I am pretty sure I heard the phrase first from one of my mentors. Although I very well could have heard in a secular boardroom. The phrase goes something like this,
“We have to keep the main thing the main thing.”
It is a little more than establishing goals or even priorities. The phrase is used to establish what is most important in an organization. In churches, the phrase is used to motivate people to action and keep them focused on value-added activities. What is the thing we should think about the most so that we do what is most important instead of what feels natural for us to do (what feels good)? What would bring the most return for our efforts and/or be the most Scriptural or most Christ-like? In my opinion, the struggle with this idea is not necessarily the obvious response, but what eventually becomes the main thing in most American churches.
For most evangelical churches, the obvious “main thing” would be evangelism. I even used to say, “unless our church is evangelistic, then we are not a church.” This focus is an attempt to respond to Jesus’ injunction to fulfill the Great Commission to “go and make disciples.” We have differing ideas about what this actually means, but most churches would probably agree that this is the main thing! Again, the problem is not the initial intent – the issue is what the intent becomes.
When an organization decides to grow, it is just about inevitable that the main thing becomes attracting new membership and retaining those that are already on board. Once the group has any kind of volume, it is very natural to focus on membership growth, budgets to maintain the organization, and strategies to make the membership productive and happy. There are always champions of the noble causes, but the business of running a church demands that there always be new, potential members coming in the front door. We even call them prospective members when we talk about them in strategy meetings. Potential members need a place to park, adequate restrooms and place to drop off their toddler (we call it parking, preschool and potties—the trifecta)!
Most of the staff in a typical church is postured toward the potential church members. Generally, there are specific people to greet new members. Many churches have follow-up plans to reach out to those that filled out a visitor card. Let me be clear, I don’t think there is anything wrong with being hospitable and making people feel welcome. But, in our attempts to grow the organization, has the main thing really gotten lost in the shuffle? The church is described as a family, but what if we are neglecting the current family because we’re always searching for the next addition to our family? What if the lost sheep is really within the people that already attend? What if the most recent drop in membership is due to a valid problem in the organization that we don’t have time to address? What if the wounded are hobbling out one door as we greet new members at the other?
It is probably safe to say that a certain amount of people will leave the organized church on a regular basis. Especially when churches are seeker-sensitive and longing to attract new members, people will always act like consumers and “shop around” for what suits them best. I certainly had my share of disappointment toward people that left the church without explanation. But, is the answer to this modern dilemma to just keep feeding people into the machine? Should we neglect current members and write-off the ones that are leaving since it’s “inevitable” anyway? Or, should we take a long hard look at what business as usual looks like in the 21st century church?
I don’t do very well at malls. There is a flurry of activity and too many distractions that keep me from my objective of getting what I came for. I like specialized stores and places where I can get what I came for. When we go grocery shopping, we like to have a list. Otherwise, we leave the store spending way too much money and, inevitably, not getting what we really needed. Most churches are trying to find the moving target of what people are looking for. They spend lots of money, read lots of books and gather at conferences to hear the latest strategy. My previous denomination was obsessively focused on what would appeal to the current church prospects, but ultimately, spend very little respectively on member care.
You see, the other thing Jesus said very strongly often gets lost in the shuffle is called “The Great Commandment.” He said, it is the embodiment of all the law and the prophets. It is the most important thing we can do. By doing it, we will fulfill our purpose—it is indeed “The main thing.” When the Pharisees asked Jesus, what was the main thing, he replied,
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Why would we focus all our attention on bringing people into to the organization instead of caring for those that are already in the organization? Why would we adopt children into our family if our current children were not being cared for properly? If we are going to keep opting for a centralized church that we say makes effective use of resources, then we should be ever diligent about applying those resources effectively into the nurture and care of the individual. In the online communities, I hear it every day. People are finding acceptance, love and healing outside of the organization. They feel like they are supporting the organization of the church and the church is not supporting them.
Before you get defensive, I get it! I was a pastor for 20 years and I know that there is never enough time or resources to “minister” to everyone. That is why I think the church as an organization needs a total overhaul and not just a few tweaks. It doesn’t at all resemble a family and it is hard to see it as a body.
I don’t think evangelism is the main thing and here is why. I think when evangelism is the main thing, the church organization becomes more like a sales team than a family or body. When everything is geared toward attraction of new members, the real main thing gets lost. But, when love is the main thing, then “making disciples” is what naturally happens. Love is really the only thing that changes the world. Early Christians were characterized by their love, not their salesmanship. If the church learns to love the world like God does, the church would not even have an evangelism committee (much less a budget for it).
Yesterday I got a text message from a friend. She had posted something on Facebook. Something that was definitely meant to help other teachers. Something that she believed it with all her heart. It did just what it was supposed to do… help teachers. She received so much positive feedback; however, she also noticed some negative comments attached to her post. In all the amazing, glowing compliments, what she focused on were the couple of negative comments. She was distraught. In my response to her heart-broken text to me, I wanted to assure her to “keep the main thing the main thing.” It’s funny that those words came out in a text and then Karl said that would be the title of our first chapter of this book.
When I told her “keep the main thing the main thing”, I was not referring to anything church or religious related. For me, keeping the main thing the main thing is all about staying true to who you are. Begin a pastor’s wife for 20 years, it was not inside the walls of the church where I learned this… or maybe it was. As a pastor’s wife, I knew the main thing to be one of two things. First, Jesus. Nothing was supposed to come before Jesus. Second, keeping up appearances as the dutiful wife and mother. I mean what would people think about ME if my kids weren’t perfect and my husband wasn’t 100% supported despite my own voice and desires? Now, before I go any further, the expectation of being a dutiful wife and mother did NOT come from Karl. It came from the pressures of living in a fishbowl. Everything I did or did not do would be scrutinized by the church and the small towns we pastored.
Here is what I have learned since leaving church and the message I was trying to get across to my friend. We need to keep the main thing the main thing and, for me, that means living your authentic self. That means not letting the crowd, be it a group of teachers or a church congregation, tell you who you are or who you should be. It is about finding people who will allow you to explore your authentic self and show you abundant grace in your search. For me, those people are my family; my husband Karl, my son Jordan, and my daughters Abbey and Lily. They surround me with a never-ending stream of grace to not only find who I am, but to completely be who I am at the moment. They encourage me to explore and grow and decide for myself, even when it’s scary. Surrounding myself with love and courage to grow into the best version of myself. For me, that is keeping the main thing the main thing.
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