I will never forget looking into his flushed angry face. After six months of core development, we were finally ready to launch a new church I was planting, and the Smiths (name changed to protect the guilty) had been with us every step of the way. They had not missed a single meeting and had been present for every outreach event. Also significant to any church planter was that they gave regularly and generously, which made this moment all the more tenuous.
What started out as disagreement over the way this new church would be structured and how decisions would be made (issues which had been addressed repeatedly and clearly over the previous six months) quickly escalated to a flash point, and I was presented with a hard choice: either compromise our identity and mission, or bid farewell to an otherwise faithful family and watch our offerings plummet by approximately 30% in the process. I stiffened my lip, bid them farewell, assured the rest of our team that we would be fine, and then went home and wept.
Proverbs 29:25 says “the fear of man is a snare.” Most who have served as pastors for any significant length of time have felt this fear, and most of us have also given in to that fear on occasion. When we do, it is often because we fear the harm that might come to us, or to the people we serve. The problem is, every time we give in to fear we do more harm to our people than good.
The still bigger problem is fear doesn’t always look like fear on the surface. Sometimes it looks quite courageous. Sometimes it looks like we are tirelessly serving, when in reality we are doing everything because we fear a lack of control. Sometimes it appears we are preaching in an uncompromising way, when in reality we are just goosing the crowd for our own self-aggrandizement. In my own ministry, I’ve discovered four ways that the “fear of man” can sneak in under the radar and cause me to do more harm than good.
When I throw red meat rather than provide a balanced diet.
Most of us who preach know where our “Amen corners” are, and we also know exactly what to say to make them noisy! All of us have people with particular “pet projects,” and to stay on their good side, we only need to discover what those passions are, and focus exclusively on them when we speak. But when we do this, we bring harm to ourselves and our people in three ways. First, we put ourselves at risk of becoming the very kind of teacher Paul warns Timothy about—the kind of whom he said people would flock when they refuse the life-giving Word in exchange for having their ears scratched with things they want to hear (2 Timothy 4:3). Second, in focusing on certain subjects to the exclusion of others, we fail in our charge to teach the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Third, when we throw red meat to the crowd we never get around to addressing the issues that are “in the room.” It actually takes very little courage to preach about the people “out there.” The fear of man can keep us from addressing the actual issues of our own people.
When I hide from the hard stuff.
I’ve heard pastors say of any number of hard subjects, “We don’t address that here because it would get us off mission.” I understand the sentiment. Our preaching and our church can become unbalanced if we spend too much time on peripheral issues. But often, this sentiment is used as a means of avoiding hard subjects. When we avoid the difficult, we are teaching our people by example that when the heat is on it’s okay to take the easy way out.
But it isn’t. Struggle is a part of the Christian experience. Babies die. Loved ones are diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Tragedy occurs when we least expect it. These realities make it necessary for faithful pastors to deal honestly with the weight and complexity of hard issues. When the child struggling with homosexuality “comes out,” or a businessman is faced with the choice of keeping his integrity or keeping his job, the truth of the Word of God should already be dwelling in the minds and hearts of those who will deal with these issues. Avoiding subjects like this—or oversimplifying them with inch-deep, varnish-covered Christian sentimentalism—serves to keep God’s people ill-prepared when the worst happens.
When I do the work but don’t share it.
Maybe it’s guilt. Or maybe it’s just the desire for control. But whatever the motivation, workaholism doesn’t just steal time that belongs to our families. It also steals opportunities for service from the people we should be equipping.
Answering every phone call, making every visit, or personally responding to every need means we never equip the church to do the work of ministry. It also results in worn out pastors who do nothing well. Adrian Rogers once said “the pastor who is always available is rarely worth much when he is available.” The fear of man will get you there!
When I make the church about me.
Brothers, our churches aren’t about us! My congregation doesn’t exist for my own self-actualization. In fact, the validity of my role is inextricably tied to how well I serve the people God has placed under my care.
Christian “celebrity culture” has produced too many who think the church exists so that they can advance themselves. I have regrettably encountered a few pastors over the years who make huge, church-altering decisions based on how they will personally be affected. In the worst cases, I’ve heard them release their pent-up frustrations while preaching to their people—the pastor-congregation equivalent of spousal abuse.
Fear God only.
A great cure for the fear of man is to remember that God won’t judge us by how large our church was, or how well-known we were in this life. He will judge us by whether His bride was made more like Christ under our care. She isn’t there for us. We are supposed to be there for her.
Codependency is a very real temptation for pastors and churches. And the root of it all is made clear for us in Scripture. The fear of man is a snare. Resist it, and serve your people well as a result.