The Most Common Fear In The Bible

I love horror movies. My wife … not so much.

When my wife was elementary school age, her brother was assigned to take her to the movie theater to see cute little orphan Annie singing about the sun coming out tomorrow. Instead, her brother took her to see Poltergeist … Because taking your little sister to see a movie about demonic attacks on children is a fantastic idea. To this day, my wife is deathly afraid of horror movies. She also goes full out Jean-Claude Van Damme on any spider that dares infiltrate the house, but that’s another phobia altogether.

When I was a kid, my fear was the monster that I was convinced was hiding in the closet. Every night when I went to my bedroom, I’d burrow down under the covers and hide … Because certainly a thin layer of sheets would shield me from a slobbering, buck-ugly, child-kidnapping beast. Today, I no longer crouch in fear of imaginary creatures … Instead, I’m pant-wettingly afraid of climbing extension ladders.

Before you start chortling too hard at my fear of ladders, may I point out that you’ve certainly got your own fears too? Just watching the evening news is enough to induce any number of phobias, ranging from train derailments to suicidal airline pilots to ebola. In 2014, Chapman University conducted a large-scale study on personal fears, determining that the top five personal fears that Americans have are: (1) Walking alone at night; (2) Identity theft; (3) Internet security; (4) Mass shootings; and (5) Public speaking. The same survey determined that 8.9% of Americans are scared of zombies … 7.6% are scared of clowns … 7.3% are scared of ghosts. And many of our fears today are driven by – you guessed – television shows. Thanks The Walking Dead.

But there’s one fear that every single person throughout history has shared in common: The fear of people.

When we speak of the term “fear,” we typically think about nightmarish creatures and blinding anxieties that make us shudder and break out in a cold sweat … Like something out of Poltergeist or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre … Like zombies, clowns, ghosts and cannibals (oh my!). The fear of people is far more subtle and insidious. Simply put, the fear of people really means worshiping people instead of God. If we allow people to control us … If we functionally “need” other people … If we constantly compare ourselves to others … If we crave the respect of other people, we are actually worshiping them. In professional circles, this fear is rationalized as “self esteem” or “co-dependency.” In High School, our guidance counselors label this fear as “peer pressure,” and we unwittingly believe that we grow out of that pressure when someone hands us a diploma. Instead, that fear in adulthood simply takes other guileful faces that are often socially acceptable: Demanding respect … Professional jealousy … Habitual anger … White lies to protect our image … Hiding in our homes while cuddling up with a Snuggie, Papa Johns and Netflix while hoping the whole world fades away. The narcissism of social media only exacerbates our fear of people as we’re constantly checking our smart phones for the number of Facebook “likes” and Twitter “re-tweets” on our accounts. The fear of people is the monster with a million heads. Before you know it, you’re throwing a metal folding chair after hearing the results of a paternity test on the Maury show.

The most common fear observed in the Bible is the fear of people. Although God exhorts His people to fear the One who spoke the world into existence and parted the Red Sea, His people always seem to cower like a cornered rabbit before mere lowly people. In fact, the most of the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets gave in to the fear of people in one form or another:

  • After the cold-blooded murder of his brother, Cain was more afraid of the judgment of people than God (Genesis 4).
  • When Abraham sojourned in another country, he passed off his wife as his sister for fear that people would kill him to take his wife (Genesis 12:10-20). Abraham did this twice and somehow remained un-divorced afterwards (Genesis 20).
  • Lot was afraid of his nightmarish sodomy-obsessed neighbors and offered up his own daughters to be raped, molested and deflowered (Genesis 19).
  • Isaac repeated the fearful mistake of his father, Abraham, by passing off his wife as his sister (Genesis 26).
  • Jacob twice tricked his brother Esau and fled in fear of Esau’s death threats (Genesis 27). Then Jacob flees his uncle Laban’s household for fear of Laban taking Jacob’s wives back (Genesis 31:31). When Jacob returned to his homeland years later, he was still in deathly fear of his brother (Genesis 32:11).

And that’s just the book of Genesis, folks. Most of the patriarchs and prophets – particularly Moses and Elijah – had moments where the fear of people brought them crumbling to their knees. The conflict of whether to fear God or men might be the most common conflict of the Bible.

