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Let’s start with a disclaimer. I know that congregations and restaurants are not in the same business. I understand that thinking like a restaurant can lead to embracing the consumer culture of the day. I know all too well that catering to expectations has been the death knell of many a faithful church when they forsake their divine mandate for a people-pleasing one. However, a recent restaurant experience has reminded me that there are significant lessons for God’s people to learn from multiple sources.
We were in Texas and hungry for some authentic TexMex cuisine. Upon the recommendation of a friend, we took a group to a large restaurant, and upon being seated, looked around for a menu.
“We do not have a menu”, our waiter informed us. “We serve two things: fajitas and enchiladas. Which would you like?”
Playing devil’s advocate, I inquired, “I’d like a fish taco, can I get one?”
With a genial smile, he replied, “There is another restaurant down the street that serves excellent tacos. I recommend it highly. Now, would you like fajitas or enchiladas?”
Properly instructed, I ordered and enjoyed a superb meal of chicken fajitas.
Around the table, we marveled at the clarity and focus of this restaurant, and began to make some simple applications to the life of the local church. The most obvious is the gift that clarity of mission gives to any organization. Although all restaurants are in the food business, no restaurant can serve every type or every style of food. None would dare try.
Instead, they focus on a specific genre and set out to do it extraordinarily well. Whether it be Mexican, Italian, Chinese, French or Thai doesn’t really matter.
What matters is the clarity and focus that enables them to channel their resources and deliver superb food and excellent dining.
Healthy congregations recognize that attempting to be a church that pleases everyone is not only impossible, it is antithetical to the gospel of Christ. Jesus began his ministry in the rugged wilderness doing battle with multiple temptations to veer off the agenda God had placed before him. Resisting the lure of temporal and public success, he chose the narrow path of obedience and faithfulness.
We often encounter congregations that have seemingly forgotten why they exist and have descended into a “whatever works” approach to ministry. In the face of declining attendance or income, churches are prone to jettison core values and convictions in order to attract new members or keep the ones we have.
While the apostle Paul tells us that “I have become all things to all people so that I might by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22), it is a stretch to think that he had in mind the lack of focus that too often defines our congregational life. In fact, his focus was so clearly on the saving knowledge of Jesus that it enabled him to ignore distractions and remain locked in on his call to be an evangelist. Whereas our attempts to be “all things” dilute us, Paul’s invitation is to be “all things” actually sharpens our focus for the central purpose of transformation.
Popular author Patrick Lencioni’s recent book, The Advantage, seeks to describe good organizational health for the business and nonprofit world. He suggests four disciplines that govern the life of such an organization. Three of the four include the world clarity, and the overall thrust of his work is that any organization must be crystal clear about its purpose and focus to be successful.
Is it possible for a local church to be clearly defined and relentlessly faithful to its vision in the 21st century? Isn’t the pressure to mirror the growth of other congregations or to match the high water mark of the previous generation so overwhelming that there is little patience for anything less than rapid numerical growth? Doesn’t the shopper’s mentality of many congregants preclude the idea of saying no to their demands? What kind of church would only serve two things and invite those wanting something else to look elsewhere?
Around our table of fajitas and enchiladas, we agreed that, indeed, there is a need for congregations who know who they are, why they are here, and where they are going. We agreed that adapting the Great Commandments and Great Commission to our time and place is a constant and ongoing conversation that requires saying no to many good things in order to say yes to the best things God intends for us. We also agreed that such congregations are too rare.
What would it look like for your church to thoughtfully clarify its mission and relentlessly pursue it? What would happen if you became less concerned with the expectations of others and consumed by the exhortations of Christ? What happens when we turn our attention from making people happy to calling people to be faithful?
Perhaps we might be like the two-item restaurant with the hour-long wait to get in.