How Churches Confuse the Method for the Mission

Who remembers Kodak? Who remembers taking photos with Kodak film? Does anyone know what happened to the Kodak company in 2012? Who still takes photos with film cameras?

In a recent blog post, Pastor and Blogger Carey Nieuwhof compares Kodak and the church. He suggests that Kodak made a fundamental mistake in understanding their company’s mission.

In many ways,” He writes, “Kodak sabotaged its future by refusing to respond to the massive changes in culture. 

Kodak bet too much of its future on the past (film photography). It lost.

He goes on:

Imagine what might have happened if someone at Kodak had asked:

Are we in the film business, or the photography business?

If Kodak was in the film business, the future would be dim.

But if Kodak had decided it was in the photography business, the future could have been very different.

Instead, Facebook decided it was in the photography business when it bought Instagram. And Apple decided it was in the photography business when it developed the iPhone.”

“Too many leaders mix up method and mission. That’s one of the things that happened to Kodak [and that’s happening in journalism].

It’s also an epidemic in the church world.

This mistake is so easy to make in leadership.

A method is a current approach that helps you accomplish the mission. It’s how you do what you do.

The mission is why you exist.

The problem in most churches is people (including leaders) get very fond of their methods.

When Carey Nieuwhof talks about METHODS, what kind of things do you think he is talking about in the church? – PAUSE –

I suspect that there are a lot of examples he is thinking about, here are a few:

1. When I was is my first congregation, I had a member who was adamant that we have a Sunday School program – even though there were no Sunday School aged children attending the church.

The method of Sunday School had become more important than the mission to help people grow in faith.

2. This past week as pastors and other leaders gathered with our Bishop  to talk about worship, Carey Nieuwhof’s article came up in terms of the methods of worship over the mission of worship.

Churches will devout tremendous resources to particular methods of worship: contemporary or traditional, organs or praise bands, music before 1950 and music after, what’s considered to be more formal, or liturgical, verses what is more casual in worship styles – the list goes on.

The method – or preferred style – of worship has become more important than mission of proclaiming the gospel in the worshipping assembly.

3. Or the ultimate example, congregations focussing on attendance and budgets in order to keep their doors open – and failing to see that buildings and budgets are just methods.

The mission is – and has always been – helping others grow in their relationship to Jesus.

Churches, along with Kodak, are not immune from mistaking the method for the mission.

So at this point, you might be wondering what does all this method and mission talk have to do with the temptation of Jesus?

The devil, like Kodak and many congregations, has mistaken Jesus’ methods for Jesus’ mission. As the devil happens along Jesus wandering and fasting in the wilderness, he forgets what he has likely just heard and witnessed as Jesus was baptized and what we heard repeated again on Transfiguration Sunday. The devil has forgotten that the Father has just declared Jesus the Son, the devil has forgotten that the Father and Son are one God.

And having forgotten that, the devil tries to tempt Jesus with power and its misuse. The devil mistakes God’s mission to be one of power. The devil sees only the method of the incarnation – God becoming flesh. And the only purpose for God coming into the world that the devil can imagine is power.

Turn rocks into bread the devil urges – show God-like power over creation.

The devil tries again and offers that Jesus could rule over nations and peoples – show God-like power over humanity.

And the most desperate temptation, the devil dares Jesus to jump from the pinnacle of the temple – as if forcing God to act and save Jesus shows God-like power.

With each successive temptation, the devil is trying to get Jesus to use his power, the power of an incarnate God. And the devil gets more desperate with each offer, trying to get Jesus to do something with all that power. The devil has mistaken the method – God coming to creation in flesh – for the mission.

The mission that Jesus reminds the devil, that Jesus reminds us of, each time he responds:

One does not live by bread alone… but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

Worship the Lord your God and serve only Him.

Do not put the Lord your God to test.

These are not the responses of a noble pious man resisting temptation in front of the devil. Jesus isn’t reciting bible verses for his own benefit.  We cannot split apart the trinity, split apart Father and Son when it feels convenient. When Jesus speaks, it is God speaking.

One does not live by bread alone, Jesus says, for it is I who gives you life.

Worship the Lord your God, Jesus says, for it is I who will gives you a place in this world.

Do not put the Lord your God to the test, Jesus says, for I have not come to show my power, but to show my love for all creation.

The method, God becoming flesh, is only to serve the mission.

And the mission is God’s deep and abiding love for the world. For each and everyone of us. 

And it is not just the devil who needs this reminder. We need it too. As individuals, and as communities. We need to be reminded that we exist in service of God’s mission. That all the things we do are in service of God’s mission. Whether it is Sunday School, or bible study or individual study and prayer, we serve God’s mission of growing in faith. Whether it is with organs or rock bands, old hymns or new songs, formal reverent liturgies or casual intimate gatherings we serve the mission of announcing God’s love.  Whether it is with grand buildings and large staffs, or rented space and volunteers, we serve God’s mission by being the places where forgiveness and mercy are offered. Where sinners are washed with Holy Baths. Where the hungry are fed with bread and wine. Where the dying are given words that breathe into us new, and eternal, life.

God’s mission is front and center today on this first Sunday in Lent, as Jesus refocuses us back to the heart of the issue.  And it’s no mistake that the story of the temptation of Jesus is always told on the first Sunday of Lent. It focuses us on the heart of the issue between God and us. And from now until Easter we are headed towards the core of the conflict, between method and mission, a conflict between power and love. Our desire for power, and God’s desire for love.

And as the devil tries to tempt Jesus, he doesn’t know where Jesus is headed. But we know how the conflict ends. We know the end of the story. Humanity’s desire for power leads to death on a cross on Good Friday. God’s desire for love leads to life and an empty tomb.

And the same story plays out here among us. Our desire might be to control the methods, to make how we do church the most important, but God’s desire is for the mission, to make the “why” the most important. Lest we forget that the mission comes before the method, God has a habit of stripping us of our methods. This Lent, God is calling us to look at whether our focus is on the methods we use, or on God’s mission for the church and us. God is leading us into the wilderness, calling us to leave our attachment to our favourite methods behind, challenging our assumptions  about power and then God is reminding of us what is most important.

Like Kodak who thought they were a film company rather than a photography company, the church too has a habit of mixing up the method for mission.

But unlike Kodak, God does not let us stay mixed up for long. Instead, God comes into our world and reminds us that isn’t about methods, not about the programs we have nor music or worship styles, nor buildings nor budgets.

The mission is God’s love. Everything else comes second. 


(*Thanks to my wife, Courtenay, for co-writing this sermon with me)

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8 thoughts on “How Churches Confuse the Method for the Mission”

  1. Staring using Kodak as an example in 2012 for the same reasons you mention. Last week I used newspapers as an example;same problem of method for mission: are we in the printing business or the news business. People always respond with an “aha” and then go back to the method idol. Have you had success in moving from “aha” to mission focus?

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    1. That’s what I think too. Nowaday, it’s hard to have people engaged, especially the young to engage in religious activities and charities. How can one spread the mission when their listeners are not even listen or mind to do some body/brain workout. It’s technology century. We need to guide them to do somethings small and realistic first so we can have things to talk about.
      I guess the situations vary in different communities. That’s why its best that each organization has their own target and mission.
      Once you can not attack in all direction, it’s better to hunt down one by one. I think its hard to judge whether or not the method is ideal when we deal with human beings.

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  2. Great message – My wife and I watched a documentary last night on Vimeo – “When God left the Church” which compares what is happening in the church today with KODAK. It would be a great follow-up to your sermon.

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