The idolatry of the mission statement

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A facebook friend shared this meme. It’s scary how perfectly it captures a phenomenon in both the mainline and evangelical worlds alike which I’m going to call the idolatry of the mission statement.

I read a book called Simple Church that advocated coming up with a simple, succinct statement that captures what your church is trying to accomplish with a set of action verbs, then organize your ministries according to those action verbs, and cut everything else. There are aspects of this that I strongly agree with. Churches can get bogged down in annual catfish dinners and other traditions that don’t serve a legitimate missional purpose but continue to languish because somebody’s feelings will be hurt if they get cut. I do think that everything we do should be for the purpose of cultivating Christian disciples and equipping them to transform the world. If it doesn’t have anything to do with bringing in (evangelism), growing up (discipleship) or sending out (mission), then the church shouldn’t be doing it. (Of course as my first commenter pointed out, writing this exemplifies the problem I’m talking about, because where does standing up for justice fit in that schema?)

Here’s where I think things get problematic: when we conflate crafting a sentence with cultivating a vision. A mission statement that divides up the ministries of our church perfectly is not the same thing as a clear vision for ministry. Having a vision doesn’t have to do with whether your church has a statement that everyone has memorized; it has to do with how well we are listening to God. Even if we are listening to God quite well and have a clear vision for where He is leading us, it’s not always easy to find the words to express this vision which often transcends language.

Now I’ve learned not to be dismissive about the importance of branding and marketing in church communication. Just like hymn writers glorify God with their lyrics, you can glorify God with your creativity by coming up with a catchy slogan and image that serves evangelistic purposes in your community. It’s absolutely right and proper to pursue excellence in all aspects of our ministry. But we should not fall into the delusion of thinking that a really well-written sentence is the rock upon which we build our church. Uh… that’s Jesus’ role.

A mission statement can be part of our discernment process in figuring out how to frame the goals that we set for our ministries, but the principal actor in that discernment process should be the Holy Spirit. I worry that we give the Holy Spirit perfunctory acknowledgment when we have decision-making meetings, but without really listening to God. The more confident we are in our human words, the less attuned we will be to the shifting of the wind God is breathing into our churches.

It’s such an intangible externality: listening to God. Yeah, we think it’s great to do if we ever have time. It’s one of those things you know is supposed to be on the checklist of things we do in our decision-making processes, kind of like the way we know it’s theologically correct to officially give God a round of applause in the sanctuary when we’re celebrating the fruits of our ministry.

But what if I actually listened to God every day? I don’t understand myself, because every time I make time for Him, it’s incredible, and yet I still don’t do it. I’ve gotten to be a pretty good word-smith. I’ll bet I could start a consulting service banging out potent 20 word church mission statements at $50 a word. But if I ever did that for a church, then I would rob them of the opportunity to listen to God in an unhurried way and discover the vision that only He can breathe into life.

3 thoughts on “The idolatry of the mission statement

  1. Idolatry? Not sure. Sometimes, maybe a failure of courage. Sometimes. Perhaps starting simply is best. How about simply focusing on reaching, teaching, winning and developing men and women, boys and girls for Christ? Just thinking out loud.

  2. Hi Morgan,
    I liked your post a lot, and the part I wanted to ask about isn’t, I don’t think, part of the main thrust of what you’re saying –
    You said ” If it doesn’t have anything to do with bringing in (evangelism), growing up (discipleship) or sending out (mission), then the church shouldn’t be doing it.” I was wondering if you envisage a place for social justice, or practical love, or community action or whatever else people call it, within these categories? I’d see showing God’s love practically as one of the most important things a church could do, and I think I’d classify it under evangelism because it’s literally showing good news, but I don’t think it’s about “bringing in” as you say – often people do do practical acts of love for the sake of getting people in to church but to me it feels a bit disingenuous. Is there a place for simply loving people without trying to get them in? Loving them just because God does? Doing evangelism in that sense “out there” rather than trying to bring them in, and being prepared for them to meet God out there rather than in with us? Would love to hear your thoughts.
    Claire

    • What you just illustrated is why trying to word-smith ourselves into a corner is a bad idea. Of course we need to be about prophetic witness. Where does it fit under that 3 fold schema? Hmm..

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