On his journey to the cross, Jesus said something to the disciples that, if they listened, would change everything about their lives. He said something that, if they took it to heart, would destroy their self-centered and self-aggrandizing identities and reputations, only to give them something infinitely greater.
Here’s what Jesus said: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:24-25).
Earlier in the gospel story, John the Baptizer said the same thing only with different vocabulary: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
This is part and parcel of what it means to live the Christian life. You lose your life. You carry your cross. You decrease. You make Jesus’ name and renown and life and work and reputation increase. And when you do this, you gain. In other words, the Christian life is a recapitulation of the cross and resurrection. We die to our sinful selves in order to experience resurrection life: being satisfied with Jesus and making him look great to the world. We say “no” to building our own little, pathetic kingdoms because God has opened our eyes to see there is one King who is worthy of all honor, glory, and praise.
This is the call for everyone who submits to and follows Jesus. How much more for those who lead God’s people in the church? One of the greatest temptations for pastors/preachers (of which I am one) and music directors is to make ourselves the point during corporate gatherings and, more generally, in our leadership and multiplication strategies. This runs rampant in North America. I see it all the time and it breaks my heart.
How do you know when you stop decreasing? Let me ask several sharp, probing questions that will help you diagnose your heart.
Pastors, are you equipping others to preach and give these people actual public opportunities to do? Are you the only weekly preacher during Sunday gatherings? On your church’s website, when people visit the “sermon” page, is your likeness plastered all over webpage? Does your church multiplication strategy lead to a lot of people under one roof listening to you or watching you on a screen? Does your whole week revolve around planning for Sunday (the day they will see you do your preaching thing) in order that people have a great worship experience?
Music directors, are your songs more suited toward a concert solo than congregational singing? Is the music so loud that a person in the congregation can only hear themselves singing rather than their voice as one in a host of voices? Do you believe and communicate (through prayer or otherwise) that music is a mediator between the people and God, that it ushers them into the presence of God? Do you ever step away from the microphone and delight in the sound of the saints raising their voices to the living God?
Be very careful how you answer these questions. They will reveal what your heart truly loves. They will reveal whether you want yourself or Christ to increase.
Yet at the same time, beware of the deceiving nature of sin. You may answer these questions the right way. You may say, “I’m equipping others. It’s all about Jesus. It’s not about me or my preaching!” You may say, “Of course it’s about congregational worship! Jesus, not the music, is the object of our affection.”
But sin is powerful in its ability to deceive. That’s what sin is and does. It makes us wise in our own eyes. Even if our eyes have been opened by Jesus, sin blinds us. It’s like a hidden lion, crouching behind a rock waiting to pounce on us. That’s why sin is dangerous. Blatant, obvious, visible sin is not the scariest thing. Sin that’s hidden and crouching behind a rocky part of the heart is.
Do you know what will ruin you and me as leaders in God’s church? It’s not sexual sin or embezzlement or fraud or theft or laziness or lack of commitment to sound doctrine. Oh sure, these are dangerous. These are real. But these are merely the blatant, obvious, marquee sins that put you on the front page of paper. It starts somewhere else. Somewhere deeper. Somewhere that’s hard to recognize. Somewhere more dangerous.
It starts with the exaltation of self.
You increase. And when you increase, Christ can do nothing but decrease. You stop carrying your cross and losing your life and call people to carry their crosses and follow you. You stop calling people to Jesus and start calling them to yourself. Jesus stops being your greatest treasure and supreme end, and he becomes a means toward something greater, namely, your worth, your brand, your reputation, your success. You will twist the psalmist’s words and, perhaps even unbeknownst to you, you sing, “Not to you, O LORD, not to you, but to my name give glory!” (see Ps. 115:1).
I wish I were immune to this. I wish that the craving for “celebrity” was a non-issue for me. I’m a work in progress. But I am not where I once was. Oh God has been gracious to me! I have grow incredibly disillusioned Christian celebrity. I don’t want it. On a mega scale or even in the church I serve with just a few hundred people, celebrity sickens me. And because God has been gracious to me this way, pastors and musicians, I want you to know this grace, too.
That’s why I’m pleading with you. I plead with you to see the cross, where your Redeemer was stripped and hung naked that you might come to God. He decreased for your sake. He sacrificed himself and put your before his needs! But this is not so that you would increase yourself, but, in loving response, exalt him! Do you see how the gospel works? Do you see that he become poor so that you could become rich—not in order to flaunt your received riches but so that you too might become poor, knowing him in his sufferings and becoming like him in his death, only to share in his resurrection? Do you see that unless there’s death, there’s no resurrection? Do you see that when you die, Christ will be exalted and there will be ministry fruit beyond your wildest dreams because it will be lasting fruit, centered on him, not you? Do you see that if there’s no death in you, if there’s no decreasing, then you are not fulfilling your role as a leader in God’s church?
I plead with you: decrease! Become small by equipping others and passing on to others what you have and help them do what you do better than you do it! Let God’s voice, not yours, be the prevailing sound in the church you serve! Come to the end of yourself, seeing your heart for the pathetic, deceptive black-ness that it is and that it is only due to the gracious redemption of God that you are a new creation and have the privilege to lead God’s people.
Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Pastors, musicians, do hear the words of Jesus? Which will you choose?