Developing a Sense of Purpose

 
by Kel Willis 

Interact Magazine 1998
Volume 9 Number 2

It has been said that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail! Whilst I’m not sure I entirely agree with that premise, I am certainly convinced of the necessity of having a clear sense of purpose, and evident strategies to move towards its fulfilment, both in our own personal lives and in our churches. I know of very few growing churches that do not have a clearly declared purpose with objectives, goals and strategies that provide a framework for their activities and programs.

Clearly defined purpose not only gives a church a sense of direction but also helps in the process of evaluating existing activities and determining the validity of new ones. In other words, it helps to keep us on track.

Helen Keller once said that the greatest tragedy to befall a person is to have sight, but not vision. Being physically blind herself she was eminently qualified to make such a statement. Her perception of her own potential motivated her to achieve what others thought would be impossible. 

Having a sense of purpose is about having vision. Most of us are familiar with Proverbs 29:18: ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish,’ or as the NIV renders it, ‘Where there is no revelation the people turn aside.’ The implication is clear: where there is no awareness of the revealed purposes of God, we become preoccupied with the here and now. Churches without such a sense of vision tend to become absorbed in maintaining the status quo. 

In The Purpose Driven Church, Rick Warren says, ‘The quickest way to reinvigorate a plateaued or declining church is to reclaim God’s purpose for it and help the members understand the great tasks the church has been given by Christ.’ [R. Warren, The Purpose Driven Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), 87]. He makes the point that there are few things more likely to inhibit growth than having unclear vision.

At a recent conference I was asked if I could provide a biblical basis for my statement that churches should have not only a sense of purpose but also clearly specified objectives and goals to reach them. This kind of request often flows from resistance to the idea of adopting methods used in the corporate world, which are considered to be ‘not quite spiritual’. But the fact that it is sound business strategy to have goals doesn’t in itself make the practice unspiritual! Operating with honesty and integrity are also good business practice! The real issue is whether we have a biblical basis for having a clear sense of purpose and a discernible strategy for achieving it.

The Biblical Basis for Establishing Purpose

Everything we do in the church and in our own personal lives ought to flow from our understanding of the revealed will of God. We should be constantly evaluating what we are doing and plan to do in the context of His revealed purpose for us. 

Chapter 3 of Escaping Mediocrity expounds God’s purpose for His people. [K. Willis, Escaping Mediocrity (Sydney: CGM Publishing, 1997)]. His primary purpose in the redemptive work of Jesus was to reconcile us to Himself and restore us to His image and likeness. Macaulay and Barrs in Christianity With a Human Face call the concept of the image of God in Genesis 1:26 ‘the organising principle of Scripture’, because it is basic to all our thinking about Christian experience. It is the organising principle firstly, because it speaks of our origin – our very constitution as humans, and secondly, because the New Testament teaches explicitly that the purpose of salvation is to restore us to His image. [R Macaulay and J Barrs, Christianity With a Human Face (Leicester: IVP, 1979), 15].

This principle is consistently affirmed throughout the New Testament. In 2 Corinthians 3:18 we are told that God is at work within us as we ‘are being transformed into His likeness with ever-increasing glory’ or from one degree of being like Him to another. Ephesians 4:12-16 affirms that growing to be like Jesus is to happen in the context of the functioning church as we share together in its life and witness.

The New Testament has much to say about the kind of people we should be, and how we should both live in the world and function in the church. We are told that we should pursue godliness and integrity (1 Tim. 6:11), that our Christian walk should be a whole-of-life experience (Rom.12:12) and that in our relationships with others we should practise the ‘one another principles’ (Heb.10:24,25), consistently demonstrating a thankful attitude (Col.3:15-17). These instructions ought to be embraced as part of the process God uses in conforming us to His image and likeness. They are stepping stones that lead us to that objective of growing to be more like Him.

Paul’s testimony in Philippians 3:4-14 affirmed the grace of God in redemption, but he wanted to keep on growing in his understanding and experience of it. Paul was aware that this is a process that requires a single-minded and wholehearted response to Christ (Col.1:29; Eph.1:15-17). He always kept before him God’s primary purpose that he be like Jesus and so he declared, ‘I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.’

