EN article: The ultimate priority of the church

I have been asked to write a regular column for Evangelicals Now. The latest article (my original, unedited version) is below.

In last month’s edition of EN, I wrote about evangelism as über alles; that is treating evangelism as the only priority of the church. Of course, nobody says they think that, just as nobody ever thinks they’re a hyper-calvinist. Nevertheless, apart from the hyper-calvinists themselves, we all know it when we see it! But I was soon hearing my position – don’t make evangelism the only priority of the church – being (mis)quoted as, ‘there are some people doing too much evangelism!’ Which is interesting because I didn’t say that, nor do I think it!

Some of the places that insist evangelism is the only priority of the church are not necessarily putting others to shame with their extensive output (some are, but not all). What they tend to do is reckon the only task of the church is to share the gospel and make converts, which means the ongoing discipleship of their people and any converts they make is stunted. What happens at their services is typically geared up for unbelievers, not the believers in membership, and any ‘discipleship’ that does take place centres around what is perceived to be the only task of the church: sharing your faith with others.

The problem with phrases like too much, or not enough, evangelism is that it is totally unmeasurable. The Bible doesn’t set any clear parameters on the amount we are to do. Must we share the gospel with an unbeliever every day or is once per week the allotted amount? The question becomes even harder when we ask it alongside what is too much prayer, Bible reading, etc. When we focus on ‘amount’ (unless the amount is literally ‘none’), we have missed the point. When can anybody ever say they have done enough of these things? That is, at least in part, why I wasn’t talking about amount at all!

My point was that for some churches, organisations and individuals, the Great Commission is seen as little more than doing evangelism, without paying any heed to the specific, and much wider command, to make disciples. Those who take this view variously consider the church either as little more than an inconvenience to our real task of sharing the gospel with unbelievers or else the church is seen as valuable but everything within it is setup with the goal of reaching unbelievers.

This doesn’t mean that such places are necessarily doing more evangelism than anyone else. It means whatever they are doing is filtered exclusively through the prism of reaching unbelievers. Church meetings – whether modern seeker-sensitive ones or old-fashioned gospel services – are built around unbelievers, for the purpose of evangelism, not the upbuilding of believers, because that (they aver) is the main task of the church. When people do become believers, they are not walked alongside and discipled with the scriptures, they are tossed a Bible and effectively told to get on with it because their main duty now is to tell others.

For such people, the church is either an inconvenience in pursuit of that task – and is either neglected altogether in favour of parachurch ministry or grudgingly born with out of duty or tradition – or else the church is setup so that it can, and will, never be a nurturing place for believers seeking to be faithful to Christ, because the church (on this view) doesn’t exist for that. It is for reaching the lost and no more.

It should hardly come as a surprise that those involved in parachurch organisations set up for evangelistic purposes should see evangelism as effectively the only priority. But plenty of churches who take this view too. Of course, there are also those who say the opposite. They see no need to do any evangelism. We just preach the Word, they insist, and He will do the rest. He will bring in those whom he wants to save and they will respond simply by a work of the Holy Spirit. Both positions may encourage something important, but they miss the main priority of the church.

Others insist that those with a gift of evangelism should prioritise evangelism. But that is only true if we think those with, for example, the gift of tongues should only prioritise that and nothing else. The Apostles, with their gift of apostleship, didn’t only apostle (because it isn’t a verb). Rather, with their gift of apostleship, they evangelised, preached, did good works and other things. Similarly, Timothy was charged to preach the Word but also with doing the work of an evangelist. And it is hard to ignore the fact that everybody is commanded to do some stuff irrespective of how ‘gifted’ they feel. Which leads into a different discussion about what spiritual gifts actually are (for another article perhaps), but what most people mean by that term i.e. special abilities, is not how the Bible ever uses that term.[1] But what is pertinent to our discussion here is that some insist that the question of priorities rests in the concept of individual giftedness.

Without putting too fine a point on it, I think these attempts to understand the priorities of the church are wrong. In fact, they tend to lead to an out of kilter approach to church life. The Christian life consists of more than just evangelism, discipleship, praying, reading the Bible, or whatever good thing you want to make into the ultimate thing. The problem with making any of these things the main priority is that none of them can ever be said to be done or enough. You will never have prayed enough, or read the Bible enough, or done enough evangelism or whatever. Which means, if you make any of those things the main priority, everything else will get pushed out to accommodate it. Which might mean you do well in that one area whilst failing to do a whole load of other things Jesus calls all of us to do too.

But there is, indeed, one priority of the church. It is the same priority for every single Christian, past, present and future: the call to faithfulness. Jesus does not ask us to list his commands and work out which one(s) we want to keep most. Nor does he ask us to pour all our time into one and not worry about the rest. Jesus said, ‘if you love me, you will keep my commandments’. Note he doesn’t say, ‘rank them and keep your favourites.’ In other words, Jesus calls us to follow him and to be faithful in what he asks of us. That is in all areas. That is the priority of the church. Faithfulness.

When we are faithful, we won’t artificially rank what Jesus asks of us. I can’t neglect my family because I’m too busy in the work of evangelism nor can I never do any evangelism because I’m too busy with my family. He doesn’t ask me to figure out whether I disciple the folks in our church or I reach out with the gospel. He doesn’t force a wedge between my Bible reading and my prayer life. He doesn’t ask me to discover my spiritual gift and pour all my time and effort into that. All of these things are things that Jesus calls me to do. If I am being faithful to him, I will work out how best to do them all without claiming I must not do some of his commands so as to fulfil others. Jesus doesn’t play favourites with his commands.

Only when we make faithfulness to Christ our priority, are we freed to live balanced Christian lives. The Lord Jesus doesn’t want me to spend all my time doing any one thing, he wants me to wisely use all of my time to glorify him by faithfully keeping his commands.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism says:

Q: What is the chief end of man?
A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Q: What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him?
A: The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.

Q: What do the Scriptures principally teach?
A:  The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.

We glorify God and enjoy him by reading the scriptures, believing what they tell us about God and doing what he commands of us. In other words, our only priority is to be faithful. That is how we glorify God and enjoy him forever, as he made us to do.

[1] For more on this, I would recommend Kenneth Berding’s excellent book, What are Spiritual Gifts?