Fighting the Tyranny of Ministry Success

What is the most loving thing God can do for a 22-year-old minister?

In my case, it was ordaining that my inaugural, epic, game-changing, well-publicized ministry event be attended by one kid.

One single human being. A junior high boy named Austin.

Feed His One Sheep

My honest reaction as I sat there and looked into the face of this young man was one of resentment. I wanted, needed, and even expected God to give me a far more successful ministry. Like the frustrated sniper in Saving Private Ryan, I felt that God’s placement of me in this context was a “complete misallocation of resources.”

For the first time in my life, I decided to voice that complaint to God. As I prayed, I felt as though he posed the question from John 21:15 to me, “Ben, do you love me?” My response mirrored Peter’s, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Then that rare mixture of comfort and conviction that only the Spirit can bring came over me, “Then feed my sheep. One sheep.” My heart broke.

The Crowd Versus the King

I realized in that moment that I did not love young Austin. In fact, I resented him because he wasn’t 20 people, or 2,000. I wasn’t seeing him as a person. I was seeing him as a way to advance myself.

I also realized that I wasn’t loving God! Rather than seeking him, I was looking for ministerial success to be my comforter and my source of significance. In that moment, I believed my longing for significance would be satisfied by the roar of a crowd, rather than by the approval of my King.

Religious Bad Men Are the Worst

I thank God that he used that moment early in my ministry to expose this evil motivation in my heart. And make no mistake, it is evil. God will not bless this mentality.

We are designed to glorify God and to love people. When we use God and use people to glorify ourselves, we place our lives and our ministries at cross-purposes with the Almighty. That is not the place we want to live. C.S. Lewis said, “Of all bad men, religious bad men are the worst.” So let us rejoice when God wages war on this motive early in our ministries before we can do some real damage.

Responding to the Cult of Celebrity

So what do you do if your frustration level is rising because you do not see your service attendance, podcast numbers, or Twitter followers escalating as much as you’d like? How do you respond if you are tyrannized by seeing a cult of celebrity surround a different minister rather than yourself? Three things:

1. Repent. Confess to God the wickedness in your heart. Declare to him your desire to distance yourself from any kind of self-exalting motives. His forgiveness comes rushing in when we humble ourselves.

2. Love the sheep. Embrace the people that he’s put in front of you. Don’t envy someone else’s sheep. Care for yours. Know well the condition of your flocks and give attention to your herds (Proverbs 27:23). Be like Jesus whose proclamation of truth was fueled by his deep compassion for his people (Mark 6:34). Consider the pain they experience. Think about the hopes they grip onto. Imagine what it would look like for them to have deep communion with the Lord. Do all you can to foster their passion for living for him. Or, in the words of Peter,

Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. (1 Peter 5:2–4)

3. Enjoy the sweet peace that accompanies the knowledge that we are doing work that pleases our Chief Shepherd. I promise, this is where true, lasting peace is found.