Is our church putting first things first?

Our church has become a large enterprise. Is the commitment of the church's employees to its mission based primarily on material or spiritual values? Does the church need an annual priority audit?

J. David Newman is an executive editor of Ministry.

What is the mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church? Is its focus blurred or sharp, clearly defined or ambiguous? Our church has more than 4 million members, more than 100,000 employees, and billions of dollars in assets. Is it still putting first things first in the spending of its money and the deployment of its personnel?

Is the mission of the church to provide health care to the community?

Is the mission of the church to provide education in all subject matters to its members and others who care to enroll?

Is the mission of the church to develop a large and complex international relief agency?

Is the mission of the church to develop a large insurance agency?

All of these, and others could be included, take time, money, and people. These services are good--actually the church needs them--but the question still remains: What is the church's mission? Does it have a single focus? Or has it become weakened by diversions? The phrase "putting first things first" implies that some things are of primary and some of secondary importance. Danger threatens if services and agencies that should remain secondary are elevated to primary concern.

Article II of the constitution of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists succinctly states the mission of our church: "The object of this Conference is to teach all nations the everlasting gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and the commandments of God."

All activities, institutions, services, and programs, then, need to be evaluated by two basic criteria: 1. Are they giving priority to communicating the gospel? 2. Are they giving priority to preparing, training, and equipping people to assist in this task? The church may engage in many good activities, but if its activities do not fulfill these two basic criteria, then it is not putting first things first.

An important key to establishing these priorities is the commitment of the people working for the church and its institutions. Recently a committee has been studying problems connected with the wage scale. One college president reported that he cannot find a professor for his nursing department because our colleges pay much less than our hospitals. The committee is recommending that the salary of college teachers be raised. If this recommendation passes, teachers would receive about 30 percent more than pastors. Concern is already rising in the church over the "brain drain" from education and the ministry into the health systems, where the pay is much higher. Is the remedy simply to raise salaries? Is the church putting first things first?

When Jesus lived on earth he had a very important mission to fulfill. The devil constantly tried to divert Him from that mission. Someone came to Jesus and asked: "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me." Jesus' reply is most instructive: "Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?" (Luke 12:13, 14).* Jesus refused to be diverted from His mission, good as that request might have seemed. Jesus knew His priorities. Does the church know its? When a church medical institution has on its staff only a minority of Seventh-day Adventists, can it still put first things first? Can it still effectively witness to the gospel and the soon return of Christ? When church employees consider remuneration more important than mission, are they still putting first things first? Are the policies our church votes based on pragmatism and politics or on principle and our primary mission?

After Jesus rebuked the individual who wanted Him to intervene, He made this incisive comment: "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions" (verse 15).

The Seventh-day Adventist Church likes to see itself as fulfilling the roles of Elijah and John the Baptist. These men were famous for putting first things first. Their mission was to warn people of judgment and bring them to repentance. Their lifestyle gave credence to their words. They did not ask what their salary would be or what allowances were in the policy. They did not seek the approval of the public or say that which was expedient and popular. They had a mission to perform and a message to give.

Our church today needs the same kind of commitment. Too many of its employees, like Gehazi, see no problem in accepting silver and merchandise. They lust after the material things of this life. Because of this their witness is muted. If the church cannot find sufficient dedicated persons to staff its programs and institutions, it would be better off with fewer programs and institutions. God is not beholden by numbers, but He does need commitment and sacrifice. Our church was founded on sacrifice, and its work will be completed only by sacrifice.

The church should not aim to have as many institutions and workers as possible, but to have dedicated, sacrificing, priority-setting institutions and workers. It should not try to duplicate what the world provides, but to offer that which the world is not supplying, that which is unique--the giving of the gospel and the heralding of the coming of our Lord.

Our church would do well to have a priority audit each year. It conducts an annual financial audit to see if it is on target, so why not a spiritual audit? If every institution, every agency, and every department would yearly evaluate its priorities to see how it is contributing to the spiritual mission of the church, what a revolution that would bring!

As church members and employees, let us remember that we are aliens in this land and that the world is constantly trying to squeeze us into its mold. Let's give the proper priority to the church's mission.

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

"Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Heb. 12:1, 2).--J.D.N.

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J. David Newman is an executive editor of Ministry.

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