Service is a vital part of the Christian faith. But if preachers are constantly challenging their congregations to ‘do more’ it will lead to burnout, says Andrew Horton 


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It was Sunday, and I couldn’t bring myself to go to church.

I couldn’t face another challenge from the front.

Weary and bruised from another busy week of life, I’d rather remain in the comfort of my home. Batting away the guilt that followed was preferable to having to face yet another uncomfortable call to serve.

I know being challenged to do good works and to be more like Christ – is part of what church services should be about. And yet, I rarely hear a health warning: that these exhortations may cause burnout or disillusionment with the church and even with faith itself.

When I do hear that health warning, it usually comes packaged in the language of “this may be costly, but with God’s power and might, all things are possible,” etc.

I think the church often relies too heavily on an idealistic view of “God’s power and might”, almost as an easy-access, on-demand, problem-solving, pain-relieving, and stress-reducing remedy.

Most of the people I know limp into church each Sunday

I’ve known God’s sustaining power in many situations. I have felt his calming presence in the most excruciatingly stressful times of life. I’ve known his protection from attacks while working in conflict-ravaged South Sudan and Central African Republic. I’ve known his healing power, bringing me out of severe physical and mental illnesses. I am 100 per cent sure of his power and might. 

But I’ve also experienced, in an equally real way, the costly consequences of responding to challenges from the pulpit. At times I’ve taken on too much - perhaps serving on too many rotas at church, or burning myself out trying to “live the Christian life”. Whenever I’ve been tempted to draw back and give myself a break I’ve wrestled with the nagging guilt that Jesus went through much worse at Calvary. Surely this isn’t a healthy attitude! 

The need for empathy

Most of the people I know limp into church each Sunday. They may not present it publicly, but they’re carrying emotional, physical, and spiritual pain. And I think this is even more prevalent since the Covid pandemic and the ongoing impact of the lockdowns that came with it. According to research by mental health charity Mind, around one third of adults and young people said their mental health has got much worse since March 2020.

On top of this, we have the cost-of-living crisis, leaving many people struggling in poverty. For far too many people, life is really hard right now.

So for a church leader to preach challenge after challenge without empathy is a problem. A blasé reassurance that, in God’s strength, all things are possible, won’t cut it either. In fact, in most cases, I would say it’s irresponsible.

Please don’t avoid sharing the real consequences that may come from your challenges. Yes, the church would benefit from more money, but be mindful that people’s cashflow is tighter or even non-existent. Yes, the world would benefit from more people committing to prayer and Bible reading plans, but these same people are also juggling a million and one other responsibilities. Yes, orphans need safe and stable family homes, but parenting is hard, and these decisions need to be thought through carefully and planned for. Just relying on the fallback of knowing “God’s power and might” isn’t practical enough; it may be true, but we mustn’t use it as an excuse for being nonchalant about decisions that have consequences.

Read the room

Central to being a Christian is to “take up your cross” (Matthew 16:24), to live sacrificially, and to serve God and others with love. But for those in positions of leadership, please check in with those who are over-committing and be alert to their mood when they arrive to serve.

As the author John Hindley says in Serving Without Sinking (The Good Book Company), the attitudes of those who serve can turn sour before they know it. “We can so easily fall into thinking Jesus will love and bless us if we do the right things. Then it is a short step to feeling he owes us. And then it’s not long before we decide he’s let us down.”

Leaders, please read the room and recognise that you’re standing in front of many hurting, baggage-laden, weary souls. Preach of God’s power and might, but also of the consequences and the cost.