Peter Greer (co-author of the 2014 book Mission Drift) writes on his website, “Too often, as Christian organizations grow, the Gospel often becomes cursory, expendable, or even forgotten. Again and again, leaders have watched their ministries, businesses, and nonprofits professionalize, expand, and lose sight of their original goals. Even churches can stray from their calling.”
While the study of mission drift has become popular since the release of the book, the practice and effects are ancient, as old as human nature itself. David wrote in Psalm 141, “Take control of what I say, O Lord, and guard my lips, Don’t let me drift toward evil or take part in acts of wickedness.” Paul wrote this to the Colossian church, “You must continue to believe this truth and stand firmly in it. Don’t drift away from the assurance you received when you heard the Good News.” The author of Hebrews said, “We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.” Perhaps appreciating how effortless is the nature of drifting away will prepare us to avoid it.
We think examining the church in Ephesus, throughout the record of the New Testament, provides a clear image of the ease with which a congregation, mission, ministry, business, or individual drifts from their mission.
- According to Acts 18, the gospel message came to Ephesus when Paul left Priscilla and Aquila there, immediately before sailing to Caesarea. Acts 18:19
- Upon his return, Paul found a number of people who had learned about Jesus from another source and decided to remain there. For the next three years Paul taught about Jesus, growing close to the believers. Acts 19
- After traveling throughout Macedonia and Greece, Paul decided to return to Ephesus for a final face to face visit with the elders of the church there. Acts 20 During this visit, Paul reminded them of the urgency with which he preached salvation (Acts 20:24) and warning them that they needed to be ready to face false teaching and opposition that would come from within the believers. (Acts 20:29-31)
- Later, during his imprisonment (possibly near the end of his life), Paul wrote his letter to the church. In the letter he urged believers to be united, remember that salvation is by God’s grace and not by our works, reject any urges to give favor based upon race or ethnicity, and live as much like Christ as possible.
- The final scene for Ephesus is the letter to the church in Revelation 2 where God notes their perseverance and faithful teaching, but also warns them that the congregation has indeed fallen/drifted from their original mission!
The elders of Ephesus evidently took Paul’s warning to heart that they must be ready to defend against those within the church who would lead people astray. However, they had drifted from the urgency Paul had demonstrated to introduce people to God’s grace. The Ephesian church was correct to teach that people needed to live like Jesus, but that is not possible until they have turned from their old life to accept Christ. The Ephesian church was correct to teach that all people are to be treated equally, but shedding the human trait of favoritism is not possible until a person has become a Christian. Men and women were unable to “put off your old self” and become “imitators of God” until they had surrendered their life to Christ. For the Ephesian church, “you have left your first love” equaled mission drift. Even Paul living among them for three years had not been sufficient to prevent mission drift.
Avoiding mission drift requires absolute clarity, unbridled passion, and full accountability. Those leading a congregation, ministry, mission, corporation, or nonprofit organization must be absolutely clear about THE mission of the ministry. There must be one, and only one, precisely worded mission. It has been said that a football team with two quarterbacks has none. The same is true about mission. If there is the slightest confusion about the single mission of the ministry, there is no mission. The leader(s) must guard this mission with a passion that some cannot understand. If the passion required is taken for granted, for only a moment, the moorings may be lost and mission drift will be inevitable. Those in authority must be accountable for every decision that can affect the mission in any manner. Proverbs 11:14 tells us, “Without wise leadership, a nation falls; there is safety in having many advisers.” If clarity, passion, and accountability are in place, it will be more difficult for the mission to drift.
May we do everything in our power and ability to be certain that our life, our church, our mission, our college, or our organization never drifts from its mission.