The American businessman Stephen Covey was the author of the well-known statement that “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” While that was said in the context of business it also is highly relevant to the existence, health and purpose of the church, particularly in the area of Mission.
At the end of his ministry Jesus issued a clear instruction to his disciples which can be argued was to be the ‘Main Thing’ for them in their ongoing ministry after he had left them. The instruction was-
“Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19)
Some will disagree with the above argument and say that the ‘Main Thing’ for churches is to help people through working for justice in society, supporting the poor, the lonely, disenfranchised etc. These are most certainly very important things that the church should be engaged in, not least because they are Kingdom-establishing activities which reflect the nature of God himself. However, I think that they are not the ‘Main Thing’ as the current parlous and deteriorating state of the Australian church demonstrates.
That it is the making of disciples that is the ‘Main Thing’ can be illustrated by this question
‘Who will be working for justice, who will provide resources to provide help for the poor etc (or to send Missionaries overseas for that matter?) when, as is its current trajectory, the church has faded to a small irrelevant rump on the periphery of society with few members and a corresponding paucity of resources, both human and financial?’
“The church exists by Mission as Fire exists by burning” Emil Brunner
The sad fact is that large numbers of congregations, while doing many good things, haven’t seen a convert in years, hence the general decline in attendances. Compounding this is the more insidious reduction in the percentage of youth in congregations, a fact that will both exacerbate future attendance decline as well as ensuring the continuation of the ongoing rise in the average age of congregations.
There are two reasons that the ‘Main Thing’ for churches must be the making of disciples (and not item 10 sub-point 4 on the church council agenda), one spiritual and the other pragmatic.
First, it is a matter of people’s eternal destiny, that they change from the wide road that leads to destruction to the narrow road that leads to life. (Matthew 7:13,14)
Second, in order to be able to continue to expend the resources required for ministries of justice, support for the poor etc. as well as supporting overseas mission, the churches must be sufficiently viable entities with strong memberships able to furnish those resources. That is not the prospect in view on current trends.
Failure to obey Jesus instruction to make ‘Disciple-making’ the ‘Main Thing’ is the primary reason for falling church attendances, but more importantly fails to bring God’s saving love to ‘those who are perishing’ (John 3:16). There is also however a further flow-on effect, one that does not seem to be as much appreciated as it should be. This is the ‘Desalination effect’ that I have written about before, namely the loss of Gospel ‘Salt’ (Matthew 5:13) that disciples of Jesus are called to be in society. The result of fewer disciples and fewer churches will be, indeed already is, a lessening of ministries that work for justice, peace, support of the poor etc.
This is why “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing” and the ‘Main Thing” for churches is Disciple-making, for without that all other Kingdom-establishing activities God requires of us will fade away.
The crisis we have is the consequence of the fact that for the vast majority of congregations the “Main Thing” is no longer, indeed has not been for a long time, the “Main Thing”.
Emil Brunner summed up this issue brilliantly when he said-
“The Church exists by mission, just as fire exists by burning.”
The ‘Fire’ of Mission, the making of disciples is burning very low.