If you want to know what burns out pastors fast, it is trying to please people to make sure they will show up on Sunday morning. Pastors are forever trying to figure out what it will take to get somebody into worship and keep them there -- in part because it is fairly easy to tick people off and drive them away. Pastors are, after all, sinner, too. I think, however, that even the worst pastors want their congregation to thrive, people to come and hear the Word of God and believe, and for believers to love holiness and righteousness. We may be sinful and unclean shepherds of God's people but there are not many of us who want to see this whole thing fail or who desire to be the cause of that failure. While it is certainly true that pastors and their egos and foibles get in the way of things sometimes (okay, often), it is also true that the religious marketplace has reinforced the idea of the person in the pew being a savvy consumer whose desire is to get what he or she wants.
Since most appeals to churches have to do with facilities, entertainment value, musical preference, location, and programs, it is easy to see why Christians see themselves in a buyers market. There are plenty of choices out there and plenty of empty seats and plenty of churches competing for the same folks. It is no wonder that some feel like they are doing the pastor or the rest of the congregation or even God a favor just by showing up. But when worship becomes a sacrifice -- something we do not want or like doing but feel we ought to do -- trouble begins. When appealing music and relevant programs and winsome welcomes and entertaining preaching/teaching become the assessment criteria for those church shopping or figuring out whether to stay, things are bound to turn out bad. When the subjective idea of what is meaningful tops what is true or faithful, everything is bound to suffer.
Yet worship is supposed to be a sacrifice -- not the kind where the person in the pew shows up and dares the Church to entertain, inspire, uplift, and prove her relevance and meaningfulness but a real sacrifice. Scripture does not encourage us to believe we are doing God a favor by showing up but they do encourage us to see worship as a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. God has, after all, done something to prove Himself worthy of such praise and thanksgiving. That is why the cross is so prominent in the art of the building, in the preaching from the pulpit, in the prayers from the prie dieu, and in the food imparted according to Christ's Word and command.
Every Sunday we sing:
What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits to me?
I will offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving and will call on the name of the Lord.
I will take the cup of salvation and will call on the name of the Lord.
I will pay my vows to the Lord now in the presence of all His people,
in the courts of the Lord’s house, in the midst of you, O Jerusalem.
Throughout the Psalms you encounter that same call to sacrificial praise and thanksgiving (119:17-19; 76:11; 54:6-7; 50:14). Hebrews, with its consummate focus on the worship of the New Covenant, also calls on the same sacrifice in response to what God has done to deliver us (13:15). We respond to what God has done and that response is no special favor on our part but the duty and delight of a people who rejoice in the salvation His mercy has accomplished in Christ, our Lord.
When worship becomes the real sacrifice, praise and thanksgiving, then the focus moves from us to the God whose love has redeemed us and we no longer have to search for meaning and relevance in the Divine Service. It is there -- seen by faith and recognized under the guidance of the Spirit. God is wise enough not to leave this sacrifice to our own discretion. It is not like we are shopping for a thank you gift. God provides the cause and reason for our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving and God sets this within the framework of the Divine Service. In the focus upon the Word and then upon the Table of the Lord, we are confronted with His unmistakable goodness and led from the forest to see the trees.
There is a strong attitude today that God and His servants (pastors) have to prove themselves to the worshiper -- as if we have to justify the time they spend, the attention they give, and the work they put into the Divine Service. Nothing can burn up a pastor faster than living with that kind of burden on his shoulders and nothing can turn worship into some dreary and distant than the idea that we are there to be entertained or inspired. But what God does is to serve us with His gifts -- including His gift of the Holy Spirit -- so that we may respond faithfully to His merciful deliverance with a real sacrifice -- the sacrifice of faith that trusts in His promise and rejoices in His salvation.
Pastors and people need to learn that the key is not in pleasing the folks in the pews but pleasing God with faith and rejoicing in what His Word bestows and His Sacraments deliver. If we are faithful in this way, on both sides of the altar rail, worship will be a thing of beauty to us and to God.