By Bill Wilson
You know all too well that our society is prone to addictions. We do nearly everything to excess. Not just the obvious culprits — alcohol, gambling, pain-killers, sex, work. There are a multitude of things which, done in moderation, are life-giving and energizing. However, when taken to extreme, they become debilitating.
I’ve known people who were addicted to an array of activities that sound innocent, but proved crippling: exercise, Facebook, video games, cinema, sports, collectibles, shopping — the list could go on and on.
May I add one to the list? It is especially deadly, and is often found in congregational life. In the world of addictions, this one seldom makes the lineup, but is insidious and corrosive in its impact.
It is the addiction to applause.
To be addicted to applause is to be at the mercy of popular opinion. It is to be tempted to allow what others think to trump what is true and right. It is to play to the crowd.
Applause is seductive. It lures us away from the Truth and draws us into what sells.
Applause is pervasive. We live in a culture that wants to applaud every single thing we do.
Applause is intoxicating. It is heady and exhilarating. For clergy, it is the great temptation to actually believe we are God’s gift to this church and it is so very fortunate to have us. For all of us, it offers us a quick rush of worth and affirmation.
Applause is a cruel master. Like any addiction, we need a steady supply to maintain our high. We soon realize that approval is temporal and very much predicated upon circumstances. When things don’t go well, we become manipulative and try harder to generate what we need, often sacrificing principles and integrity in the process.
While this addiction preys upon individuals, it can also ensnare congregations. We begin to think that our worship is done primarily for others. We offer events and programs designed to heighten our standing and status. We soon find ourselves far from God’s design for our life together. We begin to perform rather than to serve. We leave the call to be a light in the darkness for the limelight of the stage.
Years ago, I heard Bruce Morgan preach a powerful sermon titled “The Limelight or The Light of the World?” I’ve wrestled with that tension ever since he gave me a name for it. I have found that thinking Christians must struggle mightily with this polarity.
Some questions we all might consider: What is my motive for ministry? How has it changed? Do I do this to please God or others? How much of my ego is at work when I stand in the pulpit, teach a lesson, lead a committee, sing a solo, or conduct a choir? What are my agendas, both visible and hidden? Why am I so defensive? Why am I so anxious about what people think of me? Do I ever preface an idea with “how will this make me look?”
If you are not asking yourself these questions, you may be in denial about an applause addiction.
Thankfully, Jesus is the answer for this addiction, as he is for all our shortcomings. He, too, was tempted to play to the crowd and invited to define himself by the measuring instruments of the day. The wilderness temptations that followed his baptism presaged our struggles with popular acclaim.
His earthly ministry was marked by humility and kingdom focus. Interestingly, despite his example and consistent teachings, his disciples misunderstood. In Mark 9-10 they repeatedly failed to hear the point-blank teaching from Jesus that he is building a kingdom upon service, not applause. Finally, in that dramatic teachable moment in the upper room, he assumed the posture of a servant and washed their feet.
His intent was crystal clear: “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them” (John 13:15-16).
Picking up a theme started in John 3 (“He must increase, I must decrease”), Jesus models a pattern of downward mobility for his followers. Our meaning and status and success can only have one legitimate end: the glorification of the One whom we serve.
An applause addiction is inevitable when we substitute cultural or popular approval for faithfulness to our calling. Sadly, such an addiction leads to frustration and cynicism for all concerned. When we can admit our addiction and instead seek to imitate and emulate the humility of Jesus, we find so much more than fleeting applause. We find true meaning, purpose and a legacy that matters.
Thanks be to God.