John responded, “No one can receive a single thing unless it’s given to him from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I’ve been sent ahead of Him.’ He who has the bride is the groom. But the groom’s friend, who stands by and listens for him, rejoices greatly at the groom’s voice. So this joy of mine is complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:27-30 CSB)
John was calling people repent and follow the coming Messiah. He recognized that he wasn’t sent to build up his own little kingdom or fiefdom. John beamed with pride and joy when people began following the true Messiah rather than himself.
John’s humility is an example to us all, especially to pastors and missionaries proclaiming the good news of Christ’s kingdom.
Again the next day, John was standing with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look! The Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this and followed Jesus. (John 1:35-37 CSB)
When John lost one of his own disciples to Jesus, he was elated, not deflated. John didn’t argue with them, denounce them, or shame them. Instead, he encourages them to leave him to follow Jesus. John knew that proclaiming Jesus was his true role; encouraging others to follow Jesus was his raison d’être.
Pastors and missionaries must have the same humble attitude of John the Baptist and conduct missions following his example. We serve not to attract people to our following, but to add to the following of Another.
Part of this humility involves listening to the criticisms that have been leveled against certain models of missions. Bob Finley offers several criticisms in his book, Reformation in Foreign Missions (2010), and though I disagree with his conclusions and applications, his observations of are often excruciatingly accurate. There have been numerous missionaries who have used dishonest and unethical methods, and many pastors and missionaries have sought to grow their own personal kingdoms rather than Christ’s kingdom.
As a missionary, I must constantly check and repudiate my pride. It is a daily struggle to imitate the attitude of John the Baptist. If in five years after I leave the mission field and no one remembers my name or the things I did, yet there are disciples of Christ worshiping God in healthy, reproducing churches, my response should be to praise the Lord. I am not here in West Africa to make my name or the name of my mission organization great. I need these reminders so often that sometimes I feel like I need phylacteries to bind them to my forehead.
The Myth of Influence
The proponents of the prosperity gospel that is prevalent throughout Africa and in many parts of the world have unfortunately taught the opposite of such humility to many pastors and missionaries. Prosperity preachers teach that God wants us to pursue our own individual power, wealth, and influence. They reason that, once we ascend to importance, we can bring glory to God through our influence.
I cannot communicate how destructive this mindset is to God’s kingdom. John the Baptist didn’t say, “I must increase so I can help Jesus increase too.” May it never be! John’s joy was full when his following decreased and Jesus’ increased as a result.
In my study, it first seemed odd to me that the Gospel of John places such a heavy emphasis on the ministry of John the Baptist in the first few chapters, only to so quickly move past John to Jesus. But today, I am immensely thankful for such strong a reminder about John the Baptist’s humility at the start of the book. The author knew that we needed to be reminded: the emphasis of our ministries must be on Jesus, not ourselves.