Just like the patriarchs and prophets, the church and its leadership is no stranger to falsely (and often unwittingly)fearing people instead of God. In terms of pastoral ministry (or any church member’s personal ministry), the fear of people can be a crippling issue that takes a variety of forms in the church:

  • When no one is willing to dethrone the reigning dictatorial church bully …
  • When exceptionally talented or extremely generous church members remain un-confronted over spectacular sins (“What would we do without them?”) …
  • When churches won’t kill sacred cows of church programs …
  • When “not making waves” is loved more than Biblical convictions …
  • When “it’s always been done that way” is the church’s central core value …

As a pastor, I’m guilty of committing all of these sins in one form or another … And likely much more. One common pastoral joke hits the “fear of people” nail on the head: “My church would be a great place to work if it weren’t for all the people.”

In my Seminary’s Pastoral Ministry class, I was assigned to read Ed Welch’s book on the “fear of people” entitled When People Are Big And God is Small. Frankly, I skimmed through the book, thinking “I’m not afraid of people … This book is going to be fairly worthless to me.” After all, I’d come out of working in the local government, which essentially consisted of listening to folks complain 24 / 7. Nope … no fear of people here.

I wished I’d paid more attention.

Case in point: During the course of my ministry, I’ve come to hate Mothers’ Day. Not that I hate mamas … I hate all of the complaining. Around Mothers’ Day every year, the blogosphere and church pews turn into a virtual complaint-fest about who is being insensitive to whom. The childless and the single complain that Mothers’ Day is disrespectful to them, and churches should be more compassionate. Those whose mothers are deceased wax sentimental about the difficult feelings of the day. The “restless and Reformed” crowd complain that Mothers’ Day isn’t Christ-centered and shouldn’t be celebrated at all. So how does a pastor respond to all of these competing voices? Last year, I tried to be sensitive to the childless and the single in my church, and didn’t make much ado about Mothers’ Day … Which led to a truckload of extremely nasty complaints from most of the moms and grandmoms. Even more painful, several families actually left the church as a result. So I dreaded what to do for Mothers Day this year. Certainly my decision was going to torque off somebody.

After prayer and deliberation, I came to the following simple and satisfying conclusion about Mothers Day: Who cares what people think?!? Be more concerned about honoring God than people. As long as I honor God and stay faithful to His calling, the complaints don’t matter. Keep in mind, I’m not trying to say that churches should be intentionally insensitive to the plight of the motherless and the childless … I’m saying that honoring God is more important than what people think … Or how much people complain … Or whether someone gossips about the pastor … Or even whether someone else quits the church as a result. If I’m basing my decision-making on how much people complain, I’m shepherding Christ’s church totally wrong.

Unfortunately, the pastor’s problem with the “fear of people” doesn’t just end with the conviction of church leadership: Our churches have been Petri dishes breeding the “fear of people.” In pastoral circles, we know this phenomenon by another name: Consumerism. Many of our church cultures have grown into grotesque Frankensteins, where members are trained that they are the ones calling the shots. He who complains loudest typically gets their way. And if church members don’t “get their way,” they’ll hold the church hostage by withholding their offerings or their attendance. Or they’ll just jump ship to other church where leadership will cow-tow to their megalomania. Whether by passive aggressiveness or by just plain old aggressiveness, many churches are drowning slowly under the weight of the fear of people.

I recently found some encouragement on the subject of the fear of people while doing sermon prep in the book of Jeremiah. When God called the prophet Jeremiah to prophecy to the nation of Judah, Jeremiah’s initial response was: “Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth” (Jeremiah 1:6). Jeremiah politely declined God’s request: “Deuces! I’m out!” But God’s response to Jeremiah is fascinating. You see, Jeremiah isn’t really concerned with his public speaking prowess or his age … He’s afraid of how people will react. So God sees Jeremiah’s heart and responds directly to his fear: “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you” (Jeremiah 1:8). After this moment, Jeremiah would go on to speak on God’s behalf to the nation of Judah for 40 years. The messages that God laid on Jeremiah to preach were bold, counter-cultural, condemning and devastating. No one listened or repented. Jeremiah was rejected by friends, neighbors and family (Jeremiah 12:6, 20:10, 26:8). False teachers laughed off his message (Jeremiah 28:1-17). He was held captive in prisons and cisterns (Jeremiah 37-38). Often, Jeremiah was incredibly depressed with only God to lean on. Every time Jeremiah doubted, God responded with the same comforting words from His initial calling: “I am with you to save you and deliver you” (Jeremiah 15:20).

Through Jeremiah’s life and ministry, God’s encouragement to pastoral ministry is thus: If God called us, He won’t abandon us. And nothing can separate us from the deliverance and hope that we find in Christ. No matter how hard the soil or how thorny the ground, God has called us to work His field for a purpose. We might face a situation similar to Jeremiah or (a more modern example) William Carey, where we have scant few real tangible evidences of “progress.” But as long as we are faithful to His calling, we can trust that He won’t abandon us where He sent us.

