The organizational work was now over, the construction complete. We were, I thought, ready to begin. We could spend all our time and energy now in our real work—worship and witness and mission….Then I got one of the big surprises of my life. After two or three weeks of celebrative gathering in our new sanctuary, attendance began to decline. I couldn’t understand….I learned to my dismay that nothing at all was wrong, it was just that there was now nothing to do. The challenge had been met successfully. I was advised by my denominational supervisors to start new projects immediately—recapture the people’s enthusiasm with something “they could get their hands on.” I respectfully declined their counsel, for I had suddenly awakened to the fact that what we can get our hands on is idols.That was the plea the Israelites made to Aaron in the shadow of Mt. Sinai: “Come, make us a god who will go before us” (Exodus 32:1, NIV). A god we can see. A god we can get our hands on.
Peterson discovered early that even pastors can succumb to idolatry.
Gods We Can Get Our Hands On
No one knows better than pastors themselves that people in ministry are far from immune to temptation, so it shouldn’t surprise us that pastors can be prone to idolatry as much as anyone. As John Calvin said, “Man’s nature . . . is a perpetual factory of idols,” and that includes pastors, of course. Not that we would ever turn our backs on the One True God; not that we have turned aside from worshiping him. Not at all. We don’t keep a golden calf in our office or chant prayers to an image, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that our lives and ministries are free of idols. It may just mean that our idols are more subtle. It may mean that the idols we worship, we “worship in ignorance,” like the ancient Athenians (Acts 17:23). It may mean we have opted for gods we can get our hands on, gods we can get our arms around, gods that promise to make our ministry paths a little smoother than the God who thunders from Sinai.
So what are these idols? Not Baal of the Canaanites. Not Dagon or Marduk. No, our idols are of a different sort entirely (my book, American Idols, discusses in detail fourteen quintessentially American idols, and could easily have identified more). But for us pastors, some of the most prevalent seem to be:
Approval. Mark Driscoll, founding pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle (www.marshillchurch.org), says, “The Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft rightly states that the opposite of Christianity is not atheism but rather idolatry. And idolatry is nothing more than holding something or someone other than Jesus as the object of our highest affection. For me this includes the endless ways I can seek my value apart from the substitutionary atoning death of Jesus with such things as the approval of people.…Early on in our church plant I became convicted that I so desperately needed the approval of others that I looked forward to mingling after the service to hear the praises of people for my sermon.”
Kevin Butcher, pastor of Hope Community Church of Detroit (http://hopecommunitychurchmetro.org), agrees. “I speak all over the place in many different venues, and I get tons of appropriate feedback. But I still struggle with wanting everyone to ‘like’ what I had to say, to be ‘touched’ by it, to ‘have their life changed’ by it. Where is Christ in that? Sure, by His grace he still works through my words. But I still feel like it is an idol...an idol I worship—on the side—while I am preaching the worship of the true God.”
Approval is a legitimate human need, of course; most of us have a God-given desire to know that we’ve done a good job, that our efforts are valued. But an inordinate proportion of people in ministry (this author included) seem to be pursuing man’s approval to an unhealthy—even ungodly—degree.
Busyness. Carol Seiler, a leader in The Salvation Army in the U.S., struggles with the idol of busyness, “which is to say that God couldn't do it without me, no one else can do it as well as me, and the salvation of the world could well rest on my shoulders…because I’m just so doggone important.” As author and pastor Eugene Peterson writes:
The one piece of mail certain to go unread into my wastebasket is the letter addressed to the “busy pastor.” Not that the phrase doesn’t describe me at times, but I refuse to give my attention to someone who encourages what is worst in me.That’s putting it bluntly. But the truth is, many of us are busy because we don’t trust God. As Seiler says, we honestly don’t believe God can run things without us. We don’t believe that, if we don’t “eagerly seek all these things” (Matthew 6:32), God will be able to pick up the pieces. We don’t believe that God’s timing is perfect, and that if we are simply faithful today that he will take care of tomorrow. We don’t trust him to do the things we can’t—or should not—do. So we keep trying to do it all, a condition Hillary of Tours diagnosed as irreligiosa sollicitudo pro Deo: “a blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him.”
I’m not arguing the accuracy of the adjective; I am, though, contesting the way it’s used to flatter and express sympathy.
“The poor man,” we say. “He’s so devoted to his flock; the work is endless, and he sacrifices himself so unstintingly.” But the word busy is the symptom not of commitment but of betrayal. It is not devotion but defection. The adjective busy set as a modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterize a wife or embezzling to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront.
