Imagine three friends on a road trip together. Where exactly they are heading is largely irrelevant, but for the sake of storytelling, let’s say their destination is the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota (I may or may not have personally visited the Palace on a high school field trip).
As these friends are driving along, they begin to argue. Tom is largely preoccupied with driving the car, avoiding potholes and hazards on the road, focused simply on moving forward at a steady pace. Dick has his ear to the car, sensitive to any stutter in the engine, any softness in the tires, any suspicious noises from under the hood. Harry sits in the back seat with a map open, checking their progress toward their destination.
The argument begins when Harry alleges that that they are no longer headed in the right direction. They’ve taken a wrong turn. If they don’t correct their trajectory, why keep driving? He is solely focused on their destination.
Dick responds that their destination hardly matters if the car is not functioning properly, and, according to his diagnostics, the car is anything but fully functional. Three of the four tires are nearly flat, the engine is misfiring, their fuel is almost gone and the brakes have too much give. On top of all that, the AC isn’t working. He is solely focused on their transportation.
Tom tells the other two to stop talking; destination and transportation hardly matter when all of his energy is dedicated to navigating the terrain in front of him, which is becoming increasingly treacherous, requiring ever more skill to simply maintain forward momentum. He is solely focused on their navigation.
Each of our three friends is absolutely convinced that the object of their attention—destination, transportation or navigation—is the most important consideration on their road trip.
But who is right?
According to Tom, there is no point in having a clear destination or functioning vehicle if they cannot traverse the roads. Dick insists the destination and navigation are irrelevant if the vehicle isn’t functioning properly. And Harry maintains that there’s no reason to be on the road at all if they don’t have a clear destination.
The attention we pay
In his challenging book, “The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction,” philosopher Matthew Crawford argues that we moderns are susceptible to distraction—and thus, to the machinations of the attention economy—because of a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be human. He writes, “Our distractibility seems to indicate that we are agnostic on the question of what is worth paying attention to—that is, what to value.”
To further develop Crawford’s argument, modern humans are so easily distracted because we don’t know what is worth paying attention to. We don’t know what is worth paying attention to because we can’t tell the difference between what contributes to the primary function of a human being and what detracts from that function. And we don’t know what contributes or detracts from that function because we don’t know what the function of a human being is.
In other words, if we don’t know what human beings are for—why we exist—then we don’t know what contributes to fulfilling the purpose of our existence. We are prone to the distractions which promise us a guaranteed hit of synthetic happiness: not the true, deeply rooted happiness of human flourishing but the short-lived and shallow happiness of simple activity.
We are “happy” to keep moving, whether we’re moving in the right direction or not.
The same argument could be made about the church. Is it possible that we church leaders don’t know what to pay attention to when leading our churches because we can’t tell the difference between what contributes to the primary function of a church and what detracts from that function?
Is it possible that we church leaders are so easily distracted by things like “parking lots, sound systems, and children’s ministry security” (as Dr. Mickey Klink so eloquently reminded us at February’s EFCA Theology Conference) because, not knowing what actually contributes to the primary function of a church, we settle for church activity instead of church flourishing?
Of course, asking such a question assumes that we can know for certain what a church is for.
In my early years in the pastorate, I fell into distraction in my youth ministry leadership. I was focused more on creating experiences for students than ministering to students. I knew the numbers but not the students’ names. I was more interested in developing great games than life-changing groups. I planned activities to blow kids’ minds, not open kids’ hearts to Jesus.
I wasn’t creating disciples, I was creating consumers.
I wanted the ministry vehicle to run well and I wanted to drive it well. But I had no idea where we were going.
At a recent EFCA pastors’ gathering, one of the more seasoned mentor-pastors in the group challenged us: “When your church leaders get together, you should have one question, and one question only, on your agenda, every meeting: Are we making disciples or not? And if not, why not? Everything else is secondary to the church’s primary function to make disciples.”
Now that I am responsible for sharing leadership for an entire church, this question weighs even more heavily on me than it did in my youth ministry days.
Are we making disciples, or not? If not, why not?
I’m not arguing that worship isn’t important. It is. I’m not arguing that evangelism isn’t important. It is. I’m not arguing that serving, or gathering in community, or teaching isn’t important. They absolutely are. And of course, the parking lot, the sound system and the children’s ministry security system are important to the functioning of the ministries.
But all of these things exist so that the church can make disciples.
Gazing on Glory
In his second letter to the church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul argues that in the act of thoughtfully and intensely meditating on the glory of God, we are transformed into God’s likeness, with ever-increasing glory (2 Cor 3:18). A few verses later, he explains what he means by “the glory of God,” writing, “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:5-6 ESV, emphasis mine).
In other words, we are transformed into God’s likeness, we are drawn into ever-deeper discipleship, we are made disciples when we gaze on the glory of God’s goodness to us in the face of Jesus Christ.
So what is the primary function of the church? Where is this ministry “vehicle” headed? What should we aim ourselves and our ministries toward, regardless of how well the vehicle is functioning or how skillfully we navigate the terrain in front of us?
The answer is simple: everything we do—programs, systems, structures, practices—exists to help us gaze on the glory of God's goodness to us in Jesus Christ.
We can become so distracted by the functioning of the church that we forget the function of the church. We can be so overwhelmed by leading the church, we forget where we are leading her to.
When leaders assess their ministries, when elders reflect on their goals, when pastors are evaluated by their boards, this is the sole question: are we encouraging ourselves and one another to gaze on the glory of God’s goodness to us in Jesus? If not, why not?
Harry was right. If we aren’t going in the right direction, what does it matter how well the vehicle functions or how skillfully we navigate the crises in front of us?
Your church exists to encourage one another to gaze on the glory of God’s goodness to us in Christ. That’s how we make disciples.
And if our churches exist to make disciples, then our job as pastors and leaders is to develop the spiritual discernment to know what contributes to that primary function of the church and to know how to avoid what detracts from it.
Brothers and sisters, don’t be distracted by the many crises in front of you as you navigate this challenging cultural terrain. Don’t be distracted by the many misfires and malfunctions of your church’s systems and structures.
Attend to these things, but only after you’ve checked the map and know you are headed in the right direction.
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