Ultimately, we must learn to fear God more than people. When Jesus sends out His disciples in Matthew 10:28, He speaks to them about the fear of people: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” As we are similarly sent out to serve in Christ’s kingdom, we might face the occasional mean and persnickety church member who seems to have perpetually woken up on the wrong side of the bed. Or the deacon who seems to think you’re total nincompoop, who can’t do anything right. Or the incessant complainers that make us want to cover our ears and sing “la-la-la-la-la-la.” Or the self-righteous critics who manipulatively dance like Salome to have our figurative heads on a platter. At the end of the day (literally), we don’t answer to any of them. We find ourselves accountable to the One who called us out of darkness and into His glorious light. No matter what people think, our Father in Heaven loves us and hold incomparably more power and majesty than any mustache twirling enemy.

So find hope friends: If our God is for us, who can be against us?

Yes, even deacons.

 

* This post leans heavily on Ed Welch’s awesome book When People Are Big And God Is Small. I highly recommend that you pick up a copy.

The Pastor’s Weakness & Christ’s Strength

bloodOnce upon a time, I had a “nightmare boss.” Tough as nails, so they say. Smoked like a freight train. Prided herself in being brasher and brassier than any of the men. We called her all sorts of nasty, demeaning names that shall not be repeated on the pages of a Christian blog.

One day, I got the shortest straw on delivering a package to her house. I remember feeling an ocean of dread as I rang the doorbell to her house while awkwardly looking down at my shoes. A wave of uneasy nausea was brimming in the top of my stomach. Awkwardly, it was the middle of the afternoon and she was still in her robe and pajamas. It’s always weird seeing someone you work with in pajamas. Much to my surprise, I didn’t receive a brusque command to get off her front porch (which I was half expecting). Instead, I received a warm welcome and invitation to come into the house. The first thing that hit me was an absolute wall of cigarette smoke. The second thing that hit me was how sweet she was being. She invited me to sit down as she laid her frail body down on her couch in exhaustion. Inexplicably, she began to share stories and pictures about grandkids. All the while, she coughed a nasty, raspy cough that seemed to rattle in her chest. As she removed a tissue from mouth, I could see blood clotting on the surface.

Blood.

All at once, it clicked in my mind.

She was dying.

So we talked about her cancer. The doctor’s had given her slim chances of living that long. We ruminated on the love of Christ. We talked about the eventuality of death. She told me that the whole “tough gal” attitude was just an act so as to make it in business. I felt like I made a new friend that day.

No more than a month later, I sat squarely in the back of a Methodist church for her funeral. I have a couple weird memories of that funeral. I remember that I’d never had a suit dry cleaned before, so I accidentally wound up wearing the infamous (and ever-present) dry cleaner tags attached to my suit to the funeral. I remember the music was horrible. I also couldn’t stop thinking about our previous meeting. Her fierce public persona was so out of kilter with the meek private one. In public, so strong … In private, so weak. Above all, I remember thinking that I didn’t want to spend my life hiding my true face. I vowed to never to fake being strong.

Until God called me into ministry.

When I was first called into the pastorate, I fell into the all-too-familiar trap of unrealistic pastoral expectations: A breed of Seminary training that unabashedly measures pastoral success (or failure) by church attendance and evangelistic numbers … A pastor search committee that wanted the new “young” pastor to bring in younger people … A congregation that expected me to solve multiple ongoing conflicts and single-handedly revive the church without changing anything. And I took all of these worldly manufactured hopes, dreams and expectations and placed them squarely on my shoulders. Surely I could handle it, right?!?

Wrong.

Our modern church culture tends to lay every church success or failure in the lap of the pastor instead of the feet of Christ. If pastors aren’t careful (and I haven’t been), we can buy into this very man-centered false view of how churches succeed. Article after blog after church growth salesman/charlatan deem that the pastor’s leadership brings in butts and dollar bills. The church rises and falls on the pastor’s leadership. And the end result often winds up being a frazzled form of overcommitment, saying “yes” to anything and everything at all hours of the day (and evening) to push forward the success of the church. Or trying to please everyone with a huge axe to grind. Or constantly choosing church leadership time over family time. Or pretending to have everything cleanly and pristinely together when in private you’re dying inside. Or singing the wrong R.E.M. song: “Shiny Happy People” vs. “Everybody Hurts.” Or clutching every heartbreak inside instead of finding a friendly ear to bend. The end result is mind-numbing stress, endless pressure, crippling malaise and a relentless desire to run off to a sandy beach in Miami with Jimmy Buffett. It’s just like the well-trodden pastor joke: Most pastors quit their jobs every Monday.

