Success in the Upside-Down Kingdom
November 27, 2012
Our generation has been given an unprecedented level of opportunity. We start businesses from our laptops, we build platforms to share our message and we are determined to change the world. Because of this opportunity, Millennials are redefining what it means to be successful. But as Christians, does the definition of success change for us as well?
Each generation is unique. According to a study by Pew Research Center, Millennials are confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat and open to change. These distinctions color our view of success. No matter which generation you are from, there are three factors consistent in the way we define success over time.
First, our generation values performance, but our perspective is different from those before us. We value working smarter, not necessarily harder. Flexible hours and autonomy is more important to us. We may measure success by how much we grow our platform or how much of an impact we make in our sphere of influence. What we measure may change, but performance is still the bottom line.
Success in this upside-down kingdom isn't always tangible. You can't measure a changed heart. You can't quantify grace.
Secondly, our generation values position. While traditional titles may not hold the same luster for us, we do desire to be perceived as experts, even if we haven't yet earned it. Titles such as Project Manager, Community Leader and Programmer are shunned for more playful and confident titles such as Project Guru, Social Media Rock Star or Code Monkey. The result is the same in that in our pursuit of success, we use these titles as proof of what we can do.
And finally, our generation values power. In generations before us, power was given—or taken—based on vetted experience. We wield our power through influence and our influence is based on connectivity. Today, an online celebrity can mobilize an army of followers. For example, this year cartoonist Matthew Inman—also known as The Oatmeal—rallied his followers to help fuel donations to Nikola Tesla's New York lab in just a few weeks to preserve the historical site and create a museum.
Clearly, our culture influences our perspective on success. But as Christians, there is a culture that supersedes ours. This kingdom culture takes a contradictory perspective on how our generation views success.
But in the “upside-down Kingdom” of God, what is real success?
In the Gospels, Jesus continually reframes the idea of greatness and His disciples understanding of success. He tells them the first shall be last and the greatest among them will be the servant. The Gospel is an entirely counter-cultural message.
The message of grace pervades the entire New Testament. The concept of unmerited favor is in direct opposition to performance. This favor isn't due to a lack of effort but to a lack of earning. Grace is one of the most basic teachings of Jesus, yet so many of us have difficulty in fully embracing unearned favor. We also dangerously bring this understanding of success into our kingdom pursuits. When we use numbers and metrics in direct relation to our definition of success, we can miss what God is doing behind the numbers.
Success in the kingdom is focused more on faithful obedience than it is on outcomes.
Jesus also teaches a countercultural message when it comes to titling or position. In Matthew 23, Jesus tells His disciples not to be called "Rabbi" or teacher. The context of what He's saying is not to actively seek a position or a title. He tells the disciples, "You are all brethren." In other words, don't use titles to exalt yourself above anyone else. I don't believe He was saying that titles were bad, but the desire to be over others is rooted in pride. When we measure success in relation to position, we open the door to pride in our hearts.
The theme of power is emphasized throughout the New Testament as well. Paul says the "kingdom is not a matter of talk but of power" (1 Cor. 4:20).
Jesus teaches His disciples to control this power. In Matthew 20, the mother of James and John asked Jesus if her sons could sit at the right and left of Jesus in the new kingdom. It's interesting that Jesus didn't rebuke her for the request—perhaps an indication that desiring greatness is not necessarily a bad thing. However, Jesus's main concern was the motivation of the heart. When Jesus got the disciples together, He recognized that they would be given power but told them not to lord it over people. He knew that a desire for power leads to tyranny. Jesus always reframed success in terms of servanthood.
Success in this upside-down kingdom isn't always tangible. You can't measure a changed heart. You can't quantify grace. God doesn't run metrics on the performance, power or position of His children. Success in the kingdom is focused more on faithful obedience than it is on outcomes. Success might not always look like an influential platform, worldwide ministry or mega church. In fact, this may be the exception rather than the rule.
We talk about the "one life changed" but do we really consider that success? Are we willing to write a blog post if only one person were changed? Are we willing to plant a church if only one person was saved? Jesus talks of leaving the 99 for the 1 sheep. This is the culture of the kingdom.
I'm thankful that my generation longs to change the world. More than ever we have an unprecedented opportunity to affect change. Technology has given us global reach and instant connection around the world. We are more primed than ever to be successful at what we put our hand to.
We are left with the responsibility of measuring success in terms of the kingdom. We must resist the temptation to compare ourselves to others or reduce success to performance, position or power. When we live in obedience to God, it doesn't matter how big our platform is. We will be content to change the world one person at a time.