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The False Gospel of Visionary Success

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“The whole problem is that churches don’t operate like businesses,” the businessman explained. “If they did, we’d all be a lot better off.”

I can’t remember what prompted this discussion, but I heard it a few times from this man and others. Pastors should look to business leaders for inspiration. Churches should adopt business practices. Churches should also teach their people how to do this so that they know how to really live well in this world.

It’s widespread. It’s the false gospel of visionary success. I hear it often, even from pulpits, and it’s robbing us of a better message that we need to believe.

The Lies We Believe

In This Is Our Time, Trevin Wax asks, “What if we are living according to the myths of our culture without even questioning them?” He helps expose some of the lies that we’re tempted to believe, and shows how the gospel tells a better story.

One of the lies we’re tempted to believe comes from business:

  • Set a vision for your life and your church, and if you’re a pastor, help your people do the same.
  • Become a great leader and overcome any obstacles that stand in the way of our success.
  • Learn from whoever you can in order to attain your goals, especially those who’ve achieved business success.

There’s some truth in these statements. Some ministries need a clearer vision. Some organizations need better leadership. And we can learn from anyone. But the problems with this approach are many.

These lies are more aligned with a North American vision of the good life than Scripture. They offer a vision of the good life that the writer of Ecclesiastes found empty. They assume we have more control than we actually do. They elevate one set of skills (visionary leadership) over skills and gifts, and elevate these skills over character. They put relentless pressure on pastors and individuals to succeed. They label some people who’ve succeeded in God’s eyes as failures. They give primary authority to business sources, pushing Scripture to the periphery. They pressure us to use Scriptural leaders — even Jesus — as illustrations of best and worst practices rather than characters in God’s ongoing story of redemption.

The false gospel of visionary success promises much but leaves us feeling pressured and empty if they don’t succeed, or even if they do.

A Better Message

Scripture presents a better message.

We are known, not for what we do, but we are known because we were made in the image of God. Those who are in Christ Jesus are loved on our worst day as well as on our best.

We’ve been given work to do, and we should do it well, but we do it all for the glory of God. Our work will be forgotten by everyone else sooner than we think, but it matters because it matters to God.

Life is unpredictable and hard. We will suffer more than we expect in this life. Many of us will labor and never be successful in the world’s eyes. But God’s evaluation is the only one that matters. God uses even the difficult things in our lives for our good and his glory.

The church isn’t a business. It’s Jesus’ bride, precious and loved by him. Jesus is the ultimate leader of the church, and his way is the way of servanthood and the cross. And he’s given us everything we need to know in his Word for how to live wisely in this world. We can learn from anyone and anything, but we can never find better wisdom than in the Scripture. Live and serve well, but look to Scripture for your models, not to the latest leadership book on Amazon.

And when everything’s said and done, what matters is that we fear God and keep his commandments, not that we’re well-known or succeeded in becoming visionary leaders.

The call on our lives is not to make much of ourselves, but to lose our lives so we can find them.

Let’s Preach and Believe a Better Gospel

This false gospel is an invasive species that seems to spread easily, so let’s be on guard.

Pastors: please never preach the false gospel of visionary leadership. Let’s make it clear that Scripture is our authority. Let’s lead as shepherds, not CEOs. Read business books if you want, but be mastered by the Word.

Let’s stop attending church conferences where Bibles are rarely opened and this false gospel is preached. And let’s help others spot this false gospel, and preach a better one. If your church has heard this message, then help them hear a better one.

Let’s stop believing this message in our personal lives and commit instead to believing the gospel of grace, and centering our lives around this message.

Life’s too short to believe or preach this false gospel. We have much better news, and we’ve been charged with guarding it and passing it on. Let’s not settle for substitutes.

This article about the false gospel of visionary success originally appeared here.