W. Jackson Watts
I was recently having a conversation with a friend who is also a pastor. He shared with me that he and his church leaders were going through an extensive evaluation of their entire ministry, especially as it relates to their church’s health and potential changes that may be needed. He raised this question: “What is the difference between a church’s mission statement and its vision?” One of his lay leaders had asked about this. There was some confusion as to which was which in their ministry.
My short answer is more or less what I believe most people would say: Mission is what you do, and vision is where you’re trying to go. To thicken this a bit, your vision is where you are hoping to go, or what you want to become as an organization. Your mission would be the thing you need to do faithfully to get there.
In the course of our conversation I was reminded of some important caveats, clarifications, and challenges that all of us church leaders need to understand and communicate about mission statements. In this article I want to explain some of the background that needs to be made more explicit in this discussion. Then, I’ll offer five theses regarding mission statements in our churches.
Learning from Others
Most of the lingo of mission and vision actually arises from outside ecclesiology and biblical studies. It arises from the vast body of leadership literature that has emerged over the last couple of generations. Those writing on organizational leadership have long discussed the relevance of having a motto, slogan, mission, and/or vision as part of founding, developing, and growing companies or businesses. I’m not sure when, but at some point this literature began to influence and shape the evangelical church world.
Let me hasten to say that I don’t view this influence as entirely negative. In fact, I’m deeply appreciative for those gifted leaders who have called attention to the need to give those in Christian organizations, including churches, clarity about what they ought to be doing to help their ministries be fruitful. In God’s common grace, He sheds abroad the knowledge of how groups of people work in coordinated cooperation toward important goals. What could be more important than for Christians to work together to fulfill Christ’s mission for us?
Of course, the first obstacle that emerges is when we listen more to corporate leadership gurus than Christ and the apostles. If Coach K has more sway over how we seek to lead and make men than Jesus, we’ve got a problem (and I like Coach K!).
As with anything that can resource our ministry, we have to filter it through the grid of Scripture. The New Testament must have more purchase over our thinking about growth, leadership, and structure than Warren Buffett, John Kotter, or even believers like Thom Rainer. I have benefited from people like these, but sometimes you get the impression that having a short, memorable mission statement is next-to-godliness.
The Center of the Bible: The Debate Continues
The question of balance and emphasis naturally leads us into what Scripture may contribute to our thinking about mission and vision (however you choose to define those). Biblical theologians are scholars who seek to trace out patterns and themes in Scripture as they unfold. Unlike systematic theologians, biblical theologians tend to place more emphasis on identifying specific themes or teachings across Scripture (or genres of Scripture) as they unfold organically. Think Graeme Goldsworthy or G.K. Beale (biblical theology) versus Wayne Grudem or Kevin Vanhoozer (systematic theology) for modern exemplars of these two approaches. We have seen some efforts to bridge biblical and systematic theology, but generally theologians tend to occupy one lane more than the other. Some will dispute this characterization, but I think it’s fair.
What does this have to do with mission statements? It’s a question of emphasis and focus. For example, there has been a long-standing debate in biblical theology about what theme stands at the center of Scripture. In recent years we have seen several significant book-length treatments on this issue, such as God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment, Kingdom through Covenant, and more recently, God’s Relational Presence. And it’s not just writing theologians who are in on this project. Retired pastor John Piper’s emphasis on Christ’s supremacy in all things and enjoying God forever permeates all of his writings. These themes are compelling because they seem to fit with what a plain reading of Scripture reveals: it’s all about God!
So when we’re trying to develop short, memorable statements that describe where a congregation needs to go, or how they intend to get there, it’s crucial that those statements are grounded in Scripture. Generic and unclear statements like “our mission is to have an impact,” or “our vision is to be excited about Jesus,” while well-intentioned, probably fail to reflect a clear New Testament message.
Where Shall We Go?
With that being said, let me suggest five theses about the use of mission statements in our churches. I think the same would apply to vision statements, but I’ll focus on the former since they tend to receive the most emphasis.
1-Mission Statements are only as good as your ministry alignment. Not unlike James’ words about being a hearer and a doer (Jas. 1:22-24), we may be able to develop a mission statement that is pleasing to the ear and thoroughly biblical. However, if we don’t persevere in the intentional, long-term work of developing all areas of ministry to work toward the fulfillment of that mission, then the statement is useless. Having a mission statement might be necessary, but it’s insufficientfor getting everyone moving in the same direction. People may know it, but if they aren’t shown how to take practical steps toward it (including specific changes), then the mission will remain just a statement on a wall. As an aside, I use the word “persevere” above intentionally. If you’re not planning (or willing) to stay in your current ministry for another ten years, don’t spend the next year trying to launch a new mission statement. It’ll take much more time than that to make real progress toward it.
2-Mission statements can benefit all church members, but they’re essential for the leaders. Leaders have to first buy in to the stated mission of the church. They make most of the decisions for the church day to day, from the development and implementation of policies, the care of members, the teaching of classes, and most importantly, modeling what it means to be a faithful member.If they don’t believe in the mission, or are constantly at odds with other leaders about the specific strategies that will fulfil the mission, this will have a cascading effect on the rest of the congregation.But if the leaders are committed to and excited about the mission, this can be contagious, in the very best sense of the word.
3-Mission Statements don’t create health; they can create clarity. Sometimes when churches have been around for several decades they’ve had time to see many ministries started. Often these ministry areas lose focus, compete for resources, and/or lack the volunteers they need to be truly effective. Underneath all of this is the question, “Do these ministries actually work toward a clear goal that is not at odds with other ministries?” A mission statement can bring clarity to an organization or church where there is a sense that everyone is going in different directions. It’s not even that everyone is doing badthings. Rather, they’re just not examining those directions in light of the larger direction that God intends for his church. Clarity, then, is vital. It won’timmediately bring health. But they can be partof a path toward greater health.
4-Mission Statements are no substitute for the problem of ignoring Scripture. In some ways thesis four is an extension of thesis three. If a church intends to become healthy and stay healthy, it’s not enough to add a mission statement or tweak an existing one. Even once a church anchors its mission statement in Scripture, it has to be committed to a full range of biblical principles and practices. Side step any fundamental command for the church, and you’ll have an unhealthy church with a great mission statement. To illustrate, if sin isn’t addressed, it will spread. If discipleship is a buzzword and not a regular behavior, the church will flounder. So if your mission statement is something like, “Our mission is to glorify God by living the Gospel,” and there is no actual recourse if members don’tlive the Gospel, or they get no help in living the Gospel, then you have mission failure.Don’t expect the church to be fruitful if you’re not being faithful to Scripture.
5-However you define mission or vision, be clear and consistent. Ultimately I don’t think that the precise definition a church uses for these statements will determine success. I will say that whenwe present and adopt statements as churches, we need to clearly explain their meaning, how they relate to each other, and what functional authority they will have over how decisions are made. If we do this, I think it will help the entire congregation have the right expectations.