Monday, August 4, 2014

Fire your inner lawyer - Justification through ministry success

This is my first reflection on day 1 of Oxygen Christian Leader's Conference but it also serves to continue the thoughts I have been sharing in the Functional Justification series.  In my quest to unpack common ways we seek to justify our existence apart from the gracious work of God in Jesus I have cited justification by manliness and justification by BuzzFeed as two sources of self-justification.  But today I was struck between the eyes by the source of justification I personally default to far too often...

I attended Paul Tripp's sessions on leadership where one of the prevailing themes was the trap we who are in public ministry face of seeking to find our identity (or justify our existence) through the success of our ministry.  As much as it pains us pastors to admit most of us are incredibly sensitive to the critiques and criticisms of those we minister to.  Being told your sermon missed the mark, hearing that someone left the church because of something you said or having our passionate vision for the church shot down stings and tears shreds off our pride.  Simply being a pastor doesn't make me any more impervious to the painful criticism of my work... in fact the personal and incredibly urgent nature of the job probably makes me more sensitive to it.

And I think there is something of a perfect storm of destruction brewing in the broader evangelical scene at the moment which is making many victims of its devastating power.  Firstly the growing number of younger Gen Y people like me moving into pastoral ministry brings with it our Gen Y optimistic entitlement.  We are part of the generation who legitimately think that we should be the leading lights in our chosen field before we are 30.  And secondly we are daily confronted with the celebrity pastors who did just that and are now highly influential and powerful people in the evangelical world.  And they don't even have to be worldwide celebrities, they could just be that young up and coming preacher who seems to have the charmed ride up the church ranks in your local context and is far more gifted and influential than you are.  This perfect storm of optimistic entitlement and unrealistic examples presses down a heavy burden on the necks of young pastors as we feel in ourselves that we should be far more influential and successful than we actually are.

The reality is that when our source of justification is ministry success we will do anything we can to build a culture of success around us:
  • We surround ourselves with people that stroke our egos making sure we talk to them after church and avoid those who might be critical
  • We prepare sermons that target groups in the church we long to impress because of the doors they might be able to open for us
  • We constantly repeat stories of wins in ministry to remind ourselves that we are on top of our game
  • We inflate our statistics, exaggerate our victories and sweep negative results under the carpet
  • We look for ways of magnifying our 'brand' and getting our name out there
But Tripp's sessions broke through our futile attempts to grasp for significance and identity in the success of our ministry.  He reminded us that sin is deceitful and it's greatest target is me because there is no deception worse than self-deception.  And so he called us to look past the positive success-heavy image of ourselves that we have created by "firing our inner lawyer".  By this he meant ridding ourselves of the need to present a case in our own favour in order justify our existence based on our ministry success.

For Tripp the only way we can truly be free of this self-justification was to remember the simple truth of the gospel and preach it to ourselves.  To sit at the feet of Jesus and gaze on the sheer beauty of God and bask in the wonder that my life has been invaded by this God of beauty and that His grace has let me share in Him. To remind myself that I have already received identity and significance vertically from God so I don't need to seek it horizontally from others.

Only when we are prepared to be confronted with the ugliness of the self-justifying lawyer who lives in our hearts will we be broken to the point of letting go of our desperate desire for success.  Tripp says we need to let God make our self-justification seem like "vomit in our mouths" so that we know not to go there again.
  • Yes this may mean listening to some of those critiques and being humble enough to learn from them
  • Yes this may mean surrendering the idol of being known as influential and successful
  • Yes this may mean no one will ever want to podcast your sermons, give you a book deal or preaching gig
But you will only ever have the fortitude and character to face the unpredictability of ministry if your identity is based on the reality of who God is and what He has done for you... rather than who you think you are and what you think you have done for Him.

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