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“There is a first-rate commitment to a second-rate mission.” That is what Roger, a leader in global church planting, said as he looked at the rock climbers ascending a cliff in the Alps. Many of us called into ministry feel the same way. Rather than giving our lives to climbing a rock, building a business, or amassing a fortune, we are committed to what really matters; a first-rate mission--advancing the Gospel and the Church of Jesus Christ.

 But what if we’re wrong?

 Roger spent decades serving Christ and planting churches on four continents. But after reflecting on his labor for the kingdom of God, his confession surprised many of us. “I’ve given most of my energy to a second-rate mission as well,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong. Church planting is great. But someday that mission will end. My first calling is to live with God. That must be my first commitment.”

 What Roger articulated was a temptation that many in ministry face. To put it simply, many church leaders unknowingly replace the transcendent vitality of a life with God for the ego satisfaction they derive from a life for God. Before exploring how this shift occurs in church leaders, let me take a step or two backwards and explain how I have seen it within the Christian college students I’ve worked with in recent years.

Is impact everything?

The students I meet with often worry about what awaits them after graduation. This is a reasonable concern for any young adult, but for many of them the worry extends far beyond finding a job with benefits. They fixate, and some obsess, about “making a difference in the world.” They fear living lives of insignificance. They worry about not achieving the right things, or not enough of the right things. Behind all of this is the belief that their value is determined by what they achieve. I’ve learned that when a student asks me, “What should I do with my life?” what he or she really wants to know is, “How can I prove that I am valuable?”

When we come to believe that our faith is primarily about what we can do for God in the world, it is like throwing gasoline on our fear of insignificance. The resulting fire may be presented to others as a godly ambition, a holy desire to see God’s mission advance--the kind of drive evident in the Apostle Paul’s life. But when these flames are fueled by fear they reveal none of the peace, joy, or love displayed by Paul. Instead the relentless drive to prove our worth can quickly become destructive.

Sometimes the people who fear insignificance the most are driven to accomplish the greatest things. As a result they are highly praised within Christian communities for their good works which temporarily soothes their fear until the next goal can be achieved. But there is a dark side to this drivenness. Gordon MacDonald calls it “missionalism.” It is “the belief that the worth of one’s life is determined by the achievement of a grand objective.” He continues:

Missionalism starts slowly and gains a foothold in the leader's attitude. Before long the mission controls almost everything: time, relationships, health, spiritual depth, ethics, and convictions. In advanced stages, missionalism means doing whatever it takes to solve the problem. In its worst iteration, the end always justifies the means. The family goes; health is sacrificed; integrity is jeopardized; God-connection is limited.[1]

What I have witnessed in the lives of many college students is the early symptoms of missionalism. The virus had been introduced to them in childhood and incubated by well-intentioned churches, ministries, schools, and the wider evangelical subculture. And with graduation looming the students were feeling the pressure. It was, after all, their first opportunity to actually prove their worth through achievement.

When meeting with or counseling a struggling church leader, one of the questions I’ll ask to diagnose whether missionalism is present is: “Assuming you’re not engaged in some kind of disqualifying sin, why not?” The answer I often hear, the answer most posters have been conditioned to say, is: “I wouldn’t want to do anything to jeopardize my ministry.” That response often reveals where a leader’s true devotion is. Sadly I rarely hear a pastor say, “I wouldn’t want anything to disrupt my communion with God.” So few of us have been given a vision of a life with Christ, and instead we seek to fill the void with a vision for ministry--a vision of a life for Christ.

Phil Vischer, the creator of VeggieTales, was raised in a “life for God” environment. His experience reveals how the fear of being insignificant is implanted into young people. He said the heroes his community celebrated were “the Rockefellers of the Christian world;” those who were enterprising, effective, and who made a huge impact for God. They launched massive ministries or transformed whole nations. This led Vischer to conclude that impact was everything. “God would never call us from greater impact to lesser impact!,” he wrote. “How many kids did you invite to Sunday? How many souls have you won? How big is your church? How many people will be in heaven because of your efforts? Impact, man!”[2]

But after losing his company in 2003, Vischer began to question the validity of the “life for God” values he had inherited and which had driven his early career. 

