Confusing the What and the How

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Rugged Leather Carpenters Work Bag With Worn Tools Isolated On BThe next time you’re talking with someone from your church or chatting with people between services, pose this question to them: “If someone were to ask you, ‘What does your church do?’ what would you say?” Chances are, the answers would range some, but you’d begin to see a pattern. Conducting worship services may be a common theme. Perhaps some would want to share about the ways your church serves people in your community. Some might get philosophical and offer an answer about loving one another or following Jesus.

Assuming those answers are true, they aren’t bad answers. But as you’ve guessed by now, I would’t be talking about this if I didn’t see something problematic with those answers.

The issue is this (stay with me on this one): When it comes to leading churches, we often confuse the what with the how. Let me explain.

WHAT has to do with purpose; HOW is the strategy and methods we use to get it done.

This is more than a mere parsing of words. It’s a crucial distinction that gets to the core of why your church exists. When you ask a carpenter what he does, the answer you get probably won’t be, “Sawing, hammering nails, and making accurate measurements.” A carpenter certainly does those things, but you’re more likely to hear something like, “I build homes” or “I remodel kitchens and bathrooms.” Because at the end of the day, a carpenter isn’t in it for the measuring and cutting. At our church, the what is Helping people meet and follow Jesus. The how includes many things, such as creating meaningful worship environments, small groups, and serving people in need. What your church does should rarely change. How you get it done is always open for discussion.

WHAT has to do with mission; HOW has to do with programs.

One of the reasons people in your church react negatively when a popular program is changed or ended is because they equate the identity or purpose of your church with a particular program. They can’t imagine your church with x program or y event. But the reason your church exists isn’t a program or event. The reason your church exists is much, much bigger than that. Programs are just tools, and tools wear out and need to be repaired or replaced altogether from time to time.

WHAT is permanent; HOW is temporary.

Imagine for a moment your church fifty years from now. What do you hope your church will be accomplishing at that time? Your current favorite program? Chances are, you’d hope your church will still be accomplishing its mission, though you know it will probably look different than it does today. Hold tightly to Jesus-centered biblical theology and the mission God has given your church. But hold loosely the methods your church employs because they will always be temporary.

WHAT unites people around vision; HOW can make people defend and protect the status quo.

if you’ve ever been a part of a team or movement that seemed unbeatable because everyone was moving in the same direction, you know how powerful it is when people are united around a what. And if you’ve ever been a part of a team that couldn’t move forward because people were more concerned with advancing a pet project or protecting their little slice of leadership, then you know what happens with people care more about the how than the what. People come together for a common purpose when that purpose is bigger than themselves.

WHAT is the stuff that fuels your dreams and why you keep doing ministry; HOW is just how you get there.

It’s no surprise that what keeps people moving forward against all odds is purpose. People who serve in highly self-sacrificial vocations—fire fighters, law enforcement, military—do so not because they love the details of their job (though many do). They do it because of the impact they make in people’s lives whom they will likely never meet. While the how of ministry is often fun, it’s not why we do what we do—and it’s not why your best people will follow you, either. What moves hearts is what you’re doing as a church why why you exist.

What did I miss? I’d love to hear from you!

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