Question: "What is mission drift?"


Mission drift is a pressing reality for many organizations. Mission drift can be defined as “a move away from the goals established in an organization’s purpose statement.” Formerly focused, single-minded organizations become distracted, inefficient, and unable to meet their stated goals. Mission drift is a widespread phenomenon that can occur in any organization.

Examples of mission drift would be a church that allows its food pantry to become its primary focus, or a parachurch ministry that becomes so focused on politics that it no longer shares the gospel, or a Bible translation ministry that adds child sponsorship and drilling wells to its portfolio of outreaches, to the detriment of translating the Bible.

If mission drift is left unchecked, it often leads to complete mission abandonment. An example of this end result of mission drift is what happened to the YMCA—the Young Men’s Christian Association left its Christian moorings long ago. Most centers are no longer concerned with Bible-based spiritual development; rather, the Y focuses on healthy living, social responsibility, and humanitarianism.

Another famous example of mission abandonment due to long-term mission drift is Harvard University. An early Harvard publication stated, “Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and lesus Christ which is eternall life, Joh. 17. 3. and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning. And seeing the Lord only giveth wisedome, Let every one seriously set himselfe by prayer in secret to seeke it of him Prov 2, 3” (“Rules, and Precepts that are observed in the Colledge,” as printed in New England’s First Fruits, 1643, Rule 2). The statement continued from there, advising every student to read from the Bible twice a day. Harvard’s original motto, adopted in 1692, was Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae, which means “Truth for Christ and the Church.” Obviously, Harvard University no longer holds to such ideals. The current motto is simply “Truth,” and no one is required to read the Bible.

Mission drift seems to be the natural tendency in all organizations, including churches. As time goes on, we all face the challenge of remaining true to our mission. The temptation to veer from our original purpose—resulting in mission drift—is real.

Mission drift can be either intentional or unintentional. In most cases, mission drift is unintentional and has a negative impact because it harms the integrity of an organization. Mission drift in a Christian ministry can be caused by failing to prioritize the original mission statement, seeking to follow shifting societal values, heeding the desires of high-dollar donors, or choosing to tone down an unpopular gospel message. As authors Peter Greer and Chris Horst say, “The natural course—the unfortunate natural evolution of many originally Christ-centered missions—is to drift” (Mission Drift: The Unspoken Crisis Facing Leaders, Charities, and Churches, Bethany House Publishing, 2014).

Mission drift does not happen overnight. It takes place when relatively minor decisions, compounded by time, lead to entirely different purposes and identities. As Dr. Tony Dale, founder of The Karis Group, put it, mission drift “creeps on you so slowly and imperceptibly that if you don’t plan for it, you will have drifted before you realize what’s going on” (quoted by Spradlin, B. in “Mission Drift I: The Danger,” “Higher Thinking Blog,” 1/23/23,, accessed 4/25/23).

Churches are always in danger of experiencing mission drift. Some common symptoms of mission drift in a church include 1) a focus more on taking than giving, 2) a lack of a Christ-centered community, 3) a self-consumed vision that disconnects from mission fields, and 4) church crises and conflicts that overshadow the gospel message. Ultimately, a church’s mission statement should be centered on Christ’s Great Commission, which is to go into all the world and preach the gospel.

The temptation for mission drift is unavoidable, but churches and other ministries can take steps to preserve integrity and stay true to their calling:

1) Clearly define what the church’s mission is. Determine what is the church’s core identity and what matters most. Write it down.

2) Stay humble. Realize that anyone can fall prey to mission drift. As Greer wrote, “It’s not if we are drifting, but where are we drifting?” (op. cit.).

3) Abide in Christ (John 15:4). The leaders should have an individual, daily practice of prayer and devotional Bible study. Leadership accountability is essential. As Proverbs 15:22 puts it, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisors they succeed.”

4) Create and maintain a team that encourages mission fulfillment. Hire only those people whose practices align with the mission that God has given.

It’s always good to get back to the basics. God’s Word gives us some directives that help to keep us on point:

“Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously” (Matthew 6:33, NLT).

“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19–20).

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).