The Right Thing in the Wrong Way[i]
There is an old story about St. Patrick baptizing a druid priest. [ii] Both men were standing in the water and St. Patrick had inadvertently placed his staff on the priest’s foot. When the baptism was complete, Patrick said, “You can go now.”
The priest answered, “I can’t.”
“Why not?” a puzzled Patrick responded.
“Your staff is on my foot.”
An embarrassed Patrick said, “Oh, I ‘m so sorry, why didn’t you tell me?”
The priest answered, “I thought that was part of it.”
St. Patrick had done the right thing, baptizing the priest, but in the wrong way, with his staff on the priest’s foot.
Much of the Christian world is doing the right thing in the wrong way. Like the druid priest, we have learned to endure these unpleasant experiences. We think that is just the way it is: leaders who don’t care that much about God or us; churches that bore and drain the joy out of the soul; silly power struggles that sicken the spirit. Yes, being a Christian and living with other Christians will always be difficult. There is sin in us and therefore in the church, but in the midst of the battle, we must know that we are doing things that bring transformation.
We live in a world where two ways or philosophies are at war. The first philosophy is the Jesus way. It is a world of sacrifice, submission, humility, and patience. It is the worldview of Jesus where God is at the center and his disciples live for others because Jesus was a man for others. In the Jesus world, it is not about us, it is about God. The Jesus way shows us that the means is just as important as the ends.
The other philosophy, and it dominates, is the consumer culture. It is a world of consumption, assertiveness, speed, and fame. In the consumer world it is all about me. In the words of Mohammad Ali, “Whee! Me!” In the Jesus way Jesus becomes more—in the consumer way, man becomes more.
The consumer culture creates the consumer church, which gives us consumer Christians. The consumer Christian culture is about receiving benefits and getting into heaven. The story is about man rather than God. It is about cultivation of artificial needs, an environment of instant gratification, the teaching of scripture into neat formulas, and worship centered on personal needs and taste. These worlds are at war—they are mortal enemies. The alarming thing is that many good Christian people live on without ever knowing they have been seduced by the culture. They haven’t been reminded that they cannot serve both God and mammon.[iii]To think this is about material wealth is to trivialize the subject and to miss the point. Eugene Peterson said it well, “The American Culture is stubbornly resistant to the way of Jesus.” [iv]
The point is that the Consumer religious culture priorities and practices are not sufficient to form the person of Christ in his followers. Far too many ministries and churches are stuck in a rut of non-transformational religious activity. The result is that we have created more consumers who are fairly nice moral people who make little difference to the people in their lives.
Mammon is the entire superstructure of pride, the hubris of man—it is man in the middle. It is Ayn Rand’s superman, who objectives everything and everyone. In consumer Christianity it is the man reading the bible, going to church and using his skills to take his church or business to the next level. It is the entire world system that is elevating man to a god like status. It is about leaders manipulating, bullying, pushing, and pulling people to serve their own personal agendas and needs. It is about depersonalizing God into a doctrine and one’s neighbor into a project.
There are four ways I have chosen to show the conflict of the Jesus way of life and the consumer way of life.
1. Competence Before Prayer
Jesus modeled prayer as a priority. His actions demonstrated that his relationship with his Father was the basis for ministry. He prayed all night before important decisions. He slipped away to spend time with his father.[v] He sought to relish his relationship with his Father and in turn could answer the priority question, the only question that really counts: what is the will of God?
Theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, left Germany in 1939 for New York City to teach at Union Theological Seminary. His friends and mentors thought it was wise to spare him the Nazi persecution of the Church. He would be able to return to teach and rebuild Germany after the war. Bonhoeffer sought God’s wisdom and he believed that there was only one important question: what is the will of God? He took the last ship back to Germany before World War II began. He was executed in 1945 for his part in a conspiracy to kill Hitler. It is the antithesis of consumer Christianity to take an action which is sacrificial.
