This is the first post in a four-part series on a cruciform ministry, a ministry shaped by the cross of Christ. This first post addresses the topic of narcissism, and in subsequent posts I address the topics of false accusations, sacrifice, and joy.
Every culture and period of history presents its challenges to living the Christian life. Right now, we live in an age that feeds the idol of narcissism. Social media gives just one window into how self-centered Western culture is. The selfie has entered our cultural lexicon. We want the world to look at and revolve around us. I have encountered this type of attitude in some of my students from time to time. I once had a student rebuke me because I would not give her my lecture notes. She believed she was entitled to have them. She did not want to take notes in class. Our surrounding context is a hot house for growing selfishness and narcissism, the very antithesis of Christ’s call to the cruciform life: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). Christ calls us to live cruciform lives and this is especially true of ministers.
If we spend a large part of our lives seeking our own interests, it can be very difficult to break from this pattern and live sacrificially for others. The more we entrench ourselves in self-satisfaction, the less capable we are of denying ourselves. Even though the pastorate is a vocation that has all of the marks of sacrifice, there are still yet opportunities to feed the beast of narcissism that rests in the heart of every person. You graduate from seminary, put your picture on a website, start writing blog posts, posting your sermons, post pictures of you with well-known theological celebrities on your church website to communicate how important you are, and before you know it you’ve created a monument to self. Don’t get me wrong, doing such things are not, in an of themselves, sinful. Churches want people to know who their pastor is, have access to his sermons, and find biblical teaching through the internet. But how you use such tools and the weight and importance you attach to them can be the difference between feeding narcissism versus web-based community outreach. How can you tell the difference between the two?
Unfortunately, the broader Evangelical world feeds prospective ministers of the gospel a steady diet of celebrity culture. Seminarians hear, read, and venerate various theological heroes. Many pastors and theologians have built entire organizations around one person, themselves. Having a large ministry is not automatically sinful, but it does send the unintended message that ministry consists of writing books, speaking at conferences, and creating organizations that revolve around one person. The truth of the matter is that such people probably comprise a miniscule fraction of ordained ministers currently serving in Evangelical churches. The vast majority of ministers serve in small churches, preach the word week-in and week-out, spend a lot of time counseling with their church members, and never write a book or speak at a big conference. If your goal in life is to be a celebrity, a big-name theologian, then you likely set yourself up for nurturing the vice of narcissism. Your goal isn’t a cruciform ministry but creating an engine that promotes one person, you.
If, on the other hand, your goal is to serve Christ and his church, then you must continually guard yourself against pride, selfishness, and narcissism. Whenever you make a decision about community outreach that involves promoting yourself, ask what the ultimate goal is. Are you trying to promote yourself? Or are you trying to promote the gospel? In our selfie culture the temptation to move center-stage will always be great. Pray that Christ would keep you in the path of righteousness, on the path that says, “May I decrease, and may he increase!”
In next week’s post, we’ll look at another dimension of a cruciform ministry, namely, how to deal with false accusations.