Why is this such a difficult and controversial subject?
- First off, there is a lot of confusion surrounding the subject because we don’t use the term the way it’s used in the Bible. This is not necessarily evil but it is confusing. A vision in the Bible is a vivid and unforgettable picture of a present or future reality, which is given by God and seen only in the mind of the vision recipient – usually someone called a prophet. In non-charismatic circles, this is not usually what we mean when we talk about “church vision.”
The all-too-common misuse of the first half of Proverbs 29:18 (KJV) exacerbates the problem. The entire verse says that “Where there is no vision the people perish; but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” Other translations render the Hebrew more accurately. The NIV says, “Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint; but blessed is he who keeps the law.” This is Hebrew parallelism. “Vision” and “law” are synonyms in the KJV; “Revelation” and “law” are synonyms in the NIV. The point is that we desperately need the revelation graciously given by God in His word and we desperately need to heed what God has revealed. The verse is not about “vision” in the sense in which we use the term today.
- We also have varying ideas about the source of church vision (“dream” is a commonly used synonym). The typical definition sounds like: “A God-given mental image of a preferable future for a church. (A vision STATEMENT is a written description of this mental image.) The problem with this definition is that it includes the concept that our “church visions” have been given by God. This begs the question: Have they?
The issue has been debated endlessly. Some people’s theology precludes the whole concept of God giving church visions to pastors or other leaders. Others assume all-too-casually that if they are church leaders and they have their own mental images of preferable futures for their churches, those images must have come from God. So while Pastor So and So confidently unveils his new God-given vision, half his congregation is asking, “Says who?”
Here’s my challenge to evangelicals who take the “no vision” position. Doesn’t God have a vision, a dream, a vivid picture in His wonderful mind of what He would like my life to look like three years from now? We all know that Jeremiah 29:11 is a promise to Israel, but don’t most of us believe that it applies to Christian individuals as well?
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and
not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.”
If our wonderful God, who sees the end from the beginning, has a vision or dream for my future, wouldn’t He also have a vision or dream, a vivid mental picture of His preferred future for my church? Wouldn’t He want my church to know enough about this future in order to pursue it and see it become reality? And since our churches are as unique as human individuals are, wouldn’t it likely be a somewhat different desirable future than He would have for any other church?
Here’s a concern I have that I think you’ll share: While I believe that God has wonderful dreams for His churches, let’s be oh-so-careful about claiming that we have a “lock” on those dreams. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “This is what I think God wants our church to look like in five years.” There’s also nothing wrong with saying “This is what I WANT our church to look like in five years.”
I maintain that almost every church member has a dream for what he/she wants his church to look like in the future. Even the person who doesn’t want his church to change at all has a dream! This is a fruitless dream of course, because our churches are constantly changing as in Confucius’ saying that “You can’t step into the same river twice.”
Simply put: If we’re going to say that “This is God’s vision for our church,” we’d better be sure and we’d better be right. In this regard, the counsel of veteran church consultant George Bullard (Captured by Vision) is very helpful. Here’s my paraphrase: “If you don’t have a clear vision, move towards the fuzzy vision that God has given of your church’s ideal future. As you move towards it in faith and humility, God will give you mid-course corrections and make the vision more vivid as you draw near it.”
For churches in which there is a lot of resistance to the concept of God-given vision, Tim Addington has suggested that a reasonable alternative might be for the church’s leadership team to present the congregation with a “big ask” or a “big prayer request.” “We are asking God for one hundred adults to come to Christ through our ministry this year,” or “We’re asking God to bless our ministry with two new daughter churches in the next five years.”
We also have a great deal of confusion about how vision differs from mission. I see many church mission statements that are more vision than mission and many church vision statements that are more mission than vision. Contrasted: Mission is what we DO, right here in the PRESENT; Vision is what we are seeking to BECOME or achieve in the FUTURE. Mission prods us from behind; vision draws us from the future.
Assuming that God does have His own unique dreams for His unique churches, the next question becomes, “How does He download those dreams?” Here are some answers I’ve heard:
- God downloads His vision into the mind/heart of the pastor. Just by walking onto the scene, the pastor receives a dream from God. The pastor’s vision is God’s vision.
- Some say that the pastor should carefully study the local mission field the church is called to reach, the gifts, passions, strengths and weaknesses of his church, enlist the help of many prayer warriors and then go off to a mountain retreat alone. The vision statement he comes back with is from God and the church should embrace it enthusiastically.
- Others believe that God’s vision is invariably found when leadership teams gather and walk through a process involving prayer, an examination of the church’s community context, a review of the gifts and passions of the congregation and a study of the gifts and passions of the church’s leaders. A complex example of this popular methodology is found in Church Unique by Will Mancini.
- Other churches believe that vision is found primarily through a process of intensive and extensive prayer. Some churches believe that in answer to fervent prayer, God’s vision will be downloaded into the mind(s) of (1) the pastor (as above), (2) the board, collectively, (3) someone in the congregation with a spiritual gift which makes him or her receptive to God’s answer (4) an individual member of the church’s board or leadership team whom God chooses to bless with His vision.
