Sometimes there are words that are just hard to communicate: no matter which way you say the word, people don’t quite hear you correctly. One such word is ‘priority’. When we say that something is a ‘priority’, often people hear that it is the only priority and the only thing of importance.
We see this most acutely when we speak of the priority of the ministry of ‘the word and prayer’. When we make such a statement, people often hear that the word and prayer is the only thing that is important. Complaints and objections then come flying in: “What about social justice and caring for the poor? Doesn’t the Bible speak of these things?” Or, “How can you say that my daily work is of no importance? Am I of no importance because I am not in the business of full-time paid ministry of the word and prayer?” So the word ‘priority’ has in many ways become excommunicated: people don’t like to use it because they are afraid of being misheard, or they think using it makes everything else unimportant.
I, however, believe that we should bring ‘priority’ out of exile. Not only is it an appropriate and important word for us to use, it is also a word that helps us put into practice that old distinction of the urgent versus the important. To say that something is a ‘priority’ is to recognize that some things are more important than other things. In a world where those urgent things—those day-to-day struggles of life that require our immediate attention—come at us so constantly, we need to stop and remember the truly important things. For instance, we can be so busy dealing with the urgent in providing and caring for our family, we neglect the important task of spending time with our family. The reality of life means that we must make distinctions and put priorities in place so that the important doesn’t get drowned out and neglected by the urgent.
Returning to the above example, I also believe that ‘priority’ is an important word for speaking about the priority of the word and prayer. A good biblical example of this can be seen in Acts 6, which contains a good lesson in priorities and the urgent versus the important. In verse 1, an urgent matter presents itself: some of the widows were being “neglected in the daily distribution”. The Apostles, however, thought that “it is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables” (v. 2). (“To serve tables” meant “to deal with financial matters”.) It’s not that the Apostles thought the care of widows was unimportant; up to this point, they had been the ones ensuring that the daily distribution was made. Furthermore, the very fact that they acknowledged the urgency of the matter and ensured that seven were appointed to take care of the daily distribution shows that they didn’t think the matter was unimportant. However, they were unwilling to sacrifice the ‘important’ for the ‘urgent’. This wasn’t a case of either/or, but of priorities: there is a priority to “prayer and to the ministry of the word” (v. 4), and so the Apostles devoted themselves to these things. As a result, “the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly” (v. 6).
Perhaps the most striking thing about the whole event is the way we see this priority played out in Stephen: Stephen, one of the seven finance and admin guys, made the ministry of the word and prayer his priority—so much so, that it got him killed (Acts 7:60). Philip, another of the seven, had the same priority (Acts 8). In Stephen and Philip, we see that the priority of the word and prayer isn’t just an ‘Apostle’ thing or even a ‘full-time paid ministry’ thing; it’s an ‘every Christian’ priority. It may look different in different contexts, but no matter what you do or what your gifts are, the priority of the word and prayer is a priority every Christian should be striving and working towards.
So let us bring ‘priority’ back into our daily vocabulary. In a world that is constantly pulling us away from right and godly living, we need to ensure that we have gospel priorities in every part of our lives. This is especially true with the word and prayer, for it is by the word and prayer that we are nourished and strengthened, and it is by the word and prayer that a perishing world moves from darkness to light.