As a senior pastor, my career lends itself to perception challenges. When you are the primary communicator of the church’s vision and when you challenge its members to engage in ministry and spiritual transformation, many expect us to be near perfect if not completely perfect. If we cannot be judged by our personal perfection, we may be judged by how many attend our churches and what kind of people attend. We don’t want to fail because it will affect the numbers and sometimes we fall into the trap of feeling that if we can be perfect and attract a large crowd then we make church and God more impressive. We try to impress because if the senior pastor falters the entire organization could seemingly crumble to the ground.
Recently a bold leader, author, and Pastor, Perry Noble, resigned his position as senior minister of NewSpring Church in South Carolina. Although, Noble, addressed the idea of not presenting himself as perfect, “If you've attended NewSpring for any length of time, you know that I've never claimed to be the perfect pastor or even more, the perfect Christian…”, he goes on to say that he was trying to be too much for his church and their mission. (read the full article here) Impressing others can sometimes mask itself in ambition. Perry Noble and NewSpring Church were on an ambitious quest for 100,000 people to be reached for Jesus. “However in my obsession to do everything possible to reach 100,000 and beyond…” (same article as linked above.) This ambition could lead to a larger burden of being impressive. We want to impress the world so that they will come to know Christ. Bringing others to Jesus is a great pursuit, but sometimes the method becomes the madness.
What is so striking to me is that when you read scripture, especially the stories of Jesus you realize that following God is rather simple. Some of the complexity that we’ve created for following Jesus has been this idea that we must be people who are perfect or near perfect. We try to impress God with our perfection and impress others too. And what we tend to forget is that the moment we become impressive, we have diminished others’ view of God. When we try to cast a large shadow, we forget that God is the object of our worship and is the One we are to point others to, not ourselves.
The apostle John has a propensity to use rhetorical devices in his gospel that actually fall in line with Jesus, His teaching, and actions. In others words, John turns things on their head in the way that he reports the life of Christ. One of those stories comes in chapter 6 of John’s gospel. Jesus had just finished feeding five thousand with little food, walked on water, and then taught this massive crowd that was following out of intrigue and entertainment. Jesus gave a difficult teaching about his body and blood and how his life is the key to them having life. The crowd was in awe of the teacher who was able to put food in their bellies and could overcome laws of physics to walk on the waves, but when he messed with their religion that was it. Many of those disciples left Him. They turned away and never followed Him again. As the crowd was walking away from Jesus’ presence the 12 stand firm. Jesus knows what is about to happen and yet asks anyway, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” (John 6:66) The tension and awkwardness thick in the air, Peter chooses to respond, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69)
Too many times we measure success through numbers or even growth. There is something impressive about pruning. I have no doubt that Jesus wanted all of those disciples who left His company to believe deeply in Him and be a force for God’s kingdom. Jesus delivers the truth to all who will listen and what becomes impressive to God is when the twelve decide not to go with the crowd and decide to keep looking to Jesus for God and His holiness.
Call to Follow Jesus, not the Crowd
Disclaimer: I have nothing against church or following Jesus being entertaining and enjoyable.
The call for us as people who choose to be disciples of Jesus is for simple followship. We don’t follow Jesus because it is trendy, obligatory, or it meets our needs. We follow Jesus because we are called to respond to our Creator and Holy Father with our total life. We follow Jesus because he has the bread of life. We follow Jesus because he can walk on water. We follow Jesus because he can feed us all. We follow Jesus because we want to serve the kingdom. We follow Jesus because through Him God has and will set everything right.
My challenge this week is to take a spiritual inventory. Are you following Jesus because the worship is exciting? Are you following only because it speaks to your desire to serve? Are you following because it is what your family did and expects? Are you following because you’re trying to impress God enough to reach heaven? Spend some solitude time or even conversation with a trusted friend and search for why you want to follow Jesus and give your life to Him.
I would say that any and all of us lean to one of these above (or another reason I didn’t mention) more than other reasons. The challenge is to take inventory that will guide us in our mission and vision for our churches, personal discipleship, and/or calling. We are not called to be impressive to or with a crowd. We are called to follow when it feels good and when it doesn’t. We are impressive to God when we will simply follow and stay with Jesus…even when all else might leave.