Pastor Idolatry

What do you think is the biggest problem pastors struggle with: Pornography? Depression? Lack of vision, or creativity, or leadership skills? I don’t know the answer, but I’ll put in a vote: Idolatry.

Now that sounds weird to me, because I think of idolatry as like bowing down to a piece of wood, and the last time I came even close to that was praying my baseball bat would make contact with a baseball, and that was like 18 years ago. So I don’t worry much about the sin of idolatry…and that’s a problem. In the Bible we’re told to flee from idolatry (1 Corinthians 10:14) and that we’ll bear the consequences of our idolatry (Ezekiel 23:49). So if we’re guilty of it, we might want to know.

And I have come to believe that, for most pastors, idolatry is a huge issue.

Question for you pastors: Why do you need your churches to be big and successful? Why is it so important to you? Is it because you want to spread the Kingdom of God and help people to experience a relationship with Jesus like you have? Yeah, that’s probably some of it. But, unfortunately, it’s probably not all of it. And this is where all this gets really dangerous. For a lot of us, I think we get our identity all wrapped up in what we do for Jesus, instead of really understanding who we are and being secure in who we are in Jesus. And so we need our church’s to succeed … for wrong reasons. We’re running on bad fuel.

Is it possible that some of us have even made our churches (or church growth) into an idol?

What is an idol, and what is idolatry? Here’s the best definition I’ve found:

“… anyone or anything from which you and I try to acquire life, value and meaning – outside of the true God – is a false god. Therefore, those positive behaviors aimed at generating life and acceptability for us are sins. So even though what we do may be right, the reason why we do it is idolatrous,” (Jeff Vanvondervan, Tired of Trying to Measure Up, page 101)

So have you made your church (or church growth) into an idol?

Many pastors work hard, then start to feel desperate and depressed when they don’t see the growth and success they expect. Where are the results God should be providing?

Well, maybe God never promised those results. Let’s look at some verses from Hebrews 11…

Hebrews 11:35: “Women received back their dead, raised to life again. Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection.”

The results of “having God” are not consistent. Sometimes you get a resurrection, sometimes you get tortured and die and have to wait for resurrection (but it will be a better one!). So, if that’s true, why do we pastors expect consistent results? “If I do what this other pastor did, the same thing will happen for me that did for him.” “If our church acts like that church we’ll see the same results.” Or “If we do what we did before we’ll see the same impact as last time.” Where does God promise consistent results?

Hebrews 11:36-38: “Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them.”

“Having God” and serving God does is no guarantee that you’ll get your best life now, if can even mean the opposite. For many, the result of serving God is suffering.

Hebrews 11:39-40: “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.”

What God smiles on is not “results.” Our “pastor ancestors” served hard, but the only result was suffering, and God commended them for their faith. If I really want God’s commendation it won’t come through achieving big results but through serving even in the face of suffering.

For some, this could set us free.

Think about this: Out of the 350,000 churches in America the average size is 92. The typical new church starts with maybe 200 (or less) on their first Sunday then drops to 100 (or less) and starts to slugglishly grow from there. Yet all we hear about are the mega-churches and the new churches that quickly explode into the thousands.

Those are the one-in-a-thousand stories, but they’re the only stories we hear. And so we get the perception that those churches are normal. They are actually anything but normal. Because we think they’re normal, we compare ourselves to them and we come out wanting.

This can lead to pastor idolizing, church lust, and depression.

And, honestly, the issue is idolatry. To try to find life, value, or meaning from anything other than God, is idolatry. If we look to our church, to the growth or success of our church, to make us feel more alive, more valuable, to make us feel like our lives have more meaning … we’ve made our church an idol.

I’ve been guilty of this.

You are not supposed to look to your church for life, value, meaning … or joy. In fact, in the Bible Paul calls the church a “burden.” The Bible says that our joy comes from God (Nehemiah 8:10), and from the wife of our youth (Proverbs 5:18). And if you’re going into church planting needing it to stroke your ego, or needing it to make you feel like your special, or needing for it to be your source of joy … you are in for a world of hurt. I read this quote from a guy named Jeff Vanderstelt, “If you’re not secure in who you are in Christ, church planting will kill you.” I totally believe that.

So what should you do if you realize you’ve made your church (or its success) an idol? You repent.

Ezekiel 14:5: “I will do this to recapture the hearts of the people of Israel, who have all deserted me for their idols.’ 6 “Therefore say to the house of Israel, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Repent! Turn from your idols and renounce all your detestable practices!'”

Did you notice:

  1. That God considers idol worship a detestable practice? That means if you’ve made your church an idol He considers the way you lead your church detestable. Ouch!
  2. That God wants to recapture your heart? He’s after your heart and if you’ve given your heart to your church, that’s a lousy substitute for God. Your heart should belong to Him.
  3. That God commands you to repent. It’s not enough to realize that you’ve gotten things mixed up, God is asking you to turn from idolizing your church, from getting satisfaction from church growth, from enmeshing your identity in your role as pastor and to turn to Him.

So will you do it? Maybe turn off your computer and spend some time on your face before God, repenting and giving your heart back to Him. It’s painful, but it’s what we need to do, and it can set us free.