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Church Planters Beware: What Prometheus Would Tell Pastors

Three conversations made me think of church planters this past week. This first was an unexpected encounter with an old friend who has been leading worship for a church-plant. He was, at once, exhilarated and exhausted by the work of setting up a mobile church service every week and watching it grow to well over a thousand people in a little over a year. The second was a lunch I had with a worship leader in town that same day who told me that he had considered planting a church in the future but was intimidated by the enormous pressure and work that comes with planting. I listened to both wondering if church planting was doomed to be a herculean task.

The third conversation came a few days later, though it was not truly a conversation for I was only the listener. I heard a speaker introduced as the pastor of the "fastest growing church in America", a man whose church has increased on average by more than a thousand people a year over the past eight years. It is a remarkable accomplishment and a tribute to his leadership. He is a rare breed.

Then the three conversations on church planting wove together: Maybe some church planters are exhausted because they're trying to be the next mega-church. Here, I must confess my ignorance. It very well could be that church planting is inevitably as exhausting as any start-up business. But then again, why should a church plant be like a business? Why is there this torrid current of busyness and business that pushes pastors along, convincing them to do more and grow more quickly?

It may be because we've forgotten the myth of Prometheus Bound. Prometheus is well remembered in our day simply as the god who stole fire from the gods and gave it to mortals. But there is more to the tale than that. Up until then, humans had been born with the knowledge of the date of their death. In other words, they were conscious of their mortality. Prometheus erased this knowledge from their hearts, or as many translations say, "took away from human beings the foreknowledge of their dooms", and gave them instead "blind hopes." It is after both these things that Prometheus gives fire to mortals, the "technology" to accomplish their blind hopes. And what happened to Prometheus? He was chained to a rock doomed to live in perpetual suffering, never to be free. So, what would Prometheus tell church planters and pastors today? Here's a guess:

1. Don't trust your vision.

You've probably never heard anyone say this before, but it's quite Biblical. Jeremiah tells us that the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked (Jer. 17:9). James says that wars and strife within a church come from the lusts that rage in our own hearts (James 4:1). Peter spoke for all the disciples when he asked what they would get out of following Jesus (Matt. 19:27). And twice, Peter, following his own vision of how Jesus would carry out the Father's will, acted hastily and incorrectly: rebuking Jesus for talking about death on the cross, and cutting off the ear of the High Priest's servant.

In general vision is good, but the overall untrustworthiness of our own hearts and ambitions needs to be factored in when determining if our vision is actually God's. Many desires have been christened as vision because of too much trust in ourselves.

In short: Just because you want to, doesn't mean you should aim to.

2. Don't maximize your potential. 

Zeus was allegedly upset at Prometheus for many reasons, not the least of which was that he gave power to humans who lacked the wisdom of the gods. It might seem familiar to the Eden story of Adam and Eve gaining knowledge of good and evil and then being prevented from the eating the immortality of the Tree of Life. Sin has a way of aggrandizing our perception of our potential.

Technology has made us capable of doing many things that were previously impossible. I am grateful for most of these things. But technology has also given us the illusion that we can do more than we actually can. It inflates our ability beyond our capacity. We can blow up the world so we think we deserve to rule it. We can set up a video campus and people will come, so we think we can pastor on a national scale. We can broadcast talks and people will listen, so we think we are creating disciples of Jesus. But it's a ruse. We are like balloons filled with too much air, believing that we can reach the moon, when in truth we are a few puffs away from bursting beyond repair.

In short: Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.

3. Embrace your limits.

"I made them stop focusing on their own mortal limitations," Prometheus said. How true for all of us today. With energy drinks for the masses and steroids for culture's most-watched performers, we are taught to aspire to a life without limitation. But this is not what Jesus called "blessed" when He praised the meek– those who have strength under control; those who have the ability to do much but have embraced their limits. James, after warning us about the way our desires mislead us, writes that we are not to say that we shall go to this city and do this business and plot our life as if we had no boundaries. He reminds us that we are but a vapor, that everything must surrender to the will of the One Almighty God– the only One who has no limits (James 4:13-15).

In short: Let God be God.

And now a word about Jesus.

It may not come as a surprise that Jesus did all these things in His ministry on earth. He did not trust His own "vision", when in the Garden He prayed for the cup to pass, but said to God's glory and our eternal good, "Not my will, but Thine be done." He did not maximize His potential when He refused to turn stone into bread, or to jump from the Temple's peak to show, in the center of the city, what God could do.He turned down the limelight, spending most of His ministry in fishing villages away from bustling cities stained by Herod's garishness. As Philip Yancey rightly said, His greatest miracle might have been the "miracle of restraint." Jesus embraced His limits when He laid His life down, learning obedience through death on the cross (Heb. 5:8). His 33 years on earth were not to be marked by victory but by humility and death. And through that death has come a life that truly know no limits, the God-kind of life.

[For more reading on the warning of Prometheus as applied to pastors, read "Working the Angles" by Eugene Peterson. It is the source to which I owe the greatest debt for this piece.]

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