Why Bother With a Mission Statement?

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.

5. Mission Statements provide a powerful tool for church leaders

If the exercise of your leadership of the church is limited to attending meetings, making policy decisions, maintaining a facility, and managing a budget, you might not have any need for a mission statement.

But if you (as a church leader) think about what God wants to do through your church, ponder the people and gifts he has assembled in your congregation, long for your church to develop unity of purpose, sense the power of shared focus, and get excited about making a difference in the world, then a mission statement may fit you hand-in-glove.

Whether its hearing God’s call and responding faithfully, identifying the central purpose for which the church exists, reminding your people of their shared direction, measuring your effectiveness as a congregation by a missional standard, concentrating the resources of the church, or deciding not to do a good thing because it is not God’s best thing for your church—these are foundational leadership activities. And each of them is supported and enhanced by having a mission statement.

Moses had a clear mission statement: lead Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land. His leadership was authorized and rooted in this understanding of his God-given task. Taking Israel through the wilderness towards the Jordan was not an act of self-will or authoritarian stubbornness by Moses—it was an act of faithfulness. Saying “No” to those who wanted to return to Egypt or pursue a different destination than Palestine was not arbitrary or capricious of Moses—it was a legitimate exercise of his leadership authority based on the mission God gave him to accomplish.

Leadership in the absence of mission becomes an exercise in herding cats. You’re managing the ministerial interests of others, juggling needs and requests, trying to stretch church resources to cover overwhelming and divergent demand. Leadership in the context of mission involves setting direction, blazing trail, encouraging your people along the way, and keeping the church focused on the destination.

In other words, mission permits leadership. Without mission, there is no leadership worthy of the name.

6. Mission Statements provide “identity” for a church

Does your church have an identity? Beyond an address and phone number? More than the name of the church or the personality of your pastor? Can you stand in the foyer and, in sixty seconds, tell a visitor who your church is?

As visitors “sample” your church, as they try to get to know you, they need to find something about your congregation that is unique and compelling. It’s not enough for your church to be visitor-friendly, have a welcome-center in the foyer, and offer an informative website. It’s not enough to give visitors a statement of belief or an explanation of denominational ties. Visitors (and members, for that matter) are looking for something that communicates the church’s heart and purpose.

Nothing does that better than a clear sense of mission.

  1. “We’re a congregation full of doctors, nurses, dentists, and pharmacists. We are uniquely equipped to use health services to reach people’s souls. So we operate a medical clinic downtown and sponsor medical mission trips to Guatemala each summer.”
  2. “Our church has a long history of ministering to children. Our primary focus is the school we sponsor, the large population of immigrant children in our neighborhood, and a foreign mission effort that reaches street kids in Kenya.”
  3. “We are deeply concerned about the fragility of marriage in our culture. We focus on marriage enrichment for the church and community, sponsor a marriage counseling clinic, and emphasize mentoring relationships to help build strong marriages.”
  4. “We emphasize worship here. Not worship services or worship forms. Worship as a constant activity of life, 24-7. Worship expressed in our relationship with God, our love for each other, our service of the world. We believe we are what God created us to be when everything in our lives is an expression of worship.”

A mission statement lets you communicate the heart of your church and define your congregation. The result may not be everyone’s “cup-of-tea.” Visitors might not be drawn to a church that emphasizes medical missions or children or worship. They may want something other, something different. But at least you’ll have a way to say, “This is who we are. This is how we make a difference. And if that is of interest to you, if you’d like to partner with us in accomplishing kingdom business in that particular way, we’d welcome your participation in our church.”

As a mission statement defines your church, it also helps to distinguish your church from other congregations around you. Lots of churches within a few miles of your building believe Jesus is the Christ or respect the authority of Scripture. Unless you expect people to make a church choice based on little more than denominational affiliation or preacher-preference, it’s important to define your direction and emphasis in a manner that differentiates you from other congregations. For too long, we have allowed this differentiation to be a negative thing (“We’re better than them.” “We are right and they are wrong.”) A mission statement gives you a way to differentiate your church in a positive way (“Here is our primary calling and emphasis. Other churches are called to different ministries. You have to decide where you want to plug into the kingdom.”)


7. Mission statements build consensus

Many churches are (to all intents and purposes) divided into ministry factions. Because the focus of the church is fractured, often the unity of the church is similarly fractured. We may not be crowing, “I am of Cephas … I am of Apollos … I am of Paul” (as in 1 Corinthians), but we are often pledging allegiance to a particular foreign mission effort, a church school, an urban poor initiative, small groups, or any one of dozens of ministry initiatives. Different ministries vie for the resources, volunteers, and attentions of the church as a whole. A ministry waxes and wanes according to the passion level of its most ardent champion rather than the ministry’s kingdom effectiveness or its contribution to the overall goals of the church.

Mission statements offer a way to build a sense of consensus in a church and among its members by focusing the church and aligning its various ministries on the goal of furthering that focus.

Let me give an example: I know a church where a high percentage of the members are involved in the medical profession—doctors, nurses, hospital administrators, pharmacists, dentists, and opticians. Taking God’s gifting seriously, recognizing that God has gathered these particular members with these particular skills together as a church for a reason, the church lives out its commitment to Christ by focusing on ministries related to the medical field. They use the vocabulary of health and healing, sickness and wellness, in speaking of the spiritual life. They do blood drives, fitness clinics, and seminars on caring for terminally ill family members in their building. They run a free clinic in a poor section of town—supplied, staffed, and managed by their own people. They do a medical missions trip every summer—performing surgery, pulling teeth, giving screening exams—to a remote area of Guatemala.

To protect this focus, there are some things this church doesn’t do. It doesn’t do divorce recovery groups or job skills training or literacy classes—there are other nearby churches that provide these ministries. It doesn’t send money to missionaries in France or support preaching training in the South Pacific. It doesn’t offer correspondence courses or build houses for the poor or host a daycare in its facility. These are all good works and worthy of support. And all are part of the ministry efforts of other churches in the area. But these good and worthy efforts are not given emphasis in this church … they don’t fall within this congregation’s understanding of its God-given mission. These other missions—good as they are—are not allowed to compete with the church’s primary mission and dilute the church’s focus.

And what if you want to join this church but you don’t have a medical background? Welcome! But this church won’t start a new ministry initiative just to gain your membership. It will ask you to identify skills and gifts that can contribute to the goals and focus the church has already set. If you have a marketing skill set, use it to publicize the free clinic downtown. If you have construction or project management abilities, use them to plan the Guatemala mission trip and set up facilities for examinations and minor surgery. If children are your thing, find a way to work with the kids who come to the inner-city clinic.

This overriding sense of mission can build ministry consensus in a church. We don’t have competing ministries … we have various means of furthering the same end. We don’t have ministry “siloes,” functionally separate from each other, and independently staffed, budgeted, and operated. We have “aligned” ministries, focused on the same goal, cooperating with each other (supporting and enhancing each other) to accomplish God-given business. And ministries do not take on a life of their own … they have continued purpose and life to the degree that the help the church achieve the mission God has given it to do.

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.