The first time I attempted to define the mission of the church, it didn’t go well.
I was twenty two years old and in my first year of teaching at a Christian school. When I attended my first conference for professional church workers, I was loving my job and wanted to learn more about ministry and working in the church.
The first conference speaker’s topic was entitled “The Role of the Church in Our Changing Culture.” As I listened to the hour long presentation, something didn’t seem right. I couldn’t quite identify the issue that I disagreed with. The speaker was engaging, told many jokes and stories, and quoted scripture to back up his thoughts. His main message went something like: “Our culture is the threat. The church needs to think of itself as a battleship sailing into hostile territory with guns blazing to defeat the enemy.” He used the battleship analogy throughout his message as a rallying point to convince the listener that the role of the church is to preach the Word of God and call out the elements of our culture that are opposed to us. The final line of his presentation was, “The church is a mighty battleship. Don’t let our culture sink our battleship.”
After the presentation, we were instructed to discuss the presentation with those seated at our round tables. I was immediately a bit uncomfortable. I didn’t know the others at my table. I had snuck into the presentation as it was starting and took the first open seat that I could find. While listening to the instructions that would guide our table discussions, I resolved that I wouldn’t contribute much to the conversation and would stay as quiet as possible. It wasn’t only that I did not know the other nine people at my table; they were also all pastors (I was not) and easily old enough to be my father, or grandfather.
Most of the men at my table expressed a favorable opinion of the presentation. A few disagreed with the battleship analogy and thought that the church should be viewed more as a hospital ship; caring for the spiritually sick and addressing the needs of people. As the discussion continued, the hospital ship analogy picked up momentum, winning several people to its side in the great battleship versus hospital ship debate. There were a few men at the table who stood by the battleship analogy, repeating information from the presentation as their rationale. I stayed silent, the debate continued, and each participant grew more frustrated.
Eventually, there was a pause in the conversation. Nobody seemed to have anything to say that hadn’t already been said several times. During that silence, a few faces turned to with eyebrows lifted as if to say, “this guy hasn’t said anything, let’s hear what he has to say.” Despite my desire to stay silent, I felt compelled to contribute.
I opened my mouth and out came some words that were not well thought out. “I think you are all wrong,” I said. That got their attention. All nine heads tilted slightly to their right and the foreheads wrinkled as they stared at me. “I don’t think that the church is best described as a battleship or a hospital ship.”
“Then what is it?” asked one of the men.
I replied, “Well, I love fishing and growing up, the stories and words in the Bible that referenced fishing always caught my attention. During our discussion I couldn’t help but think of Jesus calling disciples and telling them to follow him and he would make them fishers of men. I don’t think we should be sailors on a battleship or medics on a hospital ship, I think we should be fishermen on a fishing boat. The church should be a fishing boat.”
Where was this coming from? The twenty two year old me had never sat down and thought this through, but here I was telling a group of pastors what I thought about the purpose of the church. Looking at the men who had argued for the battleship, I said that the church should be engaged in the culture and should equip people to live as Christians in the world. Looking at the men who had argued for the hospital ship I explained that the church should care for people who have physical, emotional, or spiritual needs. “But,” I said “we should first and foremost be a fishing boat fishing for people who are lost.”
When I finished my unplanned thesis on the mission of the church, everyone paused for a minute. I don’t think they knew what to think, much less say. I’m not sure if it was the message or the awkward young guy saying it, but it was met with momentary silence. One of the men forced a huge smile, exaggerated a chuckle, and thanked me for my comments. If he could have, I think that he would have reached across the table and pinched my cheek and said “nice try little guy.” Everyone turned their heads away from me and returned to their previous debate.
I still believe every word that I unexpectedly spoke that day. Should we stand up to those who would undermine the church? Sure. Should we care for the physical, emotional, and spiritual need of people? Absolutely. The primary mission of the church is to make disciples from those who are lost, to catch fish that haven’t been caught, and to bring people onto our fishing boat. It is this purpose that leads me to write and speak about the importance of local churches having a strong, well defined mission.
One of my great frustrations with the church is that we are really good at defeating ourselves. Many churches struggle or completely ignore the need to clearly define and pursue their mission. That should be ground zero for any church…to know why you exist.
Many churches choose to not define their mission and end up drifting from Sunday to Sunday, seemingly surrendering to the inevitability of a slow or rapid decline.
Even churches who do clearly delineate their mission have challenges to overcome. Satan is always scheming. Our culture is increasingly combative to our message. Sin is all around us. Those challenges are real. Imagine for a moment what it would look like if all churches knew what their mission was and were on fire to pursue it. Think of the people saved. Envision the culture turning to the church and picture satan being really ticked off. That vision starts with your church clearly defining its mission.
I love the well known Steven Covey quotation, “Begin with the end in mind.” You are reading this because you are a leader in your church that cares about ministry. When seeking to start or revitalize your church, you should begin with the end in mind. You need a clear sense of mission before all else. Define the destination, and the path to get there becomes clear.