Paul reminds us (1 Corinthians 15:1-2) that the gospel he preached is the means by which we are saved. It is of no surprise then that he goes on to say in verse 3 that this gospel (the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ) is therefore of first importance. The gospel is of such tremendous value, Paul says that of all the good he will ever do, the ministry of the gospel is by far most important. Pastors must therefore be vigilant of the dangers gospel drift.
It’s a clear statement that ought to set a church’s priorities. In that statement, Paul does not say that gospel ministry is the only important thing that needs to be done. Nor does he say that other things are not worthwhile or even sometimes needed. There are other aspects of life that a church needs to accomplish in order to further the mission of gospel proclamation. But what so often happens is that churches start with a clear gospel mission—clear preaching, Christ-honoring services, evangelism, and discipleship in line with Great Commission—but over time drifts and begins focusing on secondary issues. Secondary ministry then becomes the main ministry.
Takeaways from the business world
As a pastor, on occasion, I read a business leadership book to help my leadership in the church stay fresh. A church is not a business, but there can often be some good, common takeaways from the business world. One of the repeated themes throughout all the books is mission drift. A business needs to know its specialty and stay in that lane.
Ford builds cars. Chipotle, burritos. Ford should not enter into the restaurant market. A successful company does one thing really well. What often happens, though, is that initial vision of a company gets blurry, other ideas are brought in, and eventually the company gets pulled in so many different directions that it forgets its mission and ultimately fails. Successful companies stay focused on their mission.
The same principle is true for the church. The church is the only institution in the world entrusted with the message of first importance. No other institution is tasked with our task. And so, we must fight all distractions so that we stay on track.
Stay on mission
The church I pastor is located in downtown Detroit, a city that has endless needs. Most readers will know Detroit is often listed as a city with the highest level of crime and poverty. The public schools are in desperate need of help. Illiteracy is a tremendous problem. Single parent families, substance abuse, a history of corrupt government, the list could go on and on…. All important issues the Christian faith speaks into.
As a church, we ought to be compassionate towards the suffering of people. In Paul’s ministry of first importance, he took time to care for the poor (Galatians 2:10). He was never beyond caring for the suffering in front of him, but he was also careful enough to stay on mission.
In the gospel accounts, Jesus will heal those that are suffering, yet he will also sometimes leave the places of suffering (Mark 1:38-39) in order to stay on track with his greater mission. Jesus did not come ultimately to heal temporary suffering, but to accomplish our salvation through his life and death. He was sent as the lamb of God to take away the sin of the world (John 1:29).
His mission shapes our mission as a church. Our primary mission as a church is to testify (Matthew 28:16-20) to what Jesus has done in his mission. Gospel proclamation is the mission of the church. It ought to be of first importance when setting the budget, hiring staff, thinking through how to use volunteers.
Mission clarity matters to keep us from mission drift
Especially in cities like Detroit, where the community needs are so high, churches can be moved with very godly motives to start soup kitchens and after school programs. All of that is great. But often by the time all the money is raised, the buildings are renovated, and the staff is hired, the needs of the ministry have become so great that the church is consumed by the mission of caring for the poor and not doing the ministry of first importance.
We ought to give thanks for countless parachurch ministries that are serving the mission of the church by taking important ministries off her plate. Para in Greek means to come along side of. That’s what the best parachurch ministries do—come along side of the church. Open soup kitchens, open pro-life pregnancy centers, open publishing houses—tasks that are of tremendous Christian importance, just not of first importance. Healthy parachurch ministries keep the church focused on her call.
There are plenty of other ministries that can do secondary ministry. Let’s give money, time, and resources to support their important work. But there is only one institution entrusted with the ministry of first importance. Let us make sure that she, the church, does not drift from what God has called her to do.