What if Churches Shouldn’t Have Goals?

What if Churches Shouldn’t Have Goals? January 2, 2024

If you’re heavily involved in a church congregation right now, you might soon be asked to attend some kind of strategic planning and goal-setting process for 2024. My advice would be: don’t go. Not only that, I’d try to convince your leadership not to set goals this year at all, or ever again for that matter. I’m convinced that Churches shouldn’t have goals, mostly because goal-setting is a practice that comes from our success-obsessed culture. It’s what you do when you’re chasing all things bigger, better, higher, stronger, and faster, and these aren’t the things a healthy church chases.

When I’m asked to speak on church leadership or to present on my book Shrink, I always ask: How many of you think your main task is to make your ministry a success? Response is usually around 90% “yes.” Then I ask how many equate success with growth or numbers in some form. The response is usually about the same. Church leadership has become fascinated with success, and success is usually defined as numerical growth. When leaders accept this premise, I think it’s evidence we’ve been determined more by our culture than the life and teachings of Christ. Churches that promote their pithy mission statements and yearly goals are not drawing these practices from scripture. They’re drawing these practices from the American corporation.

It’s true, you can come up with some crafty 2024 church goals that will create some excitement. But in the long run, you’ll just end up shaping your church to look a little more like T-Mobile or Target. You’ll end up teaching your folks to worship a capitalistic, growth-obsessed, success-oriented god that looks nothing like the God of the Bible, and you’ll lose the only thing you truly have to offer your community: a genuine alternative to the failing way of life of our dominate culture.

The drive to be a successful church ruins every church that succumbs to it. This is why the church in America is struggling. We have nothing unique to offer the world around us. Most churches are just agents of consumer culture, high-functioning members of the cult of bigger, better, higher, stronger, faster, and therefore indistinguishable in most ways from society at large. When churches become agents of culture people cease to see any value in belonging, and they opt out.

I know I’m messing with a sacred cow. Church leadership culture in America is big business. There are scores of books to buy, conferences to attend, and a bevy of church consultants ready to offer their keys to success. All of it is toxic, and the healthy church knows not to touch this stuff. When church leaders join the throngs of church workers building our tower of Babel, making a name for ourselves, we are participating in a story that is not meant for us, and it becomes our kryptonite. We become just like all the other voices of corporate America, marketing, government, blah, blah, blah… We become meaningless.

The entire church leadership culture is a ruse. It’s foolishness, if for no other reason than the fact that the most consistent outcome of church growth methods is not church growth, but rather: anxiety. Hard-driving church leaders create anxiety everywhere they go. Their go-to move is to make you like your church is lacking something essential in its current state. Then they sell you some dream of success, and teach you how to cultivate that same sense of lack in your congregation. Refusing to set audacious goals and focusing on faithfulness instead serves to drain the church of anxiety. When the pressure to grow is removed, the people of God become free to absorb the pain and suffering of their neighborhood, to counteract it, allowing it to be transformed into a resurrection-life, involving others in a new story of human flourishing, and loving community.

I’m begging you, don’t set goals for your church this year. Root out any impulse that you find driving you to come up with goals in the first place. If you want to understand how your church is really doing, look for human flourishing. How is the neighborhood you’re situated within doing? Is there flourishing happening everywhere you look? How are those on the margins doing? Because if you’re a successful church in a community where those on the margins are suffering, then guess what: your church is failing.

Of course there is a practical side to ministry that needs attention. There’s an inevitable goal setting aspect to any practical endeavor. However, this aspect of our common life as churches shouldn’t be raised to the level of an all-important annual meeting. Those practical concerns are mostly about the stewardship of schedules and resources and can happen along the way. At my church we stopped setting yearly goals more than a decade ago. If we meet, we meet to worship, study, fellowship, or serve. Instead of setting goals, we’re constantly dreaming about and talking about what God might be calling us to do. Then we try to walk faithfully out of a sense of wonder and awe with no expectations of success. We don’t force things. We try to be patient and walk through the doors that are open to us. Because of this, I think we’ve come to actually offer an alternative way of life that stands in stark contrast to the success-obsessed culture.

If you actually have to set yearly goals because your denomination requires it, then try goals like these:

  • Don’t grow bigger. Grow deeper.
  • Stop counting things that shouldn’t count.
  • Chase faithfulness, not success.
  • Chase beauty, not effectiveness.
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