A Twofold Purpose 

Inseparable from the organising principle of the image of God is the New Testament emphasis on the church’s mission in the world: we are to be committed to evangelism in order to bring others to Jesus so that they too may be like Him, conformed to His image. Paul links the two in Galatians 1:16, declaring that God had called him in order to ‘reveal His Son in me, so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles’. The commission Jesus gave His disciples also links the two principles: bringing people to Christ and ‘teaching them’, providing a foundation and framework that helps believers to grow into Christ-likeness and to function as contributing members of His church.

Edification and evangelism are our dual responsibilities. On the one hand we are the people of God—the body of Christ—and are to encourage each other to grow into spiritual maturity. On the other hand, we are a witness to the world—salt and light—demonstrating and declaring the wonder of the gospel to a lost world.

If edification and evangelism are God’s declared strategy for achieving His purpose, they should be evident in everything we do in the church and should become the basis for ongoing evaluation of our church activities and our own involvement in them.

We are all familiar with the statement that the good is the enemy of the best, and yet we constantly find our lives cluttered with activities that have no evidence of contributing to God’s purpose for us. The Devil’s strategy is to divert us from our primary purpose and he will do this by tempting us with other things to focus on.

Everything we do in the life of our church should be in line with God’s declared purpose. Church leaders should be asking whether what they are doing through their church activities is consistent with their purpose. Are people being edified and built up into spiritual maturity? Are the unchurched being reached? If not, there is a need to find out why and make the necessary changes.

Much of what we do in the church is the consequence of ongoing tradition. Many of our activities, and even the way we conduct them, have long since lost their vitality and relevance. The tragedy is that many churches focus all their energies on their activities and structures and have long forgotten why they were established in the first place. When evaluating particular activities, leaders need to ask whether they would commence them today if they were not already part of their existing church program. If the answer is no, it’s time to close them down! We should be able to constantly affirm that our programs are clearly in line with God’s revealed purposes.

Developing Vision

I recently shared some of these concepts with a pastor, who responded by saying, ‘But how do I move a congregation with little or no real passion or vision for the church to a point where they are ready for this kind of thinking?’ There are a number of key principles we need to embrace if we are to adequately respond to this type of situation.

  1. It’s a principle of life (as well as church growth) that all real change is a consequence of changed thinking: as a man thinks in his heart, so he is. Preaching and teaching in our churches should address the issues that either inhibit or affirm growth and vision. We ought to constantly expose people to the biblical reality of their situation. If they are unclear about how to grow into spiritual maturity, if they have no vision of being like Jesus and sharing their faith, we need to expose them to the biblical principles that will encourage them to deal with these issues.

  2. The second principle flows out of this: all vision for the church and God’s people flows out of an understanding of and response to God’s revelation (Prov.29:18). We should therefore be constantly expounding God’s purpose for both the individual and for the church. There can be no substitute for God’s revelation that comes to us through the Bible being read, studied and expounded.

  3. The third principle is found in this statement: ‘Except the Lord build a house, they labour in vain that build it.’ Our walk and ministry must always be seen in the context of being utterly dependent on God’s continued intervention in our lives. The essential difference between static or declining churches and those that are vital and alive is that the latter have vital and alive Christians: people who are committed to the purposes of God both for their own lives and for the church.

This brings us to the issue of goal setting. I’m very aware of how purpose or vision statements can so easily become the focus instead of keeping our vision where it ought to be—firmly upon knowing God and His purposes in an ongoing way. However, the fact that we can become sidetracked doesn’t nullify the concept. Church programs can also sidetrack us and quickly become an end in themselves, as indeed can many other things.

Before developing the principles of goal setting it will be helpful to define some of the terms we will use. One of the problems when we begin to talk about this subject is that there are several approaches which differ in the terminology they use. To make things more difficult, some people use the same terms but apply different meanings to them, so that, for example, goals for one group are about the big picture and objectives are the stepping stones used to reach them, whilst others will use objectives to describe the big picture, and so on!

What is important is that the process and end product are essentially the same, and that we as church leaders or individual Christians establish what we want to see achieved and develop strategies to fulfil our declared vision.

I find the following terms used in their defined way most helpful in this process.

Purpose

Purpose is the big picture—why we exist as the people of God. The reason is twofold: to become Christlike—conformed to the image of Jesus (Rom.8:29), and to take the gospel to a lost world (Acts 1:8).

