Another Mega-Church pastor goes down. Facing charges of sex with young men, Bishop Eddie Long stops preaching at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, the church he built into one of the biggest in the USA. It’s been a year since this scandal broke, and in that time I’ve been wondering what kind of meaning I can derive from this and other scandals that have rocked the church world. I have often dreamed of building a mega-church like New Birth. I guess that hasn’t happened, seeing that my church is struggling to pay the bills, struggling to keep the building from falling apart, struggling to do relevant mission in our community, struggling, struggling, struggling, etc… So as the pastors that I used to envy climb the ladder of ministerial success, only to come crashing down, I ask myself what have I learned? The answer; our definition of success is wrong.
We, meaning good church going folk, think success is bodies in the pews and dollars in the plate. When we use that as our guide, Eddie Long was a tremendous success having 8,000 people in his church every weekend. But that kind of success appears to be fleeting, as we have seen with The Crystal Cathedral in Anaheim, CA. No pastoral malfeasance, just declining membership has put them into bankruptcy. They still have lots of bodies in the pews and dollars in the plate. But their definition of success changed for the worse and they are in a downward spiral they can’t seem to get out of. When Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, hundreds, possibly thousands cheered him. A week later the crowd cried out “crucify him”. It seems that the bodies in the pews can be very fickle, to say the least.
The story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) is wonderful in so many ways. Jesus risks the anger of a large crowd pressing around him, by showing kindness and mercy to a despised tax collector. In general people hate tax collectors. But in Jesus’ day tax collectors were seen as terrible sinners because they worked with the occupying Romans, and because the Roman protection, they could cheat people without worry of retribution. Touching a tax collector or entering his home was seen as a terrible sin. Thus Jesus risks alienating his audience by spending time with Zacchaeus. And despite Zacchaeus’ pledge to give to the poor, Jesus also risks a decline in long term donations to his cause. These two issues never seem to bother him. Instead, Jesus is always interested in the person right in front of him. He follows the guiding principle of his ministry; Love God and Love People. This simple concept always overrides the numbers.
So what does any of this mean to you and me? After all we are just trying to survive and be successful with work, friends and family. If you wish to be like Jesus and put God and people first in your life, then beware of the traps inherent in the pursuit of success. What the big numbers invariably do is boost our egos. A promotion and more money at work makes us feel great. A standing room only audience at church puts us on top of the world. The problem comes in when we put that ego boost ahead of loving God and loving people. If the charges against Eddie Long are true, then the ego boost he received from his success convinced him to act on urges that should have been buried under his desire to seek God’s will for his life. Success and its pursuit, can cloud our judgment because we allow it to.
I speak from personal experience. My own pursuit of success in ministry has hurt me a great deal. Now I try to focus on doing God’s work and let the numbers take care of themselves. It’s not easy because the realities of our world demand a certain amount of success. But Jesus pulled it off, and I hope to do the same. I hope and pray that we will all find that balance between success in this world, and success in the Kingdom of Heaven.
God bless you,