Lovett H. Weems, Jr., says that churches often invest a great deal of energy in activities without ever asking how they relate to what God is calling the church to accomplish. He says that one of the simplest ways a congregation can stay focused on the ends it seeks to achieve, rather than becoming preoccupied with the means, is to formulate a “so that” statement.
A new church sees the possibility of reaching more people for Christ by constructing a new church building. Members of the congregation begin to make plans and project costs. From that moment, what had previously been a focus on the purpose of the new building now becomes a discussion almost exclusively about whether to build, the cost of the project, interest rates, and a host of other legitimate issues. How did it happen that the building receives 90 percent of the attention when the church set out to reach more people for Christ?
We can easily become so preoccupied with what we are doing that we lose sight of why we are doing it. In the case of the church constructing a new building, they lost sight of the fact that they must have more space to fulfill the mission of reaching more people for Christ.
Using the two important words “so that” has the power to change the way leaders work with their congregations so that everything that God’s people do is shaped toward mission and results in fruitfulness.
One simple way a congregation can stay focused on the ends it seeks to achieve, not just the means of achieving those ends, is by formulating a clear “so that” statement:
We will do X so that Y occurs.
These two simple words can help assure that everything a church attempts will begin with a concern for the fruit of the proposed effort.
We Will Have Vacation Church School So That …
While this approach sounds simple, it’s often harder than you think to articulate the “so that” of a given ministry. Leading a workshop for a group of church leaders, I once gave a seemingly simple assignment. I invited participants to complete the sentence: “Next summer our church will have a vacation church school so that …”
They began working. Soon I could sense a level of struggle I had not anticipated. To break the logjam, I asked a few to share what they had done. The first volunteer reported: “Next summer our church will have a VCS so that the children of our church will experience a VCS.” The second example offered was: “Next summer our church will have a VCS so that children will experience church as fun.” My first thought was: I’m not sure you need curriculum for that. They next worked in small groups, but most of the group offerings were not appreciably different from the early individual ones. After a time, however, there was one that captured well the purpose of the exercise:
Next summer our church will have a VCS so that the children of our church will come to know and love God more and we will reach children in the community with God’s love whom we have not reached before.
For a moment, imagine that we did not have this “so that” statement. We simply knew we were going to have a VCS next summer just as we do every summer. You likely would begin by addressing a series of tasks: setting a date, selecting curriculum, recruiting teachers, recruiting other volunteers for refreshments and activities, and so forth. Then you would conduct the VCS and follow up with the concluding details. Perhaps you would be invited to the church council to report on the VCS, and the group would express thanks to you and say they heard it was one of the best VCSs in recent years.
But now imagine a different scenario. This time the church has invested the time to discern the “so that” statement offered above. Now, everything you might have done before needs rethinking. The “so that” will shape all decisions. For example, some of the people you would have invited to teach previously may no longer be the best choices given what this “so that” would require them to do. And think about how other decisions may be altered based on this particular “so that.” It may determine whether the VCS should be in the daytime or evening, whether a fee can be charged or not, what curriculum you will choose, whom you must recruit as volunteers, where you will place the publicity, and whether the publicity will need to be in one language or multiple languages.
In other words, the task is no longer to hold a VCS; it is now to ensure that “the children of our church come to know and love God more and to reach children in the community with God’s love whom we have not reached before.”
Focusing on Outcomes Not Activities
What else do churches do each week without any effort to name the changes we are seeking through those ministries? We might ask, “Do we have a choir?” But we do not ask, “Is our choir accomplishing the outcome for which the choir exists?” We might ask, “Did we have ushers last Sunday?” But we are not asking, “Did the ushers last Sunday do their work in such a way as to produce the outcomes for which the usher ministry exists?”
We often spend much effort on activities without clarity concerning what God is calling us to accomplish through those activities. The activities were never intended to be ends in themselves, but that is what they tend to become. Using the two important words “so that” has the power to change the way leaders work with their congregations so that everything that God’s people do is shaped toward mission and results in fruitfulness.
This article is adapted from Bearing Fruit: Ministry with Real Results (Abingdon Press, 2010) by Lovett H. Weems, Jr., and Tom Berlin. Used by permission. The book is available through Cokesbury and Amazon.