Sharing the what, why or how of Christianity?

March 24th, 2015

As an extrovert, I often strike up conversations with people on my 15 minute train ride every day from my home to my church in Portland, Oregon. Sometimes I’ll say “I’m a pastor.” Other times I’ll say “I’m an executive in a nonprofit and I work in the department of quality assurance.” Though I “come clean” about what I mean, the latter sometimes transforms the conversation in ways the former does not, and I wonder why …

We are a global enterprise …

I recently watched a short clip featuring the British evangelist J. John about an airport encounter he had when someone asked him “What do you do?” Here’s the video and the transcript is below.

Quote (light editing):

I like to be a little bit creative in telling people what I do. I sat next this lady on an airplane at Heathrow Airport and I said “Hello, where are you going?” and she says “I’m going to Singapore, where are you going?” I said “I’m going to Australia…what to you do?” And she told me then she said “what do you do?”

I said “Well…I work for a global enterprise.” She said “Do you?” I said “Yes I do, we’ve got outlets in nearly every country of the world.” She said “Have you?” “Yes, we’ve got hospitals and hospices and homeless shelters, we do marriage work, we’ve got orphanages, we’ve got feeding programs, educational programs, all sorts of justice and reconciliation things. Basically, we look after people from birth to death and deal in the area of behavioral alteration.”

She said “Wow…what’s it called?”

I said “It’s called the Church.

The what or the why…

I have mixed feelings about such an approach.

On the one hand, being coy about being an evangelist where the objective with every interaction is to help the other person know Christ is a bit irritating. People assume that because you are an evangelist that your ultimate goal with that particular interaction is to change them. So hiding one’s objective behind humor or cute wordsmithing doesn’t change that your goal with the interaction is to–in J. John’s words–modify them.

On the other hand, it is refreshing to focus on the what of Christianity rather than just the why. That Christians are spurred to start hospitals and have collectively cared for the sick since the trade routes from the Middle East to China were begun. Educational organizations, advocacy organizations, or just a homeless shelter for one person one night a week–that’s the WHAT of what Christians do (not exclusively, but descriptively).

Too often, evangelical conversations begin with the “why”: Why you should believe in Jesus Christ. Why your life will be better. Why you will get eternal life. In its worst forms, why God hates the gays and you should turn or burn. Even prooftexting begins with the why: “these words have authority. Why? Because they are in the Bible.” By beginning with the why, it often shuts people out to hear the what.

So the what is more powerful than the why, and opens the conversation by allowing people to connect with what your life’s work is actively doing. Eternal life is pretty important, sure, but it often becomes important to the individual later in the conversation, in my experience.

… or the how?

But ultimately, while people care about the what, the key question is the how. Toms shoes is uninteresting until you know about the Buy One Get One model. In the same way, we must ask “how” the Church achieve the “whats.”

Too often in this day and age, we venerate the churches who do the whats. If their numbers of worshippers are up, we lift them up. If their donations pour in, we lift them up. If they have spontaneous baptisms by the hundreds, we lift them up. By every account, Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill church in Seattle was a success by the “whats.” The ends are more important than the means.

But since most of those soap bubbles break, the how is more important. People care about the how, about the means justifying the whats, so we must be forthright in the church about the how.

My denomination of the United Methodist Church has a mission statement: “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Transforming the world is the what … but the how is by making disciples. By strengthening discipleship, by connecting passion for transformation with the why “because of Jesus Christ,” that’s ultimately how things are best done. By being intentional about community and thoughtful about engagement, the whats are achieved in the best “how” possible.

In a world where the whats no longer sustain Christendom, it’s the process that matters, not the product. It’s the means that matter, not the ends. It’s the how that really matters, not the what or the why. If we aren’t solid on that, in the 24-7 youtubed and archived world we live in, then the whats ultimately don’t matter.


Enough from this pastor; what are your thoughts?

  • Does focusing on the “what” rather than the “why” change your conversations about your ministry context?
  • And is being open and correctable about the “how” an active part of your ministry?

This post was first published at Hacking Christianity.

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