All Sizzle and No Steak
Tony Cooke

All Sizzle and No Steak by Tony CookeAn online dictionary defining idioms says that “all sizzle and no steak” means, “Disappointing or anticlimactic. Having an exciting, promising, important, or aggrandizing buildup that proves to be unwarranted.[1] Another says that it refers to “A thing or person which fails to measure up to its description or advanced promotion.[2] It is similar to an old saying in Texas: “All hat and no cattle.”

As a young assistant pastor, I was assisting in various areas of the church, including helping with the coordination of our thirty-eight cell groups. My pastor was on Dr. Cho’s church growth board, and was also in the process of obtaining a doctor of ministry degree in church growth from Fuller Theological Seminar; his concentration was on cell groups. At that time, my pastor asked me to attend a church growth conference sponsored by another church, and one of the workshops I attended was called “Taking Your City Block by Block.”

The presenting minister shared how their church was “taking their city” through cell group ministry. They had great logos, slick brochures, and catchy phrases. It was a very impressive presentation, and by the end of it, I was thoroughly convinced that our feeble efforts were quite inferior to the amazing exploits of this other church, whose cell groups were obviously far superior to ours. I was feeling pretty intimidated, but I decided to go up and ask him a question or two afterwards, and as an afterthought, asked, “Just how many of these cell groups do you have operating?” I was expecting a number in the hundreds, but to my surprise, he said, “Nine.”

Now, there’s nothing wrong with having nine cell groups, but I was so dazzled by his presentation that I had assumed that they were on the verge of converting their entire city of a few hundred thousand people. In short, their marketing and talking points were far more impressive than their actual productivity. That was an early lesson to me that things can sound and appear far more impressive than they actually are. There’s nothing wrong with a positive appearance—we all want to put our best foot forward. The problem arises when appearance becomes misleading, and more focus is put on the projection of an image than is placed on the developing of substance.

There are two primary traps when it comes to the appearance game:

  • Feeling intimidated and inferior because what you’re doing doesn’t appear to be as impressive as what someone else is doing.
  • Getting into the game personally, yielding to the pressure to present exaggerated and embellished information in order to impress others.

Scripture has quite a bit to say about misleading appearances—when the sizzle is deemed more important than the steak, when there’s “all hat and no cattle.” I’m not against honest marketing when it truthfully and accurately presents information, but the fall of humanity came through the peddling of some bogus propaganda by a master deceiver. We read of Eve, “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate” (Gen 3:6). Eve bought the lie. She embraced a “perception” that was not reality at all. Instead of a preferred future, she secured misery for herself and her posterity.

God taught Samuel a valuable lesson about not being duped by appearances—a lesson that all of us need to know today. When Samuel saw Eliab, the oldest son of Jesse, he was highly impressed and was convinced that Eliab was the one he was to anoint as the new king of Israel. First Samuel 16:7 reads, “But the LORD said to Samuel, ‘Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the LORD does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.’”

Consider these other scriptural admonitions:

Proverbs 31:30 states, “Charm is deceitful and beauty is passing, but a woman who fears the LORD, she shall be praised.”

Jesus referenced misleading appearances in at least three statements:

  • “For they [hypocrites] disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting…” (Matthew 6:16).
  • Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24).
  • “You are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:37-38).

The Apostle Paul spoke of “those who boast in appearance and not in heart” (2 Cor 5:12). The NLT renders that, “those who brag about having a spectacular ministry rather than having a sincere heart.” It was perhaps that kind of issue that led Paul to say, “So don’t make judgments about anyone ahead of time—before the Lord returns. For he will bring our darkest secrets to light and will reveal our private motives. Then God will give to each one whatever praise is due” (1 Cor 4:5, NLT).

God sees things as they really are. He’s not moved by or impressed with spin or clever marketing techniques. Something that comes into play here is the contrast between reputation and character. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to have a good reputation; everyone wants that. But a reputation can be misleading. We all know that people can have a double life—a public image and a conflicting private life. That’s why Dwight L. Moody said, “If I take care of my character, my reputation will take care of itself.” John Wooden observed, “Your character is what you really are. Your reputation is only what others think you are.”

There was a New Testament church that had fallen into playing the appearance game. Jesus said of the church in Sardis, “I know all the things you do, and that you have a reputation for being alive—but you are dead” (Rev 3:2, NLT). G. Campbell Morgan spoke of this as “reputation without reality.” Even so, Jesus was still giving the believers in Sardis an opportunity to get back to the core of who they were called to be. The next part of the verse states, “Strengthen what little remains, for even what is left is almost dead. I find that your actions do not meet the requirements of my God. Go back to what you heard and believed at first; hold to it firmly. Repent and turn to me again.”

As believers, we have great need of discernment. We need to be able to make an honest assessment of ourselves. Galatians 6:4-5 (MSG) reads, “Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life.” An honest self-assessment means that we will not be overwhelmed with inferiority or puffed up with pride. Paul also remarked, “Don’t compare yourself with others.” God won’t evaluate us based on anyone else’s calling, but will simply ask if we were faithful to apply ourselves to what He assigned us to do.

In closing, let me encourage you not to chase after sizzle, but to focus on the steak. Don’t be impressed with the hat; just take care of the cattle. Appearance, image, and reputation are not what God called us to focus on, but he’s certainly called us to substance, quality, and character. Everything else is fleeting and subject to change, but what matters to God—and what should matter to us—is eternal.