George was a top salesman for Logical Solutions, a software programming and services company. His peers recognized his effectiveness and respected him as a salesman and co-worker. George’s Achilles heel was a bad memory. He had a well-earned reputation for being forgetful. His co-workers found his forgetfulness amusing, but it drove his supervisor nuts.
One noon-time, as George was heading out for lunch, his supervisor asked him to pick up a copy of The Wall Street Journal on his way back from lunch. As the door closed behind George his supervisor looked at the others and said, “Ten bucks says he forgets the newspaper.”
About an hour later George burst through the door, whooping, hollering and waving his arms in the air. He shouted to all within earshot, “You aren’t going to believe this, but I just ran into old man Benson. When I started here he was our largest account. It was a huge blow when he moved his business over to Digitec. We got to talking and I learned he was very unhappy with Digitec. Used my tablet, logged on to our website and right then and there he placed a $350,000 order for services over the next six months.”
George’s fellow-workers hooted and hollered, giving George high-fives and pats on the back. When the celebration died down, his supervisor, who had been strangely silent up to that point, looked at everyone, threw his hands up in the air and exclaimed, “See, I told you. He forgot the newspaper!”
The story reminds us of how easy it is to lose sight of our priorities. In my working with churches I often find the biggest hindrance to their ministry effectiveness is that they lost sight of the priorities. Indeed, one the most important roles for leaders is to help keep “the main thing, the main thing.”
So what are the “universal” priorities that all churches should keep in their sights? What are the “first things” that are essential for a church to keep first if it is to be healthy and effective?
Reaching Lost People
If we believe there is an eternal Hell and that until and unless people find Jesus as Savior and Lord, then logically our first priority would be reaching lost people and helping them come into a relationship with Jesus. Pastors and lay leaders in nearly every church I work with would agree with this conclusion.
But few actually have relationships with unchurched, unbelieving people. We spend lots of time with other Christians, often at church, while failing to prioritize time and relationships with people who need Jesus. Church programs are filled to over-flowing with programs, ministries and opportunities for those who already know Jesus and are part of the church. Few, if any, church programs, ministries or opportunities are effective in connecting with the needs or interests of unchurched, unsaved people.
This reality is evidence that many, maybe even most, churches have lost sight of the priority reaching lost people.
Taking Jesus to Them
Nearly every church will gladly tell people about Jesus if and when those people come to them. Not in words, but by their actions churches tell the lost and the unchurched, “If you will come to us when we are meeting, at the place where we are meeting, at the time we prefer to meet and join us in doing what we enjoy doing, the way we enjoy doing it, we will gladly tell you about Jesus.” Again not in words, but by their actions, most churches are telling people that if you won’t come to us, then “You can go to Hell.” Churches act as though lost people have to find Jesus by finding the church.
Those who know me know I love “Yogi-isms.” Yogi Berra, the former Yankee catcher is famous for saying things in nonsensical ways that sometimes contain a profound truth. My favorite Yogi-ism is, “If people don’t want to come to the ball park, how you gonna stop them?”
Truth is, every single Sunday the vast majority of people indicate by their behavior that they don’t want to come to the “ballpark,” read that “church.” The question is, “How are we going to stop them?” Well we can’t stop them. But we can still reach them. If “they” won’t come to “us” to find Jesus, we can take Jesus to them.
Every truly fruitful church I know, every church that is effectively connecting with lost people and helping them find Jesus is “taking Jesus to them.” They are intentional and aggressive about outreach. A high percentage of their people make building relationships with lost people a priority in their lives so they can become the bridge over which people walk into the life of the church and into a relationship with Jesus.
They, individually and as a church, are relentless and creative about meeting people at the natural intersections of their lives and doing something that is meaningful for them there. That is my personal definition of “outreach.”
Engaging the Culture
The Great Commission is not to make disciples in all nations. In the original language it clearly calls us “to make disciples of all nations.” In other words the task does not stop with helping individuals become followers of Jesus. It starts, but does not end there. The assignment given to us as Christians and corporately as the church is to change the culture.
Currently the church in America is failing at this mandate. The recent Pew Report made it clear we are losing on the individual front. A decreasing, not an increasing, number of Americans consider themselves to be Christian.
In addition, the American church has tried to engage the culture on what are often called the “social Issues.” We have lost the abortion battle. A May 2015 Gallup poll found that 50% of Americans are now “pro-choice” while only 44% identify as “pro-life.” In another recent Gallup poll, 61% said that having a baby outside of wedlock is “OK,” while only 35% said it is morally wrong. 68% of all Americans now approve of euthanasia. Among 18-34 year olds, 81% approve. In still another Gallup poll, 72% say that morals in the United States are in decline.
Gallup reports that a “record high 60%” of Americans approve of gay marriage. If the Supreme Court rules as I and many others expect them to later this month, we will have lost the gay marriage debate. The battle is already lost in the court of public opinion.
The failure to effectively engage the culture is not for lack of trying. The ways in which the church has addressed the issues of the sanctity of life, morality and the definition of marriage have failed to engage our culture in convincing ways.
To be honest, I don’t have a step one, step two and step three formula for addressing this failure. But I do know we have to begin a dialogue about how to engage our increasingly non-Christian culture more effectively than we have been doing in the recent past. American culture has become post-Christian on our watch. Continuing to do what we’ve been doing will not turn the tide.
The Spiritual Disciplines with an Emphasis on Prayer
Can you list the common spiritual disciplines? Most of us can’t. Until recently I couldn’t. Dallas Willard, in The Spirit of the Disciplines, and Richard Foster, in Celebration of Discipline, have compiled a list of spiritual disciplines and practices they believe were modeled in the life of Christ. These disciplines are typically organized into two categories: the disciplines of abstinence (or “letting go”) and the disciplines of activity.
Disciplines of Letting Go
These practices allow us to relinquish something in order to gain something new. We abstain from “busy-ness” in ministry, family life, and work. We stop talking for a while to hear from God. We give up buying another material possession to experience God more fully. The disciplines of letting go include silence, solitude, fasting, frugality, sacrifice and a final one that probably needs defining, secrecy.
Secrecy is about abstaining from self-promotion and instead serving God without others knowing. It’s about giving in secret and serving “behind the scenes” in a ministry that few will know about.
Disciplines of Activity
Dallas Willard writes, “The disciplines of abstinence must be counter-balanced and supplemented by the disciplines of engagement (activity).” The disciplines of activity are about choosing to do things that nurture our souls and strengthen us for the race ahead. They include study, worship, confession, submission (to God and others) and prayer.
In my experience the least emphasized of these disciplines is submission. Other than some who want to make sure wives know about submission, the idea of humbling ourselves before God and others while submitting to meaningful accountability in relationships is seldom taught.
But there is only one discipline that we are commanded to do “without ceasing.” First Thessalonians 5:17 isn’t a nice thought. It’s not a good idea recommended to us. It’s a command! An order! “Pray without ceasing.” Is prayer a priority in your church or is it an afterthought or a lifeline you throw out to God in time of trouble?
Very few pastors preach regularly about the spiritual disciplines. The people that make up our churches are seldom called to and taught how to practice the spiritual disciplines. I believe the spiritual disciplines must be restored as a priority in our churches if we expect to be healthy and enjoy God’s full blessing.
My list consists of four priorities. Your list might be longer or shorter. Your list might include some priorities I failed to mention. But if you are to be truly faithful and fruitful, you must identify your priorities and stay focused on them.