Please allow me to talk out of both sides of my mouth.

I just posted an article on the Power of Focus, arguing that churches need a clear, defined, and narrow focal point in order to be effective. Now, however, I have to state the other side of the argument: churches don’t have the luxury of being too narrow in their attentions and efforts.

The Varied Mission

From the beginning, the church has been charged with a multi-faceted mandate. For instance, the church has certain God-oriented commitments (worship, holiness, obedience) to which it must be faithful.

Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness. (Ps 29:2)

True worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth. (Jn 4:23-24)

But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do. (1:Pe 1:15)

Yet—as vital as worship, prayer, and the pursuit of holiness may be—no church can retreat like a hermit into undisturbed contemplation of the divine. There is more to church than liturgy and sacrament.

The church also has commitments to itself … a mandate to care for the body, the bride, the temple of Christ … to love, support, teach, encourage, and mature each other.

Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. (Jn 13:34)

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Eph 4:32)

[And all the other “one another” teachings in the New Testament]

This horizontal responsibility is no less pressing than the vertical—the faithful church will attend to both dimensions. However, just as there are churches that would rather love God than love each other, there are also churches that would prefer to focus on fellowship rather than faithfulness. I have known churches so obsessed with the one another passages that matters such as praise and holiness were moved to the periphery of church life. The church doesn’t have the luxury of existing to serve only itself. There is more to church, after all, than small groups and pot luck dinners.

Things get even more complicated. Churches also have a mandate for the world. Not to love worldliness, of course, but to love the worldly—the lost, the hurting, the marginalized people outside our walls.

You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Ac 1:8)

Love your neighbor as yourself. (Mt 22:39)

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. (Mt 25:35-36)

This focus on the world represents a third dimension in the life of the church. Not just upward to God … or inward to each other … but outward to our fellow man. This last dimension is, perhaps, the easiest dimension for the church to ignore—our mandate to serve, witness to, and influence the “neighbor.” There are a great many churches so caught up in worship and fellowship, they have little left to give the world. But, of course, failing to make a mark on the world is not an option for the church—making a kingdom mark is one of the prime reasons why the church exists and the Lord lingers.[1]

There is a marvelous passage in 1 Thessalonians where Paul speaks to all three of these dimensions in the span of just a few verses as he instructs these Christians on “how to live in order to please God.”

It is God’s will that you should be sanctified, for God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.…Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other.… Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders. (1Th 4:3-12)

Balance

It is at this very point that confusion breaks in. When I advocate the importance of focus for churches, I don’t mean to imply that churches should choose only one of the above dimensions to focus on. While focus is vital for church effectiveness, focus has validity only within the context of the church’s mandate to love God, each other, and the world. We don’t get to choose which dimension to emphasize. To be faithful as a church, we must be multi-dimensional: serving God, our brothers and sisters in the faith, and a hurting world.

While churches need to be focused (for effectiveness), they must also be balanced (for faithfulness). We need churches that are unswervingly dedicated to reaching up to God (through worship and holy lives), reaching in to each other (through the practice of Christ-like community), and reaching out to the lost (by serving, testifying, and being “salt and light”)—whatever their specific sense of calling and focus might be. If a desire for focus leads a church to be imbalanced in this regard, focus becomes a vice rather than a virtue. It isn’t enough for a church to do one or two of the three dimensions well. A church that “gets” worship but “misses” compassionate service is deformed, deficient, and debilitated—not the well-proportioned, symmetrical body Jesus envisioned. A church so interested in serving the physical needs of the marginalized that it ignores their need for forgiveness, reconciliation, and new life has amputated one of its principle missional limbs—and will limp and labor as a result.

Only balanced churches can be faithful and healthy. Only balanced churches can accomplish God’s essential mission.

These three dimensions of mission (God/Church/World) are often (and properly) reflected in the mission statements of many churches. These statements make explicit a commitment to reach UP, IN, and OUT. Here are a few examples:

Peace Chapel is a body of Pentecostal believers whose purpose is to worship God as we evangelize the world, and provide a place of fellowship to equip the believer for service to God and man.

First Baptist Church is a fellowship of believers that purpose to know God through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, to equip believers through discipleship, and to reach a hungry world with Jesus Christ through obedience to the Great Commission.

The New Bethel United Methodist Church is committed to give our very best efforts towards our weekly corporate worship services; provide opportunities for service, outreach, and improvement in our community as well as in the global community of which we are a part; and model the body of Christ in our encouragement of the Spirit’s gifts, in our relationships with one another as a covenant community, and in our daily living. 

This kind of balance, however, is not something churches achieve naturally or by accident. Like a tight-rope walker, the church keeps its balance only through close attention, careful steps, and constant fine-tuning. It takes hard work and effective leadership for churches to find and maintain their equilibrium.

Failing that, churches usually lose their missional balance by making one of two opposing mistakes: leaving out something essential to the church’s mission or trying to incorporate too much into the church’s mission. 