Over the course of the past year, God has been teaching me that this false pastoral strength is absurd. In this journey of heart change that God has been doing in me, I had what the doctors called “the world’s smallest heart attack.” While I was laid up in hospitals and home, a not-so-surprising thing happened: The church went humming right along for a few weeks without me there whatsoever. I believe that God was sending me another needed reminder of my own personal weakness and who was really in charge of His church.

In the midst of the heart attack saga, I recently had a ministry mentor ask me: “Is letting other people know about your ministry struggles a sign of strength or weakness?”

I paused uneasily struggling for the “correct” answer: “Strength?!?”

Baffled at my answer, my mentor flatly and plainly shot back: “No. It’s a sign of weakness. So do you think that there’s anything wrong with a pastor being weak?”

My answer: “I don’t know.”

We then focused on Paul’s lamentation and praise of his “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” And that’s a radically different approach to the pulpit. Whenever hardship, persecution, suffering and angry deacons come to my doorstep, consider delighting in that weakness. Whenever the trials of broken microphones and blown-out projectors come my way, boast that Christ chosen me worthy of weakness. In these moments where we feel like we need to be peeled off the floor with a spatula, the power of Christ can properly ebb though us. When we lay down our pride, egos and church growth books, we allow Christ to have His way in His church.

So let me change my answer for the entire world to hear: I am a tremendously weak person.

There … I said it. Weak, weak, weak.

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, I am called to boast about my weakness. I must delight in my weakness. Because my weakness allows Christ to be strong. My weakness demonstrates that I am not the Christ. The church does not rise and fall on this weak pastor … The church rises on Christ alone. And that’s the way it should be.

To my friends in ministry, you are weak too. And there’s nothing wrong with that either. Because our churches belong to Christ. So lets surrender the church from our unsteady shoulders and put them into His capable hands.

When my friend died 10 years ago from cancer, I wrote a song about my feelings after that funeral. I’ve been thinking lately a lot about the words of that song lately:

Let go to the weakness and find You there … Empty myself and breathe You in … You’re tearing away my thick skin … And I don’t know what I was afraid of … So Lord I let go

I pray that I’m never too afraid to revel in my own weakness so that Christ might become strong.

Keep Your Holy Kissing Hands Off Me: Confessions of an Introverted Former Professional Church Visitor

handshake1I am an introvert. I am also a pastor.

This fact might shock many – particularly my church family – but I assure you that I score completely to the “I” side of the Myers-Briggs personality test. What does mean to be an introvert? Well, it’s not that I have a “deep melancholy” of the soul or weep to Dashboard Confessional tunes encircled by a sea of black candlelight in my basement. Introversion and extroversion are all about energy. While extroverts get energy by engaging a multitude of other people, introverts prefer to recharge and reflect in solitude or alongside one or two other people. To quote Greta Garbo: “I want to be alone.”

How does that mix with being a pastor? Here’s what it’s like to be an introverted pastor:

  • I feel most alone in a gathering of thousands of people, so I’d rather set my hair on fire than go to a retreat or conference.
  • I’d rather be preaching in front of 1000 people than sitting in a crowd of 1000 people.
  • I’m horrible at small talk and I consider networking unproductive fakery (and – no – I probably don’t keep your business cards).
  • Christmas parties and pitch-in luncheons feel like prison cells, and – within 10 minutes – I’m fixing my eyes on the nearest exit door.
  • I need downtime in my personal cave to function. I like to pause and reflect on life and slowly make important life decisions with a Grande Starbucks Pike Place Roast.
  • I like people … But I prefer handling them one at a time or in small groups. I love having coffee with church members, and I’ll probably talk your head off about theology.
  • I’m not shy … I’m not socially phobic … And I don’t have a shell to get out of. I just need alone time to recharge and think.

And as it turns out, I’m not abnormal either. Recent studies show that one-third to one-half of the US population is introverted. That also means that our church pews are filled with introverted believers every single Sunday.

