One of the vehicles that God uses to expand his kingdom is the work of ministries in churches. These ministries cover a wide and broad spectrum that provides services to believers and nonbelievers that range from parking, to greeters, to connection teams, to child care, to ushers, to worship team member and the pastoral/elder staff, and that’s not all of them! As ironic as it may seem, like many good things that God graciously allows us to have and be stewards over, a ministry can suck the spiritual life of a Christian and turn what was once a cheerful, willing, fruitful, growing service into a bitter, reluctant, unfruitful, and stunted disservice. How can this be? If God calls and equips people for ministry work, then this should be a good formula…and it is. The problem is not God’s formula. The problem is when his formula gets mixed with us and we become part of the equation with our sinful tendencies. Because we are constant worshipers – either worshipers of God or something or someone else – we can take a ministry and make it our idol in different ways. Some people will work themselves to death, sometimes literally, for a ministry and if they don’t die, they reach a point where they are burnt out. For others, their ministry becomes their spiritual life source substituting corporate worship. Then ministry takes you away from being present in the congregation while the pastor preaches. Next, your personal prayer and Bible reading time suffers. And finally, it overtakes every aspect of the believer’s spiritual nourishment. For others, they feel like a superhero and develop a mentality that the ministry needs them to be leading it in order for it to survive and/or thrive. After all, it’s for the sake of God’s name!
Allow me to share my experience with ministry idolatry briefly. For about 12 consecutive years, I participated in worship bands in a leadership role since high school. At first, all the hard work and time consumption seemed normal and not too strenuous. But then my college years in architecture began, and I soon became extremely busy with full time college, 35 hours of work, long days and nights of architectural projects, a girlfriend (who is now my wife), a worship team ministry, worship team rehearsals, Bible study, Sunday services, and a weekly community group. I continued working at this rate nonstop, and at age 23 Letty and I married. I continued my unhealthy pace. I was convinced that the ministry could NOT go on without me! I liked being the source of information of lyrics and chords, I began to want to hear the praises of people…I remember when I returned from my honeymoon, I loved hearing how people missed me at the piano and missed my leadership. At one point, I was working full time, going to school, leading two different worship teams and attending three worship services on Sunday. Meanwhile, I was neglecting my wife and my marriage all for the sake of ministry. When asked if I could delegate tasks in the team, I always had answers as to why it was necessary for me to be the key point person who led and held all the information that the team needed in order to function properly. I literally became irreplaceable, not because I was so great, but because I was selfish and withheld from people and did not do a good job at raising up leaders to cover for me. When my first daughter was born in 2009, I did not slow down. I prided myself in dragging my wife and newborn daughter to church earlier than the rest so I could rehearse with the band. My wife and daughter weren’t going to get in the way of the success of my worship band. Yes, my worship band. It was no longer God’s. I had neglected my marriage for 4 years and now was neglecting the newest member of my family – my daughter. My spiritual life was like a barren desert with an occasional oasis that seemed to leave my life as fast as it came. I realized I did not know the Lord as well as I thought I did. All I knew were chords, rhythms, and arrangements. I did not serve God as well as I thought I did; I served myself and fed my selfish desires. I became good at being Martha, gauging my spiritual walk by how busy I was. The busier I was, the holier I was. Instead, I should have been Mary, who chose to not be busy like her sister Martha, but be at the feet of Jesus worshiping him.
I crashed down hard because I developed an identity crisis. What was once a clear identity found solely on Christ and the grace of the gospel, was now blurred and distorted. My identity was found in music, on the keyboard, or drums or whatever instrument I played. My worship shifted from God to self and to a ministry. I had turned a good thing from GOD into a god. I exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator…(Romans 1:25). After a life changing trip where God dealt with me in a deep way in 2009, I began to regain my identity in him and the Lord increased my desires to know him like never before. I repented of ministry idolatry and ironically, he kept me in the worship team, though I had a new God-centered mentality this time. I no longer had to be controlling over the ministry. As it began to consume my time, the ultimate test came….could I let go of my ministry and focus on my main ministry which was my family? Could I step down and not be behind an instrument Sunday after Sunday and still remain a faithful follower of Christ? Could God take everything away that was dear to me and still find myself clinging to him? By his grace, I was able to step down and focus on shepherding my family and managing my household. That’s when my walk with God began to flourish exponentially. I was reading his Word and praying for hours daily. I was sharing what God was doing in me with my wife and was able to encourage her in her walk with God. Jesus became my center once again. My soul was being refreshed by daily worship and devotion to Jesus.
