I say that, I’m not pointing at one pastor or leader – we’re all subject to that. No one of us is built for celebrity.”
Murphy cites the track record of pastors in the Association of Related Churches, a church planting movement in the US that has helped plant more than a thousand churches.
“But we’ve seen several young guys aged between 30 and 40 who’ve planted churches that have grown to several thousand people pretty quickly, and some of them have fallen off the perch,” he says, leading to an inevitable fallout of hurt and bewilderment in families and churches.
“We simply must do this God’s way and build the inside as much as we’re building anything externally,” he says.
It’s not that Murphy is against a focus on building numbers. He believes Jesus cares about numbers because every number is a person.
“Sometimes I say ‘Yes, it’s all about numbers – it is about a man or woman of God grabbing hold of the call of God and allowing the spirit of God directed by the word of God to bring fruit.”
“We need to get back to put ministry and mission and authority into the hands of every believer.”
Having “the privilege of serving God’s generals all over the world”, Murphy says he has been struck in the past couple of years by the need to get back to the Reformation idea of the priesthood of all believers.
“What’s burning in me right now with all the churches we work with across the world, is we need to get back to put ministry, mission and authority into the hands of every believer.”
He was galvanised by reading with new eyes the last verse of Hebrews 11, which says that none of the heroes of the faith received the promised inheritance “so when we look up to Abraham and Moses and other heroes of the faith, it’s just possible that they’re also looking up to us and going, ‘You had Christ in you – you are post-resurrection, post the coming of the Holy Spirit; you carry the very essence of God.’
“I think if we had the revelation that Christ is in us, it might motivate us. If it was a deep, abiding truth that Christ lived within us, then how can you not want to get active for the Kingdom of God? How can you not want to partner with the Holy Spirit in all he has called us to our mission?”
“If it was a deep, abiding truth that Christ lived within us, then how can you not want to get active for the Kingdom of God?”
“Even the notion of you’re coming to church is almost a heresy as to what Christ intended in his precious word. And that is, don’t come to church; become the church. We are the church, and if Christ is in us, we are the temple of the Holy Spirit.
“If I can help pastors all over the world to mobilise the body of Christ, it’s the most untapped, latent potential of the church of Jesus Christ in this generation. And even some of the little fires that we’re seeing in the US right now that are student-led, without celebrities … It’s just like God is doing something to say, ‘Listen, this is a season for the body of Christ to wake up empowered by my word and my spirit to do all that I’ve called them to do.”
“The body of Christ is the most untapped, latent potential of the church of Jesus Christ in this generation.”
Leaderscape has recently created a new marketing team to reach out to pastors to help them understand how to disciple people so that group leaders are not just “doing the pastor a favour” but “disciple-making weapons.”
“We’ve seen several churches we’ve worked with since the pandemic experience 30 to 40 per cent growth. And they’re doing it not just based on pulling more tricks out of the hat on a Sunday, but by genuinely raising up and releasing the body of Christ to be all they can be,” he says.
“We want to help 10,000 churches like that in ten languages, so we have a long way to go. If the kingdom is any judge in relation to the Hebrews 11 guys, I probably won’t see the fulfilment of the promise. We’ll do our best to do what we can while we’re here.”