“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes…” – Romans 1:6a
“A church without a gospel-centered purpose is not longer a church at all.” – Thom S. Rainer, Autopsy of a Deceased Church
Operating a car while texting is distracted driving. It has the potential to result in serious consequences—a fine, loss of license, an accident and even the loss of life. A distracted driver, simply put, is a dangerous driver. A church distracted also reaps serious consequences—lost gospel opportunities, missional drift, inward focus, and even the loss of God’s blessing. A church distracted is soon a church without fruit.
Is your church distracted? What I mean is, is your church distracted from accomplishing the main thing? What is the main thing? My conviction is that it is the proclamation of the gospel, and springing from that, the making of disciples.
I asked the pastors of my province if their church was often distracted from doing the main thing. The answer was a unanimous “yes.” A follow up question I tossed out was “What examples of distraction are you experiencing?” The following are a sampling of their replies:
- Politics (left, right, progressive, conservative, green, American, Trumpian, Freedom rallies);
- Social issues (gender identity, LGBTQ2 efforts, abortion, assisted dying, climate change, racism, the woke agenda, various renditions of “lives matter,” Indigenous truth and reconciliation efforts, treaty land rights);
- Government laws (Bill C4, gathering and vaccine
- Internal squabbles (style of worship or leadership, organization, governance);
- Social media & technology; and,
- Religious influences (well known, influential Christian leaders calling for believers to ‘radicalize’ under some spiritualized banner).
Following my conversations with these pastors, I reflected on how I could help the MB churches in Saskatchewan navigate their present distraction–saturated landscape. I contemplated writing a pastoral letter. When I started drafting it, I believed that penning a message about the distractions churches encounter and how to overcome them would be straightforward. I was myopic. My initial presumptions about church distractions were set aside when these same insightful pastors started asking me about my own understanding of a distraction.
Is a distraction always a distraction or is what appears to be one really an opportunity?
Can a distraction actually be a result of fulfilling the main thing (the proclamation of the gospel and making disciples)?
Is what may be diagnosed as a distraction in one setting be a part of the doing the main thing in another?
Isn’t it true that some distractions can be about doing good things?
I do not have the space in this forum to engage every example of distraction these pastors listed. In my mind some realities like internal conflict and political posturing clearly undermine the church from being about the main thing. Others require rigorous discernment. And so, what follows is somewhat of a circumscribed approach to the subject, but so be it. If it proves helpful, amen! If it starts a healthy conversation, perfect!
A story of a ministry faithful to its original mission helped me orient myself to the subject at hand. For years I have appreciated the ministry of Tribal Trails, a weekly TV ministry of the Northern Canada Evangelical Mission (NCEM). Started in 1982, Tribal Trails exists solely to proclaim the gospel and raise up disciples among North America’s First peoples. This ministry is a basic and simple Christian production with a powerful impact through testimonies of transformed lives and a clear presentation of Jesus. What has genuinely impressed me about this work is that for over forty years it has stayed true to its reason for existence; to share the gospel and help First Peoples live that gospel practically every day. In the forty years of the Tribal Trails ministry, our Canadian culture has seen the call for treaty land rights, the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, the social causes of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls and Every Child Matters. Over the years, the episodes I watched never departed from a messaging that in every circumstance the person and work of Jesus was the best response – he was hope, freedom, reconciliation and peace. Never were these social issues downplayed or ignored; Tribal Trails simply proclaimed Jesus as THE way, truth and life in all things. My point is not that these efforts are unworthy or unimportant, but rather that this ministry wasn’t distracted by them, it kept the main thing the main thing.
“Our mission is to fulfill the great commission by living out the great commandment.” – Gospel Fellowship Church, Foam Lake, Saskatchewan
A clarifying question for me about the church is: What other entity has been given a God-ordained mandate to proclaim the gospel and make disciples of Jesus? There are great organizations that feed the poor, visit prisoners, achieve justice for the disenfranchised and fight for social causes. Many have the blessing of God. However, telling others about Jesus and how to follow him is to be the church’s main thing. Venturing into these other good things has a real possibility of distracting the church. I do concede that our gospel must be holistic (word and deed), and some churches carry out this balance well, but others take the social gospel path or worse, see the proclamation of the gospel as a ‘problem’ in community outreach. In such a scenario, the gospel becomes the distraction! By default, the church soon operates like another humanitarian organization devoid of the salvific good news of Christ Jesus.
