Increasing by Decreasing

In the 3rd chapter of the Gospel of John, we are told about a debate that broke out between a devout adherent to the Jewish faith and those who were disciples of John (the one who baptized Jesus). They were debating about cleansing rituals, and the followers of John came to him and said, “Rabbi, look! The man who was with you across the Jordan, the one about whom you testified, is baptizing and everyone is flocking to him.” (John 3:26, CEB)

I get it. As a pastor, I have always wanted to have that church … that ministry … to which people flocked. I am looking for thousands of people to just flock to hear me preach and teach. I would love nothing more than for our church to experience an explosion of growth because that makes me look really good among the other pastors out there. It is a natural desire built into us. It is how we define success. If we can sustain metrics that show growth in dramatic numbers, that means we are doing our job well, right?

Umm … not necessarily.

While metrics are important to determining the health of ministry, sometimes we get caught up in measuring the wrong things. I have said in church recently that we tend to define our world according what we think are normal standards about wealth, power and privilege. We use these standards often to assign value or define everything. We think of the impoverished as those who don’t have those things and we are responsible for providing for them by sharing some of what we have with them. We even think about issues of inclusiveness in ways that we tend to talk about us and them (with the “us” normally being people on the inside and “them” being the people who are on the outside looking in). What often happens is that we take great delight in offering handouts, but we rarely are about doing anything so radical that it actually changes the power structure.

And John’s disciples are a little upset. There is a shift going on. The crowds that formerly flocked to them were now flocking to Jesus. But John has a very different perspective:

John replied, “No one can receive anything unless it is given from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said that I’m not the Christ but that I’m the one sent before him. The groom is the one who is getting married. The friend of the groom stands close by and, when he hears him, is overjoyed at the groom’s voice. Therefore, my joy is now complete. He must increase and I must decrease. The one who comes from above is above all things. The one who is from the earth belongs to the earth and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all things. He testifies to what he has seen and heard, but no one accepts his testimony. Whoever accepts his testimony confirms that God is true.The one whom God sent speaks God’s words because God gives the Spirit generously. The Father loves the Son and gives everything into his hands.Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life. Whoever doesn’t believe in the Son won’t see life, but the angry judgment of God remains on them.” (John 3:27-36, CEB)

And the key verse (with my emphasis added above) is John 3:30, and it is one that has been a theme verse of a good friend of mine: “He must increase and I must decrease.” This has become a huge theme of mine over the years, as well. It is fundamental to what I mean when I talk about letting go. It is about seeing that I have work to do, but it is nothing compared to the work of the very one whom my own work is intended to glorify!

The metric most important in this passage is not how many people John is drawing to himself; rather, it is about how many people John is sending to Jesus. This the point of decreasing as Christ increases in the life of the Christian.

So what does that have to do with us here and now? We certainly don’t want to see the church decrease (we have seen too much of that already in our own denomination and other mainline churches). But just having large crowds that fill arenas and stadiums is not what it is necessarily about either. We tend to be a culture that produces rock star pastors. Rock stars rarely like sharing their crowd with anyone else. So often we hear Jesus’s name mentioned in such settings as something that is incidental, but then, if we listen carefully, we will see Jesus recast into an image that is safe for our culture and that is no threat to our own power, wealth or privileged positions. This isn’t the Jesus of the gospels. 

While I love to watch stars on the big screen and listen to rock stars (yes, I love classic rock, but this means the stars in any musical genre), I realize that their own metrics in no way intend for them to decrease. In ministry, however, my job is always to work myself out of a job … it is to make sure that it is less about me and so much more about this Christ whom we serve. It is about realizing that the very place of privilege itself cannot give me the best image of Jesus. I must take Jesus at his word that the image of the face of Christ is found in the least of these our brothers and sisters. (see Matthew 25)

My prayer is that I may be able to decrease to the point that I might truly see Jesus shining on me and perhaps through me. But that will only come when I let go … get out of the way … and let Christ be the one who is glorified!

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