The first time I attempted to define the mission of the church, it didn’t go well.
I was twenty two years old and in my first year of teaching at a Christian school. When I attended my first conference for professional church workers, I was loving my job and wanted to learn more about ministry and working in the church.
The first conference speaker’s topic was entitled “The Role of the Church in Our Changing Culture.” As I listened to the hour long presentation, something didn’t seem right. I couldn’t quite identify the issue that I disagreed with. The speaker was engaging, told many jokes and stories, and quoted scripture to back up his thoughts. His main message went something like: “Our culture is the threat. The church needs to think of itself as a battleship sailing into hostile territory with guns blazing to defeat the enemy.” He used the battleship analogy throughout his message as a rallying point to convince the listener that the role of the church is to preach the Word of God and call out the elements of our culture that are opposed to us. The final line of his presentation was, “The church is a mighty battleship. Don’t let our culture sink our battleship.”
After the presentation, we were instructed to discuss the presentation with those seated at our round tables. I was immediately a bit uncomfortable. I didn’t know the others at my table. I had snuck into the presentation as it was starting and took the first open seat that I could find. While listening to the instructions that would guide our table discussions, I resolved that I wouldn’t contribute much to the conversation and would stay as quiet as possible. It wasn’t only that I did not know the other nine people at my table; they were also all pastors (I was not) and easily old enough to be my father, or grandfather.
Most of the men at my table expressed a favorable opinion of the presentation. A few disagreed with the battleship analogy and thought that the church should be viewed more as a hospital ship; caring for the spiritually sick and addressing the needs of people. As the discussion continued, the hospital ship analogy picked up momentum, winning several people to its side in the great battleship versus hospital ship debate. There were a few men at the table who stood by the battleship analogy, repeating information from the presentation as their rationale. I stayed silent, the debate continued, and each participant grew more frustrated.
Eventually, there was a pause in the conversation. Nobody seemed to have anything to say that hadn’t already been said several times. During that silence, a few faces turned to with eyebrows lifted as if to say, “this guy hasn’t said anything, let’s hear what he has to say.” Despite my desire to stay silent, I felt compelled to contribute.
I opened my mouth and out came some words that were not well thought out. “I think you are all wrong,” I said. That got their attention. All nine heads tilted slightly to their right and the foreheads wrinkled as they stared at me. “I don’t think that the church is best described as a battleship or a hospital ship.”
“Then what is it?” asked one of the men.
I replied, “Well, I love fishing and growing up, the stories and words in the Bible that referenced fishing always caught my attention. During our discussion I couldn’t help but think of Jesus calling disciples and telling them to follow him and he would make them fishers of men. I don’t think we should be sailors on a battleship or medics on a hospital ship, I think we should be fishermen on a fishing boat. The church should be a fishing boat.”
Where was this coming from? The twenty two year old me had never sat down and thought this through, but here I was telling a group of pastors what I thought about the purpose of the church. Looking at the men who had argued for the battleship, I said that the church should be engaged in the culture and should equip people to live as Christians in the world. Looking at the men who had argued for the hospital ship I explained that the church should care for people who have physical, emotional, or spiritual needs. “But,” I said “we should first and foremost be a fishing boat fishing for people who are lost.”
When I finished my unplanned thesis on the mission of the church, everyone paused for a minute. I don’t think they knew what to think, much less say. I’m not sure if it was the message or the awkward young guy saying it, but it was met with momentary silence. One of the men forced a huge smile, exaggerated a chuckle, and thanked me for my comments. If he could have, I think that he would have reached across the table and pinched my cheek and said “nice try little guy.” Everyone turned their heads away from me and returned to their previous debate.
I still believe every word that I unexpectedly spoke that day. Should we stand up to those who would undermine the church? Sure. Should we care for the physical, emotional, and spiritual need of people? Absolutely. The primary mission of the church is to make disciples from those who are lost, to catch fish that haven’t been caught, and to bring people onto our fishing boat. It is this purpose that leads me to write and speak about the importance of local churches having a strong, well defined mission.
