When I was in seventh grade, I experienced my first opportunity to play on a sports team. I signed up for baseball. As the coach helped us learn about the basics of the game, I got more excited. When asked about which position I wanted at tryouts, with great enthusiasm, I said, “Outfield!”

It wasn’t long before I learned an important lesson about sports. As a potential outfielder, our practice would be easy—so I thought! Coach put me into center field and started hitting fly balls in my direction. Some of the other guys were in line ahead of me, and as I watched, my enthusiasm soared. “I can do this. I can catch these. It looks easy!”

When it came to my turn, the coach hit the ball almost right toward me. As the ball soared through the sky, I lost sight of it. It landed just a few feet away. I was not deterred. “I can catch on to this,” I thought. “I just need a little practice.” The coach hit another ball. Then another, and another. I didn’t catch any of them! And I wondered: “How is it the other guys can catch these fly balls and I can’t?” I couldn’t figure it out. It seemed like I lost sight of the ball until it was almost to me. By then, it was too late to get into position to make the catch. What did those other guys know? What did they do that I couldn’t? I didn’t make the team. And I didn’t know why.

Several months later, one of my teachers noticed that from halfway back in the classroom, I couldn’t see what she wrote on the board. She mentioned it to my mother. It turned out I needed glasses!

Martha and Her Lens Correction

In Luke 10:38-42, Jesus arrived at a village. A woman named Martha welcomed Him into her home. Martha had a sister, Mary, who sat down at the feet of the Lord and listened to His teaching. Martha was upset about all the work she had to do. She approached Jesus and said, “Don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to come and help me!”

Jesus said, “Martha, Martha! You are worried and troubled over so many things, but just one is needed. Mary has chosen the right thing….”

Both Martha and Mary demonstrated an important element of effectiveness: focus. Mary was focused on Jesus. Martha was focused on mundane work. What about your church? What about you?

Mission Focus and Disruptive Distractions

Having worked as consultants to almost 2,000 churches from 78 different denominations and also with nondenominational and independent churches, we have observed a critical issue that often derails the primary mission of Jesus. It is the limited focus on the mission that matters—and the distraction toward nonessential activities that sap Kingdom energy. In short, it is the Martha syndrome. It is a subtle, chronic disruption that undermines the mission of many Christians—and their churches.

Most church leaders would—in theory—say their focus is on “the mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ.” This may even be in the purpose statement for the congregation. Yet, by any measurement, they have dramatically lost focus on “the right thing,” as Jesus called it. This applies to many congregations as well as whole denominations. The result? The Christian movement, which once flourished, begins to wane.

The New Testament reflects dramatic dynamics: mission focus and miraculous results throughout the Mediterranean world. Anyone who reads the Book of Acts and the Epistles of the New Testament observes a movement of phenomenal focus.

When most missionaries enter new cultures, they reflect a lens that is dramatically focused. Their priority is clear: to bring salvation through Jesus to as many as possible. Mary would be proud. Martha? Not so much!

In one or two decades, however, it seems like there is a slow creep from mission to maintenance in many churches. It’s like God’s people can’t keep their eye on the ball. They don’t “catch” what the Holy Spirit is throwing their way. Mission becomes maintenance. Ministry becomes bureaucracy. The movement gets stalled. Churches decline. Nations become secularized. The Kingdom loses because God’s people “take their eye off the ball.”

A Corrective Lens

The first church I pastored was in the inner city of Detroit, Michigan. It had declined by 67 percent in the 10 years prior to my arrival. After 12 months, I realized—in spite of eight years of formal education and three years of graduate school—I had learned a lot of great theology, but knew nothing about effective outreach. Nor did anyone at the church I inherited. Nor did my denominational leaders when I approached them for help.

Out of desperation, I entered a part-time training program in missiology. That is what they teach missionaries who go to foreign mission fields. This three-year, part-time course was geared for busy pastors. All the teachers were former career missionaries. They returned to their “home country” to train pastors in missiology: how Christians effectively reach others for Jesus.

Through that process, I got a new set of ministry lenses based on biblical principles—which I never received in the 11 years of my preparation for ministry. What I learned is what missionaries are taught. It was so exciting! I immediately began training some of the members of my church. We became “missionaries” to our own community. Our church grew and grew. Our staff team became larger, and each one was trained in mission principles. Many of our members were equipped for mission as well.

After a few years, the church was growing, and there were other pastors and leaders on staff. I began to look for another declining church, one that was in a very different environment than the inner city. I became the part-time pastor of a rural church in northeastern Indiana. At first, they could not afford a full-time pastor’s salary. However, I was confident that God could grow this church also if we would just follow His plan.

A Painless Lens Correction

This country church was in a white framed building with a steeple, located on a tar road. There was a cemetery out back. The pastor’s house was next door, and it was surrounded by farm fields.

I began to preach and teach outreach based on biblical mission principles. Yet, by this time, I had come to the conclusion that most churches needed a vision correction for outreach. The church began to grow at a moderate rate, and that brought hope to the core families who attended.

Intentionally, I did NOT start an evangelism committee or outreach program. As I continued to study the New Testament dynamics of effective growth, it occurred to me that a more subtle, softer approach toward mission would work better. Jesus didn’t have an evangelism program. He provided people—even Saul, also called Paul—with a new vision: a new set of “spiritual glasses.” Yet, it wasn’t a “five-step program.” It wasn’t academic. There was no outline to follow.

It occurred to me that to talk about “mission,” “outreach,” or “evangelism” probably wasn’t an effective lens correction. Jesus didn’t follow that academic approach. He modeled it and introduced it more subtly.

As this little church grew in numbers, we went to two worship services on Sunday morning. In between the services, there was Sunday school for children, and I taught an adult class for those who were interested. I decided the adult Bible class would be the launchpad for an “evangelistic movement.” However, I never used those words. In fact, I never told anyone what I was doing. You might call it an anti-program. You could call it a movement. I would call it a transformation.

At the beginning of this Bible class, I began the same way most teachers do: (1) I took prayer requests; (2) I prayed; and (3) I began teaching. However, on my confidential “launch day,” I began class differently. I said, “Before we take prayer requests and pray or start the lesson, I just want to ask: Would anyone like to share what God has done in your life since we met last Sunday?”

The result? Nothing! The next week? Nothing. The next week? Nothing. The following week, one person shared a not-so-polished story. (You might call it a testimony, but that seemed too “program-oriented” to me. I called it a “God story.”)

What happened? The Holy Spirit changed the spiritual culture of most of those in the class. We changed: from Martha to Mary.

After six months, new people were showing up at our church—people I had never met. After a little research, I learned that they were unchurched acquaintances of some of our members who had shared their God stories. Formerly unchurched, these families were drawn to our church through our members, who were sharing their own “God stories.”

What you just read is about a movement, not a program. If you want to learn more, get the book The Amazing Power of God Stories: Share What God Has Done in Your Life. Ask others in your church to read it. Experience the mission focus without the disruptive distractions! With a new set of “spiritual glasses,” those in your church will catch what can’t be taught. Those like Mary will get it. Eventually, those like Martha will catch it.

Kent R. Hunter and Tracee J. Swank are church consultants and authors of The Amazing Power of God Stories, available on Amazon.com and ChurchDoctor.org.

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