Dealing With Congregational Phobia

Joe McKeever

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)

Did you see in the news this week where a schoolteacher is trying to get approved for medical disability because she fears the students in her class?  The anxiety is so strong that she is unable to function, she says.

If she is able to pull this off, watch for plenty of teachers as well as practitioners of other professions jump on that bandwagon.  I can see it now: doctors who fear their patients, parents who fear their children, drill sergeants with a morbid dread of recruits–all will be able to go home and start drawing their pay.

Someone told me about his pastor the other day. His first analysis was that his preacher is simply lazy. He preaches one sermon a week and often gets someone to fill in for him. He canceled the midweek service because so few people were coming, and turned over the Sunday night service to a layman. He moved his study into his home, but cannot be reached by phone because he turns his phone off and studies wearing headphones which bring in music.

As we chatted further, the man said, “This is the pastor’s first senior pastor position. Previously, he was a youth minister. I’ve noticed he has a great anxiety about facing the congregation on Sunday morning.”

Congregational phobia. There it is.

If the schoolteacher can achieve disability status, that pastor ought to give it a try. Sounds like he qualifies.

If it sounds to you like I’m not taking this seriously, your analysis is right on.  I have no patience for this little problem. The very idea!

That’s not to say that “fear of the people” is a new phenomenon. It’s not.

When God called Jeremiah as a prophet, He told him, “Everywhere I send you, you shall go. And all that I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, saith the Lord” (Jeremiah 1:7-8).

In his case, Jeremiah would be preaching to the big shots of his days, the kings and princes, the priests and the people. And this without health insurance!

To the laymen who would be serving as judges of God’s people, Moses said, “You shall not fear man, for the judgement is God’s.” (Deuteronomy 1:17)

To the people of the Lord called to live boldly and faithfully for Him, Isaiah quoted the Lord: “I, even I, am He who comforts you. Who are you that you are afraid of man who dies, and of the son of man who is made like grass?” (Isaiah 51:12)

We read of Peter. “Prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles, but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision.” (Galatians 2:12) Peter of all people feared his Jewish peers? What was there about them that terrorized him? Clearly, it was their approval he sought and their disapproval he dreaded.

That is an occupational hazard for a preacher of the gospel and a fatal flaw in our makeup, this “wanting to please people.” God help us.

The evidence then suggests that people-phobia has been with us from the beginning, afflicts even the strongest among us, and continues to be a threat to effective service for the Lord today.

Question: Why would the preacher fear his audience?

He shouldn’t, of course. But for those who do, here are some possible reasons…

1) He is uncertain of the message he preaches, the Lord he represents, or of himself.

Nothing gives the preacher confidence like a) knowing the Lord and “knowing that he knows Him;” b) knowing his message thoroughly, and c) knowing that the people desperately need what he has to say.  If he is uncertain in even one of these three areas, he will stutter and falter, and Paul’s question will apply here: “If the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who will prepare himself for battle?” (1 Corinthians 14:8)

2) He is intimidated by their celebrity, their wealth, their success, or their strong personalities. The preacher may feel they are “somebody” and he is “no one.”  Not a good feeling. The problem of course is that he is thinking of himself, not of the One who sent him with this message. As long as his focus is on himself, the preacher might as well go on home.

3) They are scary people. Think of Stephen preaching to the crowd which a few minutes later stoned him to death.  Now, that took courage!

I’ve preached in the hardest camp in one of the scariest prisons in the land. The prisoners were hostile to my message and showed their contempt by stomping, throat-clearing, and scowls. I was young–in my late 20s–and doubtless my knees were shaking big time.  I did not back down, as I recall, but delivered the goods. Whether I should have “shaken the dust off” and left is another question.

4) The audience holds some power over the preacher. If they can fire him on the spot and order his family out of the church parsonage, most preachers would think carefully about crossing the congregation.  Even if the Lord does call him to preach an unpopular subject, one that is going to upset a lot of people, the pastor will do well to consider whether his message is Holy Spirit boldness or fleshly presumption.

I recall an old preacher’s counsel to a young minister on how to preach with boldness: “Every time you enter the pulpit,” he said, “have your bags packed.”

Three reasons not to be afraid.

In Matthew 10  after telling the disciples they could expect rough treatment from their hearers, Jesus told them three times not to be afraid and why they shouldn’t….

In Matthew 10:26 “Do not fear them, for there is nothing covered that will not be revealed….”  What they do will come out.

In Matthew 10:28 “Do not fear those who kill the body, but (afterward) are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” They can’t do you any permanent harm.

In Matthew 10:31 “Do not fear for you are of more value than many sparrows.” The Father greatly values you.

The panacea for fearing the people–God’s cureall.

You may have noticed it, because it’s in most of the places where God warned against being afraid of our audiences. Over and over God tells those whom He calls: “Do not be afraid, for I am with you to deliver you.”

–To Moses who would stand before God’s multitudes as well as Pharaoh and his court, God said, “Certainly I will be with you” (Exodus 3:12).

–To Joshua, who after serving as Moses’ understudy for over four decades is now having to step up and assume the leadership of the Lord’s people, God gave this word, “The Lord is the One who goes ahead of you; He will be with you. He will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed” (Deuteronomy 31:8). And again this one: “Just as I have been with Moses, I will be with you” (Joshua 1:5).

–To Gideon who could not believe the Lord could use such a one as himself against the mighty Midianites, God said, “Surely I will be with you, and you shall defeat Midian as one man” (Judges 6:16).

In the New Testament, when our Lord sent His disciples out to bring the Gospel to the world, He added this note: “And lo, I am with you all the way, even to the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20).

The Lord really did think His presence alongside (as well as inside) His agent would and should make all the difference in the world. “I will be with you” was God’s answer for practically every excuse of man ever invented.

And so, we find ourselves saying with the writer of Hebrews, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13:6)

No fear is allowed, Christian worker. God takes it personally as a lack of faith in Him.

“What then shall we say to these things? If (since) God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31)

Who indeed.