Playing to the Crowd

clapping_hands.gifYesterday I was in a local McDonald’s.  It was early morning.  I was reading a book, taking some notes, and sipping a cup of coffee.  At one point the manager, a woman in her 30s, walked by and asked, "Are you working hard?"  

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t work.  A paper route.  A job at a fast food restaurant.  A short stint at door-to-door sales.  Long nights in a bakery and more.  Today, I continue to work.  Yet, I have not always been sure about my motivation.

When I finished the M. Div. degree at Abilene Christian University after three years of study, I immediately began to work with a fairly new church in Alabama.  Even while in school, I had preached, served as a youth minister, etc.  Yet, it seemed different now that I was out of school.  I felt behind.  Somehow, I sensed that I didn’t know enough or in some way was behind other young ministers like myself.


I worked very hard to somehow "catch up."  These feelings of inadequacy played into my desire to do well and to perform well.  I suspect that deep down I longed to hear a "well done."  Yes, I knew that the Lord’s "well done" was most important, but I was focused on getting one now.  Looking back, I suspect I was confused as to whose applause really mattered.

Fil Anderson, in his book Running on Empty, writes:

The questions asked of me when I was young trained me in the things others found most important.  "What do you want to do when you grow up?"  And even if "What do you want to be?" was ever asked, my answers invariably fell neatly into career categories — professional athlete, astronaut, fisherman, or fireman — not character categories — a faithful Christian, a philanthropist, a compassionate person, or even a creative person.  Having been trained to connect my identity with what I did more than who I was, my identity was to be found in my performance.  This resulted in my identity’s being reduced to my performance plus other people’s ratings of my performance.  The more audiences I played for, I figured, simply raised my chances for bigger and better ratings, when in fact what was raised were my chances for leading a more confusing life.  As Evelyn Underhill put it, I spent most of my time and energy conjugating three verbs: "to want, to have, and to do."  I was forever playing to the crowd.

I recall reading many years ago an interview of a member of the Boston Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra.  In it the interviewer asked how it feels to get a standing ovation after a performance or a negative review the morning after.  I was initially puzzled by the classical musician’s response as she explained how she used to be greatly affected by the crowd’s reception, however, over time had learned to look only for the approval of her conductor.  Her logic was simple; her conductor was the only person in the crowd who really knew how she was supposed to perform.

(Fil Anderson, Running On Empty, pp. 65-66)

Do you relate to this at all?  Have you ever come to a place in life where you realized you were trying to please someone else more than God? 

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19 thoughts on “Playing to the Crowd

  1. Oh yes, although it’s gotten better as I’ve matured, I still find myself struggling between a desire to please or impress others (even other Christians) rather than God. It’s difficult to not attempt to pursue the approval of others. I suppose we crave immediate, tangible feedback, which is not necessarily something we get from God.

  2. Doing vs Being. Wow. There’s some really profound stuff here. So of course I have a story. We have a custodian in my building, Gary. He’s a nice enough guy, but basically what you "expect" from a custodian. He says hello, does his job, that’s about it. I work in an academic setting, more advanced degrees here than you can shake a stick at. It’s very hard to avoid a superior attitude. Everything about the culture pushes you towards the feeling of importance. As the months went by, conversations with Gary reveal he’s a retired police officer. And a painter. And a Christian. Now I know so much more about who he IS. Not just what he DOES. How do I avoid "the attitude"? I almost have <a href=" 131;&version=65;">Psalm 131</a> memorized. (I hope the html makes it through.) Thanks for listening.

  3. Every day…I think it is getting easier, but then again I am not sure…..It feels good to have someone not only accept you but praise you….It is easier to think about pleasing God when others are against you….Not so easy when they praise…

  4. I am afraid at this point in my life this question comes up too often.  Men especially deal with this I think.  I seems to me that women know more about who they are then men do.  We tend to be more task oriented therefore our tasks define us.  I think too that being at midlife is difficult when thinking about who we are.  Sometimes we look back and try to see what "might have been" instead of looking to our Father for what is.  Good thoughts brother.

  5. Keith,You touched upon something which may resonate with a lot of people.  This is often a MAJOR mid-life issue for many people.  How we deal with it often impacts the next chapter of our lives. 

  6. Dave,Thanks for the heads-up about the broken link.  Hopefully it is fixed now.Great story!  A reminder of how we can easily treat people on the basis of what they are doing or the job they have.A great reminder. 

