Visiting a relative who lives on the Great South Bay off the shores of Long Island, several of us joined him for a boat ride. We were on the bay in early afternoon, enjoying the breeze and fast ride. Some dark, scattered clouds cast shadows on the water, but the sky was mostly blue. The weather forecast called for sunshine with scattered showers in the evening. But several of the dark clouds suddenly bonded together. A strong breeze accompanied the darkening sky. Within minutes, everything became gray, concealing any sight of land. The wind-driven rain made visibility even more difficult. Unable to see land, the skipper turned to his boat’s compass to orient himself and the boat. Motoring slowly, he was able to dodge other boats on the bay as we headed for the now-invisible shore. Eventually, we saw partial outlines of beach houses as we approached land. Totally drenched and hyperalert on our own adrenaline, we docked at our destination. Oriented by the boat’s compass, we escaped harm’s way, landing safely.

To be headed in a direction serves people well in life, just as it did for us on the bay. According to Edwin Friedman, a distinctive mark of a mature person is having clear life goals. Guided by personal goals, an individual is less likely to be distracted or detoured by the reactivity of others. Someone else’s behavior does not determine yours. Based on principles and values, you direct your life. Friedman often referred to the analogy of sailing to illustrate his point. Without a destination, a sailor on a lake meanders and drifts. The sailor will not adjust the sails to take advantage of the wind to proceed to the chosen landing place. If this is true on water, what about in life? Is orientation possible without destination?

Considering all of the complexities and challenges facing churches, it is amazing that more of them are not on the brink of oblivion or in harm’s way. Many are not using a compass to navigate the hazy conditions created by cultural shift. When consulting with churches embroiled in conflict or paralyzed by passivity, I always ask the congregation, “Does this congregation have a clear sense of its mission?” Typical responses range from “poor sense of purpose” to “running in circles,” from “lack of vision” to “our mission is not to have a mission.” Questions like, Who are we? What is our primary focus? go begging for answers. Then when I ask individuals what they think the mission is, the answers are rote: “spread the word,” “support the church,” “love everyone,” and “preach the Bible.” No one has ever said, “Our mission is to turn the world upside-down,” or “to join God’s ongoing promise to recreate the world,” or “to let the world know that the resurrection means the world has not seen the last of Jesus Christ.” Some members believed their congregation had a sense of mission because they had a mission statement. Sad to say, few knew what it was.

Limping along without a focus is called mission drift. It is what happens when people come together to support an objective but forget what the objective is. People lose their reason for being, even though they go through the motions. Many things contribute to the sidetracking, such as compromising ideals in succumbing to a pressure group, searching for instant viability or solutions, grasping for saviors, fooling themselves that they are vital or viable simply because they endure, preoccupying themselves with nonessentials, exchanging their core beliefs for more marketable ideas, or failing to attend to what God is calling them to do in their little corner of the world.

If mission is so essential to the congregation’s life and well-being, what exactly does mission mean? There is a movement called “the missional church.” People assign marks or attribute certain actions to a missional church, but I find the term confusing. It is similar to saying “the ruling government” or the “athleticism of the athlete.” Either a church is missional or it is not the church. Mission is the nature and purpose of the church, not some list of qualifiers.

An additional confusion about the word mission comes from assuming mission necessarily results in growth. Distinguishing between congregations in survival mode (not growing) and those in mission (growing) is not honest and certainly not helpful. Every congregation, as a living system, is in the survival business. Thousands of congregations are decreasing in numbers, but some are also alive and sensitive to mission. Who is to condemn them to the category of survival? All things eventually reach their maximum growth. Are they then to be renamed as survival systems? Survival is fundamental to all organic life. Anything can be eliminated, obliterated, or cremated. Survival is not the church’s problem. The threat of it may even be the very stimulus needed for new action and direction.

Countless churches are floundering, trying to understand why they exist. Mission drift is especially problematical for those churches that have experienced a steady decline in membership. A church that once numbered one thousand and now is supported by two hundred is a significantly different church. The mission is the same, but the refocusing needed for directing it escapes their imagination.

Systems theory refers to an individual’s functioning position, a specific way of behaving. Organizations, like people, are emotional systems that also develop ways of functioning. As congregations decline, their functioning position changes, yet many continue to function as if nothing has changed.

A congregation is a group of people who believe that more can be accomplished by joining with others. They come together with a purpose. To create more life, the people create a community of purpose. After many years of being together, though, people may wonder what happened to the purpose, to the vision, to the creativity, and to the meaningful service that once energized them. This is normal. Again and again, we have to explore why we came together. Congregations need to continue to review who they are and how they will respond. What are we trying to be? What is our calling at this time and in this place? Can we make a difference? Is there a purpose for our presence? If we are unaware of the particular view through which we are looking at the world, then we do not have any true choices about what we are going to see and how we are going to respond.

Mission is the expression of the church’s deep, abiding beliefs. Mission provides the major standard against which all activities, services, and decisions are evaluated. Mission is the preserver of congregational integrity. It is about God’s love for the world, not about what I like or don’t like about my church. A major function of the congregation’s stewards is to be the creators and guardians of the mission. They defend the mission against resistant forces that would threaten or destroy it. They oversee the mission’s implementation. They keep the mission alive.

Comment on this article on the Alban Roundtable blog

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Adapted from A Door Set Open: Grounding Change in Mission and Hope by Peter L. Steinke, copyright © 2008 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.

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FEATURED RESOURCES

AL403_SMA Door Set Open:
Grounding Change in Mission and Hope

by Peter L. Steinke

We resist change less when we associate it with mission and fortify it with hope. So argues longtime congregational consultant Peter Steinke in his fourth book, A Door Set Open, as he explores the relationship between the challenges of change and our own responses to new ideas and experiences.

AL320_SM Healthy Congregations:
A Systems Approach

by Peter L. Steinke 

In this follow-up to How Your Church Family Works, Steinke takes readers into a deeper exploration of the congregation as an emotional system. Learn ten principles of health, how congregations can adopt new ways of dealing with stress and anxiety, how spiritually and emotionally healthy leaders influence the emotional system, factors that could put your congregation at risk, and more.

AL319_SMHow Your Church Family Works:
Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems

by Peter L. Steinke

Drawing on the work of Bowen, Friedman, and his own many years’ counseling experience, Steinke shows how to recognize and deal with the emotional roots of such issues as church conflict, leadership roles, congregational change, irresponsible behavior, and the effects of family of origin on current relationships. Psychologically sound, theologically grounded, and practically illustrated with case studies.

AL318_SMCongregational Leadership in Anxious Times:
Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What

by Peter L. Steinke 

With anxiety intensifying and penetrating more and more areas of our lives, leaders cannot be as anxious as the people they serve. Steinke inspires courage in leaders to maintain the course, unearth secrets, resist sabotage, withstand fury, and overcome timidity or doubts. His insights, illustrations, and provocations will carry leaders through rough times, provide clarity during confusing times, and uplift them in joyous times.

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