Mission is the opposite of self. That sounds simple and obvious, yet the sad truth is that we revert to non-mission—or self-centered mission—very simply and very obviously.
The ease with which we slide into self-centered mission means requires us to pay constant attention to be sure our ministries are focused on God's glory and mission. We must be diligent about centering mission around God—and ruthless about pushing ourselves out of the center and into orbit around him.
Ascribing our self-centered mission to God is deceptively easy because we are never not worshiping. Idolatry comes very easy to us. Exodus 32 records how quickly the Israelites asked for an idol after Moses' departure. John Calvin cautioned: "The human heart is a factory of idols. ... Every one of us is, from his mother's womb, expert in inventing idols." We are constantly creating things to worship instead of God.
Idolatry emerges at the intersection of sinful hearts and non-stop worship, Even we pastors struggle with it. The Exodus 32 passage pointedly reveals how quickly Aaron attached the worship of the golden calf to a festival for the Lord. We also are good at idolatry that looks like mission.
This devastating truth means idols can be anything. They aren't just connected to immorality or addictions or other "obvious" infidelities, but can be anything pastors may hold dear. Prestige, professionalism, the desire to be treated specially or separately—all these things can be idols.
One way Satan devastates the missional effectiveness of pastors and leaders is luring them into idolatry that looks like mission. That means we must identify the idols that tempt us, resist their pull on our hearts, and truly live the mission—to make it about God's glory and His agenda.
How do we lay our temptations and inclinations before God and lead the people God has given us into true mission? I'll share just one today and two next week.
Focus on God's glory and His agenda
Oftentimes we get so busy in the work of the Lord that we lose focus on the Lord of the work. Don't allow your other pastoral duties and inclinations, however important they may be, to distract you from the more important things of God's glory and His agenda.
We pastors too often consider ourselves—usually implicitly—to be religious professionals who can put on a show, rather than seeing ourselves as people transformed and sent on mission. I emphasize "implicitly" because most of us would deny we have relegated our ministry to shopkeeping showmanship; we don't think that way about ourselves. But if you stopped to evaluate where your time, treasures, and talents are directed, where would you find most of your ministry energy is spent?
This evaluation is crucial, no matter your ministry context. I have pastored among the urban poor, leading a church that didn't have much, and I worried about things that related to myself. I have pastored thousands in a megachurch, leading an organization with expansive budgets and prosperous programs, and I still worried about things that related to myself. Your surroundings and situations don't usually kill your selfishness. No matter where you are, you worry about "you" things.
One symptom of idolatry is worry. The prescription for that disorder is not a change in scenario but a change in self-regard.
In Isaiah 6:1-8, we read of the prophet's incredible encounter in the temple with the glory of God. Running headlong into the beautiful devastation of God's glory, Isaiah cries out, "Woe to me! I am ruined!"
The prophet responds to God's glory the way we should. May we all be self-ruined by God's glory! May we look over every place our self-interest has tarnished our ministry and distracted us from God's mission and cry, "Woe to me!" What follows for Isaiah is confession, repentance, and self-awareness—the same thing good Gospel conviction does to us. A pastor who sees himself as he really is, like the prodigal son, "comes to himself" (Luke 15:17).
At that point of Gospel self-awareness, seeing ourselves in the light of God's glory, we are spiritually prepared to forsake our agenda and embrace God's agenda. Right after Isaiah undergoes this Gospel devastation, he hears the voice of the Lord calling, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" Isaiah experience has prepared him to reply, "Here am I! Send me." Focused on the glory of God and radically tuned in to God's agenda, Isaiah immediately then takes the mission to the people.
What we pastors need most to lead our churches on God's mission is not more strategies, visions, and programs, although all those things are great and can be helpful. What we need, rather, first and foremost, is to encounter the living God.
Next week we'll look at two more ways we can lead God's people on His mission.