If you have spent any time at all in Western/Evangelical/Charismatic Christianity, you have heard things like these:
- God is big, you need to dream big.
- God has big dreams for you.
- Your faith needs to be big.
- You need to be a dream chaser.
- Your faith is too small.
- You are destined to be a world changer.
- Overcome your ministry limitations.
- Take your ministry to the “next level” . . . and so on.
American cultural values of success: size (numbers in attendance), finances, and fame (sff) –bigger is better–more is “God,” have spread through Western (American) popular Evangelicalism like a bad outbreak of athlete’s foot fungus in a men’s locker room.
How the Delusion Works
Christian media of all sorts perpetuates the delusion. Mega churches and their superstar pastors are held up as the ideal to be emulated by others. They are allegedly the model for success. How to grow your ministry (and other “how to” topics) seminars fill the Christian universe like tourists at Disneyworld.
- “See, these folks are doing it right!”
- “If you believe the right things and do the right things like they do, you can have the kind of success that they do also!”
- “Follow these ten simple, proven principles and you can build your ministry too!”
The assault from media combines with individual insecurity to create a psychological and spiritual pressure cooker environment. The staggeringly negative statistics regarding the inauthenticity, loneliness, and burnout of those committed to “professional ministry” is thoroughly and undeniably documented.[i] The pressure to seek identity validation and personal significance in Christian ministry is a pervasive and often subtle malady.
Over achievers think they are “doing it for Jesus,” when in reality, their ego and drive for significance is what is motivating them. How can you tell? By the absence of spiritual rest and depression in these folks when their “ministry” and their platform for expression, is for whatever reason, taken or removed from them. Jesus was happy being a nobody carpenter for 30 years. Those addicted to ministry for identity validation and significance needs can’t bear or imagine existence without “ministry” for three months, let alone thirty years.
Those more prone to introspection endure voices from within, and voices from without that speak into their souls:
- “You are really not doing anything significant.”
- “Look at you, if God was really with you, you would be great like so and so.”
- “Your lack of finances is proof that God is not with you.”
- “If you are so right, why don’t you have a big ministry?”[ii]
The fact is, the average size congregation in the United States is between 50-75 people. The “successful” mega-ministries are statistical outliers, the aberration from the norm, and they are not what they are cracked up to be.[iii]
The God of Success
The American cultural values of success (sff) are promoted every Sunday from pulpits across the land.
We sing: “Not by might, not by power,” but we operate with the might and power of money, size, and significance. We read: “Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have give I thee . . . but we operate under: “Silver and gold we must have, and the only way to have it, is to be successful.
In Judges 8:22-27, Gideon successfully defeated the Midianites on behalf of Israel. He refused their offer of kingship, but took the fruit of success, their gold earrings, (money, wealth, the fruit of victory) and made a golden ephod (breastplate/vest) of them, which then became an object of idolatrous worship for them. They worshiped the benefits of their success. The biblical language is strong: they prostituted themselves.
There is not a clearer metaphor for the prostitution of the American/Western church. We worship success and money. We make kings/celebrities out of the ones who lead us to success. We have worshiped the idol of success for so long that we have lost all spiritual abilities to recognize anything but our idolatry. Our idolatry has been normalized. Dare to call the golden calf of success what it is, and you will be accused of having a judgmental or critical spirit, or lacking faith, or just being envious of those who are successful. Preach the cross and you will be accused of promoting a theology for “losers.”
We have even reached the such a nadir of spiritual bankruptcy that there are “universities”[iv] that exist to teach you how to “market your church for success,” as if Jesus needed Madison Avenue marketing techniques to really get the job done.
The Cruciform Way[v]
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. – John 12:24, ESV.
Of course, God’s kingdom experiences increase. The question is: how it increases, with what measure the increase is measured, and whether our personal greatness is inevitably linked with the increase of His kingdom.
Jesus’s kingdom advances based on the principle of death and resurrection, not “how to make your ministry a success” seminars–PERIOD. His kingdom advance and your personal greatness are not related. His increase could result in your decrease. If you are not yet willing to be insignificant, you are not yet trustworthy for “ministry.” Your “destiny” might be to give away all your life’s energy and virtue, and never see a drop of fruit until after you are dead and gone. It was that way for our Master, and we are not above Him.
