Saturday afternoon I cruising along the highway when I very suddenly hit a wall of traffic. It didn’t slow gradually, but pretty much just hit a wall and stopped dead. For the next 20 or 30 minutes I crawled along at the kind of pace where it would be faster to just get out and walk. Finally, off in the distance I saw the tell-tale flashing lights—fire engines and police cars and tow trucks. As I crept forward I could see that there had been an accident, not in my lane but on the other side of the highway, where traffic was moving in the opposite direction.
We’ve all been there, of course. There are few things more frustrating because you know that the only reason you’ve added 20 minutes to your commute is that everyone traveling in your direction wanted to take a look. You’re no better of course—you take a look as well—but that doesn’t do much to alleviate the frustration. At this point you’ve lost 20 minutes so you may as well take a quick look at the spectacle.
Here is what happened. Just as the accident occurred, someone way up ahead of you took his eyes off the road and looked at what was happening on the other side of the divider. The guy behind him did the same, and as he got distracted, he took his foot off the accelerator, slowing just slightly. The guy behind him had to respond by tapping his brake as he, too, looked over and saw the cars on the other side, still smoking a little bit. The guy behind him had to brake just a little bit harder, and the red brake lights threw up a signal to everyone behind. And so it went, back through the long line of traffic as one person after the other got distracted. There was no reason to slow down, not in the direction you were travelling. Yet within minutes the highway has been reduced to a crawl. Quite often someone going in your direction will take his eyes off the road for a little too long and he’ll bump into the guy ahead of him, causing even more trouble and more frustration.
This is what happens when so many people simultaneously take their eyes off the road. This is what happens when everyone gets distracted together.
In recent days there has been a lot of discussion inside the blogosphere and outside of it about the task of the church. What is it that God has called the church to do? What is the church’s mission? What is the church’s primary mission?
Reformed folk are often accused of caring nothing for the world around us. Social justice—caring for the poor and downcast—is downplayed in favor of discipleship. Some say this is apathy. I’ve always understood this to be a matter of priorities; I don’t see the apathy, but the changed focus. That could be self-delusion, I suppose. It is possible that we overcorrect and if we do, I’d suggest the reason is similar to a traffic jam. Christian history is littered with examples of churches or organizations that have ended up completely jammed up because everyone has taken their eyes off the road. One by one they took their eyes from the way, from the road, and began looking just a little off to the side. And before they knew it, they were all clustered together and forward progress was completely stopped.
This has been the case in so many churches and so many organizations. What began as a strong gospel focus quickly became a gospel traffic jam while social justice took over. Soon social justice was the gospel and the message of the cross either disappeared or took a spot in the background.
This is the reason I am encouraged to see some new books being released today, books that take a long hard look at the matter of mission and priorities. Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert worked together on What Is the Mission of the Church?. Other titles are on their way. I look forward to reading these books, to grappling with what they say, because I know that I’ve got a lot of confusion, a lot of unanswered questions, when it comes to what and how we are to prioritize, and how we are to keep our eyes fixed firmly forward.