A year after moving to the church we currently lead, my husband and I really wanted to develop a mission statement. We had taken time to get to know the church. We had spent time in prayer, seeking God’s leading for our ministry here. We had listened to the concerns and values of those on the margins. And we had started to perceive the needs around us, out in the wider community. We were ready to put down on paper what we had learned. We had seen the needs and the opportunities: now we needed a plan.
And then God spoke to me: “I was here already, you know.” Not a moment of instant revelation, but a gradual dawning of conviction. I had run away with my enthusiasm. In our eagerness to help our church work out their core values and calling, we were in danger of narrowing what was already a gospel-driven and people-centred ministry. This ministry started long before our arrival, and it will go on long after we leave.
But what’s so wrong with mission statements? After all, they help us define who we are, and what we stand for. They keep us focused on what we feel is important. They help us travel together spiritually. Would it really be so damaging for us to develop one? Here are three reasons why, as church leaders, we won’t be rushing to do that:
- Mission statements shape our work around our own agendas
If your church has a mission statement, who wrote it? Effective leaders will listen to a range of voices as they work out opportunities and needs. In our own plans for a mission statement, we would have consulted at every stage with our leaders and congregation. But even the most inclusive communities have many on the margins: those whose voices are unheard. Mission statements become the agenda of those in positions of leadership or authority, and those with confidence and privilege. In a hierarchical movement, perhaps this is effective top-down communication. But mission and service isn’t top-down. In fact, it can be most effective when it’s bottom-up, as people quietly serve others in their own ways. Even if a mission statement is constructed inclusively, the moment the words are on the page, our work as a church is limited. God is dynamic, responsive, and reactive, but mission statements tie us down, preventing us from being similarly responsive and reactive. Mission statements give us an agenda to work to. But whose agenda is it?
- Mission statements deny the significance of what’s already happening
After a year of listening and watching, I thought I had a grasp of ministry in this church. Three years on, and I realise I was mistaken. The ways in which people serve here can only be viewed as an iceberg: 90 per cent is under the water and unseen even by the leaders. I’m blessed to lead a church in which people simply get on with service. They don’t worry about whether what they are doing needs to be bullet-pointed in a mission statement. Someone needs a lift to the shops each week, so someone else provides it. The local foodbank needs more volunteers, so current volunteers recruit new ones. Racial tensions in the community begin to rise, so someone challenges a racist protest.
The people who worship in our churches don’t do these things because they have been empowered by a mission statement. They do them because they have been empowered by the gospel. They take seriously the words of Jesus in Mark 12:30-31: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength… [and] you shall love your neighbour as yourself.” Perhaps this is the ultimate mission statement for the local church: do we need another?
- Mission statements distract us from distractions
Church leaders are used to interruptions. A sermon needs writing, but the phone rings. It’s someone in need, and suddenly the day is rearranged and the sermon remains unwritten. Distractions are an important gift. We don’t need mission statements to tell us about need. Instead, we need to spend time loving people in all their mess and chaos. In keeping us “on track”, mission statements actually distract us from the important curve balls and the ministry of chaos. We need to throw our agendas out the window and just get stuck in. We need to forget our strategies and go and be with people. Which tells us more about what’s important: the time we invest in the people we serve, or our mission statements?
Taking away the safety net of a mission statement will feel risky for some, and liberating for others. It’s an exercise in trusting God and trusting each other. To develop one here, in our church, would be unnecessary, and perhaps even damaging, to the glorious chaos that exists as people each serve God and one another in their own ways.
Maybe I’ll write a mission statement when I leave, but it won’t be about future plans: it will be about what God has already done in the midst of our chaos.