New churches tend to have clear missions. They are committed to reaching people and growing the church. But as the church ages, the mission is subject to drifting. It’s not that the members don’t care about reaching lost people, they just get more concerned about meeting their own needs. Years ago I read a powerful illustration that has helped me to understand this drift and fuel my desire to continue to reach people for Christ. I hope that it will do the same for you.
On a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occur there was once a crude little lifesaving station. The building was just a hut, and there was only one boat, but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea, and with no thought of themselves went out day and night tirelessly searching for the lost. Many lives were saved by this wonderful little station, so that it became famous. Some of those who were saved, and various others in the surrounding area, wanted to become associated with the station and give of their time and money and effort for the support of its work. New boats were bought and new crews trained. The little lifesaving station grew.
Some of the members of the lifesaving station were unhappy that the building was so crude and poorly equipped. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided as the first refuge of those saved from the sea. So they replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in the enlarged building. Now the lifesaving station became a popular gathering place for its members, and they decorated it beautifully a furnished it exquisitely, because they used it as a sort of club. Fewer members were now interested in going to sea on lifesaving missions, so they hired lifeboat crews to do this work. The lifesaving motif still prevailed in this club’s decoration, and there was a liturgical lifeboat in the room where the club initiations were held. About this time a large ship was wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in boatloads of cold, wet, and half-drowned people. They were dirty and sick, and some of them had black skin and some had yellow skin. The beautiful new club was in chaos. So the property committee immediately had a shower house built outside the club where victims of shipwreck could be cleaned up before coming inside.
At the next meeting, there was a split in the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club’s lifesaving activities as being unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal social life of the club. Some members insisted upon lifesaving as their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a lifesaving station. But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save the lives of all the various kinds of people who were shipwrecked in those waters, they could begin their own lifesaving station down the coast. They did.
As the years went by, the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old. It evolved into a club, and yet another lifesaving station was founded. History continued to repeat itself and if you visit that seacoast today, you will find a number of exclusive clubs along that shore. Shipwrecks are frequent in those waters, but most of the people drown.
(This parable originally appeared in an article by Theodore 0. Wedel, “Evangelism-The Mission of the Church to Those Outside Her Life,” The Ecumenical Review, October 1953, p. 24. The above paraphrases the original by Richard Wheatcroft, which appeared in Letter to Laymen, May-June 1962, p. 1.)
As a pastor or church leader, it is your responsibility to make sure the church stays true to Jesus disciple-making mission. One group of people will argue that the church needs to lead more people to Christ and another group will argue that you need to help mature believers. The reality is you need to do both well. It’s your job to manage the tension that exists between both camps and get them both moving closer to Christ.