“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.
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!”
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”
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?" This leader is not alone. Studies show that approximately 1,500 pastors leave the ministry every month due to conflict, burnout, or moral failure. 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.