Every church has a mission statement.

The only question is whether the statement is intentional, conscious, and explicit or (as is the case with most churches) accidental, ill-defined, and poorly expressed. When you examine what churches actually do, where their resources are devoted, how they make decisions, you can determine what churches understand their primary business to be.

Some churches make it clear that their fundamental business is servicing a mortgage and maintenance of their physical property. Others seem determined to take care of their current membership and do nothing to risk their ire. Still others are determined to keep their pastor or sustain long-loved but largely-ineffective ministries or avoid meaningful interaction with a surrounding community whose demographics are rapidly changing.

Churches that have no explicit statement of mission tend to live out a mission rooted in the past or driven by the interests/biases/preferences of their members or hewing to some denominational party-line. In the absence of a clearly defined mission, it is difficult for a church and for church leaders to swim against the prevailing tides of tradition and comfort zones.

Churches determined to make a kingdom difference and unwilling to simply “go with the flow” need a mission statement that clearly defines who the church is, what the church values, and where the church intends to go. The absence of such a statement dooms churches to a vagueness of purpose that ensures perpetual ineffectiveness.

Here are my “top seven” reasons why every church should have an explicit, clear, specific mission statement (the reasons appear in no particular order):

1. Mission Statements are biblical.

Moses had one.

So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.  (Ex 3:10)

The judges all had one. Take Gideon’s, for example:

Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you? (Jud 6:14)

Jesus had one.

For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost. (Lk 19:10)

Peter and Paul had one.

For God, who was at work in the ministry of Peter as an apostle to the Jews, was also at work in my ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles. (Gal 2:8)

Jesus gave his disciples one.

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. (Mt 28:19-20; see also Mk 16:15).

Paul charged Timothy and Tituswith specific missions.  

Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. Do not neglect your gift … (1Tim 4:13-14; see also Tit 1:5)

Every significant character you meet in the pages of Scripture had a mission, a calling, a God-directed business to accomplish.

But it wasn’t just individuals who were commissioned. God’s groups were also given their tasks to perform. Israel was expected to travel from Egypt to the Promised Land. Under David and Solomon, the Hebrews were tasked to build the temple. The exiles in Babylon were charged to return to their homeland and rebuild. The Jerusalem church was assigned the task of reaching Hebrews with the gospel while the Antioch church focused exclusively on the Gentiles (see the “Jerusalem, Antioch, and Mission” article). The church in Philippi understood the care and feeding of Paul to be one of its prime responsibilities.

None of these biblical characters and/or groups launched into ministry with a bland and generic assignment to “go forth and do lots of good works.” They weren’t commanded to be “nice” or focus their efforts wherever they were inclined or opportunity arose. Rather, they were given specific tasks to accomplish at certain times and in particular situations for defined groups of people. In Scripture, God called people and formed groups. And then he tasked them … he gave them work to accomplish … he directed their focus and efforts. “Preach to Ninevah.” “Minister to the Gentiles.” “Stay in Crete.”

Modern churches that resist the adoption of a mission statement (or, more commonly, evade mission by insisting that the whole of the Bible is the mission) are missing an opportunity to shape themselves by a clear biblical pattern. If we truly want to be biblical, if we actually trust the biblical model, then we are required to take the subject of “mission” seriously, seek God’s will regarding our mission, and focus on that mission for all we’re worth.

2. Mission Statements force a church to identify its essential business

If you saw the movie “City Slickers,” you might remember the scene where Curly talked about the secret of life: finding your “one thing.”

Many Christians and most churches have yet to discover the value of that same secret for the kingdom. We have found “many things.” We are distracted, diluted, diffused, diverted … running in a dozen different kingdom directions at once … unable or unwilling to discover that “one thing” God has appointed us to do. I’m convinced we’re so busy doing lots of good things, we never have the time or energy to discover the singular focus that is best.

The development of a mission statement forces us to cease our yammering busyness, take a deep breath, listen for God’s voice, and discover the peculiar calling he has assigned to our church. As an instance of Christ’s body and bride, God has made you who you are, put you where you are, placed you in your specific circumstances, and gifted you with certain skills and abilities so that he can accomplish a particular piece of kingdom business through you. Maybe it’s reaching college students. Perhaps your church is uniquely equipped for medical missions or ministry to children. You may have had an influx of Sudanese refuges flood into your neighborhood and can hear God’s clear call in their needy presence. Your mission could be building stronger marriages or mentoring fathers or caring for the urban poor or building a deeply intimate community. Take your pick. But for goodness sake, choose something that represents a faithful response to God’s calling, a clear focus for the church’s attentions, and a particular ministry that constitutes your congregation’s “essential business.” Whatever you pick as a focus won’t be the only thing your church does. But, at last, it will identify the main thing your church does.

3. Mission Statements allow a church to keep the main thing the main thing

Think of a mission statement as a roadmap for your church. It marks the destination towards which you are moving. It suggests ways for getting from “here” to “there.” And—perhaps as important—it indicates when you’ve gotten lost, sidetracked, or diverted.

The old saying is true: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” But even when churches know where they want to go and have a specific destination in mind, they are persistently prone to distraction. The urgent overwhelms the important. The good takes precedence over the best. The infinite needs of this world capture our attentions and tempt us to do a little of everything—even though faithfulness most often requires us to do one thing well.

A good reason why a mission statement is so important is that it can regularly remind us of our prime business, our understanding of God’s calling, the direction we’ve agreed to travel together, the destination we’re committed to reach. A mission statement provides the church a means of assessing where we are, how we are, and why we are. It permits “course correction.” It can persuade a church to turn around and get back on the right road. When a church’s mission is clearly expressed, highly valued, and regularly consulted, it functions as a rudder that steers the ship of church whatever winds blow or currents run.

4. Mission Statements make it possible for a church to make an effective difference

The world has infinite needs. The church has finite resources: members, time, energy, money, skills/gifts. The church that permits no filter, no means of reserving resources for particular needs, will quickly exhaust itself and its resources.

Sadly, the only filter many churches permit is budgetary: “We just don’t have the money to do that.” Presumably, if they had the money, some churches would gladly do everything, support every mission point, partner with every good work, take up every good cause, throw money at every ministerial opportunity—never realizing that such an approach guarantees ineffectiveness.

Think of something you probably did as a child—using a lens to concentrate the sun’s rays and start a fire. Normally, the sun’s rays are so diffuse (literally shining every direction at once), earth objects don’t overheat and spontaneously combust. But gather those rays with a lens, focus them on a particular object (say, a leaf) and you can cause smoke, burn a hole, start a flame.

That’s what a mission statement does for a church. It allows a church to gather its resources, focus them on a particular need, and generate the kind of heat that makes a difference. It protects a church from the sort of diffuse generality that spreads resources in every direction. It permits a church to bring all its guns to bear on one target, a solitary need, a single goal. It provides an intentional filter by which ministerial decisions can be made: “Is this an opportunity or a distraction?” “Does this fall under our mission as a church?” “Does this work supportively and synergistically with the rest of our efforts?”

Instead of asking whether we have the money or the interest to address a certain opportunity, we ask whether—in conjunction with the other ministerial commitments we have made—this particular opportunity will allow us to make a significant kingdom difference.

[My top seven reasons for bothering with a mission statement continue in the next blog.]

[Read the first article in this series.]

[Read the next article in this series.]