Home Outreach Leaders Articles for Outreach & Missions Skye Jethani: Has Mission Become Our Idol?

Skye Jethani: Has Mission Become Our Idol?

When meeting with or counseling a struggling church leader, one of the questions I’ll ask to diagnose whether missionalism is present is: “Assuming you’re not engaged in some kind of disqualifying sin, why not?” The answer I often hear, the answer most posters 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!”[2]

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.”[3]

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?”[4] This leader is not alone. Studies show that approximately 1,500 pastors leave the ministry every month due to conflict, burnout, or moral failure.[5] Others have shown how ministry rooted 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!