The consumer way is to act now, make an impact, get things done. The great temptation of the consumer way is to lead with competence. The myth of competence is two fold. The first is that after a period of time in the Christian way, we know enough and have cleaned up our life enough that we can get by without practicing disciplines such as prayer, solitude, mediation—the kinds of actions that build our dependence on God. The disciplines require us to take repeated actions over and over again. The culmination of repeated action is habit, which creates character.
The myth is that we have some control over the more nasty parts of our nature. We feel safe and secure in our own ability to function, we are over the really bad stuff. The second part of the myth of competence is that we can get the job done without contemplation. I spent much of my life relying on my competence to speak, write, sell, create, and lead people. In the end it proved to be a cul de sac and I had to turn around and look for another way. That other way is a life of prayer, silence, solitude, and meditation, which multiplies and enhances one’s competence.
So there it is, doing the right thing: working to build the cause of Christ, but in the wrong way: depending on competence, rather than a prayerful life of dependence on God.
2. Individualism Instead of Congregation
Ever since the Renaissance, a revival in art and literature, and the Enlightment, a philosophical movement based on rationalism and skepticism, God has been moved out of the center and replaced by man. Therefore, the individual world system taught that individual rights, individual thoughts, individual needs are paramount. This was a serious shift from the previous world that valued community and, in religious terms, the congregation.
The congregation is the local home base where the Christian life is formed. It is where our identity is developed. The congregation is not about us—it is about God. God’s plan is to create a new community where his disciples learn to love him by loving one another. The operating biblical metaphor for worship is sacrifice. We gather to contribute to one another’s lives. We come to the altar to sacrifice, to serve, to set aside our personal agenda. We, like Jesus, then choose to live the life of submission to others, to put their needs equal to ours, even, I dare say, more important than our own.[vi]
Individualism uses congregation and turns it into a consumer enterprise. We live in a culture that is dependent upon wanting and acquiring more. The advertising industry stirs up needs in us that we didn’t know we had. Christian leaders have joined right in with gusto. We have recast the gospel into consumer items, entertainment, adventure, problem solving, and formulas to help us get an edge. We have learned that the way to get a crowd is to offer them what the society teaches them they need. We have become world class consumers of religious goods and services.
The present system of discipleship offered in a consumer package targeted at individual needs is not sufficient to form people into the image of Christ. Study without reflection, measuring maturity by knowledge, and finishing curriculum—it doesn’t have any traction. This is not the way Jesus brings conformity to his will. The consumer Christian culture makes us become more and Jesus become less. This is not the way our sacrificial lives becomes available to others. This is the antithesis of the sacrificial, deny yourself servant that Jesus was and has called us to be.
So there it is, doing the right thing: gathering people into congregation/community, but in the wrong way: cultivating consumer Christians.
3. Impatience Rather Than Endurance
Impatience is the most accepted sin in America. We are an impetuous people. Everything seems to be available now and we have been trained to expect it now. I marvel at how the internet meets my insatiable appetite for knowledge, goods and services in minutes. The culture is getting faster, and the faster we move, the less we become. The people we serve as leaders want relief and answers today and if not today, at the latest, tomorrow. The culture wants leaders who please them, not those who will challenge and change them.
Spiritual fast food will destroy us. Have you seen the film, Super Size Me? The story is about a young man who gained thirty pounds and developed associated problems eating three meals a day for thirty days at McDonalds. When we read the bible to fulfill our potential, to get a handle on principles, to get an edge on others, to increase our capacity at work, it is fast food. Why do we know so much, but live so badly? Don’t read the bible to enhance your self image. Read it to receive, to respond, to submit, to listen to God’s voice so we can serve and humbly obey. Read under the authority of God’s word, not to get ahead. Karl Barth said, “I have read many books, but the bible reads me.” As Jesus said, “He who hears my words and does them is like a man who built his house on the rock.”
