I am re-reading Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (an excellent book, which I highly recommend). I read the following passage yesterday and it has really stuck with me:

Suppose I am a pastor. If, truly, God did nothing in my church service, or in response to my efforts in ministry, how much would it really matter if the people in attendance still thought and spoke well of things and returned for the next service and brought their friends? I may be tempted to think I have to attract people to hear me but could get by without God… Whatever our position in life, if our lives and works are to be of the kingdom of God, we must not have human approval as a primary or even major aim. (202)

Aren’t almost all of the ways that we talk about and measure our worship services focused on the reactions of people? We want people to like what they experienced so that they will come back and bring other people with them. A worship service that is increasing in attendance is vibrant and one that is decreasing in attendance is not. But this paradigm assumes that what attracts people is also what delights God. Is that necessarily the case?

In fact, isn’t it easy to think of examples of things that attract people that are not pleasing to God?

I suspect that one of the reasons we look for people to validate our ministries is because we can get direct feedback from people more easily than we can from the Triune God. Pastors often receive emails from parishioners about what they liked or did not like about worship. It is much less common for a pastor to receive a similar email from God.

Willard points to a serious critique of popular preaching that focuses on self-help tips or strategies for making your life better. The common element in this type of preaching is that the primary focus of the sermon is us. God is smuggled in to the extent that God can help us effectively address the problem under discussion. Please don’t misunderstand me, I think the gospel absolutely makes our lives better! However, self-help sermons usually implicitly assume that the gospel won’t change your life all that much, it will just tweak it and make it better. Such preaching can only be the result of a superficial reading of Scripture, and certainly isn’t based on the message of Jesus. The transformation the gospel offers is far deeper and more radical than sermons focused on life strategies and how to leverage the gospel for a better life.

Willard’s comments have stuck with me because it is clear to me that just because it is harder to discern whether God approves of our ministries does not mean that God’s disposition is any less important. I think we often measure the effectiveness of our ministries by other people because it is easier to get their reactions and feedback. But, if your reaction to my ministry becomes my primary concern, I run the risk of doing exactly what Willard points to – acting like my ministry is not dependent on God.

I think my friend beautifully summed up what is at stake when he responded to the quote from Willard with a passage from the Gospel of Matthew, “What good will it be for you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul?” (Mt 16:26, TNIV)