July 18, 2011
Has Mission Become Our Idol?
The church and its leaders desperately need a vision of a life with God and not just for him.
“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 by planting churches on four continents. But after reflecting on his labors 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 important. 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 of us 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 this tendency 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 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 and rooted in the Spirit. 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. This 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 this: “Assuming you’re not engaged in some kind of disqualifying sin, why not?” The answer I often hear, the answer most pastors 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!”1
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, in the pages of Leadership Journal I should add, how ministry rooted in 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!
In Part 2, Skye Jethani will explore why mission is critical but not ultimate.
This post is related to Skye's new book, WITH: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God, being released in August by Thomas Nelson. Read the first chapter online now.