the why’s the limit

Last week I was honored to be part of the behind-the-scenes team for the Global Missions Health Conference, the largest medical missions conference in the country. Thousands  of students, missionaries, and medical professionals—as well as many others with an interest in advancing missions at their churches—attend the annual event.

The speakers had a lot of good things to say—they pointed out how often Jesus combined physical healing with spiritual teaching and they did not romanticize the difficulties of living in an American inner-city or an emerging country.

But one of the comments that most struck me was during a casual preconference conversation about short-term missions. The speaker, Justin Narducci from Life in Abundance, said that too often he sees churches focused on what they’re going to do instead of why. Why should become the driving question, and only after the philosophy and strategery of something is determined should we begin discussing what we’re doing and how. (I added the strategery bit.)

This is definitely true for short-term missions; “We’re going to Swaziland to lead a VBS!” is not a missions plan. (Do the people in Swaziland want you to come? What do they really need? Bet it’s not VBS.)

But focusing on the “why” of something instead of just the “what” can also be extremely helpful to us as individuals. It’s true that when it comes to figuring out the complexities of others’ behavior, why is not a helpful question. But when choosing our own actions, why becomes crucial.

For instance, if a college-bound high schooler came looking to me for advice (and, I admit, this has never yet happened in the history of time), I would not ask what college she’s going to attend or what she’s going to major in or even what she wants to do as a career. Instead I would ask why she sees college as the best option. I’m a huge advocate for education but I also know many of the jobs for which college prepares students are now being outsourced to other countries, and many of the remaining jobs require entrepreneurial chutzpah or specialized technical knowledge more than traditional liberal arts study. Being super-employable isn’t everything (says the former English major), but in the 21st century neither is a college degree. Instead of accepting the conventional wisdom, I’d ask a few why questions about future goals.

Today, try asking yourself why about some of your current choices.

Instead of “What chapters do I have to read in my Bible to stay on schedule?” try “Why do I want to get through the whole Bible in one year? Is reading at that pace the best way for me to connect with God?”

Instead of “What’s the balance in my savings account?” try “Why am I spending money the way I am? Do I need to rethink my priorities?”

Instead of “What do we have to do this weekend?” try “Why are so many of our weekends packed with chores? How can we make time for rest?”


Jason said that for a church missions team, answering the why question can take 80% of the time and effort (which is probably why so many don’t do it). The irony is that if they do the hard work of developing a why (in this case, a philosophy of missions), future decisions about the “what” (budgeting, mission trips, and outreach) become much easier.

The same is true for us. What’s a Why you need to ask yourself this week?