When a congregation wants to get, stay or remain healthy, one of the key questions it asks has to do with the balance between its internal and an external focus. One excellent congregational exercise to help with this question is to gather a group in a large room, and on one end of the room create an imaginary continuum that stretches from one side of the room to another. One end of the continuum is internal, the other is external.
Now ask everyone participating to move to a place on the continuum that reflects the way they would answer these questions.
First, ask: “In your understanding of the reason for the Church’s existence, where along this continuum would you say that Jesus intended his church to focus its attention? Internal, meaning primarily upon itself, or external, meaning primarily outside itself?” People vote with their feet by standing at the place along the continuum that reflects their answer.
Second, ask: “Where along this continuum does our church invest its primary energy, finances, staffing and facilities?”
Third, ask: “Where do you think we should be in that regard?”
As you might imagine, almost without exception, we find people gathering in the middle to the external end on the first question, and much more heavily toward the internal end of the continuum on the second question. Generally, they gather in the middle on the third question. It seems pervasive: there is a gap between our understanding of the nature of the church and the way we actually do church.
Nearly everyone agrees that a primary mission of the church is captured in texts like the Great Commission, and in images of salt, light, ambassadors, witnesses, and a host of other metaphors focused on impacting the world around us to help bring the reign of God to reality. The people of God, from our beginning, have been tasked with being a blessing to those around us.
To be sure, there are also multiple commands to create a spiritual body that works in harmony, confesses Christ as savior, and is marked by love, deep fellowship, a servant spirit and profound humility.
In healthy congregations and parishes, the gap between where we invest the majority of our resources and what we sense to be our essential calling is under constant evaluation. In dysfunctional and self-absorbed communities of faith, the question is seldom asked and often belittled.
I believe this “mission gap” is at the heart of our crisis of attendance and support. When a congregation spends its time primarily tending to its own needs, when the care of members is the first priority for clergy, when member’s expectations are primary, when the essential question we ask is “Do I like this?”, then we have a fundamental problem of alignment. No stewardship campaign or outreach effort will be able to overcome this foundational misalignment.
As long as our first thought is self-care and self-fulfillment, we will be at odds with the spirit of Jesus Christ. Whatever success we have will be shallow, vapid and transitory.
On the other hand, the churches that are inviting people to join them in living out the mission described, taught and lived out by Jesus are finding an audience. Their attention is focused, not only “what I want from the church”, but additionally upon “what our community needs from God and us.” Seeking to balance these two polarities is at the heart of being the people of God in the 21st century.
It is amazing the transformation that comes when this balance is restored to a proper ratio. Infighting, selfishness, gossiping, backbiting and judgmental attitudes have a way of melting in the face of passion for reaching and ministering to others. When a congregation gets properly focused on loving the city or community where it is located as Jesus loved the world, and especially Jerusalem, then an equilibrium is established that puts our internal concerns into their proper perspective.
Having our pew vacant, or hearing our preferred musical style in worship, or getting the attention and acclaim we think we deserve shrinks in comparison to the fulfillment we receive from seeing people come to faith, feeding the hungry, giving a drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoners, welcoming the stranger, and caring for the sick.
This balance between internal and external focus is at the heart of what is right and what is wrong with most congregations today. We need to get this right, not just because of what it means for today, but for what it means in our future.
For all our lack of clarity about what happens when we die, there are some things we can know without question. You do not need to wonder what will happen in the end. We have the authoritative story from the one who will be there. Jesus has told us in exquisite detail in Matthew 25: 31-46 what awaits each of us.
Closing the mission gap between what we know to do and what we actually do has eternal consequences for both the church and the lives we will touch. We would be wise to align our church’s schedules, our budgets, our staffing model and most especially our priorities accordingly.