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whyvswhat“We can’t seem to recruit and hold on to the volunteers we need.”

“We keep trimming our budget, but our people give less and less.”

“We’ve launched some great programs, but no one seems passionate about them.”

Do comments like this sound familiar to you? Almost every pastor and church leader admits how difficult it can be to cast vision and create passion among the congregation.

What can be done? Pastors generally take one of two approaches.

Approach #1: Focus on the WHAT

The first pastor focuses on what the church is doing or should be doing. If there’s a need, you start a program. You find volunteers to run the program, and then you find more volunteers to replace the first ones.

We need nursery workers! Sign up in the lobby.

We need homes for students to stay in during the Disciple Now coming up. Call the student minister for more details. 

We are having Discipleship classes on Wednesday nights. Put your name on a form for us to know which one you’re going to.

This pastor focuses on what is going on. Information is what the people need. You assume that when church members hear about the needs or opportunities, they will sign up, volunteer, or attend.

When this doesn’t work, the pastor ramps up the energy, throwing in a few more tactics and a sense of urgency to sway people’s behavior.

We are in such dire need of nursery workers that we might have to turn people away! Sign up now. If you’ve got a kid in the nursery, your name should be on the list.

We are still in need of homes for people to stay during Disciple Now. It would be a shame to put these kids up in a hotel, wouldn’t it?

Attendance is down on Wednesday nights. We’ve got some more interesting studies than usual this time around, so hope to see you there!

These tactics work. That’s why we rely on them again and again. But, over time, we notice there seems to be a diminishing return.

Approach #2: Focus on the WHY

The second pastor focuses on why the church does what it does. The church leaders devote most of their time and energy to explaining the why, not the what. 

What does this look like in practice?

First of all, this church rarely gets involved in activities that don’t have a clear why. “We have a ladies’ luncheon once a month,” someone says. “Why?” asks the pastor. “Because we have a ladies’ luncheon once a month. We always have.” That’s not a compelling vision, and trying to get people to do things without a clear why is not compelling.

Why does your church meet every week for worship?

Why do you have a nursery?

Why is your church hosting a Disciple Now for students?

Why do you offer Discipleship classes in the middle of the week?

This pastor doesn’t want to see people manipulated, but inspired. According to this approach, the best way to get people to give of their time and energy to a cause is not by dangling carrots before their eyes or by guilting them into desired behavior. The best way is to spread a passion for the why until church members are spreading the same passion themselves.

Why pastors don’t want an army of volunteers who do church work out of obligation. They want passionate people who are involved because they want to be, not because they feel they have to be.

Preach the WHY Before the WHAT

Simon Sinek’s book, Start with Why, is geared to the business world, but his insights into this subject have ramifications for church life. He points out that the best companies (like Apple) don’t start with the product; they start with the why - a vision and purpose for existence.

Similarly, great leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. don’t give speeches called “I Have a Plan.” No, they have a dream - a why that goes beyond the what. “Dr. King offered America a place to go, not a plan to follow,” Sinek says.

Plans are good. Programs are good. But the why behind the plan and the why behind the program is even better.

So let’s spend the bulk of our time explaining why our churches do what we do and where our churches are going. People will ask you about the what when they’re passionate about the why. 

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14 thoughts on “Pastors, Preach the WHY Before the WHAT”

  1. brad says:

    In my ministry, I have noticed that both the “whys” and the “whats” are both equally ineffective and effective! I think the Holy Spirit makes the difference! I pray that we would get away from strategies and silver bullets and return to prayer and a desperation on the Holy Spirit!

    1. Cory O'Neal says:

      Amen! The question of “Who” is so important. Knowing the character of God gives insight into what He does and why He does it! The passion should first be in “who” and everything else will fall into place

  2. Derek says:

    This is good Trevin. And so true. You articulated what “what” sounds like but what does “why” sound like when applied to those same examples? And what are some of the various tools leaders might reach for when communicating the “why” e.g. stories, stats, etc.?

  3. Ryan Couch says:

    Very good and very true. Also true in preaching, getting to the why behind the what in relationship to sin, identifying why we sin not just what is sin which helps people attack the root with the gospel instead of the fruit with behavior modification.

  4. Kevin O says:

    This reminds me of the steps to crafting a good and compelling message in Andy Stanley’s Visioneering and Communicating for Change books.

    1. Show them the problem – what they need to know.
    2. Give them a solution – why do they need to know it.
    3. Give the reason that something must be done – what do they need to do.
    4. Tell them why something must be done now – why do they need to do it.
    5. Cast a vision about what could be the result of doing it together.

    Giving people the why creates a common ground and a tension that leads to people wanting to know the what, and ultimately the who, Jesus.

    Thanks for the blog, keep it coming

  5. Chuck Anderson says:

    This is so helpful! Thanks for pointing this out.

  6. Cory O'Neal says:

    The real focus should be the “Who”. When we know Christ and who He is, and realize who we are in him, the “what and why” have some meaning. It becomes a much more natural response. When you know God, you can’t help but praise and do the work He purposes you for; it doesn’t feel like work! It will excite people to know the God they serve because to serve Him is a gift! When we take our focus off of Who God is, we take glory off of Him and we an never fully understand the purpose without being hooked up with His power. Let’s not get caught up in a plan, the message of the gospel is about a “who” not a “what” or “why”. We don’t want program oriented churches, we want the church of the living God that shares in one faith, one baptism, in one Lord; our Lord Jesus!

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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