While ruling Rome, Marcus Aurelius was concerned he might let his power go to his head. As legend has it, Aurelius hired a servant to literally follow him around as he walked the empire's streets. Every time a citizen bowed a knee or called out a word of praise, Marcus Aurelius instructed the servant to whisper this reminder in his ear: "You're just a man. You're just a man."
As a Christian who writes books and who helps produce large-scale faith events for a living, I tend to key in on such stories -- stories that remind me there is a fine line between achieving religious notoriety and commercializing your soul.
The following are 5 myths of Christian culture that must be abandoned, in my opinion, for faith to thrive.
1. Attention Is the Same As Validity
Anyone can grab a pot and a wooden spoon and stand out the street clamoring for attention. Go ahead. Set up a soapbox. Buy a spotlight. Sell tickets. Put on a show.
Your nonprofit got noticed. You're a regionally influential church now? You've become a sought-after speaker with a national tour? You're the "go-to" in your community, the one with all the programs, with the great music, with the people wearing jeans who welcome you as you are.
All of this can and very well may be used for great good. And you sincerely deserve some admiration for working so hard to get there.
But turning heads? Please don't tell me that's how you measure success.
You're turning heads? So is the accident on the side of the road.
People slow down. They gawk at the mangled metal and blood-splattered glass. They tweet about it and even take photos. Do the people in the accidents deserve medals? Should we give them some sort of prize? Is this something honorable to be celebrated?
Of course not.
Getting the crowd's attention is not the same thing as growing your faith or inspiring others to grow theirs. The crowd gets fixated on anything shiny, turning their heads like a bird flocking to a piece of tinfoil. The crowd looked at Jesus, the man who accepted the marginalized and spoke hope over the world, and picked Barabbas.
2. The Most Important Work Will Be Given the Most Visibility
Do you hope to be huge? To be Rick Warren or Rob Bell or Billy Graham?
What influential people. What example of human beings fixed on a goal. What examples of people whose work landed in front of millions!
But the world would be a pretty over-stimulated place if there were thousands, even millions, of Billy Grahams. All competing over the stadium stages. Doing evangelistic crusades left and right -- one for every day of the year, for every venue in the city, in every city in the world. It would take something away from it, wouldn't it?
Who's to say they have reached the pinnacle of human experience? What it means to be Christian leaders or advocates or entrepreneurs? That they got the most privileged or blessed route of anyone in their era?
Maybe. They certainly experienced favor.
But maybe, just maybe, being Billy Graham isn't the dream life. Maybe there's something equally significant, even preferable, about being the man or woman who lives in regular community with people, side by side, alongside them, celebrating births, dedicating babies, baptizing, marrying, burying the dead -- really knowing and investing in people over the course of life.
Maybe the Time magazine People of the Year are the rich guys writing checks and you are the widow giving your two mites. Maybe in today's Jesus parables, you'd be the one who really got it right.
Maybe Billy Graham and Steve Jobs and Angelina Jolie wish they were you.
3. All Ideas Are Equally Worthwhile
It's culturally correct to respect that people have the right to diverse opinions and to be able to live in harmony in spite of divergent ideas.
I'd even suggest that when the motives of our heart are rooted in humility, it favors a guy named Jesus. After all, peacemakers are called the children of God.
But while doing everything in your power to keep the peace, we sometimes go beyond just respecting every person's right to think freely to a very different position: we assign any and all ideas equal validity. It's as if we are silently suggesting every trail, path, idea leads to the same amount of goodness or satisfaction.
What if someone believes that water doesn't freeze at 32° F ? What if she insists water doesn't freeze unless it drops below 0° F? Let's say a snowy, slushy wintery storm falls onto the region all night. In the morning, it is 12° which in her mind is not freezing. Will her vehicle suddenly be immune to dangerous icy roads purely because of her beliefs?
Just because here in the free world we have the right to free speech, doesn't mean everything anyone freely says is right. The state that results from validating every idea is not open-minded: it's confusion.
4. New Is A Synonym for Good
New is not a synonym for useful, better, or relevant. Sometimes what is new turns out to be good. But it could just as easily be bad. And even if it once was good, all that was ever sparkly and shiny eventually becomes bland and familiar.
Everything new gets old. Today's new is just tomorrow's old.
But in our culture, these realities tend to get buried. We tend to admire people who are on the "cutting edge" of their fields. But new can also be empty. New can be pointless.
Take how the lure of new sometimes manifests in the faith arena. How when some new idea or new technology emerges in culture, some leaders and churches will race to grab hold of it. That single that just hit the top Billboard charts? You'll hear it in the pre-service playlist the next Sunday morning. The newest handheld gadget? That's the thing the pastor is reading his sermon notes from.
This is why, on several occasions, veteran faith leaders have asked me, "Should we invest in the newest technology? In swirling graphics and videos embedded behind our song lyrics? Should we have strobe lights? Multiscreen options? Should we cater to the new?"
I always say yes, you should adopt new technology but only if it helps to advance your purpose.
"Oh good." They happily sigh, "Because having those moving images swirling in the background, while a video plays on the alternate screen, while the strobe light flashes above gives us a headache."
"It gives young people a headache too." I say.
Isn't it terrible that we've gotten to the point that we'd rather induce an auditorium full of headaches than forgo something new?
5. Old, Alternately, Is Bad
The beautiful part about not seeing new as synonymous with good is that it also infers that old cannot be synonymous with bad either.
And this frees us from being so reactionary. From distancing ourselves from the church of our parents, from adding taglines to our Sunday morning spiels that declare our brand of worship "isn't your grandmother's church."
You like that hymn written in the 1800s? Then sing it! You think pews add majesty to a sanctuary? Then build them anew!
It frees us from the arrogance of thinking our generation is the one who finally got it right, unlike those flawed, imperialistic, capitalistic, sinful, boring, outdated eras of people who went before us. That we, our group among our generation, stand here alone as discoverers of real religion or real genius, that we have single-handedly ushered in the climax of religious or humanitarian history that is so fresh it cannot become institutionalized.
Which is more awe-striking? More reliable? A new take on faith that emerged yesterday, that packs stadiums at their concerts or conferences? Or a faith that is unwavering, that has survived the best and worst moments of history, the rise and falls of movements and the births and deaths of powerful leaders.
Perhaps our grandmother and her church had it right all along.
Perhaps if we really wanted to be doing something valuable with our lives, we would aspire to develop ideas that will survive long enough to be called old by the generations that come after us.
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This piece was modified from content found in Sarah Cunningham's new book, The Well Balanced World Changer: A Field Guide for Staying Sane While Doing Good (Moody, October 2013).
The Well Balanced World Changer is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever books are sold. You can also find great shareable content like the graphic below at her book's Pinterest page. And you can contribute your own life lessons to an online collection of wisdom using the hashtag #worldchangerbook.