Just about ten years ago, Rev. Timothy Keller was known as one of America’s truly great pastors and church planters. He had gone into one of the arguably toughest cities into which to build a church and actually succeeded in planting a sustainable church that led to several other churches being spawned in the Northeast United States and in other major cities around the world. Demand for Keller’s help began to increase and like most in demand people do, he began to think about how to package his insights, strategies and approaches to understanding God, the world and the Bible so that he could satisfy the demand. He hired editors and marketers and communication professionals to assist him. And, in short order, Keller became a New York Times Best Selling author. Given what I know of Rev. Keller, I’m sure it is not his intention to undermine the work and service of anyone.
In American business, sports and in American Christianity, success breeds success. Effective authors become popular and build a following of readers – an audience. And as Keller became more popular demand for his published works increased. Sound familiar? In 2008, he published two best-selling books and since then he’s published eight more, plus three study guides for small groups. And more have been published since I drafted this essay about 10 months ago.
My concern with this common occurrence is that my local pastor and your community’s leaders get compared to Keller. Our society is full of the competitive spirit. And while competition may be helpful in sports and business, it can be harmful in community and relationships. A person created in God’s image and with a special part to play in God’s eternal love story doesn’t get appreciated and encouraged to play their part, but is seen as lackluster and average compared to the more successful members. The Apostle Paul spoke straightforwardly about this in the early life of the communities who followed Jesus. Competition was a problem 2,000 years ago, too. In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul said that God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.
The competitive spirit is one of the things that can wound us. Paul knew this and Jesus taught this. So often Jesus talked about raising up the lesser among us and those who are weak would be made strong through hanging out with him. Jesus knew, as creator, that everyone created has a gift to bring to the community. And Paul taught this for the early followers of Jesus.
When was the last time that you heard a leader in your faith community promote the church down the street? Or a speaker praise another speaker and say that you should listen to him or buy her books before buying mine? When was the last time that a conference promoter encouraged you to hang out with the poor or immigrant in your community before attending another religious event? And this is not the whole point of my essay today. My point is that we need each other. And if we are too focused on those in the spotlight, we will miss important gifts to be received from those on the fringe. And my other point is that competition can undermine our brothers and sisters among us who have valuable contributions to make.
Jesus calls all of us to be compassionate as his heavenly father is compassionate. And compassion which quite literally means “to suffer with” requires less competition and focus on how we are different, but focusing on how we are the same. What we have in common leads to community and compassion.