We have all been conditioned by the celebrity culture in which we live to fall into the trap of believing that truly great Christian ministry should be placarded on a platform and subject to public accolade. This is one reason why so many have given their praises to celebrity pastors in America over the past fifty years. However, it is a yet more subtle evil in our hearts. We can almost unconsciously convince ourselves, “If God has given me gifts for ministry, then others should broadly recognize the gifts God had given me.” This phenomenon is not unique to modern American culture. It dwells deep in the hearts of men and women by nature. We all sinfully love attention and admiration. There is, therefore, a great danger for pastors and congregants alike to turn ministry into a show in order to receive praise from men.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned His disciples about allowing their ambition to drive them to seek the praise of men. He said, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 6:1). Regarding our Lord’s teaching, John Calvin noted,
“In all virtues the entrance of ambition is to be dreaded, and there is no work so laudable, as not to be in many instances corrupted and polluted by it. . . there is no room to doubt, that the design is, to correct the disease of ambition, when, in doing what is right, we seek glory from men.”1
Seeking the praise of men is an equal opportunity evil. The longing to be recognized and praised in ministry is not only a danger for those who compromise God’s truth in their zeal to accommodate culture. It is far too easy for theological conservatives to raise this criticism about those engaged in virtue signaling on trending social issues. It is much more difficult for all of us to examine ourselves to discover whether or not we have fallen into the same snare of seeking praise from men. We can easily seek the praise and admiration of others for taking a stand for biblical truth in the face of moral deterioration in the society around us. After all, anyone can play to a fan base in the way in which they platform their stance on matters of theological and ethical truth.
This brings us to ask the question, “What is truly great ministry before God?” More often than not, great ministry in a local church is never celebrated or platformed; it is revealed in time spent in God’s word, counseling, and in prayer with the members when they are wandering, sick, hurting, or just carrying on in ordinary tasks of their lives. It is manifest in many unseen acts of service. It is carried out when a man or woman seeks to use the gifts God has given us for the building up on the members of the body of Christ. It is in everyone doing their part and being willing to serve from the shadows.
Years ago, I came to the realization that the members of the church I pastored were serving in many ways that facilitated worship and fellowship every week, yet without receiving public acknowledgment or praise. Accordingly, I made the following observation:
“You probably wouldn’t see him doing so, but he’s faithfully hanging the church sign every Friday night and taking it down every Sunday. You probably wouldn’t see her doing so, but she’s faithfully coordinating with others to ensure that there will be enough food at church gatherings. You probably wouldn’t see them doing so, but they’re faithfully arriving early on Sunday morning to set up the hospitality table, the book table, and the sound equipment and to make coffee—making sure that everything is in place for the worship services. You probably wouldn’t see her doing so, but she’s faithfully cleaning her home hours before she opens it for a church small group. You probably wouldn’t see him doing so, but he’s faithfully making hymn schedules and arrangements for the music for the worship services. You probably wouldn’t see her doing so, but she’s faithfully lining up volunteers for the nursery, training others, and making sure that all the nursery needs are met. You probably wouldn’t see him doing so, but he’s faithfully keeping track of giving records for the members who themselves faithfully give to the work of the gospel ministry.”2
It is easy to want to be celebrated for gifts and successes. It is far more challenging yet admirable to serve faithfully from the shadows. The success of a man’s preaching ministry may be the direct result, not to his own gifts or godliness, but of the faithful prayers of a widow in his congregation. The growth of a church may be less dependent on the status of a pastor or the programs of the church and more dependent on the loving service of the members to those in the church and the community. Whatever the outcome of ministry, we are called by God to be willing to diligently and zealously put the gifts He has given us to use in the church and the community at large. Yet, we are often to do so from the shadows.
Learning to serve from the shadows is dependent on having the right motivation of heart. In Scripture, we are constantly met with the contrast between seeking praise from God or seeking praise from men. Consider the following:
“How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44).
“[Men] loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God” (John 12:23).
“Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men’ (Acts 5:29).
“It is required of stewards that they be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore, do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God” (1 Cor. 4:2-5).
“Am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Gal. 1:10).
“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Col. 3:23).
In whatever ministry in which we are engaged, we must examine our heart motivation. On Judgment Day, our popularity or public accolades will not matter one iota. Rather, what will matter is how faithfully and diligently we sought to use the gifts God has given us for His glory and the edification of His people. What a difference it would make if we all sought to serve from the shadows before ever-watching eye of God, rather than to serve for reputation or the praise of men. May our God give us the grace to be willing to do all our service from the shadows.
1. John Calvin and William Pringle, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 308–309
2. Nick Batzig, “It’s the Little Things,” Tabletalk Magazine (Feb. 2015)