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:


Kelly Fryer said...

This is a great post, Bob! There isn't a more purposeful question, is there, than "why?" But too few people - including church people! - ask it often enough. In fact, I think church people generally assume we know (and agree on!) the answer. Good reminder for all of us to get back to the basics on this.

We must be having some kind of long distance mind meld because we wrote about this same thing not long ago. Our inspiration for that post came from Seth Godin. http://www.arenewalenterprise.com/2010/07/dont-bow-to-tradition.html

But this TED video is fantastic, too! Thanks for sharing it - and your reflections.

Love your blog!

Bob said...

Hey, Kelly. Thanks for checking in. Yes, too often we jump right to "what" and "how" -- sometimes as questions, other times as "we've always done it this way." I love the example you give in your blog post. Once an action is in muscle memory, its easy to skip past the why question.

Thanks for all the purposeful questions you keep raising in your work and blog. Keep it up!

Argi said...

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Best wishes to you.