Can Mission Become an Idol?

March 10, 2012

“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.”

MacDonald 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!”

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!

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 its 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 proceeded his work for him.

Few passage 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. 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 no 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 disobedience. 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 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.

***

This post is related to Skye’s new book, WITH: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God. Read the first chapter online now.

Skye Jethani (@skye_jethani) is senior editor of Leadership Journal, Out of Ur, and Catalyst Leadership. He also serves as the senior producer of This is Our City, a new project for Christianity Today. He is the author of The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity, and he blogs regularly at The Huffington Post and SkyeJethani.com.

This post originally appeared on Leadership Journal’s Out of Ur.  To read the original, and the subsequent comments click:  Part 1, Part 2

7 Responses to “Can Mission Become an Idol?”

  1. Dennis Griffith Says:

    This poignant and provocative piece by Skye Jethani provides an important, almost essential perspective. No doubt it will cause the blood pressure of some to rise; no doubt some will have an initial reaction that assumes Jethani is opposed to mission, and lump me in the same boat because I posted his article. But such an accusation would be unfair and untrue.

    Jethani, in this article, follows in the footsteps of John Piper in his mission classic Let the Nations Be Glad. Jethani simply applies the issue more directly to the heart – which is what makes this piece uncomfortably penetrating.

  2. David Says:

    Dennis I think the author trys too hard to make his points. Even streatches some of his scriptures refrences. A Missionary Debbi and I have known all our adult lives wrote a book called Choosing Plan A in a Plan B world. His name is Jerry White. The book is about the Lordship of Christ and is one of the best on the subject I’ve ever read. Most people will probaby never read it because it’s a bit unknown in most circles.

    The book lays out the idea that we need a consuming vision. That without it, the christian life becomes stale and listless, lacking purpose and direction. In its absence, the church turns inward and forfetits its only place in society, yielding to a rather harmless sword against evil. A Great Commision without a proper focus on the lost of the world where there is no commision at all, no hope, and no one to care.

    I get what you said and what the author Jethani is saying. I agree with most of all he siad in the artical (not that my agreement means anything ) No question about the issue of “Being and Abiding with God” as our first and highest calling. That our work in the Gosple can become polluted with false idols of pride, and self satisfaction no questions.

    I’d would say however that there is no higher calling, no other Vision worth anything much than our calling to fulfill God’s purpose in our lives. As I read Scripture that means a life that takes God’s Great Commision of making Disciples paramount.
    That we bring our energy to bare and our very lives and lay them at the feet of Jesus.

    I am so very aware of the burn out, the pastors who leave ministry, the hurt casued even by those who call themselves Belivers to so many Pastors. I even tried my best to talk my own sons out of going in the Ministry because of the pit falls.

    I think the issues are many and complicated and there is much tension here. I do not claim to have any answers to this. But I do know that there is no higher calling than to fullfill ones calling from God whatever that may be. It can take many forms. But there is a big difference between a vocation and an occupation. It’s understanding that difference and grasping the Vision God has set out in His Word that makes the difference and allows a garbage man a higher calling in Christ as he performes his work as well as seeking to make disciples while abiding in his walk with Jesus.

    • Dennis Griffith Says:

      The greater tension is in the question of where we find our identity, our meaning, our comfort, and our righteousness. If we find them, even in the smallest amount, from our “mission” then we have an idol problem. These things are all to be found in Christ alone. The same is true to a large extent of our purpose and joy. While our mission (olr works) can legitinmately kindle both without necessarily being an indication of mission becomming an idol, these must be but comparative traces compared to the ultimate source, which must be in Christ,

      We need to be very careful to remember that “our hearts are deceitful” (jeremiah 17.9). Like the mirror, mirror on the wall, our hearts tell us what we want to hear. We should never trust our own heart. It requires more exploration and interrogation. More evidence is needed to give us a proper diagnosis.

      One thing that is likely, those most influenced by this idol will argue with the straw man. They will see only an opposition to mission, or at least a lack of commitment to mission, in what Jethani points out. When the reality is that this is flat out untrue. What jethani points out is simply that first things must be first. And he leads us to consider that unless our identity and joy is completely wrapped in enjoying the person(s) of God, our mission is infected by idolotry, no matter how noble the endeavor, no matter how apparent the fruit.

      Only when we realize this reality do we have a message wrothy to go on mission with and for.