One of my great frustrations with the church is that we are really good at defeating ourselves. Many churches struggle or completely ignore the need to clearly define and pursue their mission. That should be ground zero for any church…to know why you exist.
Many churches choose to not define their mission and end up drifting from Sunday to Sunday, seemingly surrendering to the inevitability of a slow or rapid decline.
Even churches who do clearly delineate their mission have challenges to overcome. Satan is always scheming. Our culture is increasingly combative to our message. Sin is all around us. Those challenges are real. Imagine for a moment what it would look like if all churches knew what their mission was and were on fire to pursue it. Think of the people saved. Envision the culture turning to the church and picture satan being really ticked off. That vision starts with your church clearly defining its mission.
I love the well known Steven Covey quotation, “Begin with the end in mind.” You are reading this because you are a leader in your church that cares about ministry. When seeking to start or revitalize your church, you should begin with the end in mind. You need a clear sense of mission before all else. Define the destination, and the path to get there becomes clear.
Political strategist James Carville coined the phrase “The economy, stupid” to explain Bill Clinton’s central message in the 1992 presidential campaign. There were issues other than the economy that were important that year, but Carville knew that more than anything, his campaign needed to convince voters that Clinton would handle the ailing economy of the day better than George H.W. Bush. As such, Clinton’s campaign became almost single handedly focused of economic issues - it is the issue that mattered the most.
The church has an issue that matters the most. Churches do many things for many people, but in the end, the issue that matters the most is the Gospel.
When you think about the daunting task of defining the mission of your church, there is good news! You are not starting with a blank slate. Defining your mission is a step that requires understanding, not innovation. You don’t have to make something up. You do have to understand that it has already been spelled out for you. Don’t over think it. Jesus clearly told you, down to the word, what the mission of your church should be. In fact, He saved those words for his last minutes on earth with His disciples.
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 29:18-20 (NIV)
Christians call this section of scripture the Great Commission for a reason. I received a whisper after reading this verse on a mountain top in Colorado, the church received this imperative command on a mountain top in Galilee.
Let’s dig a bit deeper to make sure that these words in Matthew are really the mission of your church.
First, let’s make it clear as to who gets to decide what the mission of your church should be. Churches operate with various forms of governance. Some are governed directly through their denomination, some by a bishop, some by congregational votes, some by a board of directors, some by elders, some by one person, and some a hybrid of methods. Whatever, your form of governance, God is the owner of your church.
“And he (Christ) is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.
Colosians 1:18 (NIV)
Jesus Christ is the owner of your church. In matters of mission, your church is not a democracy. Jesus has the final say - sometimes it’s good to be King!
He reminds us of the fact right before He spells out the church’s mission in Matthew: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” It is that authority that enabled Him to tell His disciples what to do once He was no longer with them. Jesus is still king - that authority still matters.
The words of Matthew 28 still matter to your church.
Once we have established that Jesus had the authority to determine the mission of the church, let’s look at the words he spoke. Lucky for us, His words here are clear. The mission of His followers (disciples) is to make other followers! Where are we to go about making other followers? Everywhere! All nations. Jesus continues by saying that His disciples should do this through baptism and by teaching them things that He said. We have both the mission and the method in one message! I don’t think that was an accident.
I think it is significant that these words are the last recorded message that Jesus spoke to His disciples.
For some of them, the first time Jesus told them to do something was recorded earlier in Matthew.
“Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” Matthew 4:19 (NIV)
Jesus called His disciples by telling them that the purpose of a disciple was to make more disciples. He leaves them by telling that disciples should make more disciples.
To understand the mission your church is to understand this:
Followers of Jesus seek to make followers of Jesus.
That’s the purpose of the church.
That is why your church should exist.
The words that your church writes down to communicate that message can and should vary from other churches based on your unique ministry context. I work with churches to do just that.
The words you choose may be different, but should be based on Christ’s clear mission for the church.
