“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.