Mission is good, not ultimate.
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, it’s all about evangelism–getting believers to share their faith, give to overseas missions, and grow the church. For many younger evangelicals, it may focus on 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 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 preceded his work for him.
Few passages 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. There 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 not 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 immorality. 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 simply 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.
Skye Jethani is the senior editor of Leadership Journal and the author of With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God (Nelson, 2011). For more about Skye and his upcoming book With, please visit his blog, http://www.skyejethani.com.
 Gordon MacDonald, “Dangers of Missionalism,” Leadership Journal, Winter 2007.
 Phil Vischer, Me, Myself, and Bob, Thomas Nelson, 2007, p. 238.
 Ibid, 237.
 Gordon MacDonald, “Dangers of Missionalism,” Leadership Journal, Winter 2007.