Our warped notions of success in ministry often lead to deadly habits. The habit of comparing ourselves to one another is extremely deadly. And yet there are virulent strains of comparison fueled by sins like envy, jealousy, covetousness. Along with one-upmanship, these sin-saturated strains have become a way of life in the evangelical world.
The comparison epidemic goes hand in hand with seeking to achieve visibility and prestige (our notions of evangelical success) in ministry by any means necessary. The means we use for our pursuit of visibility and success are often vicious, not loving and therefore not Christ-like.
I’ve had Christian leaders whom I thought desired friendship with me instead use me to advance their causes. They feigned interest in me but what they really wanted was information about how to climb the ladder of writing or ministry success. After I helped them out, they split. I never heard from them again. They weren’t so much interested in me, only in what I could offer them.
I was exploited.
Exploitation is painful. I don’t think anyone welcomes feigned interest. Exploitation is painful. I don’t think anyone welcomes feigned interest. Click To Tweet
Pastor Dan White Jr. astutely observed in a recent tweet, “We believe tabloid lies that tell us visibility equals importance, which makes our self-worth an emotional roller coaster ride.” Maybe now we measure our worth and success by the number of followers we have, or how Christian-famous we are. When we’re in the dip of our roller coaster ride, when we feel like we have little worth because we don’t believe we compare favorably to another, we are prone to vie for attention online or in other local and national circles. Frenetically, we seek for ways to fit in or even break in to what we deem the upper echelons of Christian fame, celebrity, or power. Only then our lives count, or so we believe.
As a result, we do things that leave thoughtful observers thinking Christianity, evangelical Christianity in particular, is a circus full of hypocrites who are out for themselves. Have you seen some of the things we do to grab others’ attention?
Recently I heard about a prominent evangelical leader who was more concerned with capturing the perfect photo for their thousands of Instagram followers than being present to the downtrodden surrounding them in that moment. The desire to be visible to their hordes of Instagram followers rendered invisible the people and the volatile situation right in front of the person’s eyes. People became props for their pictures.
When we become like politicians who appear to care more about photo ops than the people we are serving, we’re exploiting people, ministry, and mission for ourselves; we’re using them as mere means to our own self-aggrandizing ends.
Ultimately, we’re exploiting God.
Why are we so insecure? Didn’t Jesus make a beeline for the poor, oppressed, and marginalized instead of the powerful, opulent, and majestic?
What are we doing?!?!
In the book, The New Parish, Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, and Dwight Friesen write, “…when the church pursues power, political, or economic influence, or even mission as an end in itself, its faithful presence is compromised.” I would add that our ‘faithful presence’ is compromised when we mistake visibility and prestige with self-worth and God’s blessing.
In seeking first our own visibility and its embellishment, and not the kingdom, we compare strikingly to C.S. Lewis’s description of Satan in Lewis’s preface to Paradise Lost. Lewis writes: “In the midst of a world of light and love, of song and feast and dance, [Lucifer] could find nothing to think of more interesting than his own prestige.”
Indeed, in the Great Divorce, Lewis notes, “Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from the love of the thing he tells, to the love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him.”
Right now, some of us are not so interested in God at all, only in talking eloquently about him. We’re less concerned with living the kingdom life than we are in painstakingly producing its meticulously manicured brochures. As Lewis said, that is ‘Deep Hell’. We boldly declare it’s all about Jesus, but we lie. It’s about us. We are using God to advance ourselves. Some of us are not so interested in God at all, only in talking eloquently about him. Click To Tweet
Can we just admit our collective and perhaps individual guilt? Can we just tell the truth to ourselves? Others are on to us. Confessing the truth is the first step of repentance that leads to whole life.
I must confess that I am in danger of taking up residence in ‘Deep Hell’ because I spend my life talking and writing about God. And so I have to ask myself: do I love Him more than the writing, speaking, preaching, and pastoral care opportunities he gives me? Am I frantically comparing myself to others who have similar callings and whom I deem more “successful” in order to see how I measure up?
Henri Nouwen writes, “The greatest Christians throughout history have always been lowly people who sought to be hidden…. Whenever you hear about saintly people, you sense a deep longing for that hiddenness.” Nouwen elaborates further:
Many great minds and spirits have lost their creative force through too early or too rapid exposure to the public…. Our world persists in proclaiming the big lie: ‘Being unknown means being unloved.’… Now look at Jesus who came to reveal God to us, and you see that popularity in any form is the very thing he avoids. He is constantly pointing out that God reveals himself in secrecy.
Jesus does not say, “The greatest in the kingdom will be sought-out speakers, have the most social media followers, best-sellers, and packed out churches.” What does he say? “The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:11-12).
May we humble ourselves, seek his praise, and then let him exalt us however he chooses.