Of the movie soundtracks I listen to, my favorite is from The Greatest Showman. My favorite song on the track is “From Now On.” The song comes as P. T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) has a moment of clarity. Really, it was a turning point for him; he came back to his senses after having went crazy for a bit. As he sings, Barnum makes the statement that “for years and years, I chased their cheers; the crazy need for speed of always needing more.” In the song, he resolves that he will not “be blinded by the lights.” Eventually, as the song closes, he goes back home to reconnect with his family and reconcile with his wife.
Though the movie is somewhat based in reality, Barnum’s story serves as a leadership lesson for us. Barnum chased the applause of men and was met with destruction. Just as Barnum chased applause, we too are tempted to do the same in leadership. We want to be accepted, liked, and praised by those that we seek to serve. While leading for praise may prove to be beneficial in the short term, it is never effective (or beneficial) in the long run, nor is it what we have been called to do.
Why is leading for praise not the game plan?
1) God denounced it in his Word. John recorded in John 12.43: For they loved human praise more than praise from God. This verse comes after John’s declaration that many did believe in him [Jesus] even among the rulers, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, so that they would not be banned from the synagogue (v42). These rulers had come to faith and yet would not publicly pronounce their faith in the Lord Jesus. They were more concerned about what others thought than they were concerned about doing the right thing.
2) It is short-sighted. The Psalmist declared: Some take pride in chariots, and others in horses, but we take pride in the name of the LORD our God (20.7). A ruler’s perceived power and esteem was connected to the number of horses and chariots he had. However, both horses and chariots are temporary. God, on the other hand, is eternal, and has always been. Remember, John wrote that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning (John 1.1-2). Leading for praise focuses our attention on the here and now instead of on eternity. As God’s people, we work with eternity in mind. Yes, there are wins for this life, but we ought to pursue the wins that will have eternal impact.
3) It is a distraction. Nehemiah led the effort to rebuild the walls around Jerusalem; this feat was accomplished in 52 days. However, as he pursued the goal, he had critics who sought to distract him. In fact, Nehemiah noted that the efforts of his adversaries were efforts of intimidation (Neh. 6.9) and, therefore, were efforts of distraction. Those who sought to actively work against him also sought to discredit him and began to spread rumors. Nehemiah would not have any of it. His adversaries were put to shame as God completed the task.
4) It is not honoring to God. Gal 1.10c: If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ. The implication of Paul’s declaration is that servants seek to please their master and not others. The Master is not honored when we stop seeking to obey.
In all of this, I understand the temptation personally…as does any honest leader. I have operated from this point before and it hurt…it hurt a great deal. I’ve listened to Pastor friends who have struggled with this temptation and I have listened to those who serve on Church Staffs and have struggled with this. No one is immune from this temptation. Nonetheless, my plea to you is this: Stop leading for the applause of men. It will drive you nuts and it is not what God has called you to do. A friend has often said that “God does not call us to the easiest, but he does call us to the best.” Embrace the best from the one who can provide the best. The work you have been called to is eternal and the applause of men, like all of us, is but for a moment.
One last thought… Since I am a Student Pastor, let me speak to fellow Student Pastors. I believe that the temptation to lead for the applause of men is especially strong in our ministry area. We serve multiple groups of people (students and their siblings, their parents, the congregation, and the rest of the Church Staff) and we want to please each group. The truth, however, is that we cannot please everybody. My grandfather has often reminded me of the adage: “You can please some of the people some of the time, but you cannot please all of the people, all of the time.” So, if you’re just starting out (or have been on this journey for some time), remember what you have been called to and remember, as one speaker said, “Who you are and whose you are.”
Rooting for you!
Note: I am aware that Barnum's story is much more complex and messy than the movie portrayed. To learn more of Barnum and his work, see this article from the Smithsonian Magazine.