I recently visited an impressive coffee shop in a southern city and noticed a sign above the counter that said simply: “We appreciate your addiction”.
From the length of the line I waited in to get my cup of coffee, they weren’t kidding. The historic home that housed this shop was full of trendy patrons; its ambiance warm and inviting. The coffee was superb, even addictive. Cute.
Later that day I heard that same word used in a different, more troubling context. I was talking with a minister whom I regard as one of the brightest, most insightful people that I know. As we talked about some of the challenges of creating a healthy culture in modern congregations, he lamented “we have fostered an addiction to programs and activities among our people. Rather than invite them to engage in a life journey of faith, they have become addicted to coming here and letting us try and meet their expectations.”
Please understand, the church he serves is amazingly successful. Many people attend every week. However, he knows what too many of us know: for many, the American church experience is akin to an addiction to a poor substitute for the gospel of Jesus. We’ve settled for activity over meaning, performance over worship, style over substance, and convenience over commitment.
It’s intoxicating, really. For both providers and partakers, this culture of congregational life can easily resemble an addictive spiral that never fully satisfies. Self-absorbed congregations enable each other to settle for far less than God intended. We may get an occasional glimpse of the beloved community Jesus longs for us to know, but more often than not we fight a sense of yearning for something more.
Addictive behavior is predictable. Left unchallenged, it will escalate and eventually destroy us. Sadly, we are seeing the effects of our untreated addiction play out in church after church.
To what are we addicted? Honestly, we are addicted to ourselves. At the heart of all of us is a craving for the world to revolve around us.
We come from a long line of addicts. James and John were devoted followers of Jesus. They knew first-hand his life-giving power. They have just witnessed his Transformation. They have just wrestled with difficult concepts. He has just warned them of his impending death.
And yet, they come to him in Mark 10:35 with the request of every self-addict who has ever lived: “Teacher, we want you to do whatever we ask of you.”
What a moment of audacious self-absorption! I find great hope for our churches in this story.
It reminds me that this addiction is not just the problem of our most obnoxiously narcissistic church members or ministers. This addiction is at the heart of every one of us. All of us crave a church that will cater to us. We all secretly want our minister to pay special attention to us. Everyone on your pew longs for worship music that pleases them.
If others find our church enjoyable, fine. But in the end, we stand with James and John: We want you to do whatever we ask of you.
How do we break this addictive cycle?
You know, don’t you? It all starts with confession. This addiction, this self-absorption, is called sin, and we must begin by admitting we have a problem.
“Hi, my name is Bill, and I’m a addict. I have spent my whole life creating God in my own image. I’m addicted to me.”
There is no magic pill or quick cure for this addiction; it can only be treated and managed. Every week I can come to worship and be reminded that the universe does not revolve around me. In small groups and large, I can be prodded to find my life by losing it, not by clinging to it. Along with a loyal community of fellow believers, I can discover real joy as I give myself away in service.
Slowly, gradually, we can help fellow addicts find a new way to live, freed from our hubris. Our church can turn its attention away from familiar patterns of self-gratification toward a community around us desperate for the hope of the Good News. It is not going to be easy. We clergy have enabled you and trained you well in your addiction. There will be many relapses. But in the end, together, we can break the cycle and discover the abundant life Jesus intended for us.
James and John did. Just a few weeks after uttering these shameful words, they are transformed into radically servant-minded leaders.
Healthy churches cannot afford to appreciate our self-addiction. We must be challenged with the same words offered to these two:
“The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.”