Why Your Church Might Not Be as Good - or as Bad - as You Think

The quality - not the quantity - of materials is the primary indicator of a healthy and successful church. The Day is coming when God will test every pastor’s work. Will your church survive?

by Chris McMillan

Due to the ubiquitous nature of social media, pastors and church leaders live and minister in a world of carefully-crafted sound bites and heaping amounts of hype. While social media outlets, such as Twitter and Facebook, are incredible tools for church leaders to make social connections, they also reinforce and expand the cult of celebrity within the church.

After coming home from preaching and ministering on Sundays to a sometimes enthusiastic, but often listless, crowd, I engage in a maddening ritual of scrolling through the pastors I follow on Twitter — living vicariously through them and reading of their Herculean exploits. I’m hardly ever disappointed with the show. Invariably, the Sunday Twitterverse pulsates with electric reports of record crowds, messages that never miss their mark, and limitless Kingdom expansion. As a result, these paragons of church leadership grow larger in my imagination. However, everything is not always as it seems.

Ours is not the first generation captivated by celebrity pastors. The first century church in Corinth had its own cult of celebrity, with leaders such as Paul, Apollos, and Peter on the marquee (1 Corinthians 3:3,4,21,22). In seeking to warn the Corinthians against their factious spirit, the apostle Paul reminds them that the ministers that are so elevated in their sight are merely servants. Servants can plant and water, but only God can give the increase (1 Corinthians 3:6,7). Therefore, it’s not the “preachers of Corinth” who deserve the praise, but Christ, who makes things grow.

In our day, a myriad of influential pastors from different movements have replaced Paul, Apollos, and Peter. What has not changed is that Jesus is still the only One who makes things grow. Therefore, He deserves the applause, not His servants.

Paul, realizing the Corinthians are not seeing things clearly, is adamant about this point. What looks like success and victory is sometimes an illusion. Everything is not always as it seems.

Paul goes on to compare church leaders to builders (1 Corinthians 3:9). As a master builder, Paul laid an expert foundation. It is now up to the builders who follow him to build on this foundation using only quality materials (1 Corinthians 3:10,11). Unfortunately for the Corinthians, their spiritual immaturity rendered them incapable of discerning the true nature of the building materials. Thus, their elevation of certain personalities was premature and not founded on anything other than their own foolish, sensual, and worldly wisdom — a false wisdom Christ disdains (1 Corinthians 3:19). Everything is not always as it seems.

The contemporary church apparently suffers from this same malady. Western virtues, such as expediency and pragmatism, teach us to look to size and influence as the primary indicators of success. In such a cultural zeitgeist, it only stands to reason that bigger seems better, and style trumps substance. If size is indeed king, it is little wonder church leaders obsess about numbers. For many church leaders, the end justifies the means. Therefore, they give little thought to the quality of their building materials, and the same sensual, foolish, and worldly wisdom operating in Corinth worms its way into our churches - baptized as godly ambition. The ultimate danger of such a paradigm is that our church, like the church in Sardis, will have a reputation for being alive, but in fact be dead (Revelation 3:1). Everything is not always as it seems.

Paul tells the Corinthians it’s not time to sort out who is successful and who is not because the Day has not yet come. Looking out across the eschatological horizon, Paul sees the arrival of the Day of Judgment when God will test each builder’s work (1 Corinthians 3:13). Those builders who used quality materials will see their work survive, but those who built with inferior materials will see their work burned up. These ministers will receive salvation, but their work will perish (1 Corinthians 3:14,15). Paul emphasizes that it is impossible for the Corinthians to know whose work will burn up and whose will survive. Therefore, exalting individuals is foolish.

In 2009, a middle-aged Scottish woman named Susan Boyle became a media sensation overnight. Appearing on the TV show Britain’s Got Talent, Susan’s plain looks and unfashionable style elicited jeering and snickering from the audience while the judges dismissed her as a serious talent. However, when she opened her mouth and began to sing, an audible gasp filled the auditorium, as both the judges and audience sat shocked and spellbound. At the conclusion of her performance, Susan received a rousing standing ovation. Upon admitting their preconceived prejudices based on her appearance, all three judges gave her high marks. Susan Boyle was a feel-good story, but she also revealed a significant flaw in contemporary culture. Far too often, we make judgments on the basis of externals.

This is not only true in the culture, but also in the church. The culture holds up ministry celebrities like the ancient serpent on a pole, beckoning for the beleaguered to look and live. Unfortunately, many weary church leaders, in desperate attempts to see some measure of progress, employ the recommended building materials without critically thinking through the nature and quality of the materials. Thus, the world may marvel at a building’s construction, but if the metals are not tested and proven, the structure will ultimately collapse — and the fall of that house will be great!

