Our society values success above all else. In fact, we care so much about success that studies have shown that most of us lie to ourselves and others about how successful we are. We are literally self-delusional when we aren’t good at something that we value or think we should be good at.
Of course, the easy example of this is the first round of any singing reality show. Most of us live in the fantasy land of Lake Wobegon where all the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and the children are above average.
Why? It’s not because we want to lie to ourselves. Most of the time we don’t even realize it. But it’s because everything in our culture tells us that we are only valuable as people if we are better than other people. If we knew the truth about how awful we are at most everything, our very identity would be in jeopardy.
Our boss gives us a raise based on our performance
Our teachers & parents give us praise & rewards for higher grades
Our sons & daughters don’t get to be a part of a team because they can’t perform at the highest level
Our spouse can divorce us because we aren’t living up to their expectations and can’t perform as they think we should. Because of this, we are under constant pressure to live up to all of these expectations of the successful life. It’s exhausting. Not to mention crushing, when we realize we just can’t keep up.
There are many who seek refuge from these expectations in Churches. But often they do not find refuge, just more of the same. It is so disappointing and frustrating. Instead of rejecting the entire success-obsessed system, instead of upending the mindset that we are only valuable because of what we accomplish, we simply substitute our own Christian accomplishments for the “secular” ones. We simply Christianize what people should be trying to accomplish rather than demolishing the entire economic system that says a person is as valuable as their ability.
So instead of doing “great things for yourself,” which of course would be selfish, we simply substitute doing “great things for God.” Instead of saying that the Gospel undoes any need to be successful in your job or relationships in order to be valuable or belong — we just say Jesus will help you to be successful in your job or relationships.
And who ends up being in leadership in churches? Who ends up getting to be up front? Who ends up in the inner circle with the pastor and staff? Is it not those who can perform? We don’t confront the achievement-based valued system, we just overlay a bit of Christian lingo and make Jesus a product in that system.
But the life of Jesus presents us with a paradox. Are we to believe that Jesus will help us to be successful in a system according to which he was an utter failure?
If it’s important in life to be “successful,” Jesus didn’t get the memo.
Think about it.
During the time of Jesus’ life we know most about, he was homeless, single, unemployed, and at times, extremely unpopular, eventually dying as a traitor in his thirties. Which of us, if we saw anyone today that was single, homeless, unemployed and unpopular would say they are a success?
This tells me that our attempts to be a “city on a hill” and to be “different for Jesus” are anemic and counterproductive. We strain the gnats of rated R movies, cussing, and drinking to swallow the cultural camel of an achievement-based value system. Our definition of success in the church is way off the mark.
The Church should be the place where the single, homeless, unemployed, and unpopular are valued, if only because they are following in the way of Jesus in quite the literal way. But instead, I see a Church full of programs designed to “fix” the single, homeless, unemployed, and unpopular. And in our haste to “fix” them, I doubt they feel one of the most basic premises of the Gospel: that it loudly proclaims YOU ARE LOVED JUST THE WAY YOU ARE, that you belong here and are valued no matter who you are. I sadly see by the way we “do church” that we have not yet taken to heart the Good News of Jesus where the last will be first and the first will be last.
Many of us have not yet found our identity in God and as such we have not yet discovered that life is not about being successful, only faithful. We have not discovered how to be a place where people can learn that it’s okay just to be and not always have to do.