Today I watched this TED video by Simon Sinek, a marketing and innovation consultant and author. (Ht: Niki Zimmerman.)
Sinek's talk is well worth a listen to anyone, and it helps describe successful marketing strategies and business strategy. The basic concept he has developed is called "The Golden Circle".
For those who don't have the time or inclination to watch the video, Sinek's Golden Circle consists of three concentric circles: why (inner), how (middle) and what (outer). Sinek says that when we wish to influence someone's behavior, we must work from the inside of the circle to the out (whereas most companies work from the outside in).
As an example, he asks if you would like to buy a new Dell mp3 player. Your response would be, "No...why would I buy an mp3 player from a computer company?" Because Dell has marketed itself from outside in: they are a computer company (what they do), who makes lightweight, high quality affordable computers (how they do it). So we wouldn't think of buying an mp3 player from Dell. This is the same reason that we all think it's weird that Google is starting social networks and making phones...why would they do that? It isn't their role.
But the irony is that we all DO buy our mp3 players from a computer company: Apple. Because we do not think of Apple as a computer company. Apple has branded themselves from the inside out: they are innovative people who challenge society's status quo ("who"), and they do this through technological breakthroughs ("how"). By building their reputation in this way and viewing themselves in this way, the "what" that they do is more fluid: phones, TV, mp3 players, e-Readers, tablets, laptops...they all seem to "fit" within Apple in our minds.
For the most part, Sinek is talking about marketing and business strategy. But there is a really good spiritual application here as well. Because really what he is talking about is much, much older than the modern corporation and innovation strategies: it is about living by Grace rather than Law.
You see, living by Law means that you define yourself "outside in", spiritually speaking. The key question of your life is the "What" question, the outer ring of the Golden Circle: what is my ministry? what is my calling? what is my profession? what are the results of my parenting/money/lifestyle decisions? We build ourselves on the "what", that is, the works of life. We define ourselves based upon what we do.
Evangelical churches in particular are quite guilty of perpetuating this mindset. "Every Christian should be serving, so what is your ministry? If you don't have one, we have one at the church for you!" "Every Christian should give generously, so what are you giving to your church?" "Every Christian should be living a clean life, so what are the fruits of your spiritual life?" "Every Christian should share their faith, so what are the things you are doing to share the Gospel with others?" These are all WHAT-based questions.
But spiritually we need to start with the inside of the circle and work outward.
First, we ask: WHY did God make me the way He did, and WHY did He put me in the place where He did?
This is where we begin. Examine your personality, your background, your experiences, your strengths and weaknesses, your spiritual gifts, and ask yourself why God made you the way He did? For example, I have always been a gifted communicator, and have always had a soft spot for helping people grow and mature, and have always been gifted at science, math and technology. The "why" question should answer who you are as a person. At this point in the process you do not get into "what" you do or "how" you do it.
After we firmly understand who we are we ask: HOW am I to live my life?
This is the second key point. Apple found out that their "WHY" was to innovate and challenge the status quo of how we live life; then they decided that the HOW was through technological innovation. In the same way you have to figure out how God expects you to fulfill the "Why" above.
Note that we still are not talking about the things you do, the actions, the "whats". We are only talking about the WAY IN WHICH YOU WILL DO THINGS. Once I learned why I was here--to be a communicator, an investor in helping others mature, and a skilled engineer--I was able to move on to the HOW question. And after prayer and thought, I decided that HOW I would achieve the WHY is to apply my engineering mindset and communication skills to anything which allowed me to help people mature in their lives.
Only now, do we move on to the "WHAT". And the WHAT falls out rather naturally.
The "WHAT" simply comes down to looking at where Jesus has put you and fulfilling the WHY and HOW when those situations arise. And the "WHATs" can be very different. I write a blog, I coach youth basketball, I teach in youth group, I am a manager of engineers, I speak to college and high school students about career development, and I advise the local university on their engineering curriculum. (Oh, and I have written my first book: it is in editing now, and more details will come when it is done. It should be published about October 15. I fully expect that you readers at Reboot are going to love it.)
These things are all very different works! Yet do you see how, because I have a solid understanding of my core "WHY", they are all related? All are instances where I use my ability to communicate and my passion for helping people mature. And the great thing is that I did not have to go looking for these opportunities; God brought them to me.
This is vastly different from how most people go about Christian service and works. If you define yourself primarily by the "WHAT", then you often are at a loss. If you define your service by saying what job title or what ministry type you serve in, then you are defining yourself by the WHAT rather than the WHY. If you say that God made you "to be a youth minister", then you have limited God's purpose for your life to only being a fit for youth ministry. Just like Dell seems a strange fit for selling mp3s, you then don't make much sense as a worship leader or coach or an author, because you have defined your life by the "what". In the same way, if you just show up at church and say, "What can I do to help?" then you will be useful--you will be put to whatever opening exists in the church volunteer roles at the time. But this does not necessarily mean that you will be fulfilling the reason that God made you.
This is why you must start out by defining the "WHY" of who you are. My wife is immensely organized (I was going to say "borderline OCD", but it is probably not on the borderline any more); she is extremely intelligent (two degrees and a CPA license); she is excellent with details; she is great at understanding financial systems; and she is passionate about motherhood and raising children. This is WHY God created her. From this we can move to the HOW--she is going to fulfill her roles by using her motherhood talents to raise children, and by seeking to provide administrative excellence (organization, financial skills, etc.) wherever she can. Those two things lead to WHATs of service which are often very unrelated: church finance committee, homeschooling our elementary age kids, volunteering for nursery work, making photo books, etc. But all of these seemingly unrelated things make total sense to her as ministries, because she first defines herself as a WHY and then builds to the WHAT.
So if you are trying to figure out your role in the world, please do not start with the WHAT. Do not just try and figure out some opening that you can fill for a time. This will cause you just to wear out as you work in your effort rather than His. Instead, start with the WHY--why are you here? Why did God make you the way that you are? Then move to HOW--how (on a very high level) should you be looking for ways to impact the world based upon your WHY. Then you will find yourself helping and serving in a variety of WHATs, which might seem unrelated except that they are the opportunities God brought in your life. They are the WHY that He created you.