The Age of Ambition Our focus on reaching more people could take our attention away from those God has placed in our midst. Chris Nye | posted September 19, 2015
This past spring, in Leadership Journal, pastor-of-pastors and writer Eugene Peterson was asked what concerns him most about the current state of the pastoral vocation. If I could be so bold as to summarize his response in one word it would be “ambition.”
His distress over the concept of ambition amongst pastors seems to be connected with it as a priority. "I'm alarmed that we measure things by what the world counts as important," he said. One can imagine the "things" Peterson speaks of: numbers, money, influence, sex appeal, and power, just to name a few.
The evangelical landscape is marred with scars of our ambition: burned out ministers, adulterous pastors, isolated leaders, and the collapsing of organizations that got out of hand by over-reaching.
We are guilty of this sin, for sure. The evangelical landscape is marred with scars of our ambition: burned out ministers, adulterous pastors, isolated leaders, and the collapsing of organizations that got out of hand by over-reaching. At least some of these problems find their roots with what Peterson called ambition.
Ambition for all
The problem of ambition is not a problem the church started; it is a result of our sinful nature. Ambition, unfortunately, is everywhere. Most recently, Pope Francis wrote about this issue in his remarkable paper on the environmental crisis,Laudato Si': On Care for Our Common Home, an essay-of-sorts which Bill McKibben called "one of the most influential documents of recent times."
Francis' document is as spiritual and moral as it is economic and social—and just as prophetic as it is practical. In its beginning, however, Francis points to our problem of ambition as a species saying, ""Human beings … no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational." To Francis, it has become "easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers, and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth's goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit."
Grow. Grow. Grow. More growth. There is no such thing as "too big" in American society, and our churches have followed suit.
Our beautiful motives
I've been thinking about the Southern Baptist Convention's desire to grow their missionary field—to put a "limitless" number of missionaries on the ground, expanding their troupe from 4,200 to 6,000. But then lately news broke that the IMB (the SBC's missionary arm) has overspent by $210 million and will probably cut 800 missionaries this year.
Or what about the saga of Mars Hill Church in Seattle? With growth goals and benchmarks—numbers to catalogue every person who went through every stage of church involvement—Mars Hill always wanted to grow and even embellished numbers at times to show the congregation and the world just how many people they were reaching for Jesus. More, more, more!
What great ambition, maybe even great motives! But what happens when, despite all of your efforts and charismatic leadership, you aren't the person to bring the entire world to Jesus? What if you're not the organization to add another 100 missionaries to the world or another 1,000 congregants to your church?
Success and stewardship
When I first felt called to ministry, I was just 18 and decided to start a simple Bible study in my mom's living room. In my excitement and ambition, I invited 65 people to attend. Five people showed up. But, that little Bible study ended up growing a ton. I ended up reaching more than 100 people in just one summer.
Because this was my first experience in ministry, I thought this was how it worked. And so, after I left that Bible study community for my first year of college, I came back for the next summer, rolled up my sleeves, started another Bible study, and waited for it to grow. For this year, my church even supported me; I joined part-time staff, and received announcements from the stage in front of a large crowd.
The Bible study dwindled, and within months I found myself sitting in a circle with just a couple of people reading Genesis.
Needless to say, I was discouraged. I felt like I’d done something wrong. How come this isn't working like before? And how come this thing isn't growing? I found myself asking God about it, wondering why he didn't want thousands of people to hear his word? Hello, I thought, I'm here doing your work and preaching your Word, why would you not grow this thing?
The minute I put my eye on making it bigger, I took my eye off of the people God had given me to care for right then. I look back on this time with some regret, realizing I spent a lot of time grieving over the people who were not there and therefore forgetting about the wonderful people who were.
There are times in our ministries where we need to scale back, where we need a reality check of where we are and what we're doing, assessing the thing God has graced us with and make sure we're handing it well. It reminds me of something Randy Alcorn wrote: "Stewardship is not a part of the Christian life, stewardship is the Christian life." In ministry, we are called to care for people, particularly the poor, and to show them the pathway of Christ. This is our call, to love our neighbors and make disciples. As we do this and our people respond, the world will be reached by those God calls.
In our tradition, as evangelicals, our name includes a kind of ambition. But we must steward this as well; we have to keep it in check. As my church continues to grow, my leadership team often talks about staying humble in this season. God does not owe us continual, dramatic growth. We could level off any time, and we cannot let our ambition to reach those outside to take away from those already on the inside.
God does not owe us another budget increase or a few hundred more congregants. In the age of the mega church, I understand how many of us can feel as if God is not blessing us if our churches aren't growing dramatically. But we must learn to love those right in front of us, and if those who are right in front of us begin growing and multiplying because of our team's faithfulness, we receive them with humble joy, realizing we are getting what we do not deserve and have not earned. Every new member, missionary, or staff person is a gift from God to us. We must simply steward what he has given.
Chris Nye is a pastor and writer living in Portland, Oregon with his wife, Ali. His first book will be published by Moody next spring. Connect on twitter: @chrisnye