by Trevor DeVage
Almost three decades ago a mission trip with my high school youth group changed my life, but not in a way you might expect. It wasn’t the people we served or the work we accomplished that helped define my path. Instead, it was the words sung by a second-rate band at a cheesy “Christian nightclub” that I want to tell you about.
We were in Virginia Beach, maybe a dozen of us students, and in our free time we went exploring to see what we could find in the resort town. We happened upon this club where the band was singing about “the church of the do what you want, the church of the do what you please.”
The words struck me like a thunderbolt. And even though I was only 14 years old when I first heard them, I’ve never forgotten. In fact, that indictment of so much represented by Western church culture has colored my whole ministry and purpose in life.
I graduated from Bible college with an uncomplicated passion, simply to help lost people find Jesus. But I’ve come to see that bringing people to Jesus can get in the way of what some churchgoers want. It doesn’t please them to see hallways and auditoriums filled with people they don’t know, people who are different, people still a long way from getting their act together. Church for them has always been such a nice place, such a safe place, such a reliable place where they know what to expect, where they enjoy what they experience. So they don’t like it when things change to reach people who are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with what pleases them.
They would say church is all about Jesus, but, even though they don’t realize it, church has become about them. When church starts asking them to do what they don’t want, when church works to attract the outsider before satisfying their insider status, they rebel. They chose or stayed in this congregation because it did what they want. When that ends, they find another congregation that pleases them more.
There’s a word for the condition of a person who elevates self above ‘most everything else. It describes a quality all of us have experienced and demonstrated but too often don’t identify. It’s the sin we call pride.
Pride is dangerous and damaging, because it’s the seedbed in which all other sins grow.
It happens with Christian leaders. They accomplish some progress: their church gets larger, they’re asked to guest speak other places, they publish a book that becomes a popular success, and the leader doesn’t see how God and so many others helped make it possible. He begins to focus on his own accomplishments.
And so he takes pride in his notoriety. (“Everybody sees the value in what I’ve done.”) Notoriety gives power. (“Look what I can buy, where I can go, who will do what I ask.”) Power feeds pride. (“All the great things they’re saying about me evidently are true.”) Pride breeds a sense of invulnerability. (“I can do this; it’s always worked before. I can let down my guard; no one has to know.”) And a sense of invulnerability inevitably leads to a fall.
Sometimes a fall leads to humility, a brokenness that eventually allows the leader to lead again. But if pride won’t give way, the fallen leader becomes bitter and desperate and ineffective and sometimes even damaging.
It happens with church folks, too. They bully in leadership meetings. They email complaints to leaders’ inboxes. They gripe with other church members and find some who will agree with them. The focus is always on, “Here’s what I want,” usually more subtly stated, “Here’s what God wants.” However they say it, their thoughts grow from the seedbed of pride. (“I’m right! Why can’t you see that? What I want is what we should do. Why won’t you listen?”)
All those years ago, the kid hearing a band at a club in Virginia Beach knew “the church of the do what you want, the church of the do what you please” was not the church of Jesus who said, “I came not to be served, but to serve.”
But I realize our vision of Jesus can be clouded by a familiarity that remakes him in our own image. Maybe an excellent companion role model would be John the Baptist, a prophet called by God who gained quite a bit of notoriety in his own right. In fact, many who heard him wondered if he might be the Messiah God had promised. But John was confident of his own subordinate role in God’s plans. He pointed to Jesus and said, “He must become greater; I must become less.”
There’s a motto to cross-stitch on the pillows in our studies, to copy on posters and mount in our offices, to repeat in our prayer each time we stand to speak or leave home to serve. In all I do and say today, Jesus must become greater; I must become less.
Pride isn’t the only possible seedbed. The fertile ground of humility grows a church that God wants, a church that pleases Jesus. This is this soil I need to seek and develop.