Digging for the Right Priorities

When people see what appears to be a dynamic church, they invariably focus on the visible signs of success. They look at the outward areas of ministry, which are usually issues of style, appearance, or delivery, and they attempt to replicate those: lights, videos, music, casual dress, new causes, new classes, new programs…

I’m not suggesting these issues don't matter, because they do….Yet I fear we have succumbed to an unbalanced infatuation with issues of presentation and methodology….

Think back to the parable of the sower. The greatest variable in Jesus’ story is the soil. It is the basis for greater Kingdom impact. Jesus doesn’t focus on the methods of spreading the seed or even the type of seed. His focus is all about the ground on which the seed falls…. Soil directly affects potential outcomes despite what takes place above the surface. As a result, churches need to spend more time enriching the soil, making their environment healthier, and less time looking for external, superficial fixes….

Tweaking processes, techniques, and programs is valuable, but those things are never as important, influential, or foundational as the culture of the church.

C.S. Lewis wrote on a couple of occasions about the failure of people to see the predictable consequences of putting second things before first things. On one occasion Lewis even said that Esau was a “lucky exception” for gaining a meal in return for his birthright because the more predictable pattern is to lose both the primary and the secondary blessing as a result of putting second things before first things.

This applies to the church as well. When we prioritize the visual aspects of ministry, such as presentation and methodology (second things), we find that many of our initiatives do not work as we had hoped, and our ultimate desire of seeing real Kingdom impact never materializes. In many cases this is because we fail to give adequate attention to the deeper, more important issues of church culture and environment….

Whenever we get our priorities out of order, we should not expect God’s full blessing. The Lord is clear that He wants His church to produce fruit and make a redemptive difference in this world (John 15:1-16). Yet the Scriptures are equally clear that God is the one who gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6-8). Our job is to be faithful in doing the Lord’s will. That involves planting the seed, of course, but ultimately how we plant is not nearly as important as what we plant and the soil in which it’s planted.

My premise is that we have some control over the quality of the soil inside the church, and focusing on that is ultimately a higher priority than just tweaking programs, activities, or creative delivery methods. But addressing soil is not easy. It’s not quick, and it’s definitely not flashy. As a matter of fact, when you start working with dirt, things get messy—which is why most leaders are hesitant to think about what comes next.

--from Chapter 2 of Dirt Matters: The Foundation for a Healthy, Vibrant, and Effective Congregation

Next week, I will offer some insights from Chapter 3: “The Key to a Fertile Culture.”