It’s the Great Commission, stupid.
I have had the privilege to work with churches in different geographic locations and varied demographic/socioeconomic contexts - all with unique ministry challenges and needs. Despite their differences, they all have approached me with the same question/concern: “What can we do to grow?” That is a great question for a church to be asking! Any church with a heart for the gospel and for people should be asking that question. My response to that question goes something like this: "That’s a great question and I’m glad you asked me. I promise we can answer that question, but that question can’t be our starting point. There is another question that we have to answer before we discuss that.”
We need to know the why before the what and the how.
The best definition of a church’s mission is the answer this question:
“Why does our church exist?”
When I say church, I’m not talking about the Church universal, your denomination, religion, or even Christianity as a whole. Why does your specific, local church exist?
Another question to ask that helps clarify the answer to the first is this:
“Why did God send your church to your community?”
I think it is helpful to think like a missionary. If you were a missionary to a foreign country, you would have been sent with a specific purpose:
- To spread the gospel to a tribe in Uganda.
- To minister to refugees in Iraq.
- To care for children in an orphanage in Vietnam.
Thinking of your church’s mission through the lens of a missionary is helpful. It also doesn’t hurt that the word mission is the root of the word missionary! A missionary has been sent by God to an area with a purpose. Why did God send your church to your community?
Most churches do a poor job of talking about their mission. Maybe they have lost their sense of mission. Maybe they never had a sense of mission. Maybe they are focused on going through the motions of church life. Maybe the mission is there, but the passion for it is missing. Whatever the reason, the fact that churches lack a focused mission is unfortunate as it is the cornerstone to growth and movement in a church. It is essential because it brings clarity to all that you do.
Imagine a football game being played where the players didn’t know that the objective of the game was to score more points than their opponents. What would that game look like? I can see 22 players on a field each doing their own thing not necessarily related to scoring points. The quarterback showing off his arm by launching the ball as far as he could regardless of who was there to catch it. A running back running sprints on the side of the field to show his speed. A linebacker hitting players in the head with his helmet without regard to penalties because that what linebackers do!
I know many churches with many people pursuing different objectives. You do too. A clear mission is essential to defining the objective of your ministry - why your church exists.
I love fishing. I love fishing because it is fun for me. To put my love for fishing in mission language, the reason I fish is to have fun. There are reasons that others may enjoy fishing: to catch fish, to eat fish, to enjoy the scenery, or to relax. Those are great motivations for some people, they are why some people love fishing. I just think it’s fun, that’s why I fish.
Your church needs to find its “why”. Why has God placed your church in your community? Why does your church exist?
Would your community miss your church if it were gone?
The summer between by Sophomore and Junior year of high school, I ventured with my church’s youth group on a service trip to a church camp in the mountains outside of Colorado Springs, Colorado. Being from the relatively flat midwest, this trip was my first time seeing a mountain and I was impressed!
Once we arrived at camp, the staff put us to work cleaning bunkhouses, building horseshoe pits, and shoveling manure in the riding stables. After a day of work, the camp staff would lead us in an evening of programming that usually consisted of some songs (think Shine, Jesus Shine!), a devotion, and some time for “sharing.” One night we were in for something different as the counselors announced that we were going to take a night hike to the top of a mountain. There were two rules:
1. Absolutely no talking.
2. Take a flashlight, but only turn it on when we tell you.
After a half hour or so we ended up on the top of a small mountain peak and were instructed to lay on our backs and stare at the sky. The sight was amazing! The stars seemed humongous and so close; like I could reach out and touch one. Once we had gazed at the stars for a couple minutes the counselors handed each of us a different folded piece of paper and told us to turn on our flashlights so we could read the paper to ourselves silently five times. I turned on my flashlight and opened the folded piece of paper and it revealed the words of Matthew 28:19-20.
