Well, long time no blog. It’s been busy here. Busy doing what, exactly? Well, there’s the thing…
Every month we send out a newsletter to keep people informed as to what we’ve been doing. What’s really interesting for me is that even though we’ve deliberately chosen a way of planting church that attempts to eschew big events and meetings, when I’m writing a newsletter it’s the easiest thing in the world to look back in the calendar and dig out any events that we’ve been part of or things that we’ve put together. What we’re actually here to do is the slow, quiet and invisible work of making disciples, building relationships and pointing people to Christ but that doesn’t make very exciting copy. On the other hand, we ran a kite-flying festival for our local neighbour association the other day, 60 people came, that’s going in the newsletter! If we want to talk about what we’ve done, events and numbers are easy to cite as evidence of activity.
But events are the false god of missionary work. And yeah, that’s strong terminology but I’m going with it because I think there is something very seductive and very dangerous—at least for me, I’m speaking here about what pushes my particular egotistical buttons—about the idea that I can put on an event, lots of people come, and hey presto, my missionary work is worthwhile. I’m doing something, and better than that, I made it happen. People came to a thing I made.
Ruth Haley Barton writes about this temptation when she challenges leaders to enter into the discipline of solitude:
One of the reasons why solitude is so challenging for leaders is that the activities and experiences associated with leadership can be very addicting. The idea that I can do something about this, that or the other thing feeds something in us that is voracious in its appetite. That something is the ego or false self, which, over time, identifies itself and shores itself up with external accomplishments and achievements, roles and titles, power and prestige. Leadership roles, by their very nature, give a lot of fodder to the ego.
And so does putting on events.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with finding ways of gathering people together. Heck, we do it, although it’s a minor part of our work here. (What we try to do instead is save ourselves the work, find out where people are gathering already and go there.) But doing something big, something visible, something to write home about, has a certain subtle allure. And it can so easily become a false god.
Jesus was tempted by the Devil three times. In Luke’s telling of the story, the first time was subtle: fulfill your bodily needs. There’s nothing wrong with it, and nobody need know. Use your power to satisfy yourself. The second was direct: worship me. The third, more subtle again: let everyone know how great you are by doing something spectacular. That’s what you want to achieve, isn’t it? If you’re the Messiah, draw some attention to yourself! Gather everyone around you! Jesus went away from there and preached in a synagogue in a tiny town in a provincial backwater and even there, they threw him out. Hardly the best start to a career as Israel’s saviour.
I don’t know why, but Jesus’ way was the slow, quiet and invisible way; and he could legitimately point people to himself, whereas our job is not to point to ourselves but to him. How much more so must we be careful about wanting to do something impressive, to make something happen, to prove that our own work is worthwhile.