“The more I dove into Scripture, the more I realized I had been deluded. I had grown up drinking a dangerous cocktail—a mix of the gospel, the Protestant work ethic, and the American dream…. The Savior I was following seemed, in hindsight, equal parts Jesus, Ben Franklin, and Henry Ford. My eternal value was rooted in what I could accomplish”[3]

A professional crisis made Vischer pause and reexamine his posture with God, but for others the nagging discontent of a life lived for God manifests much more slowly. Consider what one pastor in his late 30s wrote: "The church is growing, and there's excitement everywhere. But personally I feel less and less good about what I'm doing. I'm restless and tired. I ask myself how long I can keep this all up. Why is my touch with God so limited? Why am I feeling guilty about where my marriage is? When did this stop being fun?"[4] This leader is not alone. Studies show that approximately 1,500 pastors leave the ministry every month due to conflict, burnout, or moral failure.[5] Others have shown how ministry rooted relentless achievement for God actually contributes to addictive behaviors. When the accolades that give pastors a sense of significance cease or never come at all, some begin to nurse secret pleasures on the side to numb their pain.

When church leaders function from this understanding of the Christian life, they invariably transfer their burden and fears to those in the pews. If a pastor’s sense of worth is linked to the impact of his or her ministry, guess what believers under that pastor’s care are told is most important? And so a new generation of people who believe their value is linked to their accomplishments is birthed. If the cycle continues long enough an institutional memory is created in which the value of achievement for God is no longer questioned. Leaders may be burning out at a rate of 1,500 per month, young people may be riddled with anxiety, and divorce rates in the church may be rising and families falling apart, but no one stops. No one asks whether this is really what God intended the Christian life to be. No one asks, at least out loud, because that might slow things down. Remember, the work must go on. Impact, man!

Mission is good, not ultimate.

You may be thinking, “But we are called to do things for God. And what’s the alternative--continuing to allow the people in our churches to be self-consumed Christians seeking only their own comfort?” That is a very fair concern. And I completely concur with the consumer posture that is choking much of the modern church both in North American and increasingly around the globe.

But the prescribed solution I hear in many ministry settings is to transform people from consumer Christians into activist Christians. The exact direction of the activism may depend on one’s theological and ecclesiological orientation. For traditional evangelicals it’s all about evangelism--getting believers to share their faith, give to overseas missions, and grow the church. For many younger evangelicals it may focus compassion and justice--digging wells and eradicating poverty. But what the traditional and younger evangelicals agree upon is that we are to live our lives for God by accomplishing his mission however we may define it.

The “life for God” view makes mission the irreducible center of the Christian life. And everything and everyone gets defined by some great goal understood to be initiated by God and carried forward by us. An individual is either on the mission, the object of the mission, an obstacle to the mission, an aid to the mission, or a fat Christian who should be on the mission.

Please don’t think I am trying to dismiss the importance of the missio dei or the church’s part within it. Like other church leaders, I greatly desire to see more Christians hear God’s call and engage in the good and life-saving work he has given us.  And I am incredibly grateful for my friends in ministry who have awakened the church to the theological and practical necessity of mission in our age. But as Tim Keller has deftly observed, “An idol is a good thing made into an ultimate thing.” The temptation within activist streams of Christianity is to put the good mission of God into the place God alone should occupy. The irony is that in our desire to draw people away from the selfishness of consumer Christianity, we may simply be replacing one idol with another. This is the great danger of endlessly extolling the importance of living for God--it put can place God’s mission ahead of God himself. Paul, the most celebrated missionary in history, did not make this mistake. He understood that his calling, to be a messenger to the gentiles, was not the same as his treasure, to be united with Christ. His communion with Christ rooted and preceded his work for him.

Few passages of Scripture illustrate our present dilemma better than the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. If you recall, the young son did not value a relationship with his father but only his father’s wealth--a poignant example of the consumer Christian. He took what his father gave him, left home, and wasted the gifts on fast living. Eventually he was penniless and desperate. But when the son returned home to seek his father’s mercy and a job as a servant, he was astonished to find his father overjoyed--running to embrace him with open arms.

