Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

Spiritual Narcissism

  • Dr. James Emery White

    James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theologyand culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he…

  • 2012 Jun 25

The names say it all.

YouTube. MySpace. And, of course, iPod, iTunes, iMac, and iPhone.

If there is a theme to our day, it’s that “it’s all about me.” The technical term is narcissism. In Greek mythology, Narcissus is the character who, upon passing his reflection in the water, becomes so enamored with himself that he devotes the rest of his life to his own reflection. From this we get our term “narcissism,” the preoccupation with self.   

The value of "narcissism" is the classic "I, me, mine" mentality that places personal pleasure and fulfillment at the forefront of concerns. Historian Christopher Lasch went so far as to christen ours “the culture of narcissism,” calling it our new religion.

Now as Christians, this should be antithetical. We follow a Savior who said, “I did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give my life as a ransom for many;” “Whoever wants to be first must become last;” “Whoever wants to be great among must become the slave of all;” and then bowed in submission to the Father and said, “Not my will, but yours.”

Yet a spiritual narcissism has invaded our thinking where the individual needs and desires of the believer become the center of attention.

Have you ever heard the way we talk?

“I want to go where I'm fed" or "I need to be ministered to” rolls off our tongues without even blushing. We walk out of a worship service and say, "I didn't get anything out of it" as if worship was about what we received rather than what we gave to God. 

And it’s killing the church, blinding our vision, paralyzing our mission and muting our voice.

But is it simply a reflection of a narcissistic culture? Or could it be something we have unknowingly created ourselves?

Consider the first two questions any organization must ask itself (courtesy of management expert Peter Drucker): What is our mission? and Who is our customer? The second of these involves crass language, I know, for any church. But let’s consider them a moment. 

First, what is our mission? I would argue that it is to seek and to save the lost (how could we have a mission other than the one Christ had and then entrusted to us as the church?). Yes, the Great Commission involves discipleship, but I tire of those who pit evangelism against discipleship, as if doing one prevents concentrating on the other. It’s a both/and, not an either/or. But more to the point of the mission, if you never reach anyone for Christ, who, exactly, will you be discipling? Evangelism must be in the vanguard. 

From this comes the second question: Who, then, is our primary customer? It is inescapable -- if our mission is to seek and to save (and then disciple) the lost, then our “customer” is the one who is lost. Here is the breakdown -- most churches have, as their primary focus, reaching and then serving the already convinced. So the mission isn’t making disciples, but caring for them. From this, services rendered to the believer become paramount. They are the customer in a consumer-driven mission. 

Which means that we are not victims of a culture of narcissism; we are purveyors of it.

There are those who would say that the place where spiritual narcissism runs amok is in contemporary approaches to outreach that seek to cater to the unchurched -- as if such churches are abandoning orthodoxy in any way possible in order to gain warm bodies. Most, of course, are doing nothing of the sort. In truth, the real narcissism is among the churches catering to the believer, making their needs paramount. Because nowhere does true spiritual narcissism face more opposition than in a church which is choosing to die to itself in order to reach out and serve those around them.

Then it’s not about whether you are fed, but whether or not you have learned to feed yourself and, best of all, feed others.

Then it’s not about whether you are ministered to, but whether you are, yourself, a minister to others.

Then it’s not about whether you got anything out of the service, but whether you gave God anything of service.

And that is a church that has died to itself enough to ... live.

I love the church. I have given my life to the church. I believe, as is often said, that the church truly is the hope of the world.

But we have to make one message very, very clear as leaders: 

That’s not the church’s job.

Make me close to Jesus!

It’s not the church’s job.

Save my marriage!

It’s not the church’s job.

Raise my kids!

It’s not the church’s job.

Give me friends!

It’s not the church’s job.

Feed me!

It’s not the church’s job.

It is not the church’s job to give you the life you want, or hope for, much less the one that you are expected to forge through a relationship with God through Christ under the direction of the Holy Spirit. The church cannot ensure that all goes well with you. Most of your life is your responsibility.

Why do I say this?

To defend the church.

Why do people often come to a church? To get fixed, find friends, renew faith or strengthen family. All well and good, and the church can obviously be of enormous assistance in all four areas. But the church can’t be held responsible for these four areas of life, nor should you expect it to. 

Let’s try and drive this one home:

The parents of a middle-school student drop their child off at a middle-school ministry. The child does not change into a model Christian student. The parents immediately search for a new church with a more effective middle-school ministry.

What is wrong with this picture? What is wrong is the complete absence of any sense that spiritual life is the responsibility of that middle-school student, not to mention that spiritual leadership within the family is the responsibility of the parents. 

Instead, we have a mentality of “drop-off” parenting, which is just part of the mentality of a “drop-off” church. We drop our wives off at a women’s ministry to get them to be the wives or mothers we want; we drop our husbands off at a men’s Bible study to get them to be spiritual leaders; we drop ourselves off at a service or recovery group to fix our problems, or a Bible study to renew our lukewarm faith.

It reminds me of the sixties and Timothy Leary’s famous line regarding not only the benefits of LSD, but the spirit of the age:

“Turn on. Tune in. Drop out.”

That is not the way to approach the church.

There comes a time when personal responsibility kicks in. 

The church exists to coalesce and enrich; to coordinate and inspire; to provide order and leadership. It exists to pull together the collective force and will of those who follow Christ in order to fulfill the Great Commission given it by Jesus Himself. Yes, it serves the family trying to raise a child; it seeks to heal those who are broken; it provides the richest of communities for relationships; it offers the necessary resources for a vibrant relationship with Christ.

But it cannot circumvent the choices and responsibilities of the human will.

It cannot do life for someone.

That’s their job.

And one of your jobs is to remind them of it.

James Emery White



Adapted from James Emery White, What They Didn’t Teach You In Seminary (Baker), available through Amazon.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is A Traveler's Guide to the Kingdom: Journeying through the Christian Life (InterVarsity Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

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