I think it’s true that everybody is a worshipper. Everyone sacrifices their time, money, and thoughts towards something. We have functional gods who determine the decisions we make and the direction of our lives.
For example, if feeling good about my body is the most important thing in my life, I’ll put money into things like a gym membership, workout clothes, race entry fees, smoothie mixes, etc., sacrificing other expenditures if needed. I’ll prioritize (or take the first-fruits of) my time so that I can go to the gym, regularly sacrificing other endeavors. And I’ll spend a ton of energy thinking about my body, either celebrating how good I feel, or punishing myself for not working hard enough.
Now, there is nothing wrong with working out, eating healthy, or feeling good about our bodies. These are great things. But feeling good about our bodies is not the meaning of life. It’s not a God, worthy of such god-like devotion. And yet we give this utmost devotion to a myriad of things. We submit ourselves as loyal subjects to many such functional gods.
And when we do this, not only do we push God out of his rightful place of authority and worship, we also distort the appropriate devotion we ought to be giving to other responsibilities and roles: husband, father, employee, neighbor, friend, etc.
So, idolatry is something that can be seen wherever you go. However, I’ve noticed that the things that commonly become idols in big cities are different than the things that commonly become idols in small-towns. Having lived in cities ranging from 200,000 to 1 million and also in rural towns of <30,000, there are general differences noticeable between the priorities of urban folk and those of rural folk.
In urban settings, idols are often made of climbing the corporate ladder, fashion, the arts and a certain culturedness, education and perceived intelligence, community engagement, etc. While these idols are not found exclusively in urban settings, they are more pronounced there. In contrast, folks in rural settings often make idols of things like family, home improvements, family vacations, privacy and isolation, apathy (living for the weekend), etc.
Because I am currently living in and leading a church plant in a small town (and a pastor at a church in a slightly larger, but still smallish town), I am going to write a series of blog posts on the idols that those of us in small towns most frequently deal with. I am doing this as one who struggles with these idols myself, not as one who’s figured this out and always has perfectly God-honoring priorities. But I am also doing it as one who sees the church (by this I mean the body of believers that belong to various local congregations) hurt by its lack of acknowledgement of these idols, and unwillingness to fight against them.
And this unwillingness to keep fighting is a bigger concern than the fact that we have these idols in the first place. As John Calvin has said, our hearts are idol factories. If we get rid of one idol, we’ll likely replace it with another. This isn’t an excuse to give up, but an exhortation to always be alert and continually pushing back against the things that threaten to push God off his rightful throne of our lives.
When I first became a pastor (at that time I was still working a full-time secular job), I was told that as a pastor, you’ll often feel like you’re failing on all fronts: home, church, work. And I have found that to be both a true and liberating expectation. Because whenever I think I have everything dialed in—work taken care of, family feeling loved, church family served—it lasts about two hours and everything goes to hell in a handbasket.
If my hope was in keeping a perfect equilibrium all the time, I’d have given up a long time ago. But if my hope is in a God who shows me grace and love, despite my failures and inability to keep it all together, then I can keep up the fight, continually making adjustments, trusting that God will take care of the end results.
So as we look into these small-town idols over the next few weeks, there are a couple of ways we can respond. We can either get offended and push back because we don’t want to acknowledge the power we’ve allowed these idols to have in our lives. This is understandable. However, if we’ve trusted in Christ to be our Lord and Savior, then acknowledging our idols doesn’t have to overwhelm us. We are already loved and secure in Christ, which means his love and acceptance of us isn’t dependent on us “fixing” our idol problem. And this frees us up to continually fight against our hearts’ various wanderings and devotions, knowing that we were created to direct our worship to only one object, and that life makes the most sense when he’s at the center.