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Breaking the Bondage of Success

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October 4th, 2009

One of the great themes in the life of a believer is that of freedom.

We often talk about being delivered from the bondage of sin. For many Christians, that translates into overcoming some habitual sinful pattern. Our minds conjure up all types of evils, addictions, and sordid behaviors. This bondage that we picture is dark and suffocating. We see ourselves chained and shackled on a dungeon rack being tortured by satanic henchmen. We understand the struggle against these forces and we rush to rest in the salvation that Christ so freely provides. After all, we all know that Christ has made us free. Indeed.

But what if bondage isn’t such a dark picture? What if it’s attractive and bright? What if the picture wasn’t a dungeon but rather a church? What if the chains weren’t sinful addictions but rather things we value and even believe are spiritual? That would be insidious. It would be so easy to take our eyes off Jesus and fix them on the contribution we make to the Kingdom. This type of bondage is strong, deceptive, and deadly.

Have you ever heard any church boldly declare that they are numbers-driven? Of course not. No youth pastor, senior pastor, or church elder has ever said to me, “Our church is all about numbers; we’re a program-driven church because that’s what packs ’em in.” Funny, nobody admits to being numbers-driven, but I see countless churches and people in ministry who measure their success by “how many,” and they deceptively cloak that phrase in the garment of “growth.” I’ve spoken to many youth pastors whose egos are inflated because X-amount of kids responded, came to an event, or were ministered to. I’ve also spoken to many youth pastors who live in defeat, thinking that something’s wrong with them because they can’t get the numbers. Either way, the bondage is the same. It’s rooted in a basic issue of performance.

Not too long ago I was talking to a friend who’s been a youth pastor for many years. He told me that he was feeling defeated and tired of ministry. It seemed that every time he stepped to the plate he was expected to hit a home run. While the church would never admit to putting that kind of pressure on him, he still felt that it did. But he also admitted that he put that pressure on himself because he thought it was pleasing to God. As I listened to him, I couldn’t help but think that the trajectory was off just a bit. Now, if a trajectory gets off a slight degree, it increasingly becomes greater with momentum. It became clear to me that if we’re slightly deceived, maybe even thinking that our ideas and priorities are God-centered, we can eventually go so far off course that we become immobilized. I’d call that bondage. By doing this the soul of the minister is bound with the chains of performance, prestige, and power, or the lack thereof. Either way, bondage is bondage.

As a new, ongoing attempt to assist youth pastors with their personal soul survival, YOUTHWORKER is initiating this regular column focusing on the personal issues, as well as the restoration, revival, and refreshment, of a youth worker’s soul. Renovatus, the Latin word meaning the process of restoration or rebuilding, is the root of the word renovate. Renovation is refreshing and freeing. So let’s take a gut check and make sure our trajectory isn’t off. After all, we all need renovation from the bondage of performance.

Reframe Your Ideas about Success in Ministry

The evangelical community has elevated the Great Commission to the primary issue of Christian living and action. While disciple making is important, should it really be the bottom line?

Jesus is approached by a man who wants to know the bottom line. Jesus’ response to him is, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.” (Matthew 22:37-38) We see in Jesus’ response that our primary priority is to love God with the very core of our being. The second priority grows out of our love for God and that is to love our neighbors. Jesus goes on to say that the whole of Scripture can be encapsulated in those commands (v.40). The Great Commission, then, becomes the by-product of the Great Commandment.

We need to let God reframe our thinking on this. We mark our ministries as “Great Commission ministries” when they should really be “Great Commandment ministries.” Our time and energies should be poured into developing a deeper love relationship with God. But often this is dwarfed by the great work that we are trying to do for God. Love, not growth, must be the measure of success in ministry. Issues of performance, power, politics, and position would be eliminated if church leaders made the Great Commandment the measure of success.

Refocus on the Source of Success

As people who minister, we believe that we’re really making a contribution to the Kingdom of God. We’d never say that kids are coming to know Christ because of us—but we believe it. We wouldn’t verbalize that God “needs us” to enhance the Kingdom’s work in the world. Rather we say that God is “using us,” while we talk about “our” ministries and how “we” are kingdom builders. Something’s wrong with that picture.

Jesus warns us that there are going to be many who’ll stand before him and list their great accomplishments. “Lord, I led hundreds of kids to you…our youth group is 10 million strong and growing…700 kids came…40 students recommitted…15 kids started relationships with you…our ministry doubled in two years…I even cast out demons in your name.” We may be surprised to find out that we did a lot of things in God’s name, yet hear him say, “Depart from me. I never knew you.”

Both the Old and New Testaments give us proper focus. We’re right when we say that God’s using us to accomplish great work in the world. But we don’t realize that we don’t know what God’s trying to accomplish. Because of this, we focus on the results and not on God—the God who’s taking us on a great ride as part of something exciting.

Take Jeremiah, for example. God uses him to proclaim the most exciting and profound message of the coming Messiah. Jeremiah never saw a convert. Forty years of ministry with no visible, tangible results. It’s no wonder he was the weeping prophet. Jeremiah needed a good church growth strategy, or a better way to mobilize Israel’s leadership, or maybe a more effective small group ministry, right? No! God’s holy purpose was accomplished, and Jeremiah went along for the ride. The results weren’t made evident until years after Jeremiah’s ministry.

God doesn’t need us to accomplish anything. Psalm 127:2 reminds us that God builds and protects. The psalmist writes that “it is vain to rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil.” God is building the kingdom, and God often does that despite our best efforts. Jesus also reminds us that he will build his church (Matthew 16:17-19). We can experience incredible freedom when we focus on the builder instead of the work. There isn’t much that we can do to enhance what God is doing, and there isn’t much that we can do to mess it up, either. God is in total control of the results. Oh, sweet freedom!

Rely on a God Who Controls Results

Ministry in the 21st century has become an art and a science. We’re inundated with books and material on everything from leadership and management to church-growth strategies. While these can be very helpful, they’ve played a significant role in brainwashing and egoinflating the clergy of the Western Church and making us dependent on our own abilities. At no time in the history of the Church has her leadership been more competent in ministry, and that’s a huge problem. We’re conditioned to trust our abilities, not God, for results. We always need to hit the home run or we’re off the team.

I’ve had the privilege of serving as one of the convention pastors for the National Youth Workers Convention for many years. Every year I sit and talk to wounded, defeated men and women who feel like they’re incompetent because they can’t build a large youth ministry. Many times I hear that their churches demand this of them. One youth pastor told me that his church even expected him to build the youth ministry to a certain size by a certain date or he would be fired.

We’ve conditioned the church to trust in our competence, too. It’s a vicious circle. We rely on our abilities, and so does the congregation we serve. We expect results because we know our stuff, and they expect the same. When we hit the home run, we bring Christ along in the glory but we train others in this strategy that made ministry work. We perpetuate trust in our own strengths.

Jesus isn’t glorified by this. Paul reminds us that when we’re weak, the strength of God can be seen in us. Our limitations reveal the unlimited God to the people with whom we come in contact. God must increase and we must decrease. This is freedom.

The way that we see success in ministry can hold us in bondage. It can lead us to defeat and despair. It can usher us on ego trips that can set us up for great falls. Check and see if the trajectory is off in your ministry. Allow Christ to reframe your ideas, refocus your vision on the source of success, and help you to rely on him. You’ll experience the unparalleled freedom from the bondage of your success.

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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.

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