  3. Suz Says:

    It is not as glamorous to seek to “be” with God and enjoy his presence, is it? I like the references here and some of the stories that illustrate the dangerous mix of values in our church cultures that have steered us toward achievement for God rather than enjoyment of him.

  4. David Says:

    I hear you Dennis and amen to your comments. Good thoughts, and I too share what Suz said above.

    At the same time there are many who will use the “be” with God as an excuse and forget the Mission let alone their very neighbors. From my experience in the Church, it’s a no brainer…far too many consummers interested in the American dream and “church culture” than closeness with Jesus.

    But then again, who’s issue is that really ? I believe the (and I’m on very shakey ground here because the Church is the Bride of Christ so I’ll be carfull) leadership or lack there of is at fault for not taking the time and effort it takes to truly model and teach true Discipleship. What does it mean to Abide in Christ ? and how do we get ahold of that ? I would submit it doesn’t happen by it’s self. It takes community, openness, trust, the proper environment, excellence in teaching among other issues.

    I agree It’s the closeness with Jesus that drives Mission and from only there we are truly satified.

    There’s a good book you may have read that deals with this conversation called “The Tangible Kingdom” by Hugh Halter & Matt Smay, subtitled creating incarnational community. A good study of the subject.

  5. Dennis Griffith Says:

    I am curious, do you think discipleship involves getting to know God by learning deep truth about God? or Does discipleship consist more in “doing” for God while learning only some minimal amount? Is it possilble to do things “for” God but God to be left unimpressed? (Consider Matthew 7.22-23)

    While no question some, even many, err by failure to express genuine faith through love, many also fail to love God by continually deepening their knowledge of him. They do the religious thing – lots of works, but little love for God. Keller illustrates this in Prodigal God. It is a common mark of the Older Brothers.

    Consumerism is often marked by an entertainment mindset. But consumerism is also marked by the therapeutic gospel – doing things that make you feel good about yourself. Many do engage in mission because it makes them feel good about themsleves, look good to others, etc. This cannot be ignored any more than complacency.

    If one surveys this blog you will notice I am equal opportunity, encouraging both sound doctrine AND missional engagement (not to mention Spiritual Formation). I also confront both dead orthodoxy and works righteousness. Both are equal errors. Both distort genuine Christianity. Danger is not found in only one camp, no matter what ones personal “experience”.

  6. David Says:

    Dennis, really ? You know Discipleship involves abiding with God and doing as a result. It’s both always. Just like James tells us. Yep there are lots of older brothers in the Church no question there as well as consumerism. (I think we have both older and younger brothers in us) Thank God He always reaches out to us no matter what and invites us to the table to be with him.

    I think we agree here Dennis…… I was just sharing my own experience. Thats all I can do. The facts are there are hosts of believers and not many followers if that makes sense to you. A person can believe, say the right things and even do the right things just like older brothers….and be completely lost.

    Discipleship is to me defined as a true follower. Both learning deep things about the Gospel, having sound doctrine (not only reserved for the reformed by the way) and beiing missional as a result. Yes danger is found in only one camp.

    Have you ever read the Tangible Kingdom ? The book explores this very subject and I think you would like it. Because it does a great job in looking first and formost to relationship with Jesus then to missional aspects.

    As far as your blog you do cover both aspects. I think you would fall more on the doctrine side & relational with Jesus than missional but thats just my opinion after reading your blog now for a few years. I’m not saying thats a bad thing. Maybe just the opposit.

    My comment about Leaders in the Church still stands. Many I have found view Church as an institution only and not a movement. Teaching but not reaching or making a difference in community. What good is there to be miles deep and forget about others in practical life while all the time thinking they have right doctrine and thus right living….

    Problem is there is so very much room to demonstrate our following of Jesus in this world. Many of us don’t need more teaching we need more reaching. Maturity in Jesus is not in what we know but what we do with what we know.

    Too many Christians are asleep in their comfort while others hurt in the sex trade of woman and children here in America, (in our very cities) are involved in drugs, broken families, fight aloneness, in prision, poor, sick etc…..I can’t begin to list all the hurting and those in bondage and we mix words over being missional ! Good night…

    I think those who don’t know Jesus see Christians in a wrong way much of the time. Because the very ones who should be reaching don’t…I think Jesus demonistrated that in His story about the good Samaritan. Yes maturity in Christ is demonistrated by what we do with what we know. It costs us..

    Relationship with Jesus normally has a high price I think. Guess I;m getting off track here…


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