I've been doing some pondering (and writing) about my own faith community's priorities of late, and a couple of folks suggested I share my thoughts with the online community as well. What follows is a slightly modified version of an article I wrote for my congregation's upcoming newsletter, with a couple of additions to try to broaden the perspective beyond an exclusively Christian one (although I do think that most of what Jesus had to say can apply broadly to the whole of humanity). Feel free to cite or quote it if something in it strikes you as useful for your own community.
Priorities - things that are regarded as more important than others; the right to take precedence or to proceed before others. At least that's what my dictionary software says. When we talk about the church, it can be trickier than you think to agree on priorities, mostly because so many things we do as a church are important and valuable that we hate to rank any one above the other. But in the real world of limited resources, the truly faithful response is to set priorities and decide what things are essential to the mission of our church.
Mission - an important assignment, vocation or calling. What is our calling as a church? What have we been “assigned” to do as Christians? According to the “official” United Methodist line, we are called “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Sounds good, right? But how do we go about doing this? This appears to be a two-part mission statement – first, make disciples; then, transform the world, or more specifically, teach and equip them to transform the world. So those must be our two priorities...easy enough. First, how do we make disciples?
Disciple - a follower or student of a teacher or leader. For Christians, this specifically refers to a follower or student of Jesus. To be someone's follower or student in this sense means more than simply taking notes and passing an exam at the end of the term. Disciples are called to learn what the teacher has to teach, by words and by example, and to put those teachings into place in their own lives. That is, the student should become more and more like the teacher. Once the students are transformed into being more like the teacher, they are then ready to transform others.
Transformation - a thorough or dramatic change in form or appearance. When we are transformed as disciples, again, we become more like the person Jesus showed us how to be. Then we are able to go out into the world to transform it, to make it more like the world Jesus envisioned, a world where love, justice, and peace are abundant. This would indeed be a thorough and dramatic change!
OK, so there's the basic outline: We learn in order to transform ourselves, so that we can go out and transform the world. But remember this – it's a two-part formula. If we try to transform the world without first transforming ourselves, we lack the internal, spiritual resources necessary to do so. This is certainly not just a Christian concept - recall Gandhi's "be the change you wish to see in the world". On the other hand, if we are content with “improving” ourselves without genuinely investing ourselves in changing the world, we miss the entire point of Jesus' call on our lives, or the call of the Buddha, or the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), or Gandhi, or most any other spiritual leader. We don't get to pick and choose whether we want to be involved in only one or the other aspect, not if we're seeking to live lives that are faithful responses to God's love.
So then, as Christians everything we are about in church, everything we say and do, everything on which we spend time and money ought to be about the furtherance of these two goals – transforming ourselves into more faithful disciples of Jesus, and transforming the world in ways that God desires. As many congregations move into the time of year when they seek to discern new leaders and set their budgetary priorities for the coming year, it would be good to keep these two goals in mind.
I often hear that we, as a church, need to “pay the bills”, “keep the lights on”, and other similar things. But we should only do these things to the extent that they are really furthering our two-part mission. Am I suggesting, for example, that we bundle up in sweaters and coats in an unheated sanctuary in January so that we can spend the utility savings to feed the hungry? Perhaps that's too outlandish, too radical. Perhaps we need to be more sensible, more reasonable than that. And perhaps the love of God, the love that Jesus taught and lived, is more sensible than outlandish, more reasonable than radical.
But perhaps not.