We all have a limited time on this earth, and we have many ways we can spend it.
We all have limited money too, and we also have many ways we can spend it, too.
So, it is prudent for us to prioritize what we do, and what we spend money on. The same is true for the community of worship (the church) we belong to. Just as we individually need to prioritize our time, our activities, and our expenditures, so too do the organizations we are part of.
The comments that follow apply to general community churches, not to specialist groups and organizations – in these cases, their priorities tend to be a fundamental part of the organization and why it was established. More subtly, they are also a blend of individual and church priorities – that is a separate point we discuss more carefully in a second part of this topic (to be published shortly).
God’s work is extensive, and we could all lose ourselves in serving Him. God does not normally require us to do that, and promises never to ask more from us than that we are capable of giving (1 Corinthians 10:13, 2 Corinthians 1:8-9). So, when called to service, individually and in our communities of worship, we again need to prioritize our activities.
Sometimes we may be given clear direction by the Good Lord as to what He wishes us to do (Ephesians 4:11), reflecting our individual strengths and abilities. But when we don’t have a specific calling or purpose, what do we and our churches do? How do we prioritize our actions and activities?
While we encourage you to assist in advancing God’s work in any and every way, it is surely more appropriate to address tasks that He has encouraged us in, to select activities that have the greatest benefit and impact, and those in which you can be most effective. We are given some guidance as to how we should do this, and our sense is that some church groups, in their enthusiasm to undertake selected activities, or out of a kindhearted awareness of terribly great need in some areas, are overlooking God’s template and suggestions.
We suggest that generally, there are two sets of considerations – type of work, and location of work.
For the type of work, we see church (rather than individual) priorities as follows :
- Our highest priority is to care for the faithful and help them in their faith and service to God
- Secondly, we should spread the word of God and help other people on their journey to accepting Christ as Savior, and making them into fellow disciples
- Everything else is in the third category – doing good deeds and helping advance God’s purpose in general and as He may particularly require
For the location/geographic element, we assign priorities in this order :
- Our first priority is to members of our own church and family
- Our second priority is to members of our local community
- Beyond that, the priority reduces as distance extends
These different perspectives on priorities can create confusion – for example, is it more important to care for the faithful in Africa (first priority work but lowest priority in terms of distance) or to support a local outreach activity in our local community (second priority work but higher rank for distance)? Another aspect of that example to also consider – if your church is based in, say a major US city, is it better to do good work in your home city, or somewhere in the third world, where you may get ten times as much value from each dollar spent?
We have no clear answers to these conundrums other than to observe that they illustrate the need for some type of prayerful prioritization and formula so as to have guidelines and consistency in your approach. Clearly there are endless worthy calls on our time and resources and we must do the best we can with the time and resource God grants us, and focus on the good we can do, rather than stress about all the other people and opportunities also desperate for assistance. Prayers for guidance and careful discussion among your church elders are needed when it is difficult to clearly set your (and your group’s) priorities.
Noting that God doesn’t seek to assign us impossible tasks, one could argue that choosing to try to solve problems in Africa is very much more challenging than is trying to positively impact on our own lives and the lives of others in our local community. Some may attack a decision to first focus on ourselves and our local community as selfish, but if we don’t first care for ourselves, we do not allow us to be in good shape – physically, spiritually and financially – to then do further good work, elsewhere.
Our good spiritual and physical health is necessary as a foundation on which to build further activities. If we don’t cater for our own immediate community of church members, nothing else can be possible. We are the ‘force multipliers’ that other potential beneficiaries rely upon. We must ensure our foundation is solid before we build upon it.
Is it not good sense to apply ourselves most efficiently and in activities that we are competent to undertake? Is it not more efficient to do something in our local community, than to try and do that 5,000 or more miles away? Do we not better understand how to best create positive impacts in our local community, while is it not also true that the forms of government and social structures in far-away foreign lands are largely a mystery to us?
On the other hand, we also note that God’s call to us is to spread His World to people in far away lands (Matthew 28:18-20) – what has been termed “The Great Commission”. (AMP version follows)
18 Jesus came up and said to them, “All authority (all power of absolute rule) in heaven and on earth has been given to Me.
