Starting with Why

In a fascinating TED talk, author Simon Sinek explains the ideas in his book, Start with Why. The premise is simple: "People don't buy what you do they buy why you do it," he says. This is a central premise of what I call "higher marketing," selling things that don't just keep us alive but purport to define or add meaning to life. Wal-Mart may sell razor blades based on rolled-back prices, but Apple has to convince you they challenge the status quo or appeal to your self-image of "thinking differently" before you pay a premium for their beautifully designed, easy-to-use computers. ( Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action)

Most causes and brands communicate to their hearers' logical, cerebral brains with a lot of facts and figures about what they do and how they do it ("four out of five doctors recommend..." "now with five times the power of the competition..."). Breakthroughs come when leaders speak to the intuitive, non-verbal parts of the brain that responds to "why?" -- as in Apple's cool, creative appeal.

Sinek extends the idea to technological innovation and social causes as well. The Wright Brothers prevailed with passion and determination, while rival Samuel Pierpont Langley aimed at the "what" -- he wanted to be rich and famous. Rather than build on the Wright's initial success, Langley dropped out of the business since he couldn't be first. More than 250,000 people showed up on Washington's Mall to hear Martin Luther King Jr. because he articulated their belief that America could be more just. Sinek notes that King gave the "I have a dream" speech, not "I have a plan."

Faith is not a product nor an innovation, and only partially a social cause. Yet I think Sinek's premise has a lot to offer the church as we look at how we communicate with the world; not just in intentional evangelism but in all the ways we engage our culture and community.

Many writers have explored the idea that people admire and respect Jesus, while they have negative impressions of the intolerance and irrelevance of Christians and the church. Often cited objections to the church include intolerance aimed at homosexuals and other faiths, exclusivity and "my way or the highway" talk, excessive patriotism and support of war. All these fall on the "what" level of doctrine or the "how" level of tactics to live out that dogma. If you carry that back to the motivational level one sees a worldview of fear of others, an insatiable need to be right, a need for conformity and uniformity. This is directly opposed to what many people outside the church see and admire in Christ.

When interviewed, these folks often refer to Jesus' humility, his care for the poor and sick, his inclusion and willingness to risk. Jesus' why -- "the kingdom of God is among you" -- is clear to them:
"The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
Jesus' "why" was clear, and his actions completely resonated with his purpose. No religious hierarchy, need to be safe, or social convention got in the way. He ate with sinners, healed outsiders, dueled with Pharisees and Saducees, stood his ground with Pilate, and carried his own cross. All to live out and bring about healing, wholeness and justice. There's a cause to get behind!

The "Why" question is also relevant to the way churches talk about themselves and "reach out." How many times do churches describe themselves as "contemporary" or "traditional," "liturgical" or "free." Some boast strong Sunday Schools or youth programs or Kids' Kingdoms. Others tout high technology, coffee shops or intellectual discussion groups. Some stress "biblical preaching" while others are "accepting." All good things, and there is room for all approaches, but notice that all of these descriptors are what's and how's.

Sometimes churches' "why" revolves around community, although this can be vague and misleading. Is community a place of warm acceptance, where everybody knows your name ("Cheers!"), a place of camaraderie and shared purpose (the soccer club or the Army), people who are there when you need them (a support group), or people who will tell you the truth even if you don't want to hear it (Luther's mutual conversation and consolation)?

Other times the "why" will focus on making and being disciples, though the how and what can be different, as "discipleship" might mean attending to long teaching sermons, joining a small group, reading the Bible daily or seeking a relationship with God in prayer and contemplation. Some will focus on thought, others on social action, others on personal righteousness.

The church's "why" can be summed up in Luke 4, which is often called Jesus' "manifesto" or "purpose statement." We are called to do nothing less than join God in bringing about the kingdom of heaven on earth, right here and now. We give voice to another, better world, where the poor hear good news, prisoners are freed and the blind are healed. A just, inclusive world that threatens our current notions of wealth, power and security.

What is the "why" of your congregation?

Do your "how's" and "what's" resonate with your "why"?

How do you tell the story of your "why" to your community?

What, if anything, might look different if you added Jesus's manifesto in Luke 4 into your "why" statement(s)?

Watch Sinek's TED talk:

Happy Interdependence Day!

Interdependence is a key biblical value. Israel's society is based on the concept of community; the people are on their journey, and in relationship with God, together. Power and wisdom are marked by care for the vulnerable and infirm. Faith is not an idea but a way of living that cares for people and the natural world in relationship with the Creator.

Dependence is also an important value. Jesus tells us that our lives our not our own; they are only found by being given away. Reliance on God, not bread alone, keeps us alive. Our lives are reclaimed by stripping away what is on the outside to sit naked before our loving God.

The dictionary defines independence, which we celebrate this weekend, as "freedom from the control, influence, support, aid, or the like, of others." (Dictionary.com) While the United States' independence from the control of the crown opened a noble experiment in self-governance, "independence" is not a good way for individuals to live -- mainly because it is not real. We are each shaped by parents and family, influenced by teachers and friends, supported in time of need and able to respond to others in need. Our real lives are interdependent, lived in community with neighbors and children and governments as well as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

So while you are getting together with others for BBQs and fireworks, consider this great idea from the people at the Englewood Review of Books: Celebrate Interdependence Day!

Their blog post lists 40 different ways that you can celebrate the ways that you and your family depend on the gifts and talents of your neighbors (and people around the world) and on the local ecosystem (and the global environment).  Here are a couple of my favorites:
  • Gather your neighbors and do a spontaneous parade that shows off people’s talents – music, acrobatics, costumes, etc.
  • Visit an elderly neighbor or family member.  Have them tell you the story of their life.
  • Look for everything you have two of and give one away.
  • Hold a knowledge exchange where people gather and each get ten minutes to teach the group about something they’re passionate about.
  • Spend the 4th of July baking cookies or bread.  Give your baked goods to the person who delivers your mail or picks up your trash the next time you see them.
  • Write a note of appreciation to a mother; thank her for raising a child.
Read the entire list here. What are your favorites? Got better ideas? Let us know in the comments.

We are truly blessed in the US.  We are able to worship, work, love, live, vote and consume pretty much the way we want.  Our system is not perfect; no system is.  We are able to celebrate the times we are a light to others, and to question when we do not live up to our best.  That kind of independence is healthy for a nation.  As citizens and as Christians, we are blessed to be both interdependent with each other and with the world, and ultimately dependent on our gracious and merciful God.