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Jesus is Better Than Kingdom Building

One of my favorite quotes comes from Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, who was a catalyst for the 100-year long Moravian prayer movement. It’s reported he said, “Preach the gospel, die, and be forgotten.” However, that’s only half true. I mean, I want it to be one of my favorite quotes, at least the principle behind it: embracing the obscurity of my vocation—which in my case, is pastoral ministry—and being content with my name not being recognized, except by the people I shepherd. What if I never write a book or even another article? What if I never get to speak at a conference or have the type of “ministry success” that seminary students only dream of? I come back repeatedly to these questions as I continue to battle this one nagging temptation: I want my name to be great.

Feeding the Monster

As a seminary student, the battle is often subtle. However, between the several thousand pages of reading and the many writing assignments, not to mention conversations with those clearly more brilliant, reflective, and academically gifted than myself, there’s a dullness that builds, a frustration if you will. Instead of seeking to celebrate how these fellow brothers and sisters of mine are truly gifts to God’s church, I find a discontented soul.

I find myself asking God, “Why do they have that much influence? Why can’t I do things like that? After all, I’m more educated than they are and more thoughtful than they are.” However, the opposite is true as well, which can be even more paralyzing: “Why am I not as smart as them? Why do the original languages have to be so hard for me? Why can’t they come naturally? Man, I can’t look stupid in front of them. I want them to approve of me and think I have something to offer to the conversation.” It haunts me. In fact, just like all idolatry (at least, at some point), it’s debilitating. Too often, I let my heart drift away from the reality of the gospel in my life and I seek to find contentment and identity in other places, building my own kingdom one lie and unmet expectation at a time.

As a millennial, I am often burdened by the implied expectations (or perceived expectations) that much of this radical, go-go-go, social justice-y, don’t slow down until you’re dead, type of Christianity that seems to be so common with Christians my age. Because I see what other Christians my age are doing, how much influence God has given them, I often try to one-up them, overcommitting myself, neglecting rest, and feeling guilty when I have to say, “No.” I’ve become perpetually exhausted and overworked. I put too much on my plate because I don’t want to disappoint anyone. The most ludicrous thing about seeking to make my name great is trying to please people I don’t see on a regular basis. It’s as if I am trying to please the idea of that person. I’m paralyzed by an abstract, hypothetical person. I can’t really please what isn’t really real, yet I try often.

It is these temptations, fears, insecurities, and atmosphere that many current ministry leaders, seminary students, and future pastors and church planters find themselves in. With all the gospel-centered, missional living talk, we can easily go from trying to proclaim the gospel in a culturally sensitive and relevant way to trying to build an empire, complete with full-blown PR campaigns and speaking engagements. We may even launch a new website or two. None of this alone is bad, of course. I have seen these used well and I have seen these go terribly, terribly wrong. Nonetheless, it should give us pause as we are about to tweet that pithy theological reflection, sign that book contract, build that blog, or speak at that big event to ask ourselves the pointed question, “If Jesus was not glorified and I got all the credit for this, would I be okay with that? Is this platform about the gospel or about me?” That’s a painful question to ask because if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll find many messy things in our hearts, stuff we would rather leave alone. We’ll come across mixed motives and unchecked pride. We may find a love for theological systems or projects rather than people. We may discover that all our efforts are spent in building and maintaining a platform, a name, which seeks to make much of us—but belittles Christ. This kind of honesty, it hurts. It’s painful, but it’s good. It’s good because the more we admit our brokenness, the more we admit we don’t have it together, that we have limits, that we truly are human and that means something, we will be able to more confidently proclaim the joy of the Christian life—Jesus is better.

Free Delight Forever

In Jesus, we are free. In fact, the greatest truth we can ever experience as believers is that of our union with Christ. As ministry leaders, we must daily come back to this well and drink deeply from it. We must not neglect to see this truth deeply hidden in our hearts and change the way we “live humanly in Jesus.”1 In other words, we must cease to depersonalize the cross and understand what it means to be “in Christ.” As Marcus Peter Johnson writes, “Christ is our salvation and that we are the recipients of his saving work precisely and only because we are recipients of the living Christ. Our union with the living Christ is, in other words, what it means to be saved.”2 This is the greatest news in the world and between all the blogs, sermons, office work, hospital visits, and dying saints, our weary hearts must come back to this repeatedly. Christ is our salvation. Christ is our salvation.3 Let it echo.

Otherwise, the daily “long obedience in the same direction” will become less important to us because platforms seem to offer more excitement than what we’re living. Deep down, we would rather be remembered than remain faithful. It’s a bad trade. Don’t fall for it. As we become experientially aware of our union with Christ as we are cognitively aware, we begin to live less and less for platforms and people-pleasing. We recognize that while being made in God’s image, we possess dignity and value, that reality never trumps the preciousness and worth of Jesus Christ. It gives us perspective and helps us to live rightly and serve in our ministries in a health, sustainable way. We can be content with being finite and having limitations, knowing fully that we have Christ, “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27).

In God’s grace, he may give some of us platforms for which to speak from, names for which people will know us, and ministries that will outlast us. These are good gifts from the Father and we can accept them as such. However, we must never seek the gifts themselves and ignore the Giver. Jesus is better than our names being great and that may mean we will simply “preach the gospel, die, and be forgotten.”

1. This phrase comes from Zac Eswine’s excellent book Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry as a Human Being (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2012).

2. Marcus Peter Johnson, One With Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2013), 18.

3. Johnson rightly recognizes that within the Pauline and Johannine corpus, there are a plethora of verses that describe the believers union with Christ in such terms as “possessors of eternal life in Christ” (Rom. 6:23), “created in Christ” (Eph. 2:10), “crucified with him” (Gal. 2:20), “buried with him and baptized into him and his death” (Col. 2:12; Rom. 6:3), “united with him in his resurrection and seated with him in the heavenly places” (Rom. 6:5; Eph. 2:6), among others. See Ibid., 19-20.

Chris Crane serves as High School Small Group Leader at Lake Highlands Baptist Church in Dallas, TX. He holds a B.A. in Biblical Studies from Dallas Baptist University and is currently pursuing a Th.M. at Dallas Seminary. He has previously written for Gospel-Centered Discipleship, as well as The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Occasionally, he writes at chriscrane.net. You can follow him on Twitter: @cmcrane87