The problem is not the celebrities themselves. Many did not plot their popularity; they may seek to wield their influence in a godly, humble, and Kingdom-oriented manner. The trouble emerges when the church assimilates the spirit of the world and operates by the dictates of Satan’s kingdom rather than as an outpost of God’s kingdom. Radically different principles govern these opposing kingdoms. This is the heart of Paul’s warning to the Corinthians. The spirit of the age hoodwinked them into believing that God’s kingdom operates by the same principles as Satan’s.

Ultimately, God measures true Kingdom success by quality rather than quantity. A man or woman quietly pastoring 50 people in Sioux Pass, South Dakota, who has never spoken at a Christian conference, published a book, or been elected to a denominational office will likely receive more commendation from Christ on the Day than many of the celebrities the Church holds in highest admiration. However, such a revelation should never serve as an excuse for perpetually stagnant ministries and barren churches. Paul emphasizes that God does indeed want things to grow, though the means and quality of that growth is the point of contention.

In light of Paul’s warning, how should church leaders respond? First, they must remain humble. Since neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, it behooves church leaders not to think more highly of themselves than they ought. Realizing that God alone is the One who makes things grow should drive church leaders to depend less on themselves and more on Christ. The position of humility is a much-needed antidote to the celebrity mentality that has infiltrated the contemporary church.

Jesus himself was the ultimate example of humility. During His earthly ministry, He was a rock star! Multitudes followed Him and hung on His every word. Yet when one of the adoring masses called Him a Teacher, Jesus immediately gave glory to the Father (Matthew 19:16,17). When the crowds sought to make Jesus a political king, He hid from them (John 6:15). He embodied the kind of leader God desires by taking up a towel and washing the feet of His disciples (John 13:1–17).

The greatest need of the 21st century church is servant leaders who focus more on towels than titles, more on individuals than crowds. When a leader humbles himself with the low posture of a servant, he is in a position to receive God’s blessing (Luke 14:11; James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:6). Humility is, in fact, one of the keys to reaching the elusive Millennial Generation. Recently, while engaging in some reverse mentoring with a Millennial, I discovered the emphasis this generation places on humility and transparency. Millennials can detect slick marketing and celebrity wannabes in an instant, and such things repel them. Ministering with humility is the only way leaders in the local church will reach this generation.

The posture of humility also helps us rest in God’s sovereign care and providence. If God is the One who makes things grow, the pressure is off! Several years ago, I heard Pastor Larry Osborn say that the most spiritual thing church leaders can do is to take a nap. The rationale is that pastors and church leaders can only plant the seed and cultivate the field. The size of the crop is not up to them. We can prepare the horse for battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord (Proverbs 21:31).

In addition to humility, the church leader’s response should be one of hope. Pastors in America are experiencing burnout in epidemic proportions. It is estimated that 1,500 pastors leave the ministry each month. These pastors have lost hope that God is at work in their churches or ministries. Has the Christian superstar environment sold these pastors a false bill of goods regarding success? When a pastor or church leader faces constant friction and criticism and sees no visible signs of success, escape becomes an attractive and seemingly life-saving maneuver. I believe the rise of the celebrity church culture has hastened this crisis. When publications, conferences, and social media outlets constantly parade so-called success stories — pointing to airbrushed images as the standard of ministry performance — struggling pastors feel inadequate and worthless. They begin to doubt their call. Returning to a realistic, biblical model of ministry is the only hope for church leaders facing such overwhelming discouragement.

In his provocative book Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, Eugene Peterson describes the plague of “ministry porn” among pastors. Ministry porn stimulates many pastors through its unrealistic, glossy portrayal of ministry without the warts and blemishes of real congregations. When the opposition of Satan and the realities of dealing with broken people cruelly crush the idealized ministry, pastors run for the hills.

Understanding the potential for such ministry idolatry, Paul reminded the Corinthians that each minister has a role to play on God’s team. There is only one superstar in the Church, and His name is Jesus! Everyone else is just a role player. The truth is pastors tend to lose hope when they see themselves as more than a role player. When this happens, pastors take on more responsibility than they should, which always brings disappointment and disillusionment. Understanding one’s role on the team deflects the focus and praise from individuals and heaps it on Christ, where it belongs. Our hope is not in the role we play, but in the One who assigned us the role. If we ever get this fact inverted, we cannot be healthy or effective leaders in Christ’s church.

The quality — not the quantity — of materials is the primary indicator of a healthy and successful church. The Day is coming when God will test every pastor’s work. Will your church survive?