On Birthing Sacred Cows: The Difference Between the Mission and the Means

“Mission True organizations distinguish between guarding the mission and guarding the means” (Mission Drift, p72).

That is a quote from a profoundly helpful work called Mission Drift, written by Peter Greer and Christ Horst. The book is designed to help organizations (churches and otherwise) think through the inevitable pressures that draw them off of their mission. For the church especially, this question is of the utmost importance.

The book is full of wisdom. The encourages readers to dig past their methods down to the bedrock of their purpose, asking them to clearly identify their mission. After all, your understanding of the church’s mission sets the course for the entirety of its ministry. Now, the church’s mission is a biblical given. We do not craft the mission of the church, we obey it. That said, a simple misdefining of this mission creates a misaligned trajectory. Soon, we are adrift, miles from the church’s biblical destination. A church can have a mission and not have the mission. Mission drift matters, and it comes from a number of places.

Today though, I want to focus on one place. As Greer and Horst suggest, there is a difference between a church’s mission and its means. Their quote above, stated in the positive demonstrates that a church stays on course when it realizes the difference between its ultimate purpose and the methods it will use to accomplish that purpose. Stated negatively, mission drift occurs when we confuse the mission with the means of accomplishing the mission.

In short, if we elevate a means or method above the mission itself, we give birth to a sacred cow.

What is a Sacred Cow

For the uninitiated, a “sacred cow” is a custom or tradition that cannot be criticized. The term comes from the Hindu adoration of cows as sacred, but is a convenient way to refer to any idea, method, or means in an institution that achieves unquestionable status.

When we love our means more than our mission, we birth sacred cows. Over time, local churches will do things a certain way long enough that the means itself becomes part of the church’s identity. This is where that dreaded phrase, “But we’ve always done it that way,” comes into play. Talking about sacred cows usually brings up images of established churches with thickly developed traditions. The assumption is that sacred cows are only a problem in old, out of touch, churches. This could not be further from the truth.

New churches with their theories about the “right way” to do local missions can create sacred cows just as fast. In fact, their sacred cows are often simply a rebuttal of the sacred cows of traditional churches. Their methods wind up being based in the gripes that caused them to want to start a new church in the first place. “Our church will be different,” is often the refrain. The focus, and passion here, is still tied to a particular method of ministry instead of the mission itself. Ironically, the motivation behind that is very similar to the motivation of that established church that does not want to change.

Anointing the Means Instead of the Mission

Fact is, tradition is unavoidable, and it happens in every single church. Means are simply what happens when the mission meets any particular context. Our ministry methods are developed as we make decisions about how to accomplish the mission in a given place with a specific people. As soon as a local church decides on the how or ministry, it begins the process of casting traditions. Do it that way enough weeks in a row, and it grows roots.

And, honestly, that’s not a bad thing. Traditions do, in fact, shape identity. They become sources of connection and community. They are points of familiarity that make a congregation feel at home with one another. The church is, and should be, rightly steeped in tradition. We have good traditions from ancient times that still rightly mark the way we practice our faith. These traditions even instruct and catechise new members. But traditions must never achieve the status of mission. They must always be under scrutiny, as they are man-made responses to a context.

Sacred cows are born when we anoint the means instead of the mission. Are mission is unchanging, but our means must shift as the context does. Finding the balance between healthy tradition and honoring sacred cows is tough and perennial. However, knowing the difference between the mission and the means or methods is the first step. There comes a time when “they way we’ve always done it” may stop making new disciples in a particular context. Do we forsake the actual mission for our favorite means? Many new church plants have died on the vine, never really engaging their first context, because they were so committed to a particular method from the start that they neglected to let their community shape their practice.

Guard the mission not the means.

 

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