The conference speaker was clear. "There are five essential questions of congregational life," said the Rev. Lloyd John Ogilvie, "five questions that must be asked and answered sequentially. If you skip any of them, the best that your church will ever do is limp."
With that opening line, I began to take notes.
When I returned from that conference, however, I kept those questions to myself. They guided me personally, but not the church as a whole.
Now, 20 years after speaking at that conference, Lloyd John Ogilvie is the chaplain of the U.S. Senate, and I'm in my fourth church. Yet when I came to my current pastorate, I decided our whole congregation needed the reprioritizing influence of those five, fundamental questions. I hoped the church would seek and take ownership of the answers. I didn't realize how dramatically these questions would transform us.
Many churches try hard to "do church" the best they know how. Yet those churches are often directionless (like we were), relying more on doing what's familiar than on what would help them grow. "The reason is," Ogilvie said, "that 95 percent of churches never ask themselves the first question."
Start with the end
Two years ago, at our annual all-church retreat, I instructed the entire church to stand in a circle. Then I took one little girl into the middle of the circle, handed her a rubber ball, and told her, "Throw this ball as hard as you can at the target." And then I stepped out of the circle.
The girl stood there, confused. She turned and looked, but there was no target. Nowhere to throw that ball "as hard as you can."
I explained to the church, "This girl is us. We don't have a defined place to pour our efforts. We have no target."
This set the church up for the first key question, What kind of people does God want us to produce in this body of believers? The biblical answer to that question is "Go and make disciples." But what does a disciple look like? What target are we aiming for?
To answer this question, we began with a Bible study on the mandate to make disciples. This is the job of every church and every believer. Then I instructed everyone to go silently alone, pray, and write down what traits of a disciple God reveals.
Prayer and study becomes crucial at this point, as the question asks, "What kind of disciples does God want?" Not "What do I think makes a good disciple?"
Then we wrote the answers on a board for all to see. The people were amazed to see the diversity and comprehensiveness of the answers. Being a disciple affects many areas of life!
In my church and in others I have consulted, I have watched congregations become electrified as they define these traits and then begin to own responsibility for imparting them. To have these traits identified as the target gives meaning, energy, and clarity of vision—in short, purpose—to the church's efforts.
We then grouped the 55 or so traits we came up with into 10 categories and distributed the list to every leader in the church with the following instruction: "Everything you do has to aim to produce these kinds of people." We also made bookmarks out of the list and distributed them to everyone in the congregation.
I asked each of our leadership teams, "Do you see which of these traits and categories you are responsible for?" Each team identified certain areas that they and their ministries were uniquely positioned to address. They began to take responsibility to produce a specific fruit within the congregation.