- Still others believe that a church’s current, commonly held vision can be found by carefully discerning the congregation’s current actual (not aspirational) values and then projecting these values out into the future. To illustrate, if a church actually values relationships, evangelism and persons with multiple needs, projecting those values into the future would illuminate a dream of a church full of rich relationships and people with many needs who have been won to faith in Christ. For details on how to identify a congregation’s actual, current values, see my Strategic Planning Template #6 on the subject of values.
- Yes! Nothing unifies a church like a compelling, exciting vision for what the church can become. Without a unifying vision, one hundred church members cling to and cherish their one hundred differing dreams for their church’s future. Will Mancini loves to say that “Where there is no vision, the people cherish.” This is followed by a list of things which church members tend to cherish (buildings, traditions, leaders, ministries, etc.) other than a compelling, God-given vision.
- Yes! Nothing motivates a church like a compelling, exciting vision for what the church can become. Knowing your mission is great, but mission can easily feel like LAW (this is what we must do) whereas vision feels like GOSPEL (this is what we can potentially achieve if we work together).
- Yes! A church that truly believes that it has a vision which is FROM GOD feels greatly gifted.
- Yes! A clear vision will help some in the congregation to realize that they would be better off worshiping and serving in another church. This is far better than the alternative of their remaining in the congregation with negative attitudes about what the church is seeking to become.
- Yes! A unifying vision gives the church’s leadership team clear cut guidance regarding which ministries should be retained, which ministries should be re-tooled, which ministries should be re-purposed and which ministries should be retired.
- In processes involving good sized groups of people, including persons who are not necessarily bearing the weight of the leadership team’s serious decisions, there is a tendency for the loudest voices in the room to prevail. Some participants will make a strong case for initiatives that they are not necessarily committed to after the SP session is over.
- Again, in larger SP groups in particular, it is easy to come away from the process with a vision statement that is merely a pasted together compilation of the strongest dreams and passions of the strongest personalities in the room.
- Any genuinely God-given vision is going to (1) agree with the Scriptures, (2) be a picture of a church which is making disciples out of the raw material of lost people (including adults), (3) match the gifts and passions of the church, (4) match the needs and demographics of the community, (5) match the gifts and passions of the staff members – unless it’s time for one or more of them to move on.
- Here’s another way to come up with your church leader’s current, actual dreams for their church’s future: the TV news segment. Close your eyes and imagine a local TV news segment you would love to see three (or whatever) years from now. Your church is so special that your favorite nearby station felt they had to do a story on your ministry. In the one-minute long segment, what would they picture? What ministries would they be highlighting? What would be getting their attention? Are there persons or groups of persons in your congregation who are so remarkable that the reporter would want to interview them? Every member of the SP team should do this, in writing, individually, so the opinions of a few people don’t silence the dreams of others.
Now imagine the value of a large percentage of your congregation embracing the same “dreamed of” news segment? With the right gifted persons, you could even create this news broadcast now and show it to your new attendees and your congregation until God brings it to fruition!
- If you’ve not already done so, conduct or procure the help of a consultant who will help you conduct a comprehensive church assessment. You are going to need lots of accurate up to date information about your church and community before you proceed with this process.
- Take the time to pray at length about this process. Enlist the help of any and every prayer team or prayer warrior which your church is blessed with. Boldly proclaim that you are “seeking the Lord’s face and His will.” You are looking for His vision for your church and not that of any one church member, including the senior pastor! The pastor can put himself on record on this by leading in prayer for this from the pulpit, persistently, until the answer comes.
- As a SP team, study your church’s current, actual ministry context (sometimes called your “local predicament”). That means the demographics of the community which is your mission field. Learn about the felt and spiritual needs of the people of your area. Ask: What kind of church will be needed to turn these folks into followers of Jesus? Bring together lots of information. Pray!
- As a SP team, study the demographics, the spiritual gifts, passions and dreams of your current church membership. Is there a correspondence between #3 and #4? How has your church been gifted by God to reach its mission field? Use an examination of your church’s values to discern what matters most to your people right now (See VALUES – Strategic Planning Template #6). Now project those values out into the future to see your church’s collective, current, actual, dream. Do you believe that this is God’s dream, or do your values need to change? Alternatively, or in addition to this, use the TV news segment exercise (above) to help determine your SP team’s current, actual dreams for the future.
- As a SP team, study the demographics, the spiritual gifts, ministry passions and dreams of your church’s current leaders (board and staff members). Again, note the areas of correspondence with #3 and #4. Some call this your church’s ministry “sweet spot.”
- If your SP team has significant areas of correspondence between #’s 3,4 and 5, you are well on your way to identifying a church vision. Where there is more disagreement than agreement, turn to heartfelt, serious, desperate prayer for God to bring your team to ONE MIND. It’s okay if this takes months.
- When you have arrived at a unifying vision, turn it into a vision statement. Shorter is better – though it’s okay to have a longer version for “in house” use and a “keychain-sized version” which everyone in your church can learn.
- Continue to discuss it and pray about it as a SP team and at board meetings. Tweaking is okay.
- Present it to the church with joy and excitement mixed with humility. Don’t be afraid to say it’s only a “fuzzy vision” but that you believe that God helped you with it. Even the Apostles had the humility to say, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” Acts 15:28.
- Do not fail to tackle the SP task of strategy formulation. SP which does not include strategy and actual church change becomes “un-strategic talking” instead of strategic planning.