Celebrity pastor syndrome is killing us. We are more ambitious to make ourselves Christian-famous than to be faithful to Christ. We are more ambitious to make ourselves known than to make Christ known. And what’s so twisted and tragic is that we use making Christ known as a means of making ourselves known. This is so backwards.

Our culture lives for image and celebrity. I’ve noticed a lot of professional photographers who market their services offering their clients a glamorous Facebook profile picture. This is what their clients are asking for. Instagram, Twitter and Facebook are self-promoting marketing tools. Do-it-yourself PR. Make an impression. Gather admirers.

Tragically, pastors have fallen for the same stunt. We’ve used our God-given spotlight to make much of ourselves. We’ve been ambitious for self. This is completely unchristian behaviour. Paul taught us so clearly the way of Christ: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). How much of what we do is designed to show ourselves as more significant than others?

Gospel Ambition

This is not to say that ambition itself is bad. We are often ambitious for sinful things. We aspire to make a name for ourselves. We aspire to be seen as great. This is selfish ambition. But there is another kind of ambition which should be nourished, an ambition not for personal fame, but to make Christ known. Paul describes his great driving ambition: “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named” (Romans 15:20). This eager desire drove Paul to work hard, take risks, sacrifice and do all he could to follow this ambition. But they key of course is Paul’s ambition was not for self, but a sacrificing of self for the fame of Jesus Christ. Paul uses his spotlight and influence to make much of Christ.

Paul is driven. He’s not content with what’s he doing, but is driven to accomplish more. He wants to preach to as many people as possible, to plant as many churches, and to take the gospel as far and wide as he can. He was always pushing for more. That’s why he’s so eager to preach the gospel in Rome and then on into Spain. This is gospel ambition.

It seems that some pastors celebrate smallness as faithfulness. Ie. You can have a big ministry or you can have a faithful ministry. Small might be faithful. But it wouldn’t be correct to equate smallness with faithfulness. It seems this celebration of smallness is a reaction against this idea we are constantly pounded with that bigger is always better, that numbers are everything. We see the guys who put numeric attendance growth over proclamation of truth and disciple-making. They don’t talk about sin and repentance and wrath and sacrifice. They put on a show and gather a crowd. So, some react against the lasers and smoke-machine guys by rejecting all numeric growth as shallow. So they forsake any ambition and instead celebrate smallness.

Big or small, we ought to have a gospel ambition. The lost of our city should weigh heavily on our soul. Even if our ministry is biblically faithful and robust and deep and sound, we should still be filled with an inner angst as we consider the lost of our city and the unbaptized and unrepentant in our pews. Gospel ambition is driven to preach the gospel and make disciples in order to make much of Jesus.

Embrace Obscurity

But how do we discern whether our ambition is selfish or gospel-driven? Do I want a large platform, huge twitter following and big influence for me and my name, or for Jesus? Am I driven by the gospel, or by a craving for celebrity? We have to constantly check our hearts and motives and return to the gospel. Philippians 2 should weigh heavy on us. Christ abandoned fame and comfort, and embraced obscurity and suffering. Can I follow this example? Would I be ok with obscurity if it meant making Christ known to more people?

Jesus’ spotlight-hogging disciples were constantly elbowing their way to the front of the fame line. “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” they ask Jesus (Matt 18.1). I think they were hoping he’d reply “you guys.” But instead he takes a child and says “unless you turn and become like children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” In what way does Jesus want us to be become like children? His next sentence makes it clear: “whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18.4). Greatness through active humility. The way to the top in God’s backwards kingdom is by embracing obscurity and humbling ourselves to the lowest place.

The Dangerous Spotlight

I get that there’s an ironic element to writing a post about humility and publishing it on your website and asking people to read it and share it. For the last while I struggled with this tension of nurturing gospel ambition while killing selfish ambition. We should desire to grow churches, plant churches, preach to thousands, baptize and disciple as many people as we can for the glory of Christ. This is good ambition. At the same time we need to be ok with being unknown and unfamous while making Christ famous.

As pastors and teachers we’ve been given a spotlight. It’s not bad, but it is dangerous. How will we use it? Will we take this opportunity to impress others or draw attention to ourselves? Or will use our spotlight to make much of Christ? Jesus calls us to a deep, driving gospel ambition, an ambition that does everything possible to make much of Christ while being completely ok with nobody ever knowing our name.


For more, I’d recommend the books Rescuing Ambition by Dave Harvey and Embracing Obscurity by Anonymous.


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