The key question we can’t answer

Simon Sinek’s talk and book about the importance of starting with the question “why?” has a lot of fans and followers.

At the heart of his argument is the claim that very few people and organizations know why they do what they do. They don’t know their purpose or their reasoning for being.

Here’s the video if want more than my brief summary:

If Sinek is correct, it helps explain why the United Methodist Church’s mission and marketing slogans seem so uninspiring.

“Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

This operates more of less on the level of what we do and how we do it, perhaps getting to why at the end. The why, it turns out, is to transform this world, although we hide that part at the end.

Or how about: “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.”

That is a “how” statement, if I understand Sinek’s categories properly. Maybe it is a “what” statement. What I know for sure is that it does not tell us “why” we do what we do.

Here is my understanding of how John Wesley thought about and talked about what he was doing.

His purpose was to show people the way to happiness in eternity. Everything he did was motivated by the belief that each one of us is hanging over a great gulf and we will either fall into an eternity of pain and suffering and darkness or land on a happy shore of joy, peace, and light.

If you want to know the way to that shore, Wesley said, I can show you the way that the Bible teaches to arrive there. And here is the best news. It is not only something you arrive at after you die. You can taste it right now. You can see, feel, and experience today. It starts in this life.

Do you want to know how?

I don’t think I could point to any single place where Wesley put it precisely this way, but I don’t think this is an unfair example of how Wesley would explain the “why” of what he did. And — to Sinek’s point — I believe the “why” was always forefront in Wesley’s mind and actions.

I don’t think we today in United Methodism can begin to answer the why question — why do we do what we do — in any coherent or uniform way. And I don’t believe we really are aware of that. We can talk a good game about what we do. We have lots of support for how to be a United Methodist. All our metrics about “vital congregations” tell us what thriving churches do and offer some theories about how those actions create vitality, but we rarely talk about why any of that matters to anyone else. How many of us and how many of our people can answer the simple question: “Why do you do what you do?”

Do you see an answer to this “why” question in United Methodism today that I am missing?


11 thoughts on “The key question we can’t answer

  1. It would seem that the ‘why’ then is simply and beautifully, love.
    Why is it so hard to talk about love? Someone may disagree with us about God or eternity or the best means, but no one can argue about the goodness of love.

    1. If I’m understanding your point, Steven, I think you are jumping ahead of me a bit. It sounds to me like you are suggesting an answer to the “why” question. Do you think that is answer that is currently clear and/or uniform in United Methodism right now?

      1. I’m sorry John, I do tend to rush in and I do over-simplify.
        But you over-complicate.

        “How many of us and how many of our people can answer the simple question: “Why do you do what you do?””

        That is a great many questions in one sentence.
        Not simple, not a’tall.

        The sentence itself contains two separate questions, the first all of impossible to know, especially given the complexity of the second, which can run off in myriad directions.

        Never mind my head hurts now, they are good questions to ponder. Thanks.

  2. As you say, John, we are good at cover stories. But these seem customized to promote a narrative for the sake of self-preservation. We need a starker, more Pauline “knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others…” (followed by “For the love of Christ urges us on…”).

  3. John, I wholeheartedly agree that as a denomination we are unable to articulate the “why.” I would also agree that the “why” is very, very important.

    I do not see the “Transforming of the World” to be the answer to the why question of “making disciples.” Rather, I think we should take the whole mission statement, and ask why. When we begin to have answers for that…. well then, now we could be on to something.

    My take away from Wesley: Our proclamation of the Gospel, the ministry to others, and the pursuit of holiness is a joyful response to the grace that has been unilaterally extended. Not an attempt to earn/avoid an end result. (Though that message was certainly contemporary to Wesley’s time) I freely admit that I have not read all of Wesley’s collected works, and I am sure that there is much I have yet to synthesize…. but, as of right now, that’s my take away.


    1. Peter,

      My reading of Wesley would say he said both things you raise. He certainly said we love because God first loved us, but he also was very mindful that eternity could be a powerful motivator. The only condition for entry to a society was a desire to flee from the wrath to come and in his preface to his sermons, Wesley said that his primary motivation was to find a way to heaven.

      I’m not sure how United Methodism 2014 should respond to Wesley 1741, but I do think it is fair to say he did have an eye on eternity when he preached.

