Three Xanax. Three Propranolol. Three Zoloft.
This was the prescription-pill combination I took before my first sermon as a pastor in New York City.
Xanax—an anti-anxiety medication—calmed my nerves in a way similar to alcohol, minus the motor-skill impairment. Propranolol—a beta-blocker—slowed my heart rate so I wouldn’t get flushed or sweat profusely. Zoloft—an antidepressant—was a medication I’d been taking for 10 years to keep my unpredictable anxiety in check.
After meeting with my psychiatrist earlier that week and sharing my fear of a panic attack in the pulpit, she gave me the Xanax and Propranolol prescriptions in addition to my normal Zoloft refill. She said I could take one of each before the big sermon. One Xanax. One Propranolol. One Zoloft. Three pills. That’s it.
Instead I took nine.
Why? Why did I triple my dosage that day?
The idol? My congregation. I worshiped the people in the pews. The seats were packed with high-profile investment bankers, Broadway actresses, university professors, runway models—you name it.
To me, everybody in the sanctuary was impressive. And I needed to impress them. I needed their approval, affirmation, and acceptance. I needed them to love me. And I mean love me. I needed to floor them with a level of oratory excellence they’d never experienced before. And I convinced myself the more pills I took, the likelier this would happen.
So I did something I would never recommend . . . something I deeply regret . . . something that could have killed me. I tripled my dosage. I stood up in the pulpit—high as a kite—and preached to my gods.
I may as well have been bowing down to them.
As church leaders, why is it so easy to worship the approval of our congregations? Two reasons: Pastors like people, and they exhibit a tendency toward spiritual politicking.
We Like People
One of the reasons I became a pastor was my affinity for people. I like thought-provoking conversations. I like walking alongside people going through difficult trials. I like serving and socializing with fellow Christians. I like spending time with people with no agenda at all. I suspect I’m not alone here. Most church leaders—lay and professional—like people.
The problem? When we like people, we want them to like us back. And if not kept in check, the desire to be liked back can turn into a need, and we fall apart without it. At that point, it’s become a golden calf. A natural affection for people has slid down the slippery slope from good to god.
Church leaders—specifically paid church leaders—are also so prone to worship human approval because our job security is intricately tied to it. If our congregations love us, our jobs are secure. If not, we may be on on our way out. It’s not altogether different from politics. This creates an environment where human approval is critical to professional survival, and yet we can’t want it too much. We need it, but we can’t need it. This is a challenging dynamic to navigate. Few leaders do it well. I certainly don’t.
What are the consequences when we idolize our sheep’s approval? Here are three:
1. We stop loving them.
Three things are inevitable in life—death, taxes, and human disapproval. We will never receive 100 percent approval ratings from our congregants—and if we do, we’re probably doing something wrong. When our disciples inevitably criticize us as we worship their approval, it will lead us to do one of two things. We’ll either demonize them in our hearts—a coping mechanism to make us not want their approval. Or we’ll avoid them—a coping mechanism that allows us to move forward by pretending they don’t exist.
And neither approach—demonization or avoidance—involves love.
2. We become awful ministers.
Jesus said we cannot worship both God and money (Matt. 6: 24). Replace money with human approval. When we idolize human approval, our vertical connection is short-circuited and ministry becomes a mere horizontal activity. Our sermons become Spirit-less speeches. Our counsel consists of trite platitudes. We’re afraid to rebuke those in sin. God is on mute, and our ministries suffer.
3. We will burn out.
I have a confession to make—one a bit less dramatic than my opening confession about my pharmaceutical abuse. When I pastored in New York City, I would spend 40 to 50 hours preparing my sermons. That was the magic number I needed to make them perfect—to ensure every sentence was exactly what I wanted. I would rehearse them 20 to 30 times until every catchy phrase, strategic pause, and emphatic hand gesture was down pat. Why? The same reason I took the extra pills that day. I wanted to impress.
The result of this overpreparation? Not only did I sound inappropriately rehearsed and overly polished, but I burnt out. I couldn’t sustain the energy and time requirements necessary to craft and deliver A+ sermons. Had I not repented of the human-approval idol that drove me to overprepare, I’d likely be out of ministry today.
All of us in ministry will be tempted to worship congregational approval. Most of us will give in to the temptation at some point.
But is there good news we can cling to as we battle the temptation to worship our sheep? Absolutely. Here are three liberating truths:
1. Less is more.
You can relax. The more you try to impress your people, the less you will. That’s the nature of human dynamics—we’re impressed most by those who aren’t trying to impress us. In fact, I’ll take it a step further. You can be weak. You can show brokenness, confess sin, and admit failure. Trust me, people will like you more when you do. Humility is attractive.
2. You are forgiven.
If you’ve worshiped your congregation’s approval—and all leaders have—Jesus offers forgiveness. No guilt. No shame. No condemnation. He wipes away your idolatry as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12). So confess your idolatry, repent, and rest in the beauty of Christ’s atoning death. You’re forgiven.
3. You are loved.
You can stop worshiping human approval because you have all the approval and love you’ll ever need. In whom? In Christ of course.
It’s a love that doesn’t depend on the quality of your sermons, podcasts, Bible studies, or blog posts. It pushes aside your blown evangelism attempts and boring Sunday school lessons. It overlooks your homiletical missteps, unwise counsel, and poor leadership. It soaks deeply into your heart and enables you to listen to harsh criticism without crumbling. It’s unbiased, unconditional, and unmatchable. It cost God everything but costs you nothing.
It’s a love you certainly can’t get by popping pills.
Editors’ note: Watch the trailer for Steve Hoppe’s new book, Sipping Saltwater: How to Find Lasting Satisfaction in a World of Thirst (The Good Book Company, 2017).
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