For three years now, I have preached a summer series using a children’s book as a second reading in our worship service. We read the book in whole and talk about it specifically in the children’s sermon, and then it is referenced to varying degrees in the main sermon which closely follows the theme of the book.
Today’s book is The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessor, by William Joyce.
Tell Me Why
“Start with why.” That’s the advice of business guru Simon Sinek in his book by the same name. He looks through history at leaders of corporations and social movements who were able to not just be successful, but built a movement among their followers, employees, and consumers. In a nutshell, he dissects what it is about great leaders that allow them to inspire so many to take action. And over and over again, he finds that the way they both think and communicate starts with a statement about why they do what they do.
This is the graphic Mr. Sinek uses to illustrate his point.
On the outside, we have WHAT: this is what we do. For a business it is their products or services; for a church it might be things like bible studies or missional activities.
Inside that is HOW. For a business, the HOW explains what makes their products different than the competition—be it design, efficiency, features, and so on. Think of it this way: WHAT explains what we might buy and HOW is what we would say to explain our choice. For a church, HOW might be things like the Golden Rule, or the Great Commission, or an understanding of the End Times—all of which would shape the actual ministry that is taking place in the WHAT circle.
The innermost circle is WHY. WHY is, quite simply, the purpose, cause, or belief that is the entire reason your company—or church—exists. It is the core identity from which everything else should come.
Mr. Sinek argues that most of the time, we begin our communication with WHAT we do, then move to HOW we do it, and we usually aren’t even aware of WHY we do it. But the most effective communicators, leaders, and companies work this the other way around—they start with WHY they exist, then move to HOW they live that out, and end with WHAT they do.
Or, put differently, “a WHY is just a belief, HOWs are the actions we take to realize that belief, and WHATs are the results of those actions” (Sinek, Start with Why, 85).
The Elevator Pitch
Now I realize this sounds complicated, but it really is quite simple. The easiest way to illustrate this is using the concept of the elevator pitch. The idea of an elevator pitch is that you should be able to make a pitch for your business in the time it takes you to travel a few floors in an elevator with a stranger. It is the answer to this question: In about a minute, why should someone attend First Baptist instead of one of the dozens of other churches in town?
If you haven’t ever considered what to say in a scenario like this, you’re going to be ill prepared when God directs someone your way.
So think about it right now. Imagine you are in conversation with a coworker, a family member, or even a stranger and the subject of faith and church comes up. Most of the time, our “elevator pitch” starts with WHAT. For this church, it might sound like this:
We meet on Sundays at 9:30 to worship God. There’s Sunday School for all ages. We have men’s and women’s groups that meet during the week, as well as an after school program and a youth group. We allow some community groups to share our space. I’ve been a part of the church for a long time now and it feels like a family to me.
That’s starting with WHAT. That’s beginning with the things we do.
Now listen to the difference when we start with WHY:
We believe that each person is someone God deeply loves, and that knowing Jesus is something that is freeing. The way we live that out is by practicing hospitality, learning to hear God and each other, and working toward the liberation of those who feel trapped and alone. We gather to worship God each Sunday at 9:30, we meet in small groups to discuss life and the Bible, and we partner with a lot of community groups who share our mission of breaking the cycles that hold people back.
It’s quite a difference in its impact—even though it communicates all of the same information as in the first presentation. Mr. Sinek argues that this second presentation will always be more impactful because it presents information in the way our brains naturally work. It inspires us instead of convinces us.
God Starts with Why
Starting with WHY as Christians and as the Church means we start with story instead of programming. It begins with “who we are” instead of “what we do.” And even though we have gotten this sooooo backwards over the last century or so, starting with WHY is really the example we see throughout the Bible.
When the first humans are created, God starts with why: “Let us make humanity in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish…and…the birds..and…the livestock…and over ever creeping thing” (Gen 1:26 ESV).
When God begins working through a specific family, God starts with why: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:1-3 ESV).
When the angel appears to Joseph, encouraging him to still wed Mary (his pregnant fiancée, the message from God starts with why: “That which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit… You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:20-21 ESV).
