Ministry idolatry is becoming increasingly widespread, reaching epidemic proportions. It is showcased at network and denominational gatherings, where the focus and conversation is often not about Jesus, but about us and what we are accomplishing and achieving. Leaders discuss the latest poster children for ministry success and their methods so we can all emulate them, buy their books, and attend their “how we did it” seminars and conferences.
“Idolatry creep” sneaks up on you because you can easily and quickly justify it by saying that everything you do is for the Lord, believing your motives are pure. We recognize this in businessmen who work obscene hours while insisting they do it all to benefit the family, when in reality it’s all about them.
Leaders must guard against ministry becoming a mistress. A mistress is someone who takes the place that only your wife should occupy. Ministry must never take the place of Jesus himself in your heart and in your values. As 1 John 5:21 says, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” The New Living Translation says, “Dear children, keep away from anything that might take God’s place in your hearts.” Our hearts are idol factories, and ministry, for many leaders, is the king of idols.
Why Do You Want to Lead?
We can start to rely on ministry instead of Jesus to meet deep needs in our own lives. I am convinced that many people move into leadership roles because of people needing them or because being in control satisfies something missing in their own sense of value or worth. I remember John Maxwell once saying, “If you need people you can lead people.” One leader told me that the motivation for “his call” to ministry was the opportunity to resolve the problem of his own insecurities and feel better about himself. The devil is out to snare Christian leaders, rendering them “ineffective or unfruitful” (2 Pet.1:8), and if he can’t achieve his purposes through obvious sin, he will achieve it by taking something that is admirable and good and turning it on its ear to cause us to stumble.
The apostle Peter, in his insightful chapter to leaders, says, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). Our enemy can devour us through ministry by letting the ministry itself replace Jesus in our affections. Unfortunately, we are often quicker to recognize this happening in others than in our own lives.
There is no “four easy steps to deal with ministry idolatry.” But I do want to share some things I am learning about dealing with each of the mistakes leaders make. Let me state again that I have made all these mistakes myself, and I have seen people in ministries, organizations, groups, and churches that I have been associated with make them.
So, how have I dealt with ministry idolatry?
For me the first step is realizing that this is a problem for me. I deeply desire to want to confess and repent when this sin comes to my attention, as opposed to making excuses and rationalizing. It should grieve my soul that I am allowing something to take the place of Jesus in my heart and affections. Like King David, I want to pray, “Against you, you only, have I sinned” (Ps. 51:4). My primary sin here is against God!
Most every day I make the issue of ministry idolatry a matter of prayer, asking for the power of Jesus through the Holy Spirit to occupy center stage in my life. For me, I find that ministry idolatry is an attitude, a mindset, as opposed to an action. It begins with the way I look at things, the way I think.
Colossians 3:4 is helpful to me: “When Christ who is your life appears, then you will also appear with him in glory.” Jesus is my life—not ministry, success, converts, disciples, developing leaders, being respected by my peers, etc. I need to keep being reminded of this truth. Paul says in Philippians 1:21, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” For me to live is Christ, not someone else or something else. I have several passages of Scripture memorized (in addition to those just mentioned) on ministry idolatry, including 1 John 5:21 and Revelation 2:4.
When the Lord makes it clear that I am starting to drift, I want to immediately own it, repent, confess, and ask for his help in agreeing with him that he is central. I want to be especially sensitive to others in my family or on the teams I am a part of when they bring this sin to my attention. One of my life values is to immediately respond to God’s revealed truth, whether that truth comes directly to me through Scripture or through the rebuke of a family or team member. Pity the Christian leader with no friends or coworkers who care enough to confront him, especially in the area of ministry idolatry.