by Lee Anderson Jr. —
I recently visited a historic site in my county, home to a church that has met continually since 1794. It was intensely fascinating to walk about the grounds, observing the architecture of the buildings, and seeing old headstones in the church cemetery that predated most of the notable events in America’s history. But the thing I most desired to see on my visit to this historic place was the church’s baptistry, constructed on the site of a natural freshwater spring located directly behind the church’s worship hall.
Unfortunately, as I approached the baptistry, I could see that it was not at all what I had expected. Tall weeds had overgrown the cut stone steps leading into the pool, green algae formed a thick film on the surface of the stagnant water, and a family of bullfrogs had taken up residence in the deep end of the baptistry. Clearly, no one had been baptized there for quite a while, nor could I imagine that anyone would want to be dunked beneath the baptistry’s murky water anytime soon. Sadly, this baptistry, once so important to the life of the church meeting there, had been allowed to deteriorate through long-term neglect.
Seeing this led me to think more broadly about the state of the church in our country. I fear that, like the baptistry, we have, through neglect and complacency, likewise allowed things crucial to the life of our Christian fellowship to begin decaying. The culprit, I suspect, has been the church’s distraction with things that are not central to its calling and mission. Allow me to illustrate: Years ago, I was involved with a local congregation whose leadership was so invested in the notion of church growth that doctrinal truth—even extending to core components of the Gospel message—began to be compromised in an effort to bring more people into membership. The church’s distraction with a worldly strategy for growth in numbers came at the expense of the biblical mandate for the leadership to help the church’s members grow in faith and maturity (cf. Acts 20:28–32). The outcome of this strategy was tragic.
In the past months, distractions besetting the church have been different. The pandemic has led some congregations to direct their primary focus to combating the disease—sometimes becoming complicit agents in the government’s overextension of control and encroachment on religious liberties, with the result of hindering the fellowship and corporate worship of their own people. Leadership in other congregations have encouraged an overabundance of caution, which has been prudent in some respects, but at times has hampered the church in being able to rightly discharge the obligations of ministry to its own people. Moreover, this focus on health safety has sometimes had the unintended consequence of instilling in believers an attitude of fear—to the neglect of teaching about the spiritual blessings we have received in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:3) and the divine power the Lord has granted to us for “everything pertaining to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3), which is able to deliver us from fear.
Recently, the church has also found itself distracted by the nation’s political situation. I applaud believers who want to be positive influences in their communities, and who leverage the political system to that end. However, I am concerned about those whose efforts in the political arena vastly outstrip their commitment to the work of Christ through the church. Presidential and gubernatorial campaigns, court appointments, governmental fiscal responsibility, the protection of civil rights, and law enforcement reform (to name a few current hot-button issues) should be, at most, secondary concerns compared to praying “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). We must not be distracted from this enteral focus. Far be it from us that our allegiance to a particular candidate or elected official, or to the ideals of a particular political party supplant our allegiance to Christ and God’s word.
What should the church do to overcome these distractions? I believe it involves, in our meeting together, being intentionally focused on biblical priorities, in many ways following after the pattern exhibited in the early church (see especially Acts 2:42; 9:31).
First, we need to give the preaching of God’s word its rightful place. Announcements about and discussion of the pressing issues of the day certainly have their place, but such must not limit the time and effort given to the exposition of Scripture in the church.
Second, we need to have healthy fellowship. As much as it is helpful to discuss with one another the concerns we face (especially in the context of small groups), we should be careful to avoid limiting our interactions with each other to that (lest we reinforce the distractions). It is important that we strive to encourage one another, building each other up in the faith, so that we would be strengthened in our daily walks with Christ (see especially 1 Thessalonians 5:11).
Third, we need to be actively devoted to prayer. Of course, we are right to pray about the needs and concerns arising in our increasingly tumultuous world. However, we should also give priority in prayer to the spiritual needs of the body of Christ (see, for example, Paul’s prayers in Ephesians 1:15–23; Philippians 1:3–11; and Colossians 1:3–12).*
Fourth, we need to truly worship God, declaring back to Him His excellencies so vividly displayed in His mighty works of creation, redemption, and restoration. The pressing concerns of the day probably do more to distract from worship than from any other aspect of church life, as we are often disinclined to worship the Lord with devoted hearts when our minds are filled with worries. However, when we worship God in truth (John 4:24) and reverence (Psalm 2:11), with the focus placed wholly on His majesty, the temporary worries of this world inevitably begin to fade as our hearts are drawn into alignment with God’s purposes for us.
As the body of Christ, may we do all we can to encourage these priorities when we meet together. We might not have to worry about neglect leading to an infestation of bullfrogs in our baptistries, but let us be sure we do not invite the displacement of the most important aspects of church life because we are distracted with lesser things.
*For a detailed discussion on praying with a spiritual focus, I strongly recommend D. A. Carson’s A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1992).