Your Church’s Mission Statement: Do It First, Write It Later

Changed Priorities Ahead signDoes your church have a mission statement? If so, is it relevant and up-to-date? Could most of the people in your church repeat it if asked?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no”, I have one word for you.

Relax.

You don’t need to call an emergency vision-casting meeting to write, rewrite or remind everyone that they need to “Know, Grow & Go”, “Love, Learn & Live” or “Become fully devoted followers of Jesus.”

No, none of those statements are bad. But I’m convinced that they have far less value to most churches than the last three decades of leadership training have led us to believe.

If you don’t have a good, working, memorable mission statement right now, it’s OK. Writing a mission statement should be one of the last things a church does, not the first.

I know that goes against common wisdom (I tend to do that), but I believe it’s true.

Here’s why. There are fewer things more irritating than a person, church or any group that says something but doesn’t follow through on it. The only real hope that a church will follow through on their mission statement is if it’s based on what the church is already doing.


For a video version of these principles, watch Thinking Like a Great Small Church


The Problem With Our Mission Statement Obsession

Remember about 20 years ago when it seemed like every business in the world wrote a mission statement, framed and mounted it in the break room, then stopped hiring employees and started “empowering associates”? If you find someone who worked for a company that did that, ask them if all the hoopla actually changed anything where they worked. The likely answer? Nothing changed at all.

Then ask them how the changes made them feel. Again, the likely answer? There were no warm fuzzies or feelings of empowerment. There may have been momentarily raised hopes, but they probably turned very quickly into feelings of disappointment and frustration, followed by whispered mockery and jokes about the “new day” that never materialized.

Mission statements aren’t bad. The church I pastor has one. (It’s Exploring, Living & Sharing the Truth of God’s Word, if anyone cares to know. And no, most of our congregation couldn’t quote it, either.) But even a great mission statement won’t fix a broken church.

Clever words won’t change the culture of a church unless one other thing is in place – we have to be doing the stuff already. It’s one of the basic principles I try to live my life and pastor my church by: Don’t put anything into words until you’re already putting it into action.

As Christians – and especially as Christian leaders – this shouldn’t be a surprise to us. James 1:22 tells us, Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.

That’s a powerful, scary truth. If we know the words but aren’t doing them, we’re living in self-deceit. Obviously that verse is about God’s Word, not our self-written mission statements, but I think the principle still applies. Saying, reading or memorizing a mission statement without living it is a form of self-deception.

I’ve heard for years that a mission statement is like the steering wheel on a car. I think it’s more like the direction signal. It’s a helpful tool to let others know what we’re planning to do, but it doesn’t take us anywhere.

(An important aside: A mission statement is not the same as a doctrinal creed or statement of faith. If a mission statement is like the directional signal on a car, a doctrinal creed is like guardrails on a mountain highway. The first one tells others where we’re going. The second keeps us from steering ourselves off a cliff.)

 

The Pattern Jesus Gave Us

The Apostle Paul told us, For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk, but of power.”

I believe Paul took that nugget of wisdom from the life and ministry of Jesus. Jesus was the greatest wordsmith who ever lived, but he was a doer first.

Take Jesus’ mission statements as an example. We know them as the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. (Leadership Consultant’s note to Jesus: “Having two mission statements is confusing. Pick one or the other and trim it down to 10 words or less.”)

If Jesus had followed common church leadership wisdom, he’d have written those statements on scrolls or small rocks to give to everyone as soon as they became a disciple. He’d have repeated them in every talk he gave and he would have surprised his followers with a pop quiz at random moments to be sure they could recite them by heart.

Instead, the Great Commandment wasn’t even initiated by Jesus. He didn’t focus-group it. He didn’t even go on a prayer retreat to design the wording. It was an in-the-moment answer to a question from a lawyer trying to trip him up. If the teachers of the law hadn’t hated Jesus so much that they tried to trick him, would this statement – likely the most important words Jesus ever spoke – ever have been uttered by him?

Like most of what he said, these critical words of Jesus were generated from living a life of mission first, on the streets, among his friends and enemies. Actions always came first. Jesus’ statements were a natural byproduct of his ministry, not the source of it.

Likewise, the Great Commission wasn’t trumpeted to the disciples at every opportunity, either. While it’s important enough for some version of it to appear in all four Gospels and the book of Acts, Jesus seems to have only said it once. After his entire earthly ministry was over, right before he ascended into heaven.

How did he and the disciples ever get anything accomplished without those words constantly in front of them? Apparently Jesus believed doing it should come before saying it.

Jesus’ pattern of acting first, talking later was probably what inspired Paul to write the above verse about power being more important than talk. We need to apply that wisdom to our churches as well. I don’t think I’m doing injustice to Paul’s words by paraphrasing him this way – The work of Christ in the church isn’t brought about by our words, but by our actions.

 

Actions Plus Words Lead to Greater Actions

My point is not that we should stop writing mission statements. We need to know who we are, what we’re called to do and how we’re planning to do it. The old saying is true – those who fail to plan, plan to fail.

But we need to put them in their proper place. When we listen to the Holy Spirit, he inspires us to actually do stuff, not just say we’re going to do stuff.

Jesus told a parable about exactly that principle, involving a father’s two sons. One son said he would do what his father asked, but he didn’t follow through. The other son said he wouldn’t do what his father asked, but did it anyway. The initial point of the parable had to do with complex theological and historical issues involving Jews, gentiles, the law and grace. But on a broader scale, it also speaks to the issue we’re dealing with. Someone who says the wrong words but does the right thing pleases God more than the one who says the right words but doesn’t follow through on them.

True disciples are always doers more than talkers. The best mission statements merely put into words what the church is already doing well by following this simple formula: Words that follow action, which inspire further action.

No matter how big or small your church is, you do something really well – or you can. If you have a reasonable handle on what that is and you believe God wants you to do more of that, turn it into your mission statement. Here’s how. Write out what you’re already doing in the simplest, clearest language possible.

Don’t try to be clever. Don’t worry about rhymes or alliterations. Don’t read a book about how to write a mission statement. Just say “we do this and this,” so people know what they’re in for when they jump on board.

Then keep doing it. With more passion and purpose every day.

 

So what do you think? Have you been stressing over a mission statement? Does this help relieve some of that burden?

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(Changed Priorities Ahead photo from Hitchster • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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5 thoughts on “Your Church’s Mission Statement: Do It First, Write It Later”

  1. Excellent post as usual, Karl…and exactly how one of my churches did it – and is thriving. One of the other key things we’ve done is to use that statement – to have it up on Sundays, to have it printed in our bulletin, to repeat it after worship and prayer time when our elders meet, before we get to the “business before us”….helps keep us on track. We use it at annual meeting time, as well. I have seen churches create statements because our denomination told us to years ago…and most of them ended up on a poster now crumpled in a choir room, never used.

    I think you’re right in saying that a mission statement grows out of your identity, as a church we follow the Lord’s leading and serve in whatever ways are open and a “good fit” to the passions and gifts of the church members.

    I like your distinction between mission statements and doctrinal statements.

    Thanks so much for such good quality information on the blog and the website. My copy of The Grasshopper Myth arrived in Canada in good time – looking forward to reading it!

    1. Thanks, Christine. It sounds like your church put things in the right order. Way better than adopting someone else’s statement, isn’t it?

      I’m glad the book arrived. I look forward to hearing what you think of it.

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