My research has been in the area of megachurch leadership, and I have heard two common remarks about the charismatic leader. From congregations searching for a pastor, comes this wish: “If we could just find a dynamic, charismatic leader, our church would surely flourish!” Coming from the opposite assessment of charisma, is this critique of megachurches: “They may have a charismatic leader, but what will the congregation do when he or she abuses their power, or gets hit by a bus?”
Both remarks betray a misunderstanding about the nature of charisma, and by breaking down the term into three contrasting meanings, we can better discern the role charisma might play in congregations and their flourishing. Charisma is not a quick fix for a shrinking congregation, but neither is it necessarily a dangerous liability.
The first meaning of charisma is a spiritual meaning—something many Christians actually forget. St. Paul used the Greek term meaning “gift of grace” to emphasize the democratic nature of the church: he said that every believer has charisma—the Holy Spirit generating some gift for service in their life (see for example 1 Cor. 12:1-11). Leadership here is just one of many, many gifts of the Spirit, including showing mercy, serving, giving, administration, and speaking in tongues and their interpretation. These gifts, if not confounded by organizational bureaucracy but nurtured by spiritual disciplines and theological virtues, work together to create a vibrant community of faith and service.
In this sense, your church always can use more charisma. We should all be charismatic Christians to some degree.
Secondly, the most common meaning of charisma today is a situational meaning, arising out of the work of sociologist Max Weber one hundred years ago. He explained that in a context of tired traditions and bureaucratic boredom, where anxieties and uncertainties are intensifying, an exceptional leader may arise who is perceived to have a message and
mission that offers hope and a future. Followers are totally devoted to this visionary leader and tell stories of his or her greatness. Think of Churchill during World War II or Barack Obama or Justin Trudeau after their uncharismatic predecessors. My research was on the popular Pastor Bruxy Cavey and The Meeting House, and their “irreligious” approach to church in secular Canada. Unlike Paul’s spiritual charisma, this charisma arises as a relationship between a leader and their followers in a particular situation. It suggests heroism as much as servanthood, and unless its properly stewarded, may fizzle out or even go awry.
Your church may not need this kind of charisma as much as you think. Or maybe it’s needed in a small dose. Still, we know that leadership is also a spiritual gift, and historical examples like Moses, Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon and Billy Graham abound—charismatic leaders whose legacy displays a fruitfulness that last for ages.
Finally, there is one other, more critical understanding of the word charisma: charisma as a contrived popular image. I build off historian Daniel Boorstin’s book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1961) to explain how a form of charisma can be manufactured through management, marketing, and metrics. Rather than the charisma of a hero, this is the charisma of the celebrity, whom Boorstin defines as “a person who is known for his well-knownness.” Contrived charisma arises from calculated use of mass media and social media, and is often associated with gimmicks, glamour or spectacle. Many lay people have come to expect this promotional approach today—unless they are wary and cynical about such artifice.
To a degree, in our internet age celebrated pastors cannot avoid this additional gloss of contrived charisma. It comes with having one’s image on a screen—on TV, on a computer, or on a jumbotron. Congregations need to be wary of desiring this kind of charismatic glow, for it promises more than it delivers, and can fade very quickly. Moreover, it can become a trap, a gilded cage difficult to break out of—both for the branded pastor and congregation.
In summary, there are three different meanings of charisma—spiritual, situational, and contrived. There is no doubt your congregation needs more spiritual charisma—the gift of grace displayed in the manifold blessings of the Holy Spirit to all believers. Your congregation may or may not need a charismatic leader perceived to have exceptional talent and a timely message; however, we know the Holy Spirit does gift certain leaders for particular situations. Finally, I suspect your congregation does not need to manufacture the superficial charisma of a mediated image that meets the cultural expectations of the average North American. Besides, many today are suspicious of a charismatic image, and only a truly Spirit-led charisma will lead to sustainable flourishing. At their core, what congregations really need is to follow one charismatic leader, and that’s Jesus. By enacting his teaching and story, the Spirit’s power will flow and grow a community of gifted leaders.