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Popularity Is Overrated

Dr. Charles Revis, Executive Minister, ABC of the Northwest

I was listening to a recent podcast by Mark Driscoll today. He was speaking about pastors, using 1 Peter 5:2-4 as his text. In the message these words jumped out at me:

“Wolves have high approval ratings. If your whole goal is to be liked and known, to have nobody upset, nobody leave the church, nobody to speak ill of you. Nobody gets their feelings hurt. Everybody gets their way. A really small church with a really enabling leader maintains peace and popularity at the expense of conversions and fruitfulness. Everybody’s happy because everybody gets what they want. And that’s not faithful to Jesus because that means He’s not always getting what He wants. We serve an audience of One, we live for an audience of One. We live in submission to godly authority. If you are a leader you have to do what’s best for the whole flock, not for just a few loud disgruntled sheep. Furthermore, you can’t just follow the applause. Sometimes decisions need to be made, things need to be done that are painful and unpopular. People will leave the church. Some people will feel as though they were not heard and accommodated... Leadership in ministry is not a popularity contest. It’s a hard lesson, but exceedingly important.”

I don’t buy everything that Mark teaches, but this comment is right on the money. Far too many pastors either never lead, or quit leading, because they discover that to lead means giving up the quest for popularity. Leadership requires sticking your neck out. Leading necessitates taking a stand. Both postures place the pastor in target position. Someone will take a shot at you, try to take you down, or, they will oppose you. And, that’s always painful, unless you are a pastor with absolutely no feelings. If maintaining a high approval rating is a high value for you, you will resist getting out in front of the sheep to lead them. It’s easier to hang out among the sheep, and just become one among the many.

Many years ago I participated in an Alban Institute seminar focusing on the long-term pastorate. At the time I had been the pastor of my congregation for ten years. I instinctively knew there were both opportunities and dangers in long tenures. One of the dangers is “going native.” Or, another way to describe it is “becoming domesticated.” It’s another way of saying that over time the pastor is inclined to take fewer risks in leadership. During the course of the long tenure certain strong personalities wear down the pastor. The pastor learns what topics must be avoided and what paths have a roadblock sign permanently placed on them. It’s easier to just go along with the flow. It’s more popular to start wearing wool and emit an occasional bleat. Going native by throwing in the leadership towel becomes the standard operational procedure.

Here are some tell-tale signs that you have become domesticated: You no longer cast vision. You avoid conflicts. You fail to lead the charge to take the next hill. You choose not to preach on difficult subjects. You find yourself always asking the church what they want to do, and you have no idea yourself. You quit counting attendance, conversions and baptisms. You dream only of finding a nice place to sit and read a Clive Cussler novel. And, worst of all: You love to hear people tell you how much they appreciate how peaceful the church is under your leadership.

The only approval we should be seeking is that of Jesus, who is the Head of His church. All of us should be constantly praying and listening to be certain that we are leading the church in the direction that the Chief Shepherd dictates. There is plenty of material in the N.T. that gives us clues as to what that looks like. The last thing it looks like is a flock of aimless sheep, without a shepherd, scattering across the hills in a myriad of directions. I think it looks much more like the church in Antioch, pulling together as one team, under a band of visionary leaders, seeking to take the Gospel to the entire Gentile world. That may not be popular with some, but it makes Jesus smile. And, that’s the thumbs up we should seek.

“Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” 1 Peter 5:2-3

2009 © Dr. Charles Revis, ABC Northwest
[This article is from Dr. Revis’ blog,]