The formation of character into the person of Christ can’t be hurried. It is a slow work and it gets very messy. People fail, delay, make mistakes, resist, and are afraid. It is a slow work, so it can’t be hurried, but it is urgent, so it can’t be delayed. In America slow and urgent are not compatible, they cancel each other out. In the Kingdom, patience and urgent are yoked together. The consumer religious culture wants to get things done and they are looking for short cuts to the person God builds over a long time.
The culture is contemptuous of patience. It is the first thing they throw overboard in a storm. That storm is the mania for numbers: to build a great ministry, a great law practice, a wonderful business—so we can feel affirmed, can have the resources we desire, and do it in the time frame we have planned. When this happens it creates an artificial pressure cooker. If we don’t meet our expectations, we have failed. Then we must work harder and find someone to blame.
I think of Paul’s words to the Galatians, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”[vii]
So there it is, doing the right thing: working to build a business or ministry for Christ, in the wrong way: taking short cuts, pushing and manipulating others to meet your time frame with your desired results.
4. Celebrity Over Humility
Psychologist, Robert Hogan, wrote in the Harvard Business Review that research found humility rather than self-esteem to be the key trait of successful leaders.[viii] Wouldn’t it be great if the followers of Jesus believed Dr. Hogan? What do we see? The Christian world has a highly developed celebrity system that is indistinguishable from its secular counterpart. In fact, it really isn’t separate. Christian speakers and entertainers demand the same limos, dressing room cuisine, and preferential treatment as their secular colleagues.
But this is not really about the elite, who comprise less than 1% of the populace. Humility can be displayed by those society celebrates and celebrity treatment can be demanded by people in the most humble circumstances. Circumstances do not have to control our self image.
I have always marveled at how easy it is to get someone to appear on television. I once hosted a local debate program on one station. I had no problem getting a congressman, pastors, and advocates to appear. There is something about the little red light on the camera that has a seductive quality. In a culture that believes any publicity is good publicity, it is no surprise that part of the consumer religious culture is a hunger for recognition. It begins with the small things—compliments, needing to know if we have done well—but then we slip into addiction—needing affirmation, genuine or not. When we are not celebrated by others, we feel empty because we have come to use it as spiritual food.
The celebrity that debilitates the Christian cause is the tendency for leaders and followers alike to celebrate themselves. Worship becomes about us, about our tastes, likes, and dislikes. I love the story of the person who came out of a church service complaining, “I didn’t really care for that.” “Good,” said a friend, “because we weren’t worshipping you.”
The drive within us to see ourselves at the center of every song, every sermon, every event, every conversation, and every problem reminds us of our own problems. Humility removes self from center and puts God in the middle. We become a supporting player, the world and God’s plan is not in orbit around us.
Jesus was a man for others. As his disciple, then, my life is about others—only then will I find myself. As Bonhoeffer said, “The church is only the church when it exists for others.” I am his disciple when I celebrate him, not me. The gospel is about how to live, the means to learning to live is learning to die. Once you have life, Jesus says, “Now I will teach you how to give it up.”
So there it is, doing the right thing: trying to live for God, but in the wrong way: celebrating me, making it all about me.
So do the right thing in the right way. Have a life of prayer over competence—but don’t leave out the competence. Place congregation/community before individualism—but maintain personal identity. Have patient endurance—with urgency born of the Holy Spirit. Most of all—have humility as our core trait. In short, rearrange our lives around the practices of Jesus.
[i] The title “The Right Thing in the Wrong Way” is from Eugene Peterson’s address at the Spiritual Formation Forum Conference, May, 2004
[ii] Druid means someone who is wise. It comes from the Celtic tradition, an order of priests, soothsayers, judges, and poets in ancient Britain and Ireland.
[iv] From Eugene Peterson’s address at the Spiritual Formation Forum Conference, May, 2004
[viii] Roy F. Baumeister, The Low Down on High Self-Esteem; Column, Los Angeles Times, January 25, 2005