So being an introvert, I wasn’t at all shocked when Thom Rainer’s recent article found that the traditional “stand and greet” time during many worship services was identified as the #1 thing that most first time visitors viciously hated about church. As a new seminary family in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, my family visited a lot of churches, because there’s quite literally one on every corner. In visiting a new church every Sunday, there became some church practices that I grew to hate as an introvert worse than water boarding:

  1. The pushy Godfather-esque mob of four or more male ushers blocking the front door to the worship center.
  2. “Guest” name tags. Or – even worse – “guest” ribbons (and I hadn’t gotten a ribbon since 8th grade diving team)! Or being given an easily identifiable fluorescent zebra stipe guest goodie bag. Nothing guaranteed more that I was going to have forced, awkward conversations about daycares, diapers and Mexican food than name tags, ribbons and fluorescent zebra bags.
  3. Middle aged women that literally chase you around an auditorium just to say “hi” and creepily ask whether we planned on having more kids.
  4. Singling out visitors from the pulpit. Or having all visitors stand up. Or having all visitors stay seated. Or – worst of all – having each visitor introduce themselves in front of the entire congregation.
  5. Hugs from strangers. Enough said.
  6. Songs that involve choreography. I love contemporary worship. I was a contemporary worship leader at one time. But I’m not doing the running man during “I Am Free,” making a giant “O” shape during “Happy Day” or interpretively making waves of mercy and grace on my first visit to church.
  7. “Reception time” with the pastor after the service in the “reception room” replete with punch and macaroons.
  8. Sunday School classes that randomly called on people for answers. This was the “kiss of death” guarantee that I’d never, ever darken the doors again.

From this exhausting process, we learned two important lessons that we have carried away to our own church. First, churches are generally great at creating forced times of fake interaction that some church leader probably took straight out of a paint-by-numbers church growth manual (“Unless visitors have five meaningful interactions during worship, they won’t come back!”). Second, church members are pretty unfriendly in their natural habitat. On most Sundays, no one would talk to us as we entered or exited the building except the easy-to-spot “greeters” with wild eyes scanning the crowd. The greeters are the ones ravenously waiting behind the “welcome center” to pounce like a famished tiger on confused, easy prey. We never stood a chance.

So here’s the point: Friendliness and feigned interest are not the same, and most people are intelligent enough to spot the difference. For those of us growing up in the church bubble, we’ve been force fed such fake interaction over the course of a lifetime, so we’re largely inoculated to the insanity. But imagine if you went to Pizza Hut for dinner and suddenly the hostess asked everyone to stand up and tell one another: “Good evening.” Or an usher at a movie theatre asking everyone seeing Guardians of the Galaxy for the first time to stand up. Or the overhead intercom at K-Mart urged all shoppers to give each other a hug in the dairy aisle. Or the DMV lady inviting you to a punch and cookies reception after getting your car registration renewed. Imposing awkward moments on unsuspecting people only seems to be the standard call in the church’s playbook … But nowhere else. To the well-initiated “womb to tomb” church member, the awkward just seems like normal Sunday service.

So should churches eliminate the “stand and greet” time? Do we change our worship seating to reflect a 4 foot personal bubble of space for each member? Do we avoid eye contact with anyone but the pastor? Do we institute a strict “no touching” rule? Before babies and water water get thrown out, I think we must realize that the real issue here is authenticity and not physical contact. Speaking as both an introvert and former church shopper, I’ll tell you that most people (including me) go to a church and want to have real and meaningful interactions with church members. I want to talk to the pastor, worship leader and church staff. I want to hear about the nursery, small group ministry and service opportunities. I want solid information about a new members class or how to join the church. I want to know about the church’s beliefs and doctrine. But I don’t want a half-hearted hello and a clammy, limp handshake from an embarrassed church member whose sheepishly ashamed look simply reads: “So sorry you have to endure this part of the service … I don’t want to do this either … Please help.” I want a genuine conversation and not a perfunctory greeting.

In my personal growth as a pastor, I have learned another important and invaluable lesson: You can’t force people to be friendly. Sweet but crabby, old Suzie Mae probably will complain about people “sitting in her seat” until Jesus mercifully comes back. While we should encourage our flock with the Word of God to be encouraging (Hebrews 10:24-25) and loving to one another (John 13:35), quick duct tape changes to the order of worship won’t force a flock to be friendly. I have been guilty of inflicting the same pain I experienced as a professional church visitor on people visiting my own church simply because the hot church growth book said so. I repent of such wrongheadedness. The key to having a “friendly” congregation is a heart for the lost and a desire for authentic community that can only be generated when the Gospel is thoroughly and repeatedly applied to a life being molded by Christ.

Gimmicks are not a substitute for Gospel.

I am thankful for Thom Rainer’s recent article. As a result, we’ve been having a good conversation in our church community about what authentic friendliness and community looks like in a church. Last night, I had one church member remark offhand: “The ‘stand and greet’ time isn’t even in the Bible, so the church shouldn’t even be doing it!” Well … “holy kissing” is in the Bible, and ain’t nobody got time for that.

Now excuse me as this introvert goes back to his cave to meditate on life with a cup of coffee firmly planted in right hand.