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Written by Daron Brown
From his column Pressing On

Seven-year-old Daron Brown riding the Gatlinburg Sky Lift with his dad, Mark, in 1982.

Growing up about 250 miles from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, my family spent more vacation time there than anywhere else. In addition to the scenic views and the trademark blue haze that gives the mountain range its name, the area offers countless pancake eateries and almost as many airbrush T-shirt shops. Several attractions drew us, like the candy shops with giant taffy puller machines in the display windows, and the hotel with the indoor pool and waterfall, which was unique in its day.

Another draw was the Gatlinburg Sky Lift. For a few dollars we could sit in a metal-framed chair that would hoist us up the side of the mountain. Our feet dangled and our necks stretched so our eyes could swallow the scenery. At the top, there were coin-operated viewfinders, a café area, and a place to preview and purchase the photo they snapped on the journey up. Once we had our fill of the mountaintop, we would hop on the next chair going down. The Sky Lift was a must do—a staple attraction for us kids.

It wasn’t until later, at the age of 16, that I had a revelation about the Sky Lift. I was on my first ski trip in Indiana. After clumsily stepping and slipping around in the beginners’ area, it was time to attempt a slope. We got in line to get on a metal-framed chair that hoisted us up the hill. Once we got to the top, there were no attractions—no viewfinders or hot drinks; no sitting section or photo preview. Instead, we slid and tumbled our way down the hill. After the chairs unloaded us at the top, they returned down the mountain— empty. After my third or fourth time riding up and skiing down, I had to chuckle. Until that point in my life, the lift was the main thing. Now, the lift itself was simply a means to get me to the main thing, which was skiing.

I had a similar revelation several years ago about the church. For much of my life, I saw the church as the main thing. Growing up a church kid in a church culture, it was occasionally explicitly taught, but mostly implicit. The church was the telos. It was an end in itself. Of course, Jesus was central, but the prevailing notion was that the church was the destination. It was about getting to church, growing up in church, being discipled in church, and finding a sense of community in church. I still believe all of those are important, and I believe the church is the context in which those things happen. But I have come to realize that, as much as I love it, the church was never intended to be an end in itself.

Simply put, the church Is because God’s mission Is. God created and commissioned the church for one purpose: to be the means by which His mission is accomplished. And that mission is to recover and restore God’s broken creation, which includes humanity. God made it good. Sin intruded and threw everything out of joint, especially relationships. God the Father sent God the Son to save. God the Son sent God the Holy Spirit to birth and empower the church. And God the Holy Spirit sent the church to be God’s means for God’s mission. So the goal of church is not church. The goal of church is to connect us with the adventure of God’s mission. Just as the goal of the lift is not the lift; the goal of the lift is to get us to the adventure of skiing.

I have returned to the Smokies several times as an adult. Each time I see the Sky Lift, I smile with fond memories. I still love the lift, but now I know its main purpose.

May God help us to be a church that is the means to His mission. Amen.

Daron Brown lives and pastors in Waverly, Tennessee.

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