Monday, July 16, 2018

The Golden Apples of Distraction

Enemies of Evangelism 6

golden_appleLet us not be ignorant of his devices. (II Corinthians 2.11) One of the devil’s greatest tools is simply moving a church away from a soul winning emphasis by substituting another emphasis. In other words, if he can he will distract a church away from what is best, using what is good. In so doing, he can accomplish almost as much as if he managed to get it to embrace theological liberalism. I am not talking about a church transitioning into a Hell’s Angels biker club. I am talking about a church, while still doing good, becoming distracted and thus pulled away from what ought to be its primary work.

Paul gives us a ruling principle in Philippians 1 when he tells us to approve things that are excellent. Every word in the Bible is there on purpose. Excellent is much better than good. In fact, as almost any great leader will tell you, the good is often the enemy of the excellent because once you settle for the former you never get to the latter.

In our Men’s Bible Class recently, I have been teaching a series on the local churches discussed in Revelation 2 and 3. We have been diagnosing their strengths and weaknesses to discover what we may apply in our own church. One of the things we see again and again is a church that is doing something good but forgetting to do the excellent. The church at Ephesus, for example, was commended for her work, her patience, her perseverance, and her independence. But then there is this damning indictment: Nevertheless, I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. It does not matter what else our church is good at, if we are not fiercely and mightily in love with the Lord we are well-nigh a complete failure. That is the greatest commandment, and if we fail at the most important one, it matters little if we succeed wondrously at one ranked twenty-sixth.

Corporately, then, our church must examine the Word of God to see what God emphasizes. We must place our emphasis where He does. If we do not, we run the risk of majoring on the minors, the grievous mistake made greatly by the Pharisees. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith. (Matthew 23.23)

This concept – approving things that are excellent instead of good, placing the emphasis where God does, being great at the greater commandments, etc. – applies to this blog series precisely because I believe that telling people about Jesus Christ is the primary mission of the local church. It is why we are in business.

Atalanta and Hippomenes
by Willem van Herp
c 1650
A church is a business, God’s business. Our Saviour said that He was about His Father’s business. (Luke 2.49) In the instructive illustration found in Luke 19 we find that he called his ten servants, and delivered them ten pounds, and said unto them, Occupy till I come. “Occupy” in the original language means to carry on a business. What business? The Father’s business and the Son’s purpose – bringing men to the Father. For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost. (Luke 19.10)

Make no mistake, a church is a business. It is not in business to make money, but rather to reach souls with the Gospel, and to teach men and women and boys and girls how to know, obey, and glorify God. It is in the reaching and teaching business.

Every single theological definition of the church I have ever run across says something to the effect that the church is a group of Christians united and organized to carry out the Great Commission. (Mark 16.15) The church I pastor, Maplewood Bible Baptist Church in Chicago, was organized for this purpose in the Autumn of 1891. Our 1925 church directory states, “The purpose of this church shall be to promote the interests of the Kingdom of God, evangelize the unsaved, and edify those of the faith. To this end the church shall maintain regular meetings and seek to create and cultivate an interest in and devotion to missions at home and abroad.” And if I, as pastor of this 127-year-old church, allow it to get distracted from this primary purpose, by some other good thing I will have been fooled by the devil’s devices.

Statue of Hippomenes by
Guillaume Coustou the Elder
c 1700
There are two primary ways this can happen. First, a church can become inwardly focused at the expense of being outwardly focused. The great purpose of the church service is edification. (I Corinthians 14) To edify is to build up, but what are you building up for? When your goal becomes building up people for their own sake, or even for the church’s sake you have become a selfish, inwardly focused church.

Churches breed programs like rabbits. We have programs to help senior citizens get to the doctor, programs to make sure they are not forgotten as shut-ins, and programs to give them fellowship and activity. We have programs to help young people get to camp, programs to encourage them to come to church, programs to get them to sing, programs to get them serving the Lord, and programs to give them fun activities. We have programs to provide good music in our church services, programs to record and get out the preaching, programs to care for the building and grounds, programs to move people from sitting to serving, programs to cultivate giving, programs to strengthen marriages, programs to draw people deeper in prayer, programs to build strong men, programs to assimilate first time guests into core members, programs to do a thousand good things. And that is just my church, an average-sized church with a health-challenged pastor.

If we are not careful we will get so busy ministering to the people in our church that we will neglect our primary responsibility – getting out the Gospel. I am not talking about choosing between being a wicked church or being a good church. I am talking about shades of emphasis, and this requires some level of discernment and a constant and unrelenting commitment to the main purpose of the church.

The second way in which this happens is different than being inwardly focused. It is being outwardly focused on things of less importance than evangelism. To minister means to serve, and any good church is going to want to minister to people. A selfish church will do that almost exclusively internally, but an unselfish church will direct a fair amount of that ministry focus externally. The will start a MOPS group, or a food pantry, or a divorce recovery group.

Again, I stress, these are not bad. The truth is they can even be structured in such a way as to attempt to reach people with the Gospel. The other truth is that while they may start with that intention they rarely stay that way, and soon devolve to the place where doing ministry and helping to meet the specific needs of those people becomes the purpose. After all, that is the main thing around which they were structured.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that for a church to have such ministries is a bad thing. I am saying if that is all your outward focus is as a church – to somehow meet the needs of the community around you – your external focus is completely out of balance.

An old but very helpful statement to me as a pastor is this: the main thing is keeping the main thing the main thing. My church exists as a business organized for the purpose of fulfilling the Great Commission. If we are not constantly telling people about Christ, bringing people in to hear about Christ, training people to tell others about Christ, praying for people to come to Christ, visiting people so they will come to Christ, and giving money to those who are reaching people for Christ then we have gotten sidetracked. We are doing the good at the expense of the excellent.

8967793In Greek mythology, the huntress Atalanta was singularly unimpressed with marriage. Her father continually tried to marry her off and she continually avoided it. Finally, she consented to marry the first man that could beat her in a footrace. To keep the number of participants to a minimum the price for losing the race for the men was death. Thus it was that Atalanta held off her suitors until a particularly canny young man named Hippomenes came along. Procuring three divinely crafted golden apples, his strategy was simple. Sprinting from the starting line he quickly drew ahead. As Atalanta caught up he dropped a golden apple. Delightedly distracted by the bauble, Atalanta stopped to pick it up. Running again, she quickly caught up to Hippomenes whereupon he dropped the second golden apple. The same pattern repeated. Yet again, for a third time, Atalanta caught up with him. Yet again, Hippomenes distracted her with a golden apple. Seizing his opportunity, Hippomenes dashed across the finish line and into the bonds of matrimony and Greek legend.

The golden apples of distraction - in pursuit of the beautiful but lesser thing we fail to achieve the more important purpose. Let us beware, beloved, and let us pray for the grace and wisdom we need to keep the main thing the main thing.

1 comment:

  1. AMEN. That's some good preaching. To be about our Fathers business is of top priority; John 4:34 KJV
    Jesus saith unto them, My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work.