      1. It seems to me that it is possible to deduce our why from our actions. Certainly, it is not a “desire to flee the wrath to come.” I don’t believe that I have every heard United Methodist clergy speak of God and wrath outside of the context that the very idea of wrath is unbecoming when applied to loving God. On the other hand, I know that we strongly endorse inclusion. A past United Methodist bishop of ours commented that he was proud of United Methodism for being the most inclusive denomination. Even during Holy Communion, where there is the briefest allusion to sin (there must be something to confess), I hear more endorsements of inclusion than mentions of sin. Indeed, it would be catastrophic if anyone thought they were excluded from the communion table for any reason. As one of our youth put it, “Of course God allows everyone into heaven. United Methodists give holy communion to atheists and God is more loving and merciful than we are.”
        Our clear purpose as a church is to be inclusive and fight exclusion where ever it raises its ugly head — whether as the exclusion of homosexuals from Christian marriage, the exclusion of practicing homosexuals from ordained church leadership, the exclusion of non-members from church leadership, the exclusion of illegal / undocumented / informal (euphemism du jour) immigrants from full and immediate citizenship, or the alleged exclusion of those who reject Jesus from salvation and heaven. We make disciples to transform the world into a more inclusive place. (Actually we can be effective in making the world inclusive by political action, so there is no need to go to the trouble of actually making disciples. So we don’t.)

  4. Can it be a simple two part answer? When asked why I do what I do (give generously of my time and talents), the answer is because I love God, and I love Man. I worship (love God) all day, everyday, UMC or not. As I do this, I also express my love to Man (my neighbor) by loving and serving. If we “do church” for any other reason, i.e. to gain eternity, we have missed the point.

    It’s how I explain to kids “Why Wait.” We don’t get married because of the sex, sex is the icing on the cake AFTER we get married. Eternity is like that. Wesley certainly had an “eye on eternity” when he preached, just like a fiance has an eye on sex after marriage! If we obey the supreme mandate, eternity is a given.

    Our job is to love, and a loving person (or church) will insist on discipline. We do works (service) because we love HIm, not because we have to. Works without love is useless. Love without works is meaningless.

    I recently told a questioner that Church was a great place to become socially integrated in a new city. She asked me if it was really OK for a non-believer to go to church. I told her absolutely! What better place for a non-believer to experience the grace and love of God? I sincerely hope I didn’t steer her wrong.

    We are the UMC because we love God, and we love Man. Expressing love through discipline is the tough row we, the UMC, are having to hoe. Going off track just a little for arguments sake, Is the UMC Church leadership enforcing the discipline out of love, or is the UMC Church laity (and some leadership) throwing discipline under the bus and trying to love, not just the person, but the sin? Without discipline in love, the organization we call the UMC is lost. JW’s emphasis on love and discipline was clear and clearly based on biblical teaching. I think the UMC boat left the dock a long time ago. Are we rearranging chairs, or pumping the bilge?

  5. I’ll chime in on this just once more to say the “desire to flee the wrath to come” was not only Wesley’s move, but Jonathon Edwards’, as well. Perhaps the motivation fit the times, perhaps expressly so, but as we reclaim a sense of a transcendent God in Methodism (if, indeed, this is presently happening through an awakening to Holiness), there will be renewed holy fear of God, in the best of what that means. Even Paul Tillich preached that the approach of a holy God was a terrible and fearful thing. Are you prepared for it? What’s your assurance?

  6. Good post John and I have been thinking about it and I watched the video. I have just finished reading Will Mancini’s book, “Church Unique” on developing a deep and meaningful mission statement and I plan to lead my congregation through his process. Sinek’s understanding of why we do things I believe will be helpful.

    If we start with the idea of transcendence and that God seeks us, isn’t John 3:16 our why? The epistle reading for this week where Paul says if we confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that he is risen, isn’t that a why? The belief that God became a man and lived among us, isn’t that a why?

    N.T. Wright starts out Simply Christian by pointing out values that secular folks have, a desire to see right done, a desire for a spiritual life, for beauty and for community. Why do we do what we do, because we want those things also. These are questions I am asking and would love to hear from some others.

  7. I read the book and gone over the TED Talks a couple times. Sinek seems to answer two fundamental questions: Why are we in decline and why are we fighting with each other so hard.
    We are in decline because we can’t articulate why we exist. We’ll talk until the cows come home about what we do, but why is elusive.
    We fight as hard as we do because evangelical and progressive perspectives on Christianity begin with different “why’s.”
    Sinek’s material gives me hope for answering the first question at the local level,but worries me about the second question at the AC level and above.

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