The whole Bible is a story of WHY—and it is filled with stories of WHY. When we start with WHY—when we start with story—we are not selling something. We are instead inspiring people.
Another author (Chuck DeGroat) talks about why telling stories matters (Faith Storytelling Kit PDF). Using the perspective of our Christian faith and the backdrop of the Bible, he gives seven reasons why telling stories matter:
1. We are hardwired for story: Science has shown us that this is how our brains work—and that “we thrive when we listen and tell.”
2. We are meaning makers. Telling stories has been the way we have made sense of our experiences and world for thousands of years.
3. We are honest. In telling stories, we learn there is more shame in the kind of radical editing that makes us look good than in telling the simple truth of our struggles, our failures, and and our suffering.
4. We are wounded. All of us have been hurt. Psychologists have discovered that telling stories of hurt actually help us take control of our lives and find healing from those wounds.
5. We are storied beings. Our Christian faith is one that roots our own individual, 21st century lives in the 1st century life of our Savior. The path of discipleship that we walk together is of finding the story of Jesus told through our own lives.
6. We are liturgical. What this means is that our worship is corporate; it is something that we do together. And as we move through the year, our worship reenacts the stories of Jesus’ Advent, birth, and baptism; miracles and parables; entrance into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, and the Garden of Gethsemane; his crucifixion and burial; the resurrection, and the ascension. The way we worship is driven by stories-told and stories-reenacted.
7. We are commanded. Over and over in scripture, we are commanded to remember and to tell the story.
Our scripture lesson is one such example. Here in Deuteronomy 4, the Israelites are in the midst of their wilderness wanderings—in between slavery in Egypt and nationhood in the Promised Land. Moses—following God’s lead (as always)—wants them to see that their willingness to tell the story of what God has done is directly connected to their ability to survive and thrive in the future. It’s a simple thing—storytelling—but if they don’t do it, they will not succeed. That’s why Moses is so emphatic:
Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates (Deut 6:7-9 NIV).
Moses wants to make sure that the ancient Israelites are never far from a tangible reminder of the story of God’s liberation.
In v.20 of our reading, Moses even makes it clear that when asked about their practices and their worship and this constant remembering, their answer needs to start with WHY.
In the future, when your son asks you, “What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the Lord our God has commanded you?” tell him: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. Before our eyes the Lord sent signs and wonders—great and terrible—on Egypt and Pharaoh and his whole household. But he brought us out from there to bring us in and give us the land he promised on oath to our ancestors. The Lord commanded us to obey all these decrees and to fear the Lord our God, so that we might always prosper and be kept alive, as is the case today. And if we are careful to obey all this law before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, that will be our righteousness (vv.20-25 NIV)
Stories matter. The Bible—while a collection of stories—is itself one giant story of God’s loving and redemptive work. And the testimony we see in scripture is that storytelling is evangelism. Storytelling is how we communicate who we are, who God is, and that what we do matters.
That means it’s important to think about the story of your own life—and how to tell it. It’s not about making yourself look good—the bible stories we read each week do not paint sanitized pictures of flawless heroes; they depict deeply flawed, fully human beings. But it is important to start with WHY. If you’re talking about faith, or church, or anything else in this world that matters, I want you to tell me WHY it matters to you.
No, that’s wrong……it’s not about me. The world needs you to tell them why it matters. Everyone’s story matters, and the world needs to hear how God has redeemed you. And that is a story only you can tell.
We give you thanks for your Son,
our Savior, Jesus the Christ—
the Word of God who became flesh
and dwelt among us.
We give you thanks for his example and teachings,
and also for the path he marked for us:
a path that pursues peace, love, and hospitality
towards friend and stranger alike.
We give you thanks for the love you have for us,
a love that is self-sacrificing,
a love that is serving,
a love that is without strings attached,
and a love that survives—and even overcomes—death itself.
We give you thanks for the hope we have in you.
Hope that testifies that what was began in Jesus
will find completion in our own lives.
Hope that is certain our own brokenness,
can be resurrected,
We love because you first loved us.
Give us the courage to tell of your love,
of your action in our lives—
be it provision or reconciliation,
liberation or welcome—
Help us to tell others why we need you.