Throughout my four-plus decades in vocational ministry, I have wrestled with three persistent temptations. I had hoped by now I would have overcome them, but they have been my ever-present “thorn in the flesh.” Perhaps you can relate.
My first persistent temptation has been to prioritize success over faithfulness. Of course, I love both. I want to be both faithful and successful in my personal life and professional work. I want, for example, to be a faithful husband and have a great marriage. I want to be a faithful pastor encouraged by some quantifiable measures of success.
However, in retrospect, I see how I linked my self-worth to external marks of success: more butts in the pews, more bucks in the offering plates, and a constant series of building additions or renovations. Those benchmarks worked for me while simultaneously making me feel very successful. Hence, the temptation.
While pursuing success, I found it easy to neglect faithfulness. I was often too busy to pray, too busy to cultivate relationships, too busy to take care of myself, and, basically, too busy to love—until I crashed and burned because my well had run dry. It was through failure, not success, that I learned I can’t compromise faithfulness for success. I’m still trying to learn that simple lesson.
My second persistent temptation relates to the first: an attempt to copy the latest and greatest practices of the successful. After attending a conference or reading a book by a popular pastor who describes how his church “blew up” because of a creative practice, I extract that practice from its original setting and transplant it into mine, assuming that what worked in one setting will surely work in another.
I’m not alone in this practice. I’ve lost count of the number of pastors who have recommended that their churches do something simply because the hot church in town was doing it. Should we remove our pews? Add a coffee bar? Put up a new sign? Improve our audio-video capabilities?
On the surface, copying someone else’s practices may seem harmless. In many cases, it’s appropriate. Some practices, like those associated with excellent hospitality, work in most contexts.
However, when a congregation, with its unique culture, seeks to implement effective strategies to advance its mission, they ought to create rather than copy. By this I mean a congregation will be more effective in living into its mission if it carefully, corporately, and prayerfully creates initiatives which reflect their unique culture and context.
In the end, these initiatives will rhyme but not replicate. In other words, they will be similar to those adopted by other congregations, but also reflect the unique culture of their congregation. So, I have found it necessary to resist the temptation to take a shortcut by copying rather than creating. In many industries, this is called plagiarism. For pastors, it's just being lazy and impatient.
My third persistent temptation also relates to the first. It has been to prioritize crowds over making disciples. Unfortunately, I didn’t recognize the presence of this temptation until later in my career.
During my early years in ministry, I was pretty good at mobilizing my congregations to attract crowds. In each church I served, worship attendance gradually increased during my tenure. Looking back, however, I’m not sure how many disciples were made by my congregations while I served as their pastor.
Sure, I know how many people were baptized or professed their faith in Jesus Christ or became members, but I’m not sure how many became fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. Still, I trust that the Lord used me—somehow, someway—to make disciples. Who was it who said, “We do our best and let God do the rest”?
As of late, the church’s response to the pandemic has me wondering how effective my congregations were in making disciples. So many church attenders have not returned to corporate worship. They stopped practicing the spiritual discipline of gathering weekly with fellow disciples. Some predict they will never come back.
This development has me asking myself many questions. Why is this? Why would so many people neglect a centuries old practice viewed by Christ-followers as an essential and foundational spiritual discipline? Did I (or we) fail to make disciples? In our zeal to attract crowds, did we make consumers of religion instead of disciples of Jesus Christ?
I’m thinking the answer to that last question is “Yes.” Throughout my decades as a pastor, I never developed a rubric by which to measure if my congregations had made disciples. We only measured butts, bucks, and buildings—we just copied what others were doing. These days, as a semi-retired pastor, I encourage church leaders to keep the main thing the main thing: focus on the mission of making disciples. Then do the difficult work of creating marks by which to measure effectiveness in doing so.
Three persistent temptations that have plagued me during my years as a resident pastor:
- Success over faithfulness
- Copying over creating
- Crowds over disciples
You may see a correlation between them and “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (I John 2:16) or Satan’s threefold temptation of Jesus. The lust of the flesh or the temptation of pleasure corresponds to taking the easy option of copying rather than the difficult road of creating. The lust of the eyes or the temptation of possessions corresponds to prioritizing crowds over disciples. The pride of life or the temptation of prestige corresponds to the desire to be successful even if it means being unfaithful.
Interestingly, the pandemic has helped keep those temptations in check. Covid, and the corporate response to it, stripped most churches of the external markers of success. During the past two years, worship attendance has declined, contributions to the church have dropped, and building projects have been put on hold. These developments have forced pastors like me to embrace faithfulness to Christ, faithfulness to the work, and faithfulness to making disciples.
Along the way, the pandemic pushed me back to the Bible. It encouraged me to adopt the ancient practice of talking back my temptations with Scripture. Perhaps you are familiar with the practice. Jesus employed it in his battle with Satan in the wilderness and it was later developed by a fourth-century desert monk named Evagrius Ponticus.
Now, when tempted by success, copying, and building crowds, I remind myself of the words each pastor hopes to one day hear from our Lord: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”