Relevance. Spiritual director Kasey Hitt confesses an idolatrous allegiance to so-called “relevance.” “As I prepared a sermon last week,” she says, “I kept hearing this voice in my ear saying ‘You're not relevant enough.’ My sermon did not quote a famous author or poet; it made no mention of a movie line or music lyric. I began to furiously think through all the ‘relevant’ quotes and media hoping that something would strike me, would offer the kind of hook people want in a sermon. Then I sat in silence for ten minutes, and I began to realize that this voice prodding me to relevancy was not God’s! I grabbed a note-card and wrote, ‘I know this to be a temptation and fear, not from God. For I believe Scripture preaches. It doesn't take a media clip, a PowerPoint presentation, or quotes from musicians, movies or authors. The allure of relevancy is being impressive…sparkle, intelligence, pizzazz…that's not God's way.’”
In his 1989 book, In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen warned Christian leaders against the temptation to be relevant, saying, “I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. That is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love.” There is, of course, nothing more truly relevant than the Gospel, the Word of God, the Christ life. And while Jesus himself modeled effective communication techniques, he never stooped to mere pizzazz, never bowed to the idol of relevance.
Success. How ironic is it that churches, pastors, and church members who claim to follow the One who talked repeatedly about seeking out last place (Mark 9:35), taking the lowest position in a social setting (Luke 14:10), and including the least “important” people in your plans (Luke 14:13) seem so enamored of size and success? Pastor and author Jim Kallam points out:
Scan ads in Christian periodicals and you’ll reach this conclusion: Success can be yours. If you need to know how to market your church, try this or that program. . . . Listen to how we describe churches. Our words ooze success: “Fastest growing church in the Southwest.” “Largest in their denomination.” “The church with the key to reaching the next generation.”
Kallam goes on to mention a book that identifies the top one hundred churches in America. Think about that: The top one hundred churches in America. Do you doubt that size, prestige, and fame were among the criteria for making the list?
Casting Down Our Idols
If Aaron, the high priest, was not immune to the lure of idol-worship, we should not be surprised that idols have crept into our lives and ministries. They may be harder to recognize than a golden calf or a stone idol, but they are as abhorrent to God as the idols that tempted and afflicted ancient Israel. And if we don’t do something about them, they will corrupt us and diminish our ministries just as they did the Israelites.
So what do we do? The first step, obviously, is acknowledgment. Your ministry may not be prone to all the idols above—and you may identify others not mentioned—but it’s important not to become defensive. Like Moses (Exodus 32:19-20), we must honestly confront and resolutely resist the idols in our camp.
The second step is confession. When we recognize an idol, we must be humble and repentant, call our pet idolatries by their proper name—sin—and confess each one to God.
Casting down our idols will also mean devoting ourselves to the cultivation of new beliefs and new behaviors, replacing our false gods with an awareness of—and dependence on—God’s sufficiency. When Moses returned to the camp after the Israelites fashioned the golden calf, he “took the calf they had made, burned it up, and ground it to powder. He scattered the powder over the surface of the water and forced the Israelites to drink [it]” (Exodus 32:20), an action that was probably intended to be remembered for a long time, and guide their future behavior. Mark Driscoll says that, once he recognized his unhealthy reliance on people’s approval, he “stopped being available to our people after preaching, because I found myself working from impure motives even from the pulpit.” Carol Seiler says she has had to become accountable to others as a way of overcoming the idol of busyness. Kasey Hitt resisted the idol of relevance with silent, listening prayer, after which, she says, “I felt an invitation to let go, release my grasp, my pushing, my forcing, my fear.”
Finally, we must consciously and repeatedly turn from our idols to serve the Living God (1 Thessalonians 1:9). We must “set apart Christ as Lord,” in our hearts (1 Peter 3:15, NIV), giving ourselves anew to prayer. We must stop dancing to the world’s tune and instead get in step with the Spirit (Galatians 5:25). Hitt sees this as absolutely fundamental. She says, “There are a host of voices out there calling, begging, screaming for our attention. Needs of ‘seekers,’ desires of church members, creative ideas for evangelism, good ideas for new ministries, unique ways to serve our community, dreams of building a larger sanctuary, wonderings on starting a blogging ministry for teens, questions on who to hire for the children’s ministry…and these are all good ideas, good voices!” But good ideas are not enough. “We must listen for God’s voice, God’s invitation on where we are to go, what we are to do next, rather than simply asking for his help and blessing. In the current way of doing ministry, we leave little room for God to change our plans. We leave little room to hear what good things we may be making into idols.”
So we must make room. We must sweep from our hearts such idols as approval, busyness, relevance, and success—and others as God reveals them to us—and restore God to his rightful and exclusive place in our hearts and our ministries.