There is nothing remotely successful about dying alone on a cross, or forgotten and rotting in a prison, abandoned by all but a few of your friends. I am firmly convinced Jesus would not be welcome to speak at the annual “Realize Your Destiny” conference! The most profound message Jesus shared in his life, caused all but a handful of His followers to abandon Him (John 6). Numerical size is not directly correlated to spiritual significance or God’s endorsement or lack thereof.
What About Faith?[vi]
Some will say, “Well what about our faith? Aren’t we supposed to believe for great things for our selves and others?” It is a shock for many to discover that faith is not a utilitarian commodity that we leverage at will with a few proof texts to get God to do what we think He out to do for us. Biblical faith is not autosuggestion plus a Bible verse. Biblical faith is not a marketplace commodity of the metaphysical universe with which we charge our our ambitions on God’s account. Biblical faith is a relationship to be developed and maintained. Biblical faith is relational trust in a living, resurrected, God-Man in Glory. For believers, faith has a direction and object: Christ in resurrection. Biblical faith is not a free standing entity.
Some might say: “But brother, I don’t care what you say, I have tried it (faith for success) and it works.”
Naturally speaking, it is hard to argue with “success.” You can have worldly success if you want it. Madison Avenue marketing techniques work. Building a successful ministry is the easiest thing in the world to do. Follow these ten simple steps and you can quickly plant a successful church in your community!
- Find someone with a great smile, a warm, smooth and engaging personality, and a gift for motivational public speaking and make that person your pastor.
- Be sure that person is young and hip, dresses cool, and says cool and “edgy” things.
- Grant authority to the cool/hip pastor. Require absolute loyalty to the pastor and total commitment to the “leadership vision.”
- Use psychological deviant labeling techniques to marginalize anyone who dares to question the new hip pastor and the leadership vision. “Brand” and market your pastor.
- Preach a nominal, man-centered, gospel whose core message is: “If you just obey well enough, that not only are you guaranteed heaven, but God also guarantees you blessing, health, wealth, and prosperity. He wants to make you great in whatever you do, as long as you obey Him. Never mention suffering or loss for Christ.
- Scapegoat other people. Make those who are different than you your enemy, and claim that God is on your side against them. Wrap it in the flag of your country.
- Identify your market demographic and give the people what they want: nurseries for their children, youth group for their youth, latte bars for their habits, paved parking lots for their cars . . .
- Ask little, provide much: work the faithful 20% like dogs to meet the needs of the freeloading 80%.
- Threaten people with God’s curse if they don’t tithe, and with one hundred fold riches if they do. Fear and greed are great motivators.
- Have a top-notch worship band with state of the art sound, light, and technology. Provide a “hot worship experience” that feeds into psychic co-dependent narcissism, and call it “experiencing the presence of the Lord.”
Follow these steps, and I guarantee that phenomenal church growth will be yours and you will quickly build a successful ministry. Or you can take the cruciform way and follow in the footsteps of others:
- John the Baptist – lost his followers, jailed, and beheaded.
- Jesus – abandoned, rejected, and crucified.
- Paul – abandoned, rejected, alone, rotting in jail and executed.
All these and others who followed the cruciform way heard: “Well done, good and faithful servants,” not: “You really have impressed me with your successful ministries.” When we conflate cultural values of success with kingdom definition of values and success, we are in deep trouble. Smallness is not necessarily intrinsically holy, and largeness is not necessarily de facto success.
Indeed, faith works—no matter what kind of faith it is! Faith was sown into the fabric of the universe at creation. A person doesn’t have to be a believer to get faith to work. Just as gravity affects the believer and unbeliever alike, so faith works for anyone who exercises it. A farmer exercises faith when he plants a crop. An entrepreneur exercises faith when he invests in a product. Just because something gets “results” we like does not mean God is either in the matter or endorsing the matter.
Thomas Merton brilliantly articulates the problem:
“The theology of the devil is really not theology but magic. “Faith” in this theology is really not the acceptance of a God Who reveals Himself as mercy. It is a psychological, subjective “force” which applies a kind of violence to reality in order to change it according to one’s own whims. Faith is a kind of super-effective wishing: a mastery that comes from a special, mysteriously dynamic will power that is generated by “profound convictions.” By virtue of this wonderful energy one can exert a persuasive force even on God Himself and bend His will to one’s own will. By this astounding new dynamic soul force of faith (which any quack can develop in you for an appropriate remuneration) you can turn God into a means to your own ends. We become civilized medicine men, and God becomes our servant. Though He is terrible in His own right, He respects our sorcery, He allows Himself to be tamed by it. He will appreciate our dynamism, and will reward it with success in everything we attempt. We will become popular because we have “faith.” We will be rich because we have “faith.” All our national enemies will come and lay down their arms at our feet because we have “faith.” Business will boom all over the world, and we will be able to make money out of everything and everyone under the sun because of the charmed life we lead. We have faith.”
— Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
How should we then live?
We do the small things well today, and release into God’s hands the big things for tomorrow. He is LORD OF THE HARVEST. He determines:
- The nature of the harvest
- The size of the harvest
- The timing of the harvest
- Your involvement, or not, in the harvest
The harvest does not need to be manipulated nor marketed. Once the seed of our obedience is sown, it is not helped by constantly digging it up to see how it is doing. No. The seed lays buried, out of our control. Our part is to direct our faith toward God, not toward the seed. God is the object of our faith, not our faith. We content ourselves in relational trust (faith) toward the the Lord of the Harvest. Whether or not you are personally involved in some “great thing” or not, is irrelevant. God does not exist to provide you and I ego validation in ministry.
And Finally . . .
I had a friend (who passed away) who had over 40 years of ministry experience. He was the head of an international ministry network. He had buildings and properties. At different times he had airplanes. He was in demand around the world as a conference speaker. Thousands looked up to him as an “overseer,” “spiritual father” and “apostle,” with so-called, “spiritual sons” all over the world. He had a bona fide supernatural gift of faith. He was personally very financially well off. If there was a poster child for ministry success and “dreaming big,” he was it.
Just prior to his passing he confided in me the following (close to his exact words):
- Steve, I am not looking forward to the day when I have to look Jesus in the eye and justify how much of my ministry was _________ (His name), and how much of it was Jesus.
- Steve, I have been to the top of the ministry mountain. There is nothing there. People think I am a “spiritual father.” I am ready to die, and I have no sons, and no one really shares my heart.
You who are reading this blog now have an opportunity. You can come to your senses now, and jump off the merry-go-round of delusional American cultural success-based religion, or like my dear friend, come to your old age with regrets. You can have your success. Like Merton said, God will give it to you. But be warned, the monster you create will demand to be fed, and you will feed it with your soul, your marriage, your children, and your relationships with friends and loved ones.
Before it is too late, learn how to be a success. Learn how to dream small and follow the cruciform way.
[i] This is not the place to discuss the legitimacy or not of so called “professional ministry.” I and others have done so elsewhere. Please refer here.
[ii] I had a leader of a world-wide network of ministers (that later imploded, disintegrated in a first class disaster under his “apostleship,” say to me: “When you have a big ministry like I do, then I will listen to you.” I have privately, kindly and humbly appealed in written form to various Charismatic leaders through relational networking, and have been met with the same: “Who is he (me, SRC) to challenge me (the superstar leader) When he has a successful ministry like I do, he might be worth listening to.”
[iii] The Pareto Principle is sometimes better known as the 80-20 rule. Pareto discovered that in every area of collective human effort, including churches: only twenty percent of the group sustains the effort of the whole. The other eighty-percent are coasting— riding on the effort and resources of the other twenty-percent. A fascinating study done by Lifeway Research confirms this to the decimal point! After surveying 1,200 mega-churches, they found that within two years, eighty percent of those who had taken the membership classes were no longer present! Only twenty percent sustain the organization.
[iv] E.g., http://www.churchmarketinguniversity.com, but this is not the only one.
[v] Conformed to the cross, embracing the ethics, character, and methods demonstrated in the Cross of Christ.
[vi] Portions of this section of the blog are taken from Chapter Five of my book: Healing, Hope or Hype? available here. For a fuller treatment of the topic of “faith,” what it really is, and how it really works, please refer there.
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I’m struggling to get past your dot points at the very beginning of this post. It was certain people wanting to take my ex-church to “the next level” that precipitated it into years of leadership struggles, heartache and abuse. Those issues have never been resolved and the one who worshipped “success” is still there pulling the strings… 🙁
Alas, your situation is all too common.
Stephen, thank you for settling an unrelated but vital question with this post. Yes, true prophecy still exists in the post-apostolic era, and this is what it looks like.
If I understand your copyright byline correctly, I can post this in its entirety on my blog, as per the terms above?
Glad this piece helped. Thank you for the post, and the permissions request. Yes, as along as you keep the copyright byline paragraph in whatever you use, you have permission.