  7. Very good! Earlier this week, I was driving down to San Diego for a funeral and Chuck, one of my elders, was with me. He asked of a certain person had said anything to me after the sermon … that this person was gushing all over about how good it was. I told him the person had spoken to me. Chuck asked, "How do you process that kind of response from someone?" I told him for the most part I brush it off. He asked why and I said, "Because that same person will come by on any given Sunday and differ with what I’ve said." It’s not about whether someone enjoyed a sermon or a performance (as is the case with many preachers) … it’s whether or not God was pleased with how I handled His Word and if my spirit and attitude was of Christ.Chuck Swindoll once referred to that time "in church" when people shake the preacher’s hand and make comments about the sermon as "the glorification of the worm." I don’t mean to sound arrogant about the way I process it, I’m simply saying I don’t want comments like that to go to my head. There are as many different opinions about a given sermon as there are people listening that particular day. It is utter foolishness to think every opinion is of equal value. The more I try to write this response, the more I seem to be unable to express myself, so I’ll just hang up!! 

  8. Lisa,You make a good point.  I suspect that a part of walking by faith is to realize that he does not necessarily respond to our immediate cravings.  Thanks.

  9. Several years ago I took a sabbatical right at a time when this issue was coming to a head for me. Without getting into a long story, I came to realize that I needed to "make peace" with myself.  That sounded so trite, but I finally understood what that popular phrase meant.  For me it meant to realize that the way I am is fine and good and I don’t need to live up to others’ expectations.  In leadership you are often in the public eye and can receive a lot of criticism.  Eventually, that pushes you to come to terms with who you are and "make peace" with that.  I certainly want to become more kind and loving, but that’s because I actually care about those things now, not because it will gain me more favor with others.  This is indeed a painful lesson, but one we must go through.  And yes, it was a mid-life kind of thing for me.

  10. Thanks Jim, this was especially timely for me.  This is my thorn I would say, and I struggle with it on a daily basis even though my process looks different now than it did 10 years ago.  Much peace to you.

  11. Jim, I spent the day dwelling on this very subject.  11 years since I began college, and now 3 months away from the real world.  Do I know enough is the question in my mind, but not for the benefit for those who God has granted me to serve, but in relation to the peers that I will serve along with.  Praise be to the transformation of Jesus, who always places the person before himself, and enjoys it.

  12. Greg,I hear what you are saying.  Such comments are nice to hear but they must be processed.  The same is true of negative comments which can be so discouraging.  These too have to be processed.  If they are not processed, a preacher is at the mercy of whoever might say something.  These comments can do some interesting things with our heads.  At the same time, honest feedback can be very helpful–especially since we can’t read their minds.  Anyway, it is an issue. 

  13. Hi Adam–I really like the way you express your comment.  The kind of self-reflection that you did is so healthy.  I think that we often repeat our mistakes and fail to see what goes on inside of us because we do not do the kind of self-reflection that you are talking about.

  14. Jennifer,Glad this was timely for you.Like you, I think there are many of us who have struggled with this one.  I would rather be where I am today, though.  Years ago, I didn’t even realize what was going on inside of me.  Thanks very much for your comment.

  15. Van,I appreciate your comment and the way you are thinking about this.  While you can probably see "gaps" in your learning, I am more impressed with another aspect of your life.  You have such a passion to learn, read, and grow in the Lord.  What an wonderful quality!

  16. I spent the last seven years of my post-pastoral career chasing this lie of accomplishment.  It felt good and was addicting, the recognition, the reward…I have accomplished the salary, the house, the toys all the things that I was told would bring me the happiness.  I pursued these with a vengeance, even though the whole time I felt empty. I did it because I was scared and didn’t know better, I took my eyes off of God’s truth about me. Thankfully he has awakened me and now I fight to resist the lie.
    I heard a good friend tell his story last night. He is dealing with this very issue! He puts in 80-100 hour work weeks trying to prove himself in the face of one more merger in his company, over-achieving at every task in order to "stand out and be recognized."  He wept in front of me, broken. It was a beautiful thing!  Thank God for this moment because now he can let God heal his heart. Men – there is strength in this brokenness, don’t let the lie tell you differently!
    Thanks for this post.

  17. Hi Mike,Thanks for your own story regarding this as well as the story of your friend.  You are so right about this being a lie as well as God’s willingness to meet us in our brokeness.  I always appreciate your comments.