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (NIV)
This was certainly not my first time reading this section of scripture. I learned about it in Sunday school and knew that people referred to it as the Great Commission. After reading it five times, we were instructed to turn our flashlights off and sit in silence for ten minutes and reflect on what we had just read. As I sat there, I was still amazed by the stars in the sky. My eyes followed a blinking red light from a satellite from the right horizon to the left.
As I was sitting there in total (somewhat eerie) silence, I heard a not so quiet voice whispering. I focused on what the whispering voice was saying. “Serve My Church. Serve My church.” Where was this voice coming from? My imagination? A fellow high school participant? A counselor? God? I glanced around and saw that none of the other teens or counselors were saying anything. I was a bit freaked out.
To this day, I can’t tell you for sure the source of the whisper. I can tell you that the 16-year-old me thought it was God saying something important. The present day me agrees with the 16-year-old me. By the way, if it was God talking to me, you need to know that he sounds a lot like James Earl Jones.
As I sat on the mountain, my thoughts focused on the words that had been whispered to me. I recall thinking “I think God wants me to serve his church in some really big way.” I was unclear on exactly how he wanted me to serve - the whisper wasn’t very specific! I had never pictured myself as a pastor, mostly because all the pastors that I knew were stodgy old men who always seemed angry, maybe because of the uncomfortable looking robes and collars that they wore. I didn’t have much time to think things through that night, but I began exploring ways that I could serve.
I had always wanted to be a teacher. Childhood playtime with my little brother consisted of me having him sit at a desk and copy things I wrote on a chalkboard in our basement. I still apologize to him today for that! During my senior year of high school, I decided that I would serve the church by teaching in a Christian grade school. I headed off to a Christian college and received my degree in Middle & Secondary Education. My first job out of college was teaching middle school social studies and religion classes at a Christian school. I loved it. The kids were great, I was having fun, and I was serving the church by teaching the next generation about Jesus. It wasn’t long before enough people told me that I should be a school administrator that I earned my Masters in Education Administration and took a job as principal at another Christian school. The work was challenging, but I loved it. I was serving the church by growing a school that taught kids about Jesus.
After being a school principal for a while, my pastor tapped me on the shoulder one Sunday after church and mentioned that he would like to have coffee with me someday the next week. I agreed and received the following email from him the next morning:
Hey Bryan – hope you are doing well.
Any chance you have some time to visit?
I’d like to catch up, and see what you are up to.
(That’s pastor code for talk you into something).
When we met for coffee later that week, he was direct. He talked to me about joining the staff of the church I attended in a leadership position focused on building the organizational side of the ministry. After a few months of discussion, I accepted the position and began work. I’m still there and I love it. Church work is challenging, but there is nothing like serving full time in a local church. I get a front-row seat to see how God is working in the lives of His people.
While serving the church, I was constantly being asked by pastors and staff members from other churches for advice or to come speak to their staff and leadership. After doing this a few times, and an idea was born. What if I could keep serving my church full time, but also find a way to partner with other churches to help them grow? Not long after having this idea, I launched Blackford Ministry Solutions. I now partner with churches to help them plan and organize their ministry to fulfill their God-given mission. I couldn’t be happier with where this idea has taken me: around the country helping churches overcome obstacles and grow!
So, here I am, serving God’s church. I am journeying on what I have discerned to be my mission while here on earth: to Serve the Church. It all started with a whisper on a mountain.
What is your mission?
Here are my four favorite ministry related resources of the month!
1. 5 Reasons Your New Year’s Resolutions Usually Fail by Carey Nieuwhof
It’s a new year! Here’s how to avoid the typical cycle of failed resolutions.
2. How I Plan for My Week by Michael Lukaszewski
A 6 minute video on how to get organized and jumpstart your week.
3. Five Evidences of a Prideful Church Culture by Dan Jarvis
An interesting and convicting read for most churches and their leaders.
4. 55 of the Cheesiest Christian Pick-up Lines You’ve Ever Heard by Charles Specht
It’s a new year! Have some fun!
What are you reading this month? Let me know!