19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations [help the people to learn of Me, believe in Me, and obey My words], baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
20 teaching them to observe everything that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always [remaining with you perpetually—regardless of circumstance, and on every occasion], even to the end of the age.”
But this call is not to rescue them from poverty, improve their healthcare, or anything else. We are to be missionaries, not aid workers, and our instruction from Jesus is to make disciples. Here’s a good article on that point.
That is not the same as prohibiting you from volunteering in any sort of aid mission – maybe that is to be your calling. But, as a church, we suggest its primary focus is on missionary work, not aid work.
Can we compromise and participate in multiple activities (and with multiple priorities)? Could we devote some time and support to a high priority task and further time/support to a lower priority task? Our sense is that we can indeed do this, although we hesitate to offer a specific formula for how much should be allocated to each type of task, other than to generally suggest that higher priority tasks should get more time and resource than lower priority ones.
We also recognize that some people have skill sets that are better applied to some types of good work than others. For example, a doctor of pediatric medicine who lives in a retirement community may find that his skills and gifts could be better used outside of his local community, and he would probably volunteer in a very different form to that which a plumber might choose to offer.
As we mentioned above, we also recognize that there are specific organizations that focus on specific tasks. Missionary groups who focus on bringing the Word of God to far away lands, for example – a clear example of following The Great Commission. We are absolutely not saying that any such groups are wrong, nor are we saying you should not support them as well as your local church. The priorities we recommend are the ones that we feel apply to a regular local church and its regular activities and purposes. Other groups quite likely deserve some measure of support as well.
There is an oft-repeated call for church members (and churches too) to do good deeds (eg Matthew 5:16, Colossians 1:10, Titus 2 and Titus 3:8).
We are given examples of good deeds, for example in Titus 3:14 (Let our people learn to apply themselves to good deeds in order to meet urgent needs, that they not be unfruitful), and Acts 9:36. In 1 Tim 5 we are told that we should personally take care of our families before relying on the church, but the church should help in the absence of family support. And in Romans 15:1-2 we are exhorted to please our neighbors.
A contentious point is expressed in 1 John 3:17-18
17 But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?
18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.
(This is usually quoted only as verse 17, we think verse 18 is also important – not just to talk about these things, but to actually “put our money where our mouth is” and do things, so we included it here, too.)
The innocent seeming word “brother” has been taken to mean “brother-in-Christ” and would seem to be advocating help specifically for fellow Christians. This concept is simultaneously affirmed and modified in Galatians 6:10 – here it is in context
1 Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.
2 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
3 For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.
4 But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor.
5 For each will have to bear his own load.
6 Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches.
7 Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.
8 For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.
9 And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.
10 So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.
So, in verse 10, we are being encouraged to do good to everyone, but it also prioritizes our fellow Christians. Some people further think that because this section starts off with the word “Brothers” everything is primarily focused at fellow brothers-in-Christ.
Whether that is correct or not is perhaps of less central importance than the priority given to those who are also Christian. This priority, consistent across translations, is made even clearer in the NIV translation of the same verse
So when we can do good to everyone, let us do it. Let us make a special point of doing good to those who belong to the family of believers.
It has also been noted that the examples of good deeds mentioned in the Bible have been to local people (eg Romans 15:1-2, mentioned above). This could be explained by the nature of the accounts and the situations in which they are being told, and we do note there is no prohibition on doing good deeds to people far away.
With our suggestion being always that things which are not forbidden are generally permitted if they fit within the general framework of the Bible’s teachings, then doing good deeds for people outside our local area certainly seems permissible, even if not accorded as high a priority.
So, back to priorities. We feel that distant missionary work takes priority over distant good deeds. Distant missionary work is specifically assigned to us, but generic distant good deeds that don’t advance the work of the Church and the growth of disciples is nowhere called for.
That is not to say distant good deeds should not also be done, although it is unclear whether that is something that should be coordinated by our churches or not. For most of us, we’re already over-committed caring for our brothers-in-Christ and in working to grow his disciples, everywhere in the world.
But we do recognize that people feel some direction to participate in other special types of activities and good deeds too, and if that is God’s will, or even if it is simply your own will, then by all means do so in addition to the time and resource you devote to God’s work.
We invite you now to read the second part of this article series, about how to blend individual and church priorities. (this will be published very shortly)