This week on his blog, my friend Josh Gagnon over at Next Level Church in Dover has been doing a series on the dangers of idolatry in Christian ministry. Thus far, he has hit on three major areas where pastors and Christian leaders can slip into a subtle idolatry.
PART 1: Focusing on the visual impression rather than spiritual brokenness before Jesus
PART 2: Being consumed with how many people come rather than how many lives are changed
PART 3: Trying to trick God into blessing what we’re doing (the tool) rather than seek God first.
Josh’s thoughts are simple, straightforward and definitely worth a think. In fact, I believe every pastor and Christian leader in our current ministry environment needs to ask the questions he is asking.
You can check out his most recent post on youtube:
Some of Josh’s thoughts really resonate with me because I went through a similar exchange of ideas. Those of you who worship with us at Heritage know that we emerged with a different kind of ministry there than Josh and the guys are pursuing at NLC. We’re more stripped down and raw without a lot of the visual elements a lot of churches use – not because those things are wrong. In fact, we think they’re awesome. But in order to keep our focus (at Heritage) on Jesus, we needed to “do without” for awhile because we risked slipping into this subtle idolatry.
I call it a subtle idolatry because it is often an idolatry with the name of GOD or JESUS plastered over it. It is subtle because it is not idolatry in the sense of worshiping an image of another god but of giving God’s name to an image of your own making. It is a subtle mingling of worshiping the true God and satisfying our own needs – whether they are for security or fame or affirmation.
Don’t Fall for the Ole’ Golden Calf Switch
This is the same form of idolatry that Israel’s children engaged in at the foot of Mount Sinai. As soon as Moses was out of sight, they were wondering, “We don’t know what has become of him.” [Exodus 32:1] They had Aaron build a golden calf for them. And why? Because they needed the security of a god they could see.
Don’t miss that. They needed the security of a god they could see. Who was their god up until that point? It wasn’t YHWH; it was Moses. They were following Moses, not Moses’ god. If ever there was a warning to Christian leaders, that’s it. No matter how much credit you give to God, expect people to worship YOU, your wizz-bang, your personality. They will adore you when things are going great (and abandon you as soon as your out of sight).
But what is most fascinating about this whole thing is what Aaron does. Aaron builds their golden calf and then says to them, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt!” Watch his next statement though, “Tomorrow shall be a fear to YHWH!” [Exodus 32:4-5]
(Just as a side note, Aaron built that golden calf with their offerings. You can have financial liquidity and still be practicing subtle idolatry. People are quicker to give to a cause that benefits them than they are to the cause of Christ. Ok, digression done.)
The Weight of Leadership
Most of us are pretty familiar with the story. YHWH tells Moses to go down to the people and leave him alone because YHWH is going to kill the “stiff-necked” people. Moses pleads for them; YHWH shows some leniency and Moses heads down to fix the problem.
Moses shows up, breaks the tablets of that contain the ASHARETH DABARIM (Ten Commandments, literally “the ten words”), kills the rebels and the people move on. This is essentially how it went down, but there’s something that leaders need to read in this as well.
Watch what YHWH says to Moses, “Go down, for your people, who you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly out of the that I commanded them.” [Genesis 32:7, italics mine]
Did all of your leaders out there catch what YHWH said? Despite the fact that the Israelites were violating YHWH’s commands, they were still Moses’ people. Moses was still responsible for his congregation’s failings. Their mistakes weren’t his fault, but it was his job to correct it because he was the shepherd.
It is easy for us to get sucked into the mentality of doing what we think we should do, keeping ourselves true to Jesus and when people start worshiping the idol they call “church”, we think to ourselves, “Well, we didn’t do that. It’s their own damn fault.” If Moses had thought that way, Israel would have been wiped out in the wilderness – a footnote in history.
Our Potential Golden Calves
Josh’s final post – the video one – really gets to the core of this issue. The modern church growth movement has fed (unintentionally, I think) a mentality that says: whatever works is God’s thing. This simply is not true.
The church of Jesus Christ is founded on the teachings of the apostles – initially a bunch of Galileans screwups who became Jesus’ screwups and eventually submitted to his authority and changed the world. They learned from Jesus how to step into a culture but remain Jesus’ servants.
What are our potential golden calves in our church?
Well, the church (little c) for one. When we worship they way we do it and compare it to how everybody else does it, then we begin to worship our particular manifestation of the kingdom and lose sight of the whole deal.
I’d never do things the way Josh does them. Josh would never do things the way we do them. And neither of us would do things the ways our friends Steve, Rob, or Anthony would do them. More than that, we shouldn’t; and we should not be envious of what God is doing through them. (Josh throws a subtle barb at those kinds of comparisons, calling them “peeing contests” which they are!)
When we (leaders and congregation) see our churches (again, little c) as part of something much bigger, something God-sized we minimize the risk of idolizing our own little manifestations.
Another golden calf? Our wizz-bang. This is my little anachronistic onomatopeia for everything “cool” we do in church, and that’s whether it was cool in 2009, 1959, 1429 or 309. It is easy to worship the visual appearances, the appropriateness of our worship gatherings. It is easy to become divas because we believe that if everything is just right, God will show up. If we’re not careful, we worship the ritual rather than the Lord.
Here are some other golden calves: preaching styles, other preachers, our families, education (or the semblance of such), social causes. The list just goes on an on. I mean, some of us have even made idols out of not making idols. The golden calf does not have to be an actual object. In fact, those are the least prevalent idols in our culture.
I loved Josh’s conclusions. But I’m not going to give them to you. If you want to know where he went with his thoughts, you’ll have to listen yourself.