The First Threat to Balance: Omission

I’ve already mentioned churches that omit essential God-mandated functions … churches that major in God (for instance) and ignore their responsibilities to fellow disciples and the world. There is evidence for people making just this kind of mistake in Scripture. In his denunciations of the Pharisees, for example, Jesus often accused them of defining their mission too narrowly:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are. (Mt 23:15—they were zealous to proselytize people in the world but careless about authentic relationship with God)

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. (Mt 23:23—they were careful about giving God his tithe but neglected to give their fellow man justice and mercy)

“Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!” (Jn 2:16—religious leaders, in their eagerness to accommodate worshippers [and make a tidy profit for themselves!], compromised the temple and its worship)

But it wasn’t just the Pharisees who made this mistake. Some Christians and churches were just as tempted to put one dimension of kingdom business above another:

If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. (1Jn 4:20—John warns against defining faith as a vertical business only … it also has a necessary horizontal dimension)

Before certain men came from James, Peter used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. (Gal 2:12—an instance of Peter sacrificing the gospel [and gentile believers!] in an attempt to accommodate Jewish Christians)

I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. (1Co 5:9-10—Don’t withdraw from the world and give up the opportunity to be “salt and light” because people in the world do not share your moral and religious principles)

Balancing responsibilities to God, the brothers, and the lost was not an easy matter in the first century world and it remains challenging today. When you look carefully at some modern church’s mission statements, balance is often missing. Consider the following (and actual) mission statements as examples:

Our mission is to carry the gospel, the sacraments, and God’s love and fellowship to the unchurched, the alienated, and the excommunicated (the church’s homeless).

Notice the focus here is primarily outreach. Nowhere in this statement is there something to drive the church upward, towards a reconciled and transformed relationship with God. (The gospel and the sacraments are mentioned, but more as a means of converting the lost than a means of intimate communion with God himself.) Nor is there any sense of priority regarding an inward mission: loving, serving, and living in unity with a community of believers. I believe this truncated mission sets a church up for a one dimensional mission: the world, the whole world, and nothing but the world.

First Church especially focuses upon those who are seeking a “new beginning,” and those who want to become more “Christlike,” and want to learn more about living a “holy life,” and for those who are yearning to grow in “love and compassion,” and the building of “family relationships.”

Here the primary emphasis is “disciple making” (reaching in). “First Church especially focuses on”—and notice the wording—“those who are seeking” … “who want to become” … “who want to learn” … “who are yearning.” Where in this is a focus on the transcendent God or any hint of a commitment to adore and obey him? And where in this is any commitment to or responsibility for the hurting, down-trodden, and lost—whether or not they are “seeking” and “wanting” and “yearning”? This statement sets the church up, again, for a one dimensional focus: us and those who yearn to be like us.

We are a church that is committed to Christ and his word. 

Short. Sweet. And to the point. Who could argue with it? Who would want to? But wait. This rigorously vertical mission statement is not only so amorphous as to be meaningless (what does “committed to Christ and his word” mean? what does it look like in practice? how is it expressed and implemented? who decides when the church is achieving this mission and when it is not?), but it completely ignores the other dimensions of our mission (how we relate to each other and the world). One might argue that loving each other and serving the world are necessary extensions of “commitment to Christ and his word.” But we have too much history of people so “committed to Christ and his word” that they would happily burn at the stake anyone who did not share an identical commitment … we have too much history of that to leave a commitment to fellow believers and a broken world unspoken.

The Second Threat to Balance: Over-commission

It is equally important, however, not to mistake a commitment to balance with a blind determination to do everything God has asked of his church. A church that tries to do everything will do nothing well. And the result will not be balance; it will be ineffectiveness.

In its broadest terms, the mission God has given the church is too large for any single congregation. Yes, every church should strive to be multi-dimensional (balanced in the sense of reaching up, in, and out). But, ultimately, balance is not the enemy of focus nor does a commitment to balance obviate the need for focus.

It is possible (indeed, it is desirable) for a church to express and enact its commitment to serving God, the family of faith, and the world through specific and limited ministries for which it is uniquely equipped and deeply passionate. While balanced in terms of its audience, churches can still live out of their circle of commitment and focus their resources and energies on a single calling. The example I gave in another article in this series[2]—of a congregation full of doctors, nurses, and dentists that decided to focus on health and healing as the primary mission of their congregation—indicates how a particular church can reach up, in, and out while still hearing a specific calling from God to accomplish a particular task. In a series of future articles, I plan to tell you about a congregation I’m working with at the moment that feels “transforming lives” is their God-given mission. They don’t do medical missions. They don’t host a Christian school. They don’t talk much about end times or the Judgment Day. They focus on transformation: the power behind it, the grace making it possible, the means through which it takes place, how we can help or hinder the process. Transformation (and gratitude for it) drives their worship. The life of the church (its teachings, small groups, ministries) is organized around and evaluated by transformational effectiveness. Their benevolent and evangelistic interactions with those outside the church are selected on the basis of their leading to transforming experiences in the lives of lost people.

“But if churches don’t focus on everything God wants his church to accomplish, how will everything get accomplished?” someone may object. My response: by realizing the Church is bigger than any one congregation … by appreciating that the Body of Christ is scattered over time and space … by trusting God to accomplish in the whole what no single part can ever achieve on its own.

This subject—the One Body—is the theme of the next article in this series.

[Read the first article in this series.]

[Read the next article in this series.]



[1]     If you read the article Key Mission Passages (part of this series), you will be aware that the mandate of the church is even broader: not just a responsibility to reach up, in, and out but a responsibility to address certain eternal “business”: preaching and protecting the gospel, growing broken people into the image of God, partnering with the Spirit to develop godly fruit … to name but a few. Each of these has different implications for worship, fellowship, and outreach.

[2]     Why Bother with a Mission Statement? (See discussion under #7: Mission Statements build consensus)