Caught in a current. It happens so suddenly. You are swimming along just fine. Body wrapped in the coolness of the sea. Rolling with some waves and diving under others.
Floating, swimming, surfing. Enjoying the light flavor of saltwater on the lips. Just you and the vast ocean. Adventure. Peace. Place. It hits you.
The towels, umbrellas, kids running around on the shore all look small, too small. The shore is a ways off. Much further than what you feel comfortable with.
Your eyes scan the shore to find your lifeguard tower, chair or something familiar and realize you have not just drifted far out but far away from where you started.
You drop under the water to touch your toes to the ground and gauge the depth.
Your feet reach and flail desperately as you sink but they are nowhere near touching the ground.
You start to swim in.
Try to ride the next wave and get some momentum towards the shore.
In the back of your mind you know it is too late.
All the warning signs start flashing through your mind.
The flags on shore cautioning of a strong current that you brushed off.
The way the waves were crashing against each other at angles instead of rolling in on smooth lines.
You feel stupid for ignoring all the warnings but hold on to denial for a bit longer as you dive under and swim a bit harder and faster to shore.
The waves are rougher now.
Your body senses your weakness; you feel your fatigue. How long have I been out here?
The salt on the lips reminds you of your thirst. When did I last drink fresh water?
The harder you swim to shore the more violently the current sucks you out to sea.
Rip tide. You are caught in a current.
You feel helpless, scared, small and can’t help but fear the worst.
Why did I go out this far? Why didn’t I pay more attention to the warnings?
I was just going for a short swim. I was having so much fun.
What was I thinking? What am I going to do now?
Caught in the Current
American Christianity is caught in a current. And pastors are leading the charge. This current seems harmless and the drift happens in small doses, but it is deadly nonetheless.
It is a current that commodifies Christianity. A current that packages, markets, and sells discipleship. A current that finds its way through the lure of performance, approval and comparison. A rip tide of celebrity pastors, conferences, twitter, blogs, promotion, numbers, always numbers.
It starts with a warped view of success. A plundering of other whys. Why do we do what we do? This view of success gets hijacked to be the same why of Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and Wall Street. The same strategies used to make it in a dog-eat-dog world are the same strategies used to make it in the church world.
Performance. Approval. Comparison. Numbers.
Churches don’t have meaningful partnerships or friendships and certainly would never sacrifice for the other church in their neighborhood. It is never stated, but we are both swimming along in the same current and looking out for number one. Striving for the same view of success to be bigger, better, and more known and the truth is there isn’t room for both of us.
Western Christianity is caught in the current. We are drowning. Some are swimming to shore, some are loving it, but more should cry out for help.
Help us God. We are drowning!
Pastor, are you caught in the current? Is your church?
We didn’t start out this way. We fell in love with Jesus. We fell in love with his Word. We felt his presence. We hungered for others to taste and see the goodness of this true, life-giving, world shattering reality of the gospel. We wanted more time with Jesus and for others to meet and know and follow Jesus!
We never thought it would go this far. We just wanted to dip a toe in the water. We saw the warnings, but thought it couldn’t happen to us. We couldn’t get caught in this current. We saw the danger from afar but up close it didn’t look so dangerous.
Surely, this small compromise is worth the growth. Certainly, the lead pastor needs to be shielded a bit from the people to focus on “vision.” It’s ok to build my platform, it’s for Jesus, right?
I need to be known, so I can make him known. If we got bigger, we could have more influence. If we could just get to that church size, or get that band, or that building then we could really do God’s work.
You’re swimming along and everything seems fine until you realize how far you are from shore. Your relationship with Jesus is strained. Your prayer life is dry. You are only available to your celebrity Christian posse on social media. You feel lonely in the church, lonely in your home. Old addictions that you thought were long gone are starting to creep back in. You try to swim to shore, you try to manage it for awhile, hide it, change it. But it is too late.
Heed the Warning Signs
This pull away from shore in churches happens all around us and inside of us all of the time. Pastors, the warning signs are everywhere. Pastor wakes up and can’t get out of bed. Pastor has moral failure. Pastor can’t sleep with or without sleeping pills. Pastor blows up on his staff. Performance. Approval. Comparison. Numbers, always numbers. Burnout, moral failure, blow up. Rinse and repeat.
And it is not just pastors. Church members, deacons, volunteers, leaders. All following us pastors onto the same treadmill of performance until we have to get off and the only way it seems to get off is to leave the church, the ministry, and often the faith all together.
Pastors, what should we do?
An emergency sabbatical. Pay a bunch of money to celebrity Christian counselors. Schedule in some hobbies, change our diets, get better work rhythms, get a masseuse, hire an extra assistant, etc. We figure out how to solve it, manage it, and get back to it so our performance, approval, comparison, and numbers are not too damaged. Hobbies, vacations, sabbaticals, counselors are all great ideas and helpful. I am not hating on any of those things. My problem is what we do next!
We get right back in the exact same current.
Maybe this time we have a nice boogie board or a quality wetsuit to help us float a little longer, but it is the same current. Pastors, church, Christians, have we ever thought that maybe, just maybe we should avoid this current and swim somewhere else?
An Invitation to Swim in Another Current
That is why I am writing. I have been caught in the current and seen other pastors, Christians, and churches caught in the same current and I want to invite us all to swim somewhere else.
To recognize and heed the warning signs and choppy waters that are all around us proclaiming the danger of performance, approval, comparison, and numbers.
- What if ministry is not about us?
- What if we have everything backwards?
- What if the least are the greatest in his Kingdom?
- What if the greatest commandment was to love God and love others more than our platforms?
- What if NO one could come after Jesus without denying himself?
- What if we had to become a no name unrecognized servant to become great in his Kingdom?
- What if we are supposed to avoid the crowds and seek his presence?
- What if we are swimming in the wrong current all together?
I know that after calling out to God for help he is rescuing me and showing me a new path. It is a narrower path and it doesn’t make much of me, yet each step is so life-giving even if it often feels like I am learning the same step over and over.
It is not about me.
Nearly everything I do naturally is the opposite of what Jesus proposes and models in his Kingdom.
I can do things with Jesus and for Jesus in secret and with no need to broadcast it.
His ways are often secret, hidden, and small (Matthew 13).
If I am going to swim in this current it is going to have to be prayerfully and patiently.
There is no room for ego here.
He must increase, I must decrease.
Follow me. Follow me. Follow me.
He cares more about me being a follower who makes followers than being a leader who makes leaders.
Pray. No really, pray.
He has me right where he wants me.
The time, place, and size of my ministry is beautiful.
Contentment. Formation. Presence.
Jake Chambers is the husband to his beautiful bride Lindsey, and a daddy to Ezra, Roseanna, and Jaya. Jake is passionate about seeing the gospel both transform lives and create communities that love Jesus, the city, and the lost. He currently serves Red Door Church in San Diego through leading, preaching, equipping, and pastoring.