But that’s only half of the story. The father also had an older son who was very different than his swinging sibling. He was reliable, obedient, and lived to do his father’s bidding. But when the older son heard that his wayward brother had returned, and that his father had welcomed him and was throwing a party, he became incensed. In fact, when he heard the music and dancing in the house he refused to join the celebration. Instead he held his own pity party out in the field.

True to his character, when the father discovered that his eldest son was not home he went out to find him. There the father begged the older son to come to the party. But the son was furious. “Look, all these years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!” (Luke 15:29-30).

Notice where the older son roots his significance: “All these years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command.” The older son lived for his father. And for his service he expected a reward. In this way he really is not that different from the younger son. Neither boy was particularly interested in a relationship with the father, instead both were focused on what they might get from him. The younger son simply took what he desired while the older son, being a more patient and self-disciplined person, worked for it. Their methods were night and day, but both sons desired the same thing and in neither case was it the father. In other words, both sons sought to use their father. Both were jerks, one just happened to be of a more socially-acceptable variety.

Jesus told this parable at a gathering with Pharisees and scribes--very devoted religious leaders; men who drew a great deal of significance from their service for God. Was Jesus trying to say to them that there is something wrong with serving God or faithful obedience? Of course not. The problem comes when we find our significance and worth in it. Jesus is not diminishing the older son’s obedience, just as he is not endorsing the younger son’s immorality. Rather he is showing that both a “life from God” (the younger son) and a “life for God” (the older son) fail to capture what God truly desires for his people. Pouring our lives into a mission that we believe pleases God is not the center of the Christian life. It is not what is going to remove our fears or unbind our captivity to sin. In order to discover what God cares about most, we must look more closely at the father’s response to the older son in Jesus’ story.

“Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this brother of yours was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:31-32).

What brought the father joy was not the older son’s service, but simply his presence--having his son with him. This is what the father cares about most, not his property or which son receives more of it. While the sons are fixated on the father’s wealth, the father is fixated on his sons. This is what they both failed to understand, and it is what both Christian consumerism and Christian activism fail to grasp. God’s gifts are a blessing and his work is important, but neither can or should replace God himself as our focus.

Like the younger son, believers in our churches often build their identity around what they receive from God. Or like the older son we find our value in how we serve God. And a great deal of effort is expended in faith communities trying to transform people from younger sons into older sons. But this is a fool’s errand. Because what mattered most to the father was neither the younger son’s disobedience nor the older son’s obedience, but having his sons with him. And so it is with our Heavenly Father. Reversing the rebellion of Eden and restoring what was lost can only be accomplished when we learn that at the center of God’s heart is having his children with him.

While a vision for serving God is needed, and the desperate condition of our world cannot be ignored, there is a higher calling that is going unanswered in many Christian communities. As shepherds of God’s people, we must not allow our fears of insignificance to drive us into an unrelenting pursuit of church growth, cultural impact, or missional activism. Instead, we must model for our people a first-class commitment to a first-class purpose--living in perpetual communion with God himself. As we embrace the call to live with God, only then will we be capable of illuminating such a life for our people.

Skye Jethani is the senior editor of Leadership Journal and the author of With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God.

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Dr. Luke Kauffman

commented on Jul 22, 2011

This article is right on target. Most and so many in the church and pastors, too, are teaching most churches that ministry is a godly substitute for knowing God. Therefore, the church is turning into a Salvation Army, without the core issue of "Do you love Me?", says Christ.

Scott Hardaway

commented on Jul 22, 2011

I knew as I was reading this that there would be some (maybe many) who misunderstand what this author is saying. It often happens when you're trying to take a nuanced position. Geoff, I understand your concerns, I think, but perhaps you'd benefit from reading the article again. I think the author would agree that if a believer is truly living with Christ, he/she will be on mission. But he's saying that the converse is NOT true, and that's where his concern lies. In other words, being on mission does not necessarily entail a close relationship with Christ, and in far too many instances, we tend to put the missional cart in front of the hiding-our-lives-in-Christ horse. This reversal of priorities does great damage to us spiritually, as our service to God ought to be an overflow of our relationship with him, not a means to obtaining or maintaining that relationship. Otherwise, we lose sight of grace and begin to live with a works-based view of sanctification. And so I think you err, Geoff, when you say "they are one and the same." They are indeed related, but the relationship is only a one-way relationship. Communion with God leads rightly to service for God. Service for God does not lead to communion with him. And in identifying this evangelical idol, I believe this author is right on point.

