March 29, 2011
Skye Jethani: The Perpetuity Problem
Why we refuse to believe that God is eternal but our ministries are not.
How do you define success? It goes without saying that those committed to Jesus Christ and his purposes in the world ought to define success differently than other people. After all, Jesus himself refused his culture’s narrow view of success; in fact he regularly clashed with his own disciples about it. While they were excited by growing crowds and political power, Jesus reminded them that “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). Faithfulness to the Father led Jesus to defy the crowds and accept the cross.
A lot has been said about the danger of putting church growth and effectiveness ahead of all else. Gordon MacDonald calls this temptation missionalism and powerfully explains how younger pastors are drawn into it’s grip. But I’ve started to notice another lure emerging even among those of us who have rejected church growth and the “bigger is better” mantra. It is the danger of defining success by perpetuity.
Many in ministry have come to believe that if something lasts, if it continues even after we have stepped away, then it can be considered a success. A church plant that grows, finds a property, builds a facility, hires a staff, and still exists 20 years later is deemed a success. The same might be said of a network of "organic" churches. If it's still going years later then we've built something successful. In each case the ministry is not assessed by how faithful God’s people were or even by the fruit exhibited, but by its ability to continue.
But linking success to perpetuity bring two problems. First, it can make us deaf to God’s calling. We tend to assume that just because God has used a ministry or method in the past that he must desire for it to continue indefinitely. But this assumption means we may miss a new work that he has in store. Was this not exactly why the Pharisees could not embrace Jesus or his ministry as divine? He did not fit with their expectation. Their minds were so mired in the past that they could not imagine God doing something new.
Dallas Willard speaks about this temptation in his must-read article “Living in the Vision of God.” Willard documents a pattern all too evident in our ministries. A godly, Spirit-filled leader is used by God to accomplish great things for his Kingdom, and invariably a community forms around the leader. But when the leader is gone, those remaining assume his or her ministry can and should be perpetuated. The wind of the Spirit may have shifted, but they want it to keep blowing in the same direction. So, an institution is established around the departed leader’s values, methods, and strategies. If these are rigorously maintained, it is believed, then the same Spirit-empowered ministry evident in the leader’s life will continue through the institution that bears his or her name.
But what we fail to see is that the Spirit was not unleashed in the leader’s life because he or she used the right tools or strategies. This “fire of God,” as Willard calls it, was in their soul because of their intense love of Jesus Christ. Rather than imitating the leader’s methods, we should be emulating his or her devotion to Christ--a devotion through which we may hear God's unique call for us that may, and probably will, differ from the departed leader’s. But a fixation on perpetuity makes this unlikely as we opt for cookie-cutter replication of models and methodologies instead.
The second great danger that comes from defining success by perpetuity is the way it erodes a leader’s sense of value. Rather than finding our worth in Christ as his beloved child, we come to hitch our significance to the ministries we lead. And when they begin to falter and fail, so does our sense of value.
Last fall I interviewed Matt Chandler about what he’s learned about leadership since his cancer diagnosis. (The full interview can be read in the current issue of Catalyst Leadership.) He came to see the folly of perpetuity. Here’s an excerpt:
How has fighting cancer changed your perspective as a leader? It’s made me think a lot more about my mortality. For example, if I die and The Village Church falls apart, do I care? I’ll be honest, I don’t. It seems to me that when you look at history, God raises up certain men for certain seasons in certain places. He pours out his Spirit on them, and when they’re done its very rare for God to continue the work that was done uniquely through him. If I die and The Village ends, I’m alright with that. If believers here find a place where the gospel is preached, and people are being saved, and the mission is being lived out, then I will not have failed.
If I’m going to die in two years, I started asking God what I should do. I put a lot of pressure on myself because in our culture there is the expectation that a ministry has to flourish even after you’re gone. That’s unfair, unhistoric, and maybe even unbiblical. Realizing that took a lot of pressure off of me. I had peace to just faithfully do what I’ve been doing here since day one. Then just let go and see what the Lord does with it.
It seems like many in ministry define success by perpetuity--if something keeps going it’s a success. You’ve rejected that.
That’s right. And because they define success that way they cannot let go. They’re focused on “their legacy.” That’s why we see church with senior pastors in their 70s and no succession plan. They can’t let go.
Will you be able to let go when you’re 70? How about 50? 40? Can you let go today? If your church or ministry endures for a few years and then dissolves, how would you feel? The way you respond to that question may reveal where you’ve placed your value and self-worth.
It is possible that we care a great deal about perpetuity because we aren’t just building God’s kingdom but our own?
Christ is building his church, and I have no doubt that he will continue that work just fine with or without me. I have a part to play, a call to answer, but that part and that call may well shift. There are no assurances that it will remain unwavering until my final day. And I need to be open to the possibility that he may use a ministry, a strategy, a person for a season, and then do something new. Can we bless those vessels used by God for a season, celebrate what he’s done, and then let them go without losing our sense of value or worth?
These questions are going to be tested repeatedly in the coming years. Consider that in 1970 there were only 10 megachurches in the US (defined as 2,000+ people in attendance each week). In 1980 there were 50. By 1990 the number was 500. Today there are approximately 1500 megachurches. Nearly all of them were launched by Baby Boomer pastors who are nearing retirement. How will these very successful, very institutional ministries navigate the change ahead?
Will they tenaciously cling to a model of ministry pioneered 30 years ago and perpetuate a methodology?
Will that adapt their methods in order to remain “effective” and seek to perpetuate an institution?
Or will they commune deeply with Christ, listen for his call, and open themselves to the possibility that we care far more about perpetuity than he does?