Objectives

These can be either short or long-term and are specific in their focus and time span compared with purpose. For example, if our purpose is to see people growing to be like Jesus and reaching the non-Christian world with the gospel, it will be necessary to have godly, effective leaders who will be part of the process. This then becomes a specific objective. We will also need to build biblical foundations and frameworks, so a further objective could be to establish a home group ministry or discipling program.

Goals

These are stepping stones in the process of achieving our objectives. They help us move towards them in ‘bite-sized chunks’. For example, in relation to the leadership objective stated above, there will be a process needed to achieve it. Those with existing and potential leadership abilities will need to be identified as well as the kind of study material they will need to cover.

It is important when setting goals to establish a time frame for each, in order to more easily monitor progress towards our objectives and overall purpose, and to maintain the impetus. For example, it might take six months to cover the basics of NT church leadership with those potential leaders we have identified.

It’s important to note that God’s primary purpose for the church universal is the same. Individual churches will also share some of the same objectives. For example, we all need godly leadership and effective discipling programs. Other objectives, however, will be determined by cultural, social, historical and geographical factors and will differ from church to church.

It is when we come to goals that we are likely to see the widest variety, for our programs and how we approach the outworking of our objectives will not only be affected by the same socio-cultural factors, but also by the realities of our local situations—available finances, manpower, facilities, expertise, etc.

Evaluation

This ought to be an ongoing process, assessing our progress in reaching our objectives, and adjusting our goals and strategies accordingly. Effective evaluation monitors existing programs as well as identifying needs and issues yet to be addressed. But it’s also about assessing the whole of our church life. Are we geared to the fulfilment of God’s revealed purposes for us? Are people growing into spiritual maturity? Are people being evangelised in the context of our activities? If not, adjustments clearly need to be made. 

All of these concepts we have defined are part of maintaining vision—having a sense of purpose in our churches. We begin with the revealed purposes of God. We may never see them perfectly fulfilled in our personal lives or in our churches, but they remain God’s purpose for us.

The Value of Goals and Objectives

They contribute to a sense of direction. 

This is an important part of church life, for without this there’s no sense of purpose and we slip into maintenance mode.

They provide a sense of cohesion.

There is something wonderfully unifying in all moving in the same direction with the same vision, especially when it’s God’s vision for us. Mutual involvement stimulates an awareness of belonging and that functional unity in itself becomes a factor contributing to spiritual growth (Eph.4:12-16).

They stimulate perseverance and stability.

When people are committed to clear objectives they are much more likely to endure. This is clearly demonstrated in Jesus who for the joy set before Him endured the Cross, scorning its shame (Heb.12:2). The concept is also demonstrated by the apostle Paul whose vision was to present every one perfect (complete) in Christ and said, ‘To this end I labour, struggling with all His energy, which so powerfully works within me’ (Col.1:28,29). Burden and vision for the church kept him focused, even in the most difficult times (2 Cor.11:22-29).

They motivate to action.

When there are objectives to reach and clear, biblical strategies to help in the process, people will more readily get involved.

The Nature of Goals and Objectives

They must be clearly stated.

If they are not, they will create confusion and frustration. They must be so specific that people have no doubt about what is intended. 

They must be achievable.

The whole concept of setting goals and objectives will fall into disrepute if they are unrealistic. I know of a pastor who set the objective of having 400 children linked to his church’s children’s program over 2 years. Apart from the fact that they had no facilities to cater for such a number, their personnel were already stretched with the 38 children already attending! Goals and objectives must take into account our resources in terms of personnel, facilities and finance. However, we must also operate in dependence on the enabling of God. Indeed, what we do in terms of objectives and goals should be a constant challenge to faith and dependence upon Him. It has been said that our goals should be just out of reach, but never out of sight.

They must be owned.

Pastors and church leaders need to patiently work through the process of setting objectives and goals with their congregations. This helps the people to own them, generating motivation to be a part of their fulfilment. Imposed objectives and goals will rarely be achieved.

They must be measurable.

It’s possible to be very, very busy without achieving what we set out to do. Busyness alone is not an indicator of progress. This affirms what we said about avoiding goals couched in nebulous terms. It’s important that at regular check-up points we are able to assess our progress towards our goals, measuring what has been achieved and what is yet to be done within our specified time frame.

Developing Goals and Objectives – the Process

Step 1 – Assuming the congregation has already embraced the gospel and its total provision for all God intends to do in and through us, the first and most important thing is to build on this foundation by exposing them to Bible input that consistently affirms the nature, character, purpose and function of the church. This should be done concurrently at both pulpit and small group levels.

