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248 || Who Is the Greatest?

There it was in big, bold letters at the very top of the screen, the first among a list of sponsors who were responsible for putting on a large ministry event in our city — the name of our church. Fortunately for us, we’d picked a name for our congregation that included a number, so it was first on just about any alphabetical list. Good call.

I remember feeling a sense of pride as I looked over the rest of the list. Lots of businesses and corporate sponsors but not very many churches. Tsk, tsk. I was proud that we weren’t like those other churches that couldn’t seem to get their act together and sponsor such a worthy Kingdom cause. No, not us. We’re a missional church, wanting to do good in our community so folks will come to know Jesus.

Really?

Sounds a whole lot more like the Pharisee who was praying in the temple next to the tax collector. “I’m glad I’m not like home skillet over there. I’m always doing good stuff, serving the poor, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”

Deep Roots of Pride

The sense of pride I felt betrayed my own heart. Pride. It’s such an ugly word, so I’m shocked at how often I go there. I mean, you’d think that after being a pastor for 20 years, I would’ve matured beyond that point. But in reality, it’s a struggle every single day.

I believe that pride is the primary reason churches don’t work together. In fact, it keeps us divided. Here’s what I mean.

Pride fosters competition.

Pride fosters a desire to get credit for something. What it doesn’t foster is a healthy environment for working together. Thankfully, I’m not alone in my struggle. Jesus had to address this issue with His first disciples on more than one occasion. And it typically surfaced with a question.

“Who is the greatest?” The disciples gathered around Jesus eager to hear His response. They actually posed this question to Jesus several times in the years that they were with Him, usually right after He had just told them He was going to die. Apparently, they wanted to get the pecking order worked out right then so that when Jesus was gone, they would know who was the new number one.

Did I mention that pride also fosters conflict?

It’s interesting to note that in almost every instance when the disciples posed this question, it was in the context of resolving an argument or “a dispute that arose among them.”

Over and Over

“Who is the greatest?” The question reeked of competition and pride, and Jesus knew it. But how to teach them? Over and over again, Jesus patiently gave them a lesson about humility, how a humble child or servant was the greatest in His Kingdom. But it seems that they just couldn’t get it, couldn’t seem to wrap their heads around it.

“Who is the greatest?” Amazingly, the question was raised a third time at the last supper. Seriously. The very night that Jesus would be betrayed and then go to the cross, the disciples were beating that drum again. So Jesus pulled out all the stops and took off His clothes. In an incredible act of humility, Jesus stripped down, wrapped a towel around His waist, got a tub of water and began to wash each of His disciples’ feet. In doing so, He demonstrated in a very tangible way that “the greatest among you is the servant of all.”

Jesus knew that pride and competition would keep His disciples divided in ministry silos, each building and protecting his own tiny kingdom. But humble servanthood and genuine love would allow them to work together for the glory of God.

But I realize it’s not just church leaders in this struggle with pride and competition. It has infiltrated the ranks of those we lead. I was listening to a gentleman just the other day talking with great enthusiasm about how great their church was, how busy they were, how active in the community, etc. However, he never once mentioned Jesus. It made me wonder about a couple of things. First, how often do I come across like that? Very proud of the congregation I lead but giving only a cursory nod to Jesus, “the servant of all.” The other thing it made me wonder is this: Are we move proud of our churches than we are of Jesus?

“Who is the greatest?” This question is still being asked by followers of Jesus all the time — across the lunch table, around the water cooler, at the ball game. Which church is the most active? Has the best programs? Is the most missional? The most spiritual? And the question fuels the same kind of problems it did in the first century: pride, competition and conflict.

But not working together.

I’m a little concerned that much of what we do, even very good things, is done for the wrong reasons. Jesus warns us, “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men” (Matthew 6:1-2). He points to the reason that many religious or faith-based groups do ministry — to be seen by men, to be honored by men. But it doesn’t bring honor to God, and as a result God doesn’t honor it.

Kicking the Habit of Pride

But what if church leaders and the congregations they lead really began to express humble servanthood? Where we had equal concern for all of God’s congregations in our city? Where we were no longer competing for higher attendance and bigger budgets? Where we were completely unconcerned about our church getting credit for something? Maybe, just maybe, God would be glorified in the process. Maybe then we could live out what Jesus taught in Matthew 5:16, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”

So here’s one of the things our church leadership is working on right now: Stop starting new programs and ministries to help people. Instead, look for other churches or ministries that are already doing it and join them. For instance, our church is one of five churches serving at a local Title I school in a vulnerable neighborhood. One of the things the school needs is mentors and tutors who can work with children one-on-one. But instead of “starting” a tutoring program at the school (and asking folks to join us), we partnered with a local non-profit that already does tutoring and joined them.

Old habits die hard, and we’re not there yet, but we’re really trying to grow in this area of working together with other churches. Perhaps, as we all grow in this, we’ll see the prayer of Jesus in John 17 fulfilled in our generation: “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

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