During a sermon in the fall of 2022 I shared a quote from a book by James Clear, titled Atomic Habits:
“We don’t rise to the level of our goals, we fall to the level of our systems.”
It wasn’t any kind of explicit endorsement of the book and wasn’t honestly even the big point I was trying to make, but I got more comments and questions about that quote than anything else I said that day. I’m still not quite sure how I feel about it. The whole message was built upon the exegesis of a long and truth-rich passage of scripture, but something about that quote stuck out to people. And I can understand why. I enjoyed James Clear’s book and something about that quote stuck with me enough that I could quote it without much thought from memory in a sermon.
This isn’t a book report or literature review, so I won’t go into too much detail about Clear’s book here. However, there are some observations he makes that I think many of us in ministry would be wise to consider. Everyone has things they want in life: a great marriage, successful business, impactful ministry, physical health, etc. But most people don’t actually have those things. So why, if we all have these great goals, do we not actually achieve them? I want to highlight two limitations of goals that James Clear points out in his book.
First, goals don’t actually produce anything. Think of it in terms of non-ministry, non-spiritual life. Every athlete has the same goal: to win. Winners and losers all have the same goal, so it’s not the goal that differentiates them. Even Paul recognized this reality (1 Cor. 9:24).
Second, achieving a goal is only a momentary change. Hundreds of thousands of people set a goal of running a half or full marathon every year in an effort to get in shape and be healthy. What happens after they hit their goal? The vast majority of people stop running, despite the fact that their original reasoning for running the race was to force themselves into getting into shape and better health (I ashamedly would have to raise my hand on this one). They didn’t want a race t-shirt and a dust-collecting medal, they wanted health. In the long-term, their goal didn’t actually get them to the desired result. The goal wasn’t what they actually needed. The goal was an insufficient substitute for something far more important.
We’re often told that if we want our lives or ministries to change, we need to think big and make drastic changes. We learn from leadership gurus and life coaches to create a vision board and set BHAG (big, hairy, audacious goals). We carefully map out a strategy using something like the SMART goal system (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, timebound). We start to make some good progress, but it doesn’t last. There are an endless number of reasons and excuses for it. But every statistic out there says the same thing: goals don’t change much. Just ask the 80% of people every year who have abandoned their New Year’s resolution by Valentine’s Day (that’s the real figure, not a percentage I just made up).
So what hope is there? Should we just give up dreaming? No, not at all. We should dream big dreams and allow God to fill us with visions that seem impossible to attain. We should trust God at his word that he can and will do things we couldn’t even think to ask or imagine (Eph. 3:20). But what if instead of setting outcome goals, we started to think differently? What if we started setting input goals? What if, instead of focusing on results, we started focusing on our systems?
Think about it. Most of the goals we set for our churches and ministries are largely out of our control. Pastors and ministry leaders set goals that center around attendance, salvations, baptisms, giving, budgets, hiring staff, deploying leaders and church planters, building programs, etc. But we aren’t the Holy Spirit. We can’t soften someone’s heart or draw them to God (John 6:44). We can’t control what God does in someone’s heart, just like we can’t control the timing of the next global pandemic or whether the city zoning commission approves your construction project. Most of the outcomes we set goals for are largely out of our control. What we can control are the small, consistent, and daily actions we take. But this isn’t just logical, it’s biblical.
“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” (1 Cor. 3:6-7).
Paul understood the reality of what he was facing in his church planting mission. He could share the gospel, but it was up to God to touch and transform a heart. Paul was focused on doing what he was called to do: be an apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15; Gal. 1:15-16). And look at what James says in his letter:
“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” (James 4:13-17).
Now the context of James’ teaching is important. He’s not contradicting other parts of scripture that promote the wisdom of planning for the future (Prov. 6:6-8; 21:20). He’s calling people out for the sinfulness of thinking they can wait until tomorrow to do what they’re supposed to do today; notice he closes this thought by talking about the “right thing to do.” But James’ point is still relevant to this discussion. We don’t control tomorrow. Focus on what you can and should do today. I’m guessing James might have been listening to his brother Jesus on this one (Matt. 6:34).
Let me be clear, setting goals, planning for the future, and developing vision is biblical. Nehemiah had a vision for a strong and safe Jerusalem and after assessing the current state of the city walls developed a plan and goal (Neh. 2:12). Paul had goals of raising money to support Christians in Jerusalem suffering from famine, of going to Rome (which he accomplished), and a goal of taking the gospel further west to modern day Spain (historians debate about whether he accomplished that goal or not) – Romans 15:22-29.
We all want our lives and ministry to mean something and have a lasting impact. Goals are helpful because they point us in a direction, but they don’t actually change anything. What if, in addition to setting outcome related goals for our lives, ministries, and churches, we started prioritizing input goals? Rather than focusing on a certain metric of attendance and baptisms each year, we could commit to sharing the gospel 3 times a week and having a non-Christian in our homes for dinner once a week. We could lead our churches to do the same. At the end of the year, would we be unsuccessful if hundreds of people had heard the gospel and been loved and cared for in our own homes, just because we didn’t reach certain numbers? Of course not!
This way of thinking allows us to focus on what we’re called to do today and not on things which are out of our control in the future. Outcome goals help us determine the kind of steps we take today, but input goals keep us focused on what we can actually control today.
I’m guessing at the beginning of this year, we all set goals for our ministries and churches. If they are biblical and Spirit-prompted, then those goals are great. They give us direction and help us evaluate. But maybe what we really need are input goals.
Make it a goal to consistently share the gospel and trust God for the results. Make it a goal to identify, train, and develop leaders and trust God that he knows when they’re ready to be deployed. Make it a goal to disciple people in the Word and teach them biblical principles on personal finance and tithing and trust God to open their wallets as he opens their hearts. Make it a goal to weekly thank and encourage your leaders and staff. Make it a goal to reach out to and connect with a certain number of people in your church every week.
At the end of the year, you may or may not hit a certain outcome goal or metric. But remember that the growth and results are up to God; we are called to be faithful to the opportunities he has given us today.
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