Some Thoughts on Church "Visions"

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Our editor asks us to comment on the question of "crafting church visions."  Is it necessary or even advisable for churches to make 5-year or 10 year plans?  Or is such a practice a corruption of the spiritual calling of the church?  My response consists of the following 7 points, which I will flesh out below:

1.  The mandate for church "visions" comes not from the Scriptures but from the secular leadership industry and corporate consulting groups.
2.  The emphasis on "visions" and "strategies" has the general effect of  placing the church's confidence in methods rather than in our message.
3.  Vision planning helps church leaders to conduct objective analysis so as to support better decision-making.
4.  Strategic timelines (5- and 10 year plans) tend to focus the church on results it is able to produce, whereas the Scriptures focus the church on results that only God can produce.
5.  Church visions emphasize what is distinctive about particular churches (their context, target audience, etc.) rather than what they hold in common with all other churches (God's Word, Christ, the call to personal holiness, etc.)
6.  Church visioning has the positive effect of causing churches to think in fresh ways about their local context and the missional impact they might have.
7.  Since every church has a strategy and methods (explicit or not), visioning causes explicit reflection on them. 

Again, I'm going to work through these in some detail below.  But let me give you my conclusion up front:

Church visioning is a powerful tool that can help make leaders much more effective.  But since it necessarily focuses on things man can achieve, it has a dangerous tendency to secularize the church.  Therefore, in my opinion, church visioning is probably a good idea only for churches that are strongly established with an ordinary means of grace emphasis, but who need to pay more attention to their missional context. Also, I would suggest that a visioning process should be conducted only periodically so as to set some longer term trajectories for ministry aspirations. The document should be kept ready so as to offer its analysis to future decision-making (hiring decisions, budget priorities, etc.), and then the church should continue to focus on its God-given mission of serving the Kingdom of Christ through the God-given strategy of Word, sacrament, and prayer, with biblically-defined elders and pastors serving a biblically-shaped church. (See 2 Cor. 10:3-4, and 1 Cor. 1:21-2:2).

I'm going to flesh each of these out.  But since this is fairly long, let me give the bottom line up front: church visioning can be a powerful and effective leadership tool.  It can help you make much better decisions and can do much to enhance the strategic effectiveness of the church's ministries.  But you had better keep the church vision in its place.  Such a process has a strong tendency to redefine the role of the minister, the elder, and the whole church in a secular direction, can undermine the biblical and spiritual nature of the church, can presumptuously assume that the leaders' vision for the church and God's vision for the church are the same.  In the end, God's vision for the church is so much greater than any human conception.  But his vision requires long-term faithfulness to methods the world (and most consultants) deem foolish.  Leaders' visions will generally tend towards more short-term outcomes (and 5-10 years is the short-term for a church), and will tend to challenge the foolishness of God with the wisdom of man.

Now for a discussion of my seven points:

1.  The mandate for church "visions" comes not from the Scriptures but from the secular leadership industry and corporate consulting groups.  In the early 90's, I received a M.B.A. in strategic management and then taught leadership at the university level.  Then, when my wife had our first child after my first year of seminary, I put food on our table by doing part-time corporate consulting work.  I can assure you that "vision" was the buzzword at the time.  Everyone in corporate America or in government was required to produce a vision for their workplace.  It is incontestable, in my view, that the "visioning" mandate entered the church through the work experience of lay leaders and ruling elders, with practically no biblical support.  (And, no, "Without vision the people perish," is not biblical support.)

2.  The emphasis on "visions" and "strategies" has the general effect of  placing the church's confidence in methods rather than in our message.  This is simply the nature of the case.  Typically, the visioning process begins with some description of the future, as you would like to see it.  The whole point is to describe desired outcomes, so that you can allocate resources and implement processes to produce the outcomes.  For instance, I used to begin by asking people to write a one paragraph newspaper article that they would like to describe their organization in five years.  A pastor might include, "This is the most friendly church in the area."  He then would be asked what would need to happen in the next five years to make that happen.  Note that this is not a bad thing: it is good for church leaders to reflect on how to improve their churches, and a visioning process is a good way to do this.  But the simple fact is that the tendency will be to direct attention to methods, and this will often distract attention from confidence in our message of the gospel.  It is possible, of course, for a wholesome balance to be maintained.  A church might decide, "In ten years, we would like to have a gospel club in every public school in town."  They then would implement a process: formation of a gospel club committee, attempts to identify church members or supportive Christians in each school, development of curriculum, etc.  Is this bad?  I think not.  But there is a danger.  Is the senior minister now a process manager or does he remain a steward and teacher of God's Word?  Are theology books on his shelves replaced by consulting tomes?  This danger needs to be avoided, lest the church devolve into a mere ministry machine.

3.  Vision planning helps church leaders to conduct objective analysis to support better decision-making.  This is why businessmen have forced "visioning" on the church: they are tired of poor decisions and the waste of resources.  Good decisions require information, and quality information usually requires analysis.  The only information used by many churches is "this is how we've always done it."  So some analysis can be a breath of fresh air.  For instance, a basic approach is the SWOT analysis: strengths, weaknesses, opportunity, threats.  A church can assess its resources in terms of strengths and weaknesses.  Are there capabilities that need to be developed (competent Bible teachers, financial reserves, prayer teams, etc.).  Are there particular opportunities/needs that should be targeted: local colleges, nursing homes, new housing developments?  Are there threats that need to be protected against: urban development that threatens eminent domain seizure of church property, denominational splits, cultural trends?  Out of such an analysis, church leaders can make better decisions about budget allocation, new hires, and ministry strategy.  Note that this process is neutral (to a certain extent): it can be done in a spiritual or a worldly way, with biblical insight or without.  Perhaps the chief danger is this: who is making pastoral visits while the elders are working on this?  As stated above, the main danger of church "visioning" is that it may redefine the roles of both the minister and the elders.  A tendency back to a "corporate board of directors" model of eldership is difficult to avoid.  One way to avoid it is to partition the visioning process into its own committee.  But this gives the members of this committee a high degree of power.  Moreover, see below, where I argue that visioning is not ultimately neutral, but tends to emphasize the flesh over the Spirit.

4. Strategic timelines (5- and 10 year plans) tend to focus the church on results it is able to produce, whereas the Scriptures focus the church on results that only God can produce. Any consultant worth his or her salt will tell you that without timelines, the whole process is a waste. There have to be targets that you are shooting for. But be careful: we simply are not able to put timelines on the sovereign grace of God. For this reason, the tendency will be to aim for temporal achievements that we can measure and in some degree control. And this distracts us from the work God has given us. Indeed, the whole point of goals is that they shape behavior. And they do! No one likes to fail to meet his or her goals. And since we cannot control works of the Spirit, visioning churches will tend to focus on works of the flesh. For instance, a timeline might state, “Attendance should double within five years.” But does that mean that the church is more productive in doing God’s work of saving souls and building up God’s people in faith? All our recent experience says that such a goal might destroy the Spiritual work of the church, undermining its faithfulness to God, and eviscerating its identity as a true gospel church. So timelines are powerful (and intrinsic to any visioning process) and very dangerous for the church. 

Here's the reality: what you measure, you will get more of.  I often think of the "man with the measuring line" in the vision of Zechariah 2:1-5.  The point of that biblical "vision" is that God's vision is both greater and different than man's vision.  God promises something no fleshly leadership process can do: " I will be to her a wall of fire all around, declares the LORD, and I will be the glory in her midst" (Zech. 2:5).  How can we be sure that our vision for our church is God's vision for our church?  And who's church is it anyway?  This was the point of Zechariah's vision for Zerubabbