Whose Legacy are We Building?
There has been a lot of emphasis in recent decades on the importance of building one’s legacy, both in society at large and in the church. Just this week someone told me the sermon at their church last Sunday was about building their legacy.
To be sure, there is a godly sense in which we want to have our name remembered. I remember my paternal grandfather fondly. He lived to 99 years and 10 months, so I knew him until I was 41. I remember him as a kind and generous man. He loved to give gifts to his grandchildren.
I certainly hope to be remembered by those who knew me for good things and not unkindness or stinginess. However, not all that glitters in the conversation about legacy is gold. The transition from something healthy to something unhealthy may occur when we replace being remembered for goodness with being remembered for greatness. It’s an age-old story.
Let’s Make a Name for Ourselves
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. 3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise, we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” (Gen. 11:1-4, emphasis mine)
Babel, which is also translated “Babylon” in later parts of the Old Testament, is a story that continues through the Bible all the way to the end. Babylon, empowered by the beast is about building the city of man while the Lamb leads us to seek the city of God, the New Jerusalem, whose builder and maker is God (Heb. 11:10). Babylon is about making a name for ourselves, leaving a legacy to our own name. The way of the Lamb is a path of humility and laying down our lives for others.
In his biography of John Calvin, T. H. L. Parker noted,
“When he had died, all Geneva desired to see his body, as if he were a medieval saint or one of those relics that he had so sardonically mocked. But he had seen to it that there should be no posthumous canonization and left orders that he should be buried in an unmarked grave. Thus his death and burial were of one piece with his life; as a good witness, he would not be regarded, but bent all his energies in life and death to making Jesus Christ alone great, and making that greatness visible.” (Portrait of Calvin, Desiring God edition)
Knowing this, I imagine Calvin is proverbially turning over in his grave knowing that so many name their version of the Christian faith after him. Even if he agreed with all they say in their system of doctrine (which is doubtful), he would not want to be the one remembered.
What about us? Are we living to build a name for ourselves? Are we seeking greatness rather than goodness? Are we seeking that God’s name would be hallowed because of our lives, or that our own name would be known?
Are we seeking that God’s name would be hallowed because of our lives, or that our own name would be known?
How Might This Apply to Churches?
Jesus has something to say on this matter. Speaking to his early followers, Jesus said,
You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead, they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matt. 5:14-16)
The church is surely called to shine in such a way that the world will visibly see them. However, we are not to let this light shine before others to build a name for ourselves. It is not that they may see our good deeds and praise our church, or our particular expression of Christianity, but our Father in heaven.
The church planting movement has not escaped unharmed by this name building tendency of Babel. Church planting requires branding, and since branding is fundamentally about building a name, one must be very careful. One website on branding describes the goal: “Effective branding helps companies differentiate themselves from their competitors and build a loyal customer base.” Who are our competitors? What are proper ways for churches to differentiate themselves from others? How might that goal be easily motivated by selfish-ambition?
If we are, as we often claim, doing all for the glory of Christ, we should ask what kinds of things make Christ’s name great. According to Jesus, the world will know we are followers of Jesus and that the Father has sent him because we have love one for another (John 13:35; 17:23). How can we brand in such a way as promotes that unity and Christ’s glory? I’ve seen this done, to be sure, but it is the exception.
What kinds of things make Christ’s name great?
Listening to or reading ads for churches is instructive. The message is often some version of “We are a better (more authentic, more compassionate, more relevant) church than (insert some way of implying whatever other church you have been a part of).” In a recent ad I heard for a new church, the very name of the church implied something wrong with other churches.
Far too often, branding is not about the greatness of Jesus Christ, but about the greatness of a particular church over other churches. Most church plants minimally impact the growth of the kingdom but rather aid in the shuffling of members moving from one place to another. The net effect is reinforcing either transient church life or “we’re the greatest” thinking in the church.
The problem becomes bigger when we realize that these practices are formative. It trains those in the churches how to think and live. It doesn’t form in the direction of Paul’s instruction,
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others (Phil. 2:3-4).
Which City Are We Building?
The church is called to build a city, or rather to participate in building a city, the city of God, the New Jerusalem. However, in all our building, we must be vigilant to build in a way that follows the Lamb and not the beast, the system of Babylon, that continues to put ourselves at the center of the story. Often what is done in the name of kingdom building is only building our personal kingdom. Whether self-greatness, or church branding, we must resist the pull toward self-glory and pursue Christ’s glory through goodness and humility.
The builders of Babylon used their God-given skills to make themselves memorable. They were building a kingdom, just not God’s kingdom. For them, higher was better, much like the modern assumption that bigger is better. And, if it is our own name that is being remembered, then bigger, richer, stronger, etc. is better. However, Christ builds His kingdom with the foolish, the weak, the lowly, and the despised so that no one may boast before Him (1 Cor. 1:27-29). No one memorable in that list but Christ!
Christ builds His kingdom with the foolish, the weak, the lowly, and the despised so that no one may boast before Him (1 Cor. 1:27-29).
God had given a mission to humanity in Genesis. It involved expansion, but for others. “Be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). They were to expand the paradise of Eden to the ends of the earth. They were to use their lives to extend the benevolent rule of God over the wilderness places of the earth.
The church has received the Genesis 1 commission in renovated form: Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to obey my commands… to bear fruit in my name which will be to the Father’s glory (Matt. 28:19-20; John 15:8). Those commands are (significantly) in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5—8), and that fruit is the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). In the same paragraph in which Paul lists the fruit of the Spirit, he contrasts that with conceit which leads to provoking and envying one another (Gal. 5:26).
The church must offer an alternative to the ways of the world. The ways of the world can be summed up in the Babel/Babylon story. The ways of the Lamb, the way of the cross, leads to the New Jerusalem.
Maybe we need to take a cue from John the Baptist. When asked about why people were shifting their allegiance to Jesus and away from himself, John answers,
“You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ 29 The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. 30 He must become greater; I must become less.” (John 3:28-30)
Neither you, nor I, nor our churches are the messiah, but only sent to point to him.
Neither you, nor I, nor our churches are the messiah, but only sent to point to him. We are not the answer to what the world needs, Christ is. He must become greater, and we must become less. His greatness is not magnified by our greatness, but possibly by goodness… the fruit of the Spirit.