Apparently, our churches need ‘vision statements’ and individuals need ‘personal vision targets’ in order to progress in the kingdom of God. After all, it is ‘biblical’. Well, it sounds biblical. Just look at Proverbs 29:18 (KJV) which reminds us that, “Where there is no vision the people perish.” Excellent. Now let me get on with my post about vision statements. Let’s get on with a bit of ‘vision casting’ or some other similarly spiritual sounding phrase.
Except in the ESV this verse reads somewhat differently: “Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law.” So, what we see is that this isn’t really a verse about business plans, vision casting, or prophetic ecstasies. This is actually a verse written for the community of God’s people about the danger of neglecting God’s revelation. The more we neglect the Word of God, the more chaos we are going to sow in our lives. I want to recommend to you an excellent little post by Dan Phillips at Pyromaniacs, who goes into this at a little more length.
I want to move on because even though I am not convinced by the verse above as a pretext for setting goals and objectives, I am persuaded that having vision, in the sense of knowing the general direction your ministry is heading, is a good thing. It’s just my pathological aversion to ‘spiritual tagging’ by many Christians of what is often just God-given common sense and godly ambition. Why can’t we just call something ‘common sense’ or ‘prayerful direction’ rather than invent these fanciful pseudo-spiritual titles?
Now, when we look at some of the major players of the Bible, it is true that they received more specific ‘visions’. Moses, Abraham, David, Peter, Paul, and John are all clear biblical examples of this. The issue is: Are these are prescriptive or descriptive events? My money is on the latter in terms of immediate context, whilst I would want to maintain that I am not suggesting that God is unable or unwilling to communicate in this way should he see fit (although these things do/should not supersede the full and final authority of Scripture).
As far as I can tell from the New Testament, the chief role of the pastor is to equip the saints for the work of ministry (Eph. 4:11–12), as he watches both his life and his doctrine (1 Tim. 4:16). The pastor’s job is not to be some sort of spiritual vision-casting guru. His role involves the high calling of protecting the sheep from wolves, preparing God’s people for works of service, all while fighting to keep the gospel front and centre in the life of the church.
The irony of ‘vision casting’ is that it can easily distract God’s people from their mission, and it encourages leaders to think the Great Commission is all about fulfilling their particular vision!
Merely A Means
At 20schemes, we want to plant and/or revitalise 20 churches in housing schemes across the land. The vision is to simply plant/revitalise gospel churches among Scotland’s poorest. In effect, we would like to think that the gospel is the vision we’re after as we work for God’s glory. Is that just semantics? Maybe. But ‘our vision’ won’t win Scotland for Jesus. God’s grace will. As far as we’re concerned, 20schemes is merely the 21st Century Scottish donkey on which to carry the King of Kings to our nation’s neediest. If the donkey gets old or crippled and is unable to fulfill its function, then it will be shot and put out of its misery with immediate effect. In other words, we’re merely a means to an end.
Now, that being said, I think that one of the keys to pioneering a healthy church-planting ministry surely has to be a leader who can see the ‘bigger picture’—in terms of the future development of a ministry—where others may only see obstacles.
This is how I almost instinctively spot those with church-planting potential. When a man comes to an area and sees either a decrepit building, an ageing congregation, or nothing at all, and responds with excitement and a sense of the potential of ‘what could be under God’, then I know we’re off to a good start.
True ‘Visionary Leadership’
That’s often the difference, I find, between American and British believers. In Christian circles in the UK, whenever somebody comes up with an idea, the first instinct of many leaders is to think of 20 reasons not to proceed. The church here is choked with terms such as: “Let’s pray about it”—i.e. “I don’t like it but this sounds like a spiritual sounding way to kill the idea off” or, “It sounds interesting but now is not the right time because we really do need to get the toilets fixed”—i.e. “that’s way too scary, let’s stick to something realistic” , or, “Let’s hold off for now. If it’s the Lord’s will then it won’t matter if we wait for a year or so”—i.e. “I want to say no right off the bat but I am a bottler and so I will say this to get you off my back and hope you get tired of waiting for us to do something”.
My personal favourite is “I think we need more time to prepare for that because I just don’t feel we’re ready right now.” Incredibly, in the UK, we often label this process ‘wisdom.’ I call it something else entirely. Visionary leadership (in my definition) sees past this and can not only picture something ‘bigger and better’, but can also communicate it to such an extent that people pick up the torch and run with it.
Of course, the problem with ‘vision statements’ is that they can be ‘set in stone’ and, therefore, often—ironically—kill the creativity, instinct, and entrepreneurial spirit they are supposed to encourage, particularly in those people who prefer to work within a well-ordered box.
For me at least, vision is a free-flowing, ever-changing thing that must take into consideration the work of the Holy Spirit in the life and work of a leader and his people. If I am sticking religiously to a set routine and plan, then the danger is that I can miss an opportunity that may present itself. One of my prayers with our team here is: ‘Lord, surprise us today and keep us alert to any new direction you would want us to investigate and pursue.’
How do we get people to share the vision? That’s a key area. Some men like to ‘frame’ their vision, think it through, pray over it, and then present it to their people. My process is that I like to throw ideas at my Ministry Team in all their unrefined and uncrafted glory. I like to get ‘gut reactions’ and then I like to ‘throw it around the dance floor’ before encouraging people to ‘attack it from all angles.’ We then pray about it quite specifically. Now, if the idea can come out of that process in any kind of decent shape, then it gets a run out to the eldership and we then usually go for it. We tend to work by this process for anyone who has an idea on the team.
I actively encourage creative thinking, and I even like to run with ideas that I am pretty confident will fail—just to give my team a taste of ministry failure—but also to use as a teaching opportunity. If we’re not failing then we’re not really learning. Courses and colleges can teach us a lot, but they cannot teach us how to fail ‘on the ground.’ I sometimes wonder if the reason that so many men in our pulpits fail to connect with people in terms of sermon application is because they have been brought up in a sterile and safe church culture with a risk-free approach to ministry. They cannot relate to people at ground level because they have such limited life experience.
Obedience to God
Finally, some say that a visionary knows where they are going. I sort of agree with that and I sort of don’t. I have a big picture vision of where I would like our church and 20schemes to be in future years. But God doesn’t operate like that. I have to be obedient to His direction, not the other way around.
Leaders should be open to changing direction at the drop of a hat, particularly if they want to survive in inner-city church planting. My advice is to find leaders you respect. Men of good character and proven track records and learn from them. Don’t try to copy them, but just ‘get all the good stuff’ as I like to say. Learn how they operate and how they think and what has worked and what hasn’t. In my opinion, good vision is borne more from our failures than our successes.