Escaping Mediocrity was written with this strategy in mind. It covers this material and provides discussion questions which are ideal for small group use. Another option is to work through Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Church. It’s a much larger book but covers the material well. The objective is to develop a clear understanding of God’s purpose for His people. We want churches to embrace the principle that everything we do in the life of the church must be consistent with the purposes of God – helping people grow to be like Jesus and reaching a lost world.

Step 2 – The next step is to hold a Vision Day to evaluate whether your church is fulfilling its purpose, both individually and corporately. It’s helpful to begin by presenting a profile of your church, highlighting its strengths and weaknesses.

Evaluation should also include the process of looking at your potential: what kind of church can you become? Brainstorm as a whole church, in small groups, at a departmental level or as a leadership. Ask the questions: What are our priorities as a church? Where will we be in 1,5,10 years from now? What do we need to do in order to more effectively fulfil our purposes? Some activities only rob us of time and money, so we need to work towards closing these down. It may take time but when it happens the wasted resources can be used as they ought to be. Work in small groups of no more than 10 and have each report back to the whole group, so that everyone feels part of the decision-making processes and catches a sense of common vision.

I know of a number of churches that have an ongoing review of their goals and objectives, meeting regularly with their leaders and heads of departments. One group of leaders meets for a Saturday breakfast every 8 weeks to pray together and review and affirm their strategies for reaching their objectives, both at a departmental and church level. In my own personal life and ministry I take time out periodically to spend time with God to review and renew my personal goals.

It’s a good thing to have a regular review every couple of years of the whole church—of pastor, leaders, activities, etc. This ought to be approached with the positive objective of improving and affirming its ministry. It also leads to an evaluation of the validity of our goals and objectives.

Another day could be spent looking at the church’s evangelism strategy. Are people being reached with the gospel message? Are they being brought into the life of the church? In this context, do an analysis of your community. What percentage are children, young families, teens, middle-aged, retired folk, etc? What are their needs? Which of these can you tap into? What things can you do to reach your community with the gospel?

Most growing churches have a number of things they do to tap into their local community – play groups, after-school care, and counselling and seminar programs that deal with issues like parenting, marriage, conflict and money management. Growing churches usually use a number of different evangelism aids like Dialogue Evangelism, Christianity Explained, Two Ways to Live, Evangelism Explosion. Look at what’s working in other churches and use what might work in your situation. However, keep in mind that in the final analysis, effective evangelism is an overflow of what is happening in the lives of Christians (Gal.1:16). Don’t hesitate to invite a specialist evangelist to help you in developing an effective evangelism strategy.

I believe that the quality, character and abilities of leaders is the key to what happens in the life of the local church. One essential characteristic of good leaders is that they demonstrate an ongoing sense of vision. Indeed, without this they actually surrender leadership and the church simply drifts. If leaders are not focused on the future they are either locked into the past or preoccupied with the present, simply operating in maintenance mode.

Leaders will always reproduce themselves in those who follow them. Vital churches are the consequence of vital, godly leaders, modelling and promoting Bible principles that produce godly attitudes and therefore godly lives.

It follows that a church with a sense of purpose and vision has leaders who demonstrate these characteristics in their own lives and ministries. When leaders understand and embrace the principles expounded in this article they will promote and encourage them in those they lead.

Developing a Purpose Statement

It’s very helpful to summarise why we exist as the people of God in a purpose or vision statement (sometimes called a mission statement). A good purpose statement is clear and simple and yet summarises what we are about as God’s people. 

1. It must be biblical.

The Bible, as God’s Word, is the final authority in matters of faith and doctrine. Therefore what the Bible says about who we are as the people of God and why we exist in the world is the determining factor in establishing purpose. The church doesn’t decide what God’s purpose is; God has already declared it. We just affirm its truth and respond to it.

2. It must be specific.

It should clearly state what we are committed to be and do. It then becomes a guide for ongoing evaluation and development in the life of the church.

3. It must be proactive.

It must challenge us to action that will see our purpose fulfilled. We are called to be and do what only God’s people can. That is the challenge we embrace and in the process constantly draw upon the resources of God for His enabling in the task at hand. 

Rev Kel Willis is the Director of Christian Growth Ministries Inc.

© Kel Willis (1 July 1998)

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