Pastoral popularity

Pastoral popularity: privilege or pitfall?

Weighing the pros and cons of pastoral popularity

Vincent Tigno, Jr., Ph.D., is a retired pastor. He lives in Yucaipa, California.

Popularity: Is it a privilege or a pitfall? There are two ways of being popular: One is to be merely publicized; the other is to be productive.

Ministry is a high-profile profession. Anything that involves public service is. Public sentiment, however, is often unpredictable. Today's coronation could be tomorrow's crucifixion. The cry of "Hosannah" could easily change to a cry for your head! The "many" that followed the Lord at the beginning forsook Him at the end (John 6:66).

Paul knew how one could be loved today but loathed tomorrow. There were places where the people wept when he left, and there were places where people praised him and then stoned him; there were places where they imprisoned him or forced him to flee. One night, he had to escape in a basket over a wall, just to elude those who wanted him dead by daylight.

At the Corinthian church, people were polarized in their preference for a pastor. Some preferred one and some another; others voted for Paul, and still others wanted Apollos; and the rest chose Christ. The popularity contest divided the church into contentious factions (1 Cor. 1:10-12).

The poor pastor at the middle is pushed into a tightrope act. In principle, one cannot please everybody. Still, everybody wants to be pleased. A pas tor's predicament can sometimes be described as follows:

"If he visits his flock frequently, he is up to something; if he doesn't, he is a do nothing. If he preaches past 15 minutes, he talks too much; if he doesn't, he has nothing to say. If he drives a nice car, he is worldly and luxurious; if he doesn't, he has poor taste and no class. If he tells jokes, he is flippant; if he does not, he is no fun. If he starts services on time, he is time-obsessed; if he doesn't, he is not organized. If he is still young, he is inexperienced; if he is older, he should retire."

So, the pastor is often caught in the middle. Which is better, to be accept able or to be accessible?

The best choice is to choose the right above the convenient. This is when the pastor should plead with God for a double portion of patience and wisdom.

Paul's words of advice come in handy at this point He said, "Let us also walk in the Spirit. Let us not be desirous of vain glory" (Gal. 5:25, 26).

The word vainglory is a synonym of "vanity," hollow honor," and "empty pride." Seeking popularity for the pur pose of being praised is vain, hollow, and empty. Paul very wisely counseled young Timothy to go for God's approval instead of human praise (2 Tim. 2:15).

One pitfall in seeking popularity is the tendency to turn into a people pleaser. In the long run, the people pleasers are pressured to sacrifice principle. At critical junctures, they could lose their courage and opt for compromise. They are hesitant to upset the status quo. They become reluctant to rock the boat.

Religion professor James W. Jones of Rutgers University warned against what he called smorgasbord religion. This means eating anything and everything on the table in order to avoid offending anyone.

In his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas spoke about those who deliberately shut their eyes to avoid taking or making a stand. He said, "If we do not see God, it is not because He does not exist. Neither is He hiding. But it is all because of our refusal to see."

So, pastors who are faithful to God and to their calling must face the truth about themselves and other people. Do they want to be famous or just fruitful that is, full of the fruits of the Spirit, the fruits of good work, and the fruits of souls saved?

Being productive does not always mean being popular. Popularity and publicity are not necessarily wrong in and of themselves. But these should be deserved rather than designed or arranged, and we must remember that genuine good works and fine accomplishments cannot be hidden.

So we can be grateful if we're in the limelight. We must just make sure that the beam of light comes from the Sun of Righteousness; from Him who is the Light of the world. When we stand or walk in that light, we will do our pastoral duties faithfully and with no deliberate fanfare. The reward itself is a result instead of a reward.

So, which one will it be popularity or productivity?

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Vincent Tigno, Jr., Ph.D., is a retired pastor. He lives in Yucaipa, California.

May 2005

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