Making an Idol of Ministry

Henri Nouwen once said that the main obstacle to loving God is service for God. This is ministry idolatry—not agreeing with Jesus that he has the rightful first place in our affections. Ministry idolatry is becoming increasingly widespread in evangelical Christianity in America, 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.
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 Peter 1:8), and if he can’t achieve his purposes through obvious sin, he will achieve them 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 Peter 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.
I began my ministry with the Navigators in 1968 and enjoyed thirty-eight years of ministry with them before retiring in 2005 to come on staff at Mars Hill Church in Seattle. During my first few years with the Navigators, I began my drift into ministry idolatry. I had one of my first wake-up calls (I needed several of these before I could truly see what was going on in my life) in a visit with Tommy Adkins, who was a Nav staffer, friend, and mentor to me.
I had just finished a good visit with Tommy, and we were walking to my car parked in his driveway. Tommy had piercing blue eyes, and I was about to personally experience their piercing quality. When we got to my car, he said he wanted to share something with me. “This can’t be good,” I thought to myself.
Tommy grabbed a sheet from the notebook he was carrying and laid it on the hood of my VW. He then drew out an illustration that is familiar to all Navigators—the wheel. In the center of the wheel was Jesus. Tommy focused those blue eyes on me and asked the heart-stopping question, “Dave, what is in the center of your wheel [your life]?” I quickly told him that it was Jesus, to which he replied, “I don’t think so.”

Tommy asked if he could write what he perceived was the center of “my wheel,” to which I answered yes. He then slowly wrote the word “men.” In the Navigators, finding and giving yourself to faithful men was the centerpiece of our ministry philosophy. Founder Dawson Trotman, in a classic message he preached, asked, “Men, where is your man? . . . Women, where is your woman? Where is the man or the woman who is living today for Jesus Christ because of your life?”

Having men in the place of where Jesus should be was ministry idolatry—plain and simple and painful to admit. The good had become the idol in my life—not noticed by me but by Tommy. He was absolutely right! As we sing in a classic hymn: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” Even today this sin is crouching in the dark waiting to devour me. I am not actually leaving the God I love, but rather I am tempted to push him to a marginalized place and put ministry in the center of my life, instead of keeping Christ enthroned there.

It is not my intention to give some kind of formula in dealing with each of the mistakes addressed in this book. There are 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” (Psalms 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 mind-set, 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.

The Lord uses these Scriptures to get my attention and point out my sin. This is one reason I want to be consistent in my time in Scripture: to allow him to speak to my sinful heart. We used to say in the Navigators that God’s Word will keep you from sin, or sin will keep you from God’s Word. Regularly reviewing key verses, meditating on them, and praying over them helps a good deal.

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

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