Chris Vitarelli

commented on Jul 22, 2011

As a church planter I can closely identify with the ideas in this article. It is so easy to replace my daily walk with Christ with a commitment to the "mission" of planting a church. I don't think this article is suggesting "a cop-out on the Great Commission" at all. To live my life thinking only about how I will do something significant or how I will make an impact are a tragic, self-centered reversal of the Great Commission. The purpose of that Commission, as well as every command we have to pursue mission, is the glory of God. When I seek to serve Christ on mission to gain a reputation or give myself a sense of worth the mission may be accomplished but will it glorify God?

Richard Hopper

commented on Jul 22, 2011

I'm not sure who said this but it seems appropriate, "Our work is not our worth". It's a pretty simple statement but I think full of great truth for those in the vocation of Christian ministry. God doesn't measure our worth by the impact we have or by the number of notches on the handle of our gospel six gun. He measures our worth through our relationship with Him, not in comparison to brother or sister so and so. It's so important to recognize that apart from Jesus Christ we can do nothing, so no matter the impact we may seem to be having, without His blessing it could end up for naught. Now at the same time our work is impacted by our worth. What we think of ourselves is certainly important in the way we do our work and our work will certainly impact our worth. But if that's all we use to determine it then we are men and women most miserable. Job satisfaction in ministry cannot be summed up in impact alone, often times it's difficult to see any impact at all, but if we allow our work to be under the guidance of the Holy Spirit then I do believe that He will give a gracious nod to us consequently impacting our worth in His eyes, and after all, isn't that what should matter the most in the eyes and heart of a follower of Jesus Christ?

Matt Stephens

commented on Jul 22, 2011

Amen and amen. I needed to hear this as much as anyone! Brings me back to my college days of the relentless jockeying of my peers for the ministry limelight?"who can out-serve whom," whose ministry draws the biggest crowd, who is (outwardly) the most "passionate for Jesus." Even piety can become an idol. Strangely, knowing all this I still struggle daily with the perpetual need to "validate" my life and ministry in the eyes of others. In spite of Geoff B's misread of the article, he is right about the temptation to over-focus on self, even with the best intentions in mind. Thanks, Skye, for this piece.

John B. Nurse

commented on Jul 22, 2011

After all of my years in the ministry I never thought of myself as one who had replaced God with an idol named mission. This is indeed what I did even though my desire was to do great things for God, not necessarily with God. I had listened to a former pastor of mine who I had invited to run a Revival service in a rural area in Appalachia. He and his friend who came with him made me ashamed for being in appalachia ministering to a bunch of so-called ignorant people when I could have a bigger and more important life doing greater things for God. I have spent many years going from place to place, each time serving in a place smaller than the one in Appalachia. TodayI am out not doing much of anything except trying to support the church where I attend. I thank you for this well written article. It seems that it was written just for me. I needed this. God is my all and in all. Amen.

Timothy P

commented on Jul 22, 2011

I keep 2 verses as reminders for me as I serve the Lord. Mark 3:14 "And He appointed twelve, so that they would be with Him and that He could send them out to preach," and 1 Tim 4:16 "Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers." I constantly remind myself that firstly I am a child of God, then a disciple of Christ, and than a servant of the Lord (and keeping it in that order).

David Barnes

commented on May 28, 2014

I like that. Great scriptural references for this article!

Dan Steadman

commented on Jul 23, 2011

Skye, I believe the Lord just showed me what has been missing in my life and ministry. 'Ministry' has been the driving force in my life, to the exclusion of listening to and responding to the concerns of my wife and family. After all, I was 'working for God'! What greater employment. Thanks for being open to, and sharing, what He really wants us to hear. Blessings, dan

Suresh Manoharan

commented on May 20, 2018

A wonderful article on getting our priorities right...thanks Brother Skye...

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