Don't Let Crowds Define You


I have found it a near impossibility to identify my motivation as a leader. If I am excited about a big crowd, is it because I am rejoicing in people hearing the message or because I am thrilled they came to hear me? I think it is both, and both can be good. Because of my theological convictions that people need Christ, I am excited when many people will hear the message. I am also deeply satisfied that I get to be a part of delivering the message, and the crowd makes me feel good. God made me to feel good when many others seem to be interested in what I have to say. God made me to experience pleasure, to be pleased when good things happen. Such is the joy of life. But the ego whispers, “You did it. You are good, and boy, these people are lucky to have you." If we don't put the ego in check, we can take the credit rather than remember our mission and our part in it.

The ego can be just as dangerous when something happens that diminishes our sense of significance. I recall an area-wide seminar in Freeport, Illinois, which was to be held on a Friday night and Saturday in a seven-hundred-seat theater. The area had been canvassed, newspaper ads had run for two weeks, announcements had been made on local radio stations, and flyers had been passed out in all local churches. The only problem was that no one could control the weather. I sat in the Minneapolis airport, delayed five hours by a snowstorm. I arrived so late that the Friday evening meeting had to be cancelled. The sponsors who picked me up at the airport thought this was fine; the place would be packed the next morning.

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Next morning four senior citizens showed up and sat on the front row. It was to be a seven-hour seminar; the pastor asked me if I wanted to continue. I swallowed hard and said, "Of course, we should do so." I spent that day with those four people. I stood on the front of the stage, they sat on the first row of the seven-hundred-seat hall, and I gave them the entire seminar. One person left after lunch; indigestion was the excuse. It was a test of my motivation; it also knocked a lot of ego out of me. Crowds are addictive. The pleasure of holding a large crowd in your hand is a sensation that rings every pleasure bell; one's brain is splashed with endorphins. The raw power you feel, the power to manipulate, can be dangerous.

Not much has been written about the danger of crowds, except for what Eugene Peterson has noted. In a letter to a pastor leaving a small congregation for a larger one, Peterson wrote,

Every time the church's leaders depersonalize, even a little, the worshipping/loving community, the gospel is weakened. And size is the great depersonalizer. Kierkegaard's criticism is still cogent: "the more people, the less truth."...
Classically, there are three ways in which humans try to find transcendence—religious meaning, God meaning—apart from God as revealed in the cross of Jesus: through the ecstasy of alcohol and drugs, through the ecstasy of recreational sex, through the ecstasy of crowds. Christian leaders frequently warn against the drugs and the sex, but, at least in America, almost never against the crowds. Probably because they get so much ego benefit from the crowds.
But a crowd destroys the spirit as thoroughly as excessive drink and depersonalized sex. It takes us out of ourselves, but not to God, only away from him.... We hunger to escape the dullness, the boredom, and the tiresomeness of me. We can escape upward or downward.... A crowd is an exercise in false transcendence upward, which is why all crowds are spiritually pretty much the same, whether at football games, political rallies, or church.
So why are we pastors so unsuspicious of crowds, so naive about the false transcendence that they engender? ... I really do feel that crowds are a worse danger, far worse, than drink or sex, and pastors may be the only people on the planet who are in a position to encourage an imagination that conceives of congregation strategically not in terms of its size but as a congenial setting for becoming mature in Christ in a community, not a crowd.[1]

I have often let crowds define me. If the crowd was large, then I was large; if small, then I was diminished. The most difficult time for me as a pastor was the time period on a Sunday morning when the size of crowd had yet to be determined; it began fifteen minutes before a service and lasted for fifteen minutes into the service. Afterward, it was a good or bad Sunday, based on attendance. Crowd size didn't just define me, it owned me. I am not alone in this. Crowd size is the most powerful emotional aphrodisiac for a speaker. If Peterson's words mean anything, they mean that a crowd kills personhood and community. The up and down of a pastor's emotions should be determined by healthy signs of community that lead to Christ-likeness in congregants, no matter the size of the church.

Humility is an acknowledgement of who we are dependent on: God. When we bow the knee to living for others, then we are no longer a slave to crowds or any other artificial stimulant. This kind of living is challenging. Sometimes our motives are good and our focus is right, but we can slip easily into a more carnal mode. I often laugh at the professional athlete who struts his stuff after scoring a meaningless touchdown at the end of the game when his team is behind thirty points. What makes it sad and unseemly is he seems to not know the score. This athlete is celebrating self—as are Christian leaders who make the work about how they feel and what is good for them, rather than about the mission and pleasing the Father. These leaders celebrate their public successes, even though their congregation is not in unity or introducing significant groups of people to Christ. They may be winning, their career may be winning, but their ministry and the Great Commission are losing.


1. Eugene H. Peterson, The Pastor: A Memoir (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 157-158.

Written by Bill Hull

Taken from The Christian Leader by Bill Hull. Copyright © 2016 by Robert W. Hull. Used by permission of Zondervan.