Welcome to the 99%

Chuck FullerChuck Fuller, Church, General, Leadership

The Occupy Wall Street movement finds its basis in a core belief that “the richest 1% of people are writing the rules of an unfair global economy that is foreclosing on our future” (see occupywallst.org/about). While the protestors would, for the most part, fare better by completing a basic course in macroeconomics, it isn’t difficult to grasp their sentiment. In their view, the “little people” possess as much education or expertise as the “big people” to whom they feel enslaved, so it seems “unfair” that the “big people” have advantages that not everyone shares. In simpler terms, we all aspire to live like the 1% and it isn’t fair that only 1% get to do it!

Sadly, the same mentality infects Christian ministry. When I was a pastor, I sometimes found myself meandering in my heart’s darker corner: “Really? I’m a better preacher than he is. I could lead that church more effectively that he does. Why is he pastor at the ‘big church’ in town and I’m stuck here?” Such a thought sprang from all sorts of sinful pride and required a swift and decisive internal rebuke. Now, as a professor, I see the 1% mentality at work in some students: “I’m smart and gifted. If I get my degree and make the right connections, I’ll be the next Mark Driscoll or Chris Tomlin. That’s where I’m going.” I can’t help but caution them in advance and worry over how they might respond in the future when they don’t end up in the 1% of Christian ministry.

Some time ago, I listened intently as Andy Stanley offered the secret to achieving his level of success: “Do you want to be where I am? Do you want to do what I do?” he asked. “It’s easy. All you have to do is be born into the family of a famous television evangelist.” I was relieved. He attributed his success not to remarkable skills or hard work—plenty of men who will never achieve his status are equally skilled and hardworking—but to simple, providential circumstances. He confessed that he is in the 1%, and gently reminded the audience of the realities of living in the 99%–in more normal, less glamorous places of service. He tacitly warned us against two very powerful dynamics that reside at the center of the 1% mentality and that will destroy Christian ministry: jealousy and grandiose aspiration.

If you haven’t already, you should read Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome by Kent and Barbara Hughes. The book remains on my “read every year” list. In it, the authors offer a stinging testimony: “As Barbara and I searched the Scriptures, we found no place where it says that God’s servants are called to be successful. Rather, we discovered our call is to be faithful.” So, how should we, the 99%, consider those who live in the 1% of ministry? Models and mentors play important roles, but when these relationships mingle with our fleshly aspirations, we plummet into despair. Career comparison is a formula for depression.

In John 21, Jesus calls Peter to “feed my sheep.” Near the end of the conversation, Jesus alerts Peter concerning his destination, and it was far from grandiose. Peter would one day glorify God by being put to death. Immediately, Peter inquires as to another disciple’s future. “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus responds, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!”

If it is God’s will for your friend to pastor a megachurch while you’re working bivocationally and serving a small congregation in a poor, rural area, what is that to you? You follow Jesus! If it is God’s will for someone else to be heroic for Jesus in a dangerous missionary context and you’re stuck stateside raising funds, what is that to you? You follow Jesus! If it is God’s will for you to work in the mundane while another ministers among the majestic, what is that you? You follow Jesus! If it God’s will for “those guys” to be the 1% while the rest of us remain among the 99%, what is that to us? Follow Jesus! Welcome to the 99%. It’s a wonderfully liberating place to be. After all, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).