A fruitful church planter in my province is determined to avoid having the church he planted and now pastors from becoming distracted. He shared that every time his church gathers, they will hear about the mission of the church – to advance the gospel, raise up disciples and then plant new churches. He is diligent in guarding the gathered ‘stage’ time. In essence, during a Sunday service the church does not promote any outside ministry or mission. He absolutely encourages members and attenders to serve in other para-church ministries and community efforts, but the church’s gathered time is their time, promoting the gospel, making disciples and planting churches. He said he has seen too many churches corporately promote and engage in activities and ministries which are not the main thing and soon become completely distracted by a myriad of good works. Jesus, he argues, must be the church’s first love and advancing the gospel must be the church’s first response; nothing is of equal importance. He maintains that even before the reign of Constantine much of the Roman Empire was being transformed from paganism, not by Christians marching in protest against the social ills and evil of the day or establishing humanitarian organizations, but rather by persecuted and martyred believers bearing witness of the gospel. There is a lesson here for today’s church in the post-Christian nation of Canada.
As Mennonite Brethren, we have articulated a solid foundation pertaining to the mission of the church. Article 7 of the MB Confession of Faith, in part, reads:
“We believe the good news of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ is for all people. Christ commands the church to make disciples of all nations by calling people to repent, and by baptizing and teaching them to obey Jesus. Jesus teaches that disciples are to love God and neighbour by telling the good news and by doing acts of love and compassion.”
Here is found the intersection of the Great Commission and the Great Commandment – here we see the interplay between proclaiming the gospel, making disciples and loving our neighbour. Like a three-legged stool, if the church removes one leg, the stool collapses. If the church is distracted from engaging in one of these three activities, its ordained ministry eventually collapses.
Where to from here? I am a firm believer that if Satan fails to destroy the mission of the church through some rendition of tribulation or persecution, he will endeavour to do it with rabid enthusiasm by distracting the church using well-intended busy work. The local church needs to constantly be reminded why it exists and what its God ordained mission is. The church needs to guard against anything that distracts from this mission. It is here that sound discernment is needed; tough questions must be asked. What I’m advocating for are good conversations around whether your church is keeping the main thing the main thing and if not, why not? Is your church distracted?
“Love Jesus, love people, help people love Jesus.” – Grace Fellowship Church, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
The church’s main thing is far too important to be treated half-heartedly or to be an assumed reality by leaders called to steward it. Leaders must have the courage to be like centurions at their post, guarding with unfeigned resolve the church’s God-ordained mission of bearing witness to the gospel. As the gathered church, if there arises any distraction, even if it be the most noble of social or humanitarian causes, I hope leaders have the courage to place them under the priority of the main thing. And if needed, to make a necessary cut.
Friends, fix your eyes on Jesus, seek first the kingdom, be faithful to make much of Jesus and accomplish the Great Commission as you live out the Great Commandment. I close my thoughts by sharing an ancient prophetic word given to John in Revelation. This word to the church in ancient Ephesus speaks to my heart about the peril of a church distracted. May the Spirit give insight as you hear the divine warning and examine whether your church is about the main thing.
“Write this letter to the angel of the church in Ephesus. This is the message from the one who holds the seven stars in his right hand, the one who walks among the seven gold lampstands: “I know all the things you do…But I have this complaint against you. You don’t love me or each other as you did at first! Look how far you have fallen! Turn back to me and do the works you did at first…” Revelation 2:1-5a NLT
The Wake I Make – assessing the ‘waves’ my words and deeds create. In the August MB Herald Digest Gunther invites us to think about the spiritual exercise of examen (spiritual self-examination) as a daily part of our discipleship experience. Gunther has readers think about questions like, “Where did I see the grace of God today? Was I a channel for the grace of God today?
There is valid and valuable reminder here to remain focused on following these two pillars of our faith – the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. But I am uneasy of a few lines here, in particular the way the early (pre-Constatine church) is portrayed in this article, which seems to separate the means by which the Gospel advanced. It seems to suggest that proclaiming with words/testimony has a higher value than working together in acts of compassion. I want to offer here another perspective from a former colleague who has done significant research into the early church – here’s his description:
“For the early church leaders, care for those on the margins of society was very much at the core of the Christian faith and its expression. It was a public and prophetic witness to the inbreaking of God’s kingdom, where the weak, the vulnerable and the broken are not discarded, but are valued and treated with dignity, a kingdom where the “hungry are filled with good things” as Mary sang in the Magnificat. Early Christianity largely spread in the cities of the near east. Life in many of these cities was one of disease, misery and fear, providing Christians with the opportunity not only to imagine a better world in the distant future but also provide solutions for present-day problems people faced.”
My encouragement is that we together seek to grow deeper in our understanding of how God in Christ has brought unity and wholeness to our relationships (in all dimensions) with one another and to God himself.