There is a danger with those who serve God that ministry will become about themselves. We have seen the stereotypical television preacher who puts on a show so that people will support his ministry, or the pompous preacher who has to weigh in on every conversation as if he is the authority on all matters. We criticize ministries and personalities who are all about popularity or money, and yet there are subtle ways that we ourselves can slip into the same spirit of serving self.
The Danger of Money
In the days of Elisha, there was a military General named Naaman who served the king of Syria. The story can be found in 2 Kings 5. Namaan struggle with one thing that held him back in life: he was a leper. Through the testimony of a faithful servant girl, Naaman was told about the prophet Elisha in Israel. Naaman packed up his stuff and a bounty of riches to give to the prophet if he could heal him. Since Naaman isn't the focus of this story we will gloss over the detail; needless to say, Naaman was healed by washing in the Jordan river (pictured above). When he returned to Elisha, he offered him all the gold and clothes that he could ever want. Elisha turned it down. Now Gehazi was the servant and student of Elisha and he heard all that Naaman said. After Naaman had left, Gehazi ran after him and said that Elisha had changed his mind about the gold and clothes because some other prophets had shown up who could use some of the money and clothes. Naaman was extremely grateful so he gave Gehazi these things. When Gehazi returned, he hid the stuff in his house, but Elisha somehow knew what he had done. Elisha confronted him and Gehazi denied doing anything. From that day on, he was cursed with the leprosy that had been Naaman's.
1 Timothy 3:3 says that a preacher is not supposed to be given to filthy lucre or be covetous. Our attitude should be that we serve whether we get paid or not. God will take care of our needs. It is a danger that when a minister is not getting paid for all the hard work he is doing, he feels unappreciated. So his value as a preacher becomes determined by the money he receives.
The Danger of Prestige
Everyone wants people to like them, but in the ministry we can get sucked into the whirlpool of thinking that prestige is how we carry influence with other people. Our image becomes the all important goal that we pursue. Now, as a preacher 1 Timothy 3:1 also says that he is to be blameless and be of good report; so reputation is not unimportant, but when it becomes an all consuming thought in our minds, we have lost focus. It is easy to slip into the mindset of thinking, "I want to have a large ministry so I can have more influence;" or "the only way we can have an actual impact in our country is if the world knows who we are" and so "now I have to make sure everyone sees everything I am doing and lifts me up." This pushes pastors to preach soundbites on controversial topics. They will preach on hot button topics that they know will gain them favor with their in crowd. Rather than study and issue out and preach on what the sheep need, they curry favor with other well-known men.
The disciples dealt with this issue as well. In Matthew 18 and Matthew 20:20-28 a discussion about who would be greatest in the Kingdom was brought up by the disciples. In the first passage Jesus told them that they must become like children and be humble. In the second, Jesus taught that the greatest would be the minister. In today's society, we hear the word minister and think of a position of prestige or power largely because of the influence of the Catholic church, but the word itself means to serve. The greatest will be the humble servant. Our focus is not on getting accolades or glory to ourselves. It's not even to gain influence by people knowing our name. It is to serve.
The dangers of serving for the benefit of ourselves are not as obvious as they may seem. Tim Keller in an article he wrote called 3 Ways Ministry Can Make You Conceited outlines the following areas that we must be careful to avoid. The article can be found here.
Knowledge puffs up- 1 Cor 8:1-2 teaches that knowledge without love makes us proud. We can easily slip into thinking that we are something special because we have so much time to study and know so much about the bible. Ministry becomes more about elevating myself; making myself the scholastic genius.
Ministry can become a means of false identity- This truth I can say I know from experience that it can become true in our lives. When Katy and I were kicked out of India, my identity was shaken because I had built it around an image of myself as a missionary. I didn't know who I was anymore. I didn't know what my purpose in life was. I had to realize that my identity must be determined by what God says about me in His word and not be what others say about me or even what I seek to build myself to be. We can easily start feeling like we don't matter if so many souls aren't saved under our ministry, or our church has so many people, or we are invited to speak at our alma mater. These are all sublet ways of allowing ministry to define who we are instead of receiving our true identity from Christ. If you want to look into this topic more, I recommend Cary Schmidt's book Stop Trying.
Ministry can make you focused on externals- When we construct that false identity, we have to protect it at all costs. That often leads to making a show of ministry when we don't have time, priorities or the heart for authentic relationship with Christ. We maintain the appearance of ministry for God when our heart is not in it. As a form of obedience I can see doing the right thing just because it is the right thing, but we often do the right thing and neglect the better thing. Think of the example of Mary and Martha. Martha was all about serving. She was doing the right thing, but she was missing what Mary had: a chance to sit at Jesus' feet.
Brothers, whether you are a pastor, evangelist, school teacher, Sunday school teacher, youth minister, usher, hospitality volunteer, nursery worker or a janitor in the church, we must all examine our hearts carefully to make sure we are not making ministry about ourselves. Ministry must be about others, but primarily about God Himself. 1 Corinthians 10:31 Whether therefore ye eat or drink or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.