A lucky farmer owned an extraordinary mule that was legendary for its strength and stamina. But it also had a very healthy appetite and its practical-minded owner figured it would be an even better asset if he could cut back on its upkeep when there was no field work to be done. One winter day he had an inspiration: instead of the normal ration of oats he substituted 10% sawdust. When the mule didn’t seem to notice, it encouraged him to gradually increase the percentage and he was delighted when the faithful beast continued to consume its daily ration with gusto. In fact, this shrewd fellow was very close to proving that his beloved mule could be happy with a diet of 100% sawdust when a terrible piece of BAD LUCK ended his promising experiment – the durned thing up-and-died on him!
Well, that corny (or should we say ‘oaty?’) story has a serious moral: it’s easy to become so complacent about a blessing that we whittle away at the things that give it vitality — and then are surprised that we’ve killed it! That’s a mistake that innumerable businesses have committed when they tinkered with the formula that once made their customers love them, and powerful societies have regularly undone themselves when they became distracted from the values that made them successful.
But it’s not only secular enterprises that make this kind of error: churches are also guilty of allowing false priorities to fatally distract from their real mission. It’s no secret that the major denominations in our country are in steep decline these days. There are many factors of course, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that decades of focusing on social approval and preservation of physical institutions has diluted the core Gospel teaching. And it’s not only the traditional ‘main-line’ denominations who are guilty of this: John MacArthur, one of the most prominent Evangelical figures of our day, in his book The Gospel According to Jesus makes this harsh accusation against contemporary Evangelical preaching: “The gospel in vogue today holds forth a false hope to sinners. It promises them that they can have eternal life yet continue to live in rebellion against God. … The church’s witness to the world has been sacrificed on the altar of cheap grace.”
Now whether or not one agrees with such assessments, surely we as humble followers of Christ must confess that we often fail to keep our priorities straight when we argue about what will grow membership rolls rather than what best feeds souls, or when we pay more attention to the upkeep of the building than to the quality of the spiritual life that is nourished within it. Too often we are like Jesus’ faithful follower Martha who complained about her sister Mary shirking her household duties in order to listen to Jesus. After all, our first priority must be to be ‘practical’ about the things that ‘need doing,’ right? But we then need to remind ourselves how Jesus explained HIS priorities: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-41, emphasis added)
There are many important things that happen in the church, but only one that truly qualifies as necessary: making disciples for Christ (Matthew 28:19-20). That’s entirely the work of the Holy Spirit, of course, yet we’re privileged to be the hearts, heads, and hands that support His work by providing for the preaching and teaching of God’s Word, administering the sacraments, supporting each other in our needs, welcoming visitors, reaching out in witness to the world, etc. And doing these things effectively does require attention to many practical matters: upkeep of facilities, balancing budgets, devising and administering policies, and many more. But all of these things are just the means that the Spirit employs to create and nourish disciples – the true purpose of the Church. They are never to be ends unto themselves!
God provides us with many blessings, but one supreme blessing without which all the others are meaningless – the gift of eternal life bought for us in the blood of Christ. When we allow ANYTHING to become more important than that, we are squandering the “one thing necessary.”
“For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36)