At CityLights Church, we love to see people serve and we need more people to serve, but the elders are also praying and trying to gauge the health of ministry leaders and servants. They want to make sure that your ministry is not substituting an authentic walk with Christ. Our ministry becomes our god when it becomes our functional savior. We feel connected to God only when we are helping people park their cars, or teaching children a worship song, or singing on a microphone on stage or preaching God’s word. Our ministry then becomes a mediator between us and God. Christ is then removed as mediator as 1 Timothy 2:5 says, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” Jesus is the mediator of a new covenant according to Hebrews 9:15.
Sometimes the reason we don’t want to let go of our ministries is because Jesus is tugging and pulling an idol from our clenched fists. The reason we feel no one else can do them is because our ministry is our identity and not Christ. Ministry leaders and servants need to understand that our ministries are a means to an end, not the end. If you idolize your ministry, you will eventually demonize all other ministries. You will believe that your ministry is the only that matters and you will be upset when you don’t receive the resources you want/need, or the credit you desire from the pulpit. You will begin to compare your ministry’s importance to others and will want yours to be in the spotlight. You will begin to be bitter when people don’t praise you.
Church elders and pastors are not excluded from falling into ministry idolatry; in fact they may be more susceptible to it than the rest of the congregation. One passage of Scripture that cuts to the heart of the matter is found in Ezekiel 14: 1-6, where the elders (spiritual leaders) of Israel sat before the prophet Ezekiel and the word of God came to Ezekiel, “Son of man, these men (elders) have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces. Should I indeed be consulted by them?” Should God be consulted by elders who worship their own ministries and then come asking God why their churches are dry and unfruitful? In verse 6, God admonishes the elders to repent and turn away from their idols, and turn their faces from all of their abominations. No one is excluded from the dangers of ministry idolatry. We must become aware at the outset that ministry idolatry is a danger for everyone on your team starting with the leadership of a church. Here are some very tough and important questions that Pastor Mark Driscoll asked once when preaching on the subject of ministry idolatry.
1. Does attendance in your church/ministry affect your joy?
2. Do you idolize your gifts, believing that God needs you because of the skills you possess?
3. Do you idolize theology thinking yourself more righteous than a simple Christian who does not know doctrine?
4. Do you idolize traditions that hold back the spreading of the gospel in your church?
5. Do you worship your methods feeling connected only to God with a certain style of preaching, prayer, music, song lyrics?
6. Do you idolize your office where you are motivated not by God’s glory but your title?
7. Do you idolize success? The more fruit you see the better you feel about yourself?
8. Do you idolize winning and feel like you have to outdo yourself week after week?
9. Do you idolize innovation and want everyone to know how unique and creative your ministry/church is?
10. Do you idolize your leaders and want to pray, teach, serve, sing, play, speak like them instead of Christ?
Let us pray to God that he guards our hearts from worshiping our ministry. Let us be mindful that we are not saved so we can worship a ministry but worship Jesus. If we raise the bar at our church on serving and commitments to serve, then let us also raise the bar of the Gospel to that degree in our hearts so that we are constantly reminded that our identity is rooted in Jesus and nothing else. And should we be stripped of duties out of love and protection by our leaders for fear of burn out, let us absolutely be content, as our identity does not lie in what we do for God but what God has already done for us. Let us learn to say “no” and rest. We rest because of our identity in God. He did not have to rest on the seventh day of creation but did in order to give us an example to follow. It is righteous, holy, God honoring and pleasing to rest from your ministry. Do it and do it often. We are not to do ministry to find out who we are. We do ministry because we know who we are in Christ. The ministry leader/servant is just as much in need of the gospel as the person they are serving. If you catch yourself in ministry idolatry, how do you get out? You worshiped your way into idolatry, now you must worship your way out. You got into ministry idolatry by worshiping an idol. Now it’s time to turn from worshiping an idol and start worshiping truth…Jesus said he is the truth. Worship Jesus.