Why | What | How

If this is why we’re here,
and what it looks like to succeed,
how shall we pursue what we’re called to do?

It’s common and convenient to use architect Louis Sullivan’s assertion that “form ever follows function” to suggest that designers need only an understanding of needs – processes and data – to undertake a design. In response, I often ask people with whom I’m working if they’ve ever skipped a meal to be with their sweetheart. Nearly everyone says “yes”. It’s simple proof that intangible motives routinely override measurable criteria. Nearly everyone agrees with that conclusion as well.

Despite that consensus, we spend precious little time articulating how our passions are connected to organizational activity. I find it useful to do so through an understanding of the terms “purpose”, “vision”, and “strategy.


Purpose is the “heart” question. For what reason do we exist?

In his 1995 manifesto, The Purpose Driven Church, Rick Warren defined “purpose” as the answer to the question “Why does this church exist? ” Bobb Biehl, in an earlier book (Masterplanning, 1977) finds purpose closely linked to passion. He asks, among other things, “what needs make us weep or pound the table? ” It is the motive at the heart of an organization and the force behind its effectiveness.

It is common for the word “mission” to appear in place of “purpose, ” even though I would suggest that mission is an elaboration of the concept of purpose and is a bridge between motive and method. For churches, it is taken from Scripture and expressed from the pulpit. Many find it in an exposition of The Great Commission. Others find it in the description of the church in the last few verses of Acts 2. More than one church has seen their charge to be presenting believers “mature in Christ “.


Vision is the “eye” question. It answers the question “What?”. To what end are we drawn and driven?

The classic definition of vision is that of a “picture of a preferred future”, but In his wildly popular book Proverbs (God, 1000 BC) Solomon describes vision as the foundation of discipline. The most often familiar version of Proverbs 29: 18 is King James’ “Where there is no vision, the people perish…. ” A more instructive translation, I think, is the NIV’s “Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint…. ” or even better: Holman Christian Standard’s “…the people run wild…. ” The change from “vision ” to “revelation ” points out to us what Solomon clearly understood: vision that matters always comes from God, and it’s compelling enough to focus all our endeavors.

Where will the effective and continuous execution of all that purpose requires take you? What is the reasonable outcome of obedience?

One pastor told me that he’d be happy if he never heard or read another word about vision (actually said he’d likely punch the guy who brought it up). The pastor was weary of pressure to squeeze out a prophetic vision all by himself and begin the long slog toward its realization. It’s not an uncommon complaint. If that’s you, begin at the other end of the journey. Ask instead: If, for a long time, you carry out effectively and continuously what purpose requires, where will it take you? What is the reasonable outcome of obedience?

Ask instead: Where will the effective and continuous execution of all that purpose requires take you? What is the reasonable outcome of obedience?


Strategy is the “hand” question. What’s the shape of our obedience?

Blue Like Jazz author Donald Miller, in his book Through Painted Deserts (Nelson Books, 2005) lamented the tyranny and comfort of the “how” question, noting that most of us are satisfied to accept its benefits and leaves its demands unexamined.

I like to fix things.  “How? ” is right up my alley. In “Purpose” Warren used 5 “M’s” (Membership, Maturity, Ministry, Missions, Magnification) to outline and organize what his Church was called to do. I’ve seen churches use “E” words for the same list and any number of other structures to get a handle on their strategy. But this is not about alliterative formulas, One Episcopal vestry in upstate South Carolina called “mission imperatives” The Apostle Paul simply wrote, “one thing I do.”

Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:13-14)