Don’t Let the Church Kill You by Andrew McMillan

I heard about a church sign that read, “Don’t let worry kill you. Let the church help.”

The church can kill pastors and leaders easier than we think. The pressure and demands of ministry have worn out pastors and their families more than the devil.

How does the church, a fountain of refreshment, become so deadly? It becomes an idol. Silently in the heart, the shift happens. What once was a pure joy and a burning love to preach Jesus becomes a treadmill of anxiety. Our identity shifts from being loved and called by Christ to being admired and controlled by the church. If the church grows, we are happy. If the church shrinks, we are miserable. If the people rave about our ministry, we are fulfilled, but if the people complain about us, we are empty. The performance anxiety grows like a barbwire around the heart and it is hard to breath. This shift, I think, happens in the life of every pastor at one time or another. What can we do to prevent it?

We have to be intentional about destroying the church idol. I love the church, but I was not called to turn my personality into a pretzel to appease their expectations. There is an astonishing comment by Dr. Luke in Acts 12:11. When the angel sprang Peter out of jail, Peter said, “Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent His angel to deliver me from the hand of Herod and from all the expectation of the Jewish people.” I understand how we need to be free from Herod, but why do we need to be free from the expectation of people? There is a subtle undertow from every church that the pastor must portray a certain “pastoral” air to his voice and gestures. They don’t want the pastor to be inaccessible; someone might call you at 3AM to be sure you are still praying for them. But also they don’t want the pastor to be an ordinary person. Some people are surprised to see me buying dog food at the store. I suppose they think I have angels doing that stuff. And this subtle pressure has us, before we know it, jumping through hoops. Their expectation makes us like puppets.

I remember a pastor who bragged about how he always answered every call and ridiculed pastors who used an answering machine. I’m sure his kids were real impressed. Jesus knew how to set up the parameters. When the disciples found him deep in the woods praying, they said, “Master, everyone is looking for you!” He didn’t say it but I can almost hear him say, “That’s exactly why I am here, idiots.”

And Jesus didn’t even have a wife or kids. If Jesus had a cell phone, on some days it would go right to voice mail. We have to intentionally hammer down some parameters. My church knows that I take Mondays off and now Tuesday is my prayer day. I tell them if the church is on fire, call the fire department. Taking a day of rest is a big deal to God. Every pastor should take some stakes and a big hammer and set the parameters. Some church folk might not like it, but most will deeply respect you. Look how I want to be respected! This idol is sneaky.

Also, we need to intentionally tear down the idol of “I want my church to grow.

Each time people decide to leave our church, we should go out of our way to bless them. Are we surprised that some people don’t want to be with us? There are times I don’t even want to be with me. I have learned to release the people with grace and love. When we hear about a family in our church going to another church, we should take time to pray, bless and celebrate the other church. Your heart might not like it at first, like a kid being dragged to a broccoli-eating contest. But after a while, you will sense your heart bigger. Every time I drive by other churches in our city, I pray for them to grow and be healthy. I bless their pastor by name. God may answer my prayer with people from my church, but I know a secret. When I am focused on just my church, the Holy Spirit seems to withdraw from me, but when I focus on the kingdom of God, the Holy Spirit blesses me more with joy and wisdom…and the church does seem to grow more, too.

A successful businessman told me that some businessmen focus of money and their businesses don’t prosper, but when they focus on their business and their service to others, the money comes looking for them. And then he said, “Andrew, the same is true for churches. When a pastor focuses on numbers, the numbers run away, but when he focuses on blessing the people, the people come.” People are pretty smart. They can sense when we want them to come to church to bless our church idol or when we just want to help them get closer to Jesus.

Now I am getting to something that I am just now starting to do…sowing financially into other churches nearby. A mega church in Texas wanted to buy some land next to their campus, but another church adjacent to the property, wanted to buy it, too. The mega church pastor took the pastor of the small church out to lunch and asked him if he was trying to buy the land. He hung his head and said he was, but didn’t have the money; he thought for sure the big church was going to snatch the land for cold cash. But the mega church pastor said, “ We want to buy the land and….give it to you. It is a gift. I think Jesus wants us to do this. ” The pastor broke into tears and I think the angels were doing flips. This kind of giving makes heaven go nuts.

In our pastor’s conference, instead of taking an offering to fray expense, we just told the pastors to give to another pastor their offering. Our church took a hit but we were also hit by blessings. When other pastors speak well of your church, heaven releases resources in abundance. As I am writing this, I am praying to see which church we can send a love offering. I think the closer the church is to our church, the better.

When the church is a god, we study the Bible only for sermons. We are like chefs dying of starvation in the kitchen. Our prayer time begins to center on church business and we wonder why Jesus seems strangely silent. I have a friend who used to want to talk to me about church stuff on my day off and I started to avoid him. I think Jesus avoids us too when we just talk church. Jesus’ range of conversation goes way beyond church life and maybe He gets bored when we are asking him to fill the pews. We need to intentionally read the Word just for ourselves. Intentionally we have to say I want to hear what Jesus wants to say to me in the Bible and not have a pencil ready for a sermon. Jesus wants some things to be a secret between Him and us. When Jesus showed Himself bright as the sun on the Mount of Transfiguration, he told the disciples not to tell anyone for a while about what they saw. I’m sure that was hard. But we need to know how to keep secrets with Jesus and not run and preach about everything He tells us. If we do, we just want to hear his voice so the church will hear our voice. And soon He stops speaking to us. Who wants to share secrets with a blabbermouth?

God created the desire to have secrets in all of us. We love hearing secrets but keeping them is hard. Every marriage should have some secrets with each other – not from each other. And everyone should have secrets with Jesus. But if we don’t have any secrets with God, the enemy will offer us some dark secrets. Too many pastors sin in secret just because their hearts did not keep the secrets with the Lord and their heart demands to have secrets with someone.

I just got back from a 10 week sabbatical. For a few days I felt guilty for not preaching. Then I felt guilty for not worrying about the church. Then finally, I felt unsettled and insecure wondering who I was without the pastor’s title. I was out of town and far from my area of influence. Then in this darkness, Jesus came out. I found out Jesus liked me and that He liked to be with me even when I was not ministering. Of course I tried to justify my 10 weeks of goofing off by saying I was writing a book, which I was doing- but not all day!

I read about a well known writer who went to a month long retreat to deal with some heart issues and the first rule was you could not tell anyone what you did for a living. That almost killed him. He wanted everyone to know he was an intelligent, bright writer. And yet he couldn’t tell anyone. So he tried to impress them with his wit and humor but nobody was buying it. Finally he just let people love him as he was. He asked himself how can he be loved if he was always hiding? We pastors are so tired of hiding. We hide behind the pulpit, behind the concerned look, behind the cheerful greetings and behind the Bible verses. Have you ever had someone come to you in the dark and you could not recognize him until he is just a few feet away? That is how Jesus comes to us when we are tired of hiding.

We cannot lead a church unless we are willing to leave it. We are called to love the people but not be conformed to their image. Some pastors might deny this, like a swimmer denies the power of the undertow, but soon they will be so far out to sea, no one will hear their voice. They are screaming, “I just want to please the Lord” but they are really saying, “I just want to survive.” A great question to ask is, “Can I let this church go right now if the Lord tells me to?” I heard 50% of pastors in North America would leave the ministry if they had another source of income. The church has eaten them alive. Maybe it takes more faith to leave the ministry than to enter it. Like the man who saw “P C” written in the clouds and he presumed God wanted him to preach Christ. He took a church and preached it from 200 to 0 people and said, “Lord I have finished the work you gave me.” Then the Lord said, “I told you to plant corn, not preach Christ.” But even if you are sure about your calling, you have to be ready to release the church into His hands daily. Like Aaron, we need to throw down our staff, our ministry, into the darkness of the tabernacle and let God give it life.

Please don’t tell the people from the pulpit that you are not letting them grind the life out of you anymore. Just talk to a few intimate leaders around you. Let them know you are fighting for your heart and life. You can tell them you need to be in the Word more. I heard of one pastor who bought a fishing boat and christened it the Word, so his secretary could tell people he was in the Word today. We don’t need to fake it. We just need to tell them we have to remember how to live, be a dad, a husband and a kid alone with God. If you tell them you need a sabbatical, they might think at first you have a secret sin or that you are cracking up, but they will yearn to be free, too.

The church is the bride of Christ. She is not ours. When we try to marry her, she will kill us. In about the fifth year of the church, I was so anxious about everything. I thought if I did not pray for the people on Saturday, they would not get out of bed on Sunday. I could not enjoy God in worship because when I raised my eyes, I saw how dirty the ceiling was or that a fan was not turned on. If I knelt on the rug, I wondered why we didn’t clean it. I worried about the ushers not attending the new person who just walked in. I worried about the low offering every Monday morning. I was the head of the church, the one who worried.

One day Charles and Ann Stock, after an extended fast, visited us. Before an evening service, they were praying for our team of about 15 pastors and key leaders. As they laid hands on each one, the power of God visibly touched each one. When they prayed for me nothing happened; I thought all the better because I had to get the next meeting going. When I stood up to leave, I fell down. I did not feel anything emotionally but I was incapable of standing up. I was fully conscious, with the right side of my face smashed against the carpet. As I was wondering what was going on, I began to feel a hand pushing my face against the floor and somehow I knew Jesus was asking me, “Whose church is it? I did not hear you. Whose church is it?” In Hebrews it says Jesus is our big brother but I never thought He was one of those big brothers. He was not kidding. I was answering, “Its your church. It’s yours.” After about 40 minutes, He let me up. I thought that was the end of it but Ann looked me in the eyes and said, “He is not finished with you.’” I brushed her off and headed toward the meeting but I went down again. This time the floodgates of my heart were open. I was crying- no, I was wailing. I felt all the hurts I had let the church give me. I felt so ashamed for trying to be the head of the church. And I was feeling the great relief of not being the head. When Paul says in Colossians that Jesus is the Head of the church, he was not writing poetry.

So it comes down to this. We need to kill the idol of the church or it will kill us. All idols are like that, but the church idol is so deadly because it is so well disguised. It dresses up like our high calling, but it will pull us far down. I believe the church is God’s plan A to transform the world and express His tangible love, but it is not the center of our life. May we join the joy of John the Baptist who said, “The bride is not mine. She belongs to the Bridegroom. My joy is just hearing His voice.”

– Andrew McMillan


About Team McMillan:
In 1994, the McMillan family traveled to the kidnappingmurder, and drug capital of the western hemisphere to plant a church and a foundation. God thought Medellin, Colombia a good place to raise a family. And turns out He was right (as He usually is). It became a very large family: The church, Comunidad (Community), is now the largest church in Medellin with over 8,000 members, the Foundation, Viento Fresco, cares for over 150 high-risk children, and a non-profit coffee shop, New Hearts Cafe, serves cups of caffeine and the love of Jesus to thousands of college students.

God is doing so much in Medellin, and we write about here on the blog!


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One thought on “Don’t Let the Church Kill You by Andrew McMillan

  1. Really good. And actually for some of us ( including me) when we want to be in the ministry so bad , but doors does open , sometimes it can become an idol , just for the fact that we want to be so bad. Boundaries are so important in everything, its a balance, I love the church but Jesus already died for it ( why we should died for the church? ) . Thank you for that article , I really needed it .

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