Nothing undermines the loyalty of your team members so much as them watching you lie to outsiders. They know better; they know you are stretching the truth or creating it from whole cloth, and to the extent you do that, you shrink in their eyes.
To our everlasting shame, perhaps no body of people on the planet plays fast and loose with the facts like preachers. You would think that we who deal with the Gospel Truth, whose Savior called Himself “The Truth,” and who have as one of our basic tenets “Thou shalt not lie,” that we of all people would hold to the facts as no one else. But it is not so.
In a conversation with a group of pastors about this, the stories flew, as each one thought of examples he had seen.
One said, “You get these flyers from preachers who want to come to your church. ‘One of America’s greatest evangelists!’ it says. ‘Pastor of some of the largest churches of our time.’ And yet, you know the churches he has pastored and there’s no way.”
Another said, “And some of them report the hundreds of decisions that were made in their recent meetings. Why, Billy Graham would be hard-pressed to match those numbers. And if you check with the pastors where they held those meetings, they can’t find all those converts.”
“I had a preacher tell me that he actually did not know how many people attended his church on Sunday morning. He said they engaged in a bit of creative counting. He said it for a joke, but he was serious.”
“I heard a staff member of one church say that when they counted the crowd on Sunday, they added 10 percent in the chance they had missed someone.”
“The bad thing about that is that they turn around and report those numbers to the denomination. I mean, there are people in offices out there who read that and believe it and come to grand conclusions about these preachers and the job they are doing.”
One said, “How about the way a new pastor will come to a church and pretty soon he’s announcing that ‘We’ve doubled in attendance since I came.’ If you went back and checked, you’d find they ran 200 under the former pastor, and while they were without a minister, the attendance dropped to, say, 105. Now, this new guy comes in and pretty soon they hit 200 again, and here he is announcing they’ve doubled in attendance. In a way, it’s true, but in reality, it’s not.”
As the conversation played itself out, I thought of an instance in which a pastor had taken it upon himself to fill out the annual church profile, that report to our denomination in which we list all our statistics. It’s one of the few yardsticks our leaders have for measuring accomplishments and growth. The church secretary was delighted to get rid of that onerous task and gladly let the pastor do it.
A few weeks later, the denomination’s office in the state capital called to verify some of the numbers. Was it true that this medium-sized church had baptized over 250 people that year, making them the leaders for the entire state? The secretary was sure that was not correct, but she would check.
An hour later she phoned the state office with the correct numbers, far smaller than what the preacher had reported. When she told the pastor about the phone call and the corrections, he began to make excuses for what he called simply a mathematical error. He had combined the number of new members who had joined their church “by letter” with the number joining for baptism, and put the much larger figure in the box as having been baptized that year. “It was a natural mistake,” he said, and added, “I don’t know at any given time exactly how many people I’ve baptized.”
His successor at that church told me the story and remarked, “I may not know at any given time how many I’ve baptized either. But I always know within a hundred!”
One of the first and worst casualties of such pastoral shenanigans is the trust of his co-workers and the congregation. When they learn his word is not to be trusted, it’s a sad day for everyone. From that moment on, the enthusiasm of the pastor’s co-workers begins to diminish. The heart goes out of them. Church work is no fun any more.
There is a wonderful idealism in people who begin working more closely with the ministers of the church, on a committee, in the church office, or in other capacities. They expect a higher standard of ethics and conduct and conversation with the Lord’s choice servants than they find in the world. Woe to the minister who decides to let them see his humanity–not a bad thing in itself–by telling an off-color joke or slipping in a little minor profanity or cutting a corner on honesty and integrity.
Trust is a valuable commodity in any endeavor, but in the work of the Lord Jesus Christ, everything is about trust, which is just another word for faith. If people decide they cannot trust the Lord, they will not commit their lives to Him. Their lack of faith takes on eternal ramifications. That’s why we must work to be found trustworthy, in order that people may have confidence in the Lord and trust Him with their souls.
In the Scripture, God is so concerned about His reputation–called His glory–that He protects it at all costs. When David sins with Bathsheba, then engages in a lying scheme to cover up his misdeed, people learned sad tale and repeated it to others. David is vastly diminished in their eyes, but what was even worse was that outsiders, the “heathen” they’re called, ate it up. “The man of God is just like us,” they said. “No difference.” And they laughed at God. The prophet Nathan confronted David with his sin, and said, “By this deed you have given occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme.” (II Samuel 12:14)
The New Testament cautions us that the Lord Jesus Christ indwelling believers is “God’s hope of glory.” (Colossians 1:27) An Old Testament scholar made me aware that God’s glory is His reputation, and He’s saying here that the only hope He has of having reputation in the world is His people. What a scary thought, that what people think of God hinges on how we live.
Many of us want to play a little game with this most serious matter. “What I’m doing has no relation to what I believe.” “I’m going to do this little thing, but I still believe in the Lord.” And this one: “This has nothing to do with God; I’m the culprit here. Blame it on me.”
But we’re not allowed the luxury of separating ourselves from Him. As our Savior and Father, He has put His name on us, which is another way of saying He stakes His reputation on how we live.
Bible students remember the Lord Jesus coming down from the Mount of Transfiguration with His three closest apostles and finding the other nine in trouble. A man had brought his ill son to the disciples waiting at the foot of the mountain and asked them to heal him. When they were unable, he not only lost confidence in them, but also in the Lord. We hear him saying to Jesus, “If you can do anything, help him.” Jesus answers, “The ‘if’ is on you, not me. If you can believe, all things are possible.” (Mark 9)
What absolutely shocks the layman who finds his preacher shading the truth–or absolutely blackening it!–regarding the numbers and statistics of the church is the reason for it. There is no good reason. Not one. All it does is point up the insecurity of the pastor and his false sense of security and accomplishment. The king is found to be wearing no clothes, to refer to an ancient parable; the preacher is found not to live by what he preaches.
“The Lord is my portion,” we read all through Scripture. God is called our inheritance and our lot. Whatever else that means, it surely is declaring that God’s people are to get their sense of identity, their sense of purpose and reward and fulfillment from Him and Him alone. Not from their accomplishments, not from their success, not numbers, not records, not awards or accolades or trophies or recognitions or public acclaim, not honorary doctorates or invitations to the biggest churches or standing ovations or any earthly reward we can come up with.
We pastors and teachers often apply Matthew 16:26 to the outside world, those who do not know the Lord and thus are making bad choices with terrible consequences. But when Jesus asked, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” he may well have been directing that toward His own people, preachers in particular, who in going for the acclaim of the world end up losing the heart of their Christianity, their very own soul.
It’s far too big a price to pay. And when one has the acclaim of the world, what does he have but a handful of mist.
Let the man or woman of God settle these things in their hearts early on, and decide what will be the standard of their success, the gauge of their inner fulfillment. If being numbered on anyone’s list of the greatest preachers or the biggest churches or the largest anything, if that is what rings your bell, then please find another profession, for you’re in the wrong field. You will become a problem for the church, not a help. You will become a headache for the Kingdom and a stumblingblock for those who would come to the Savior.
One question every servant of the Lord should ask himself each day of his life: “Is the pleasure of my Savior enough reward for me?”
If it isn’t, get on your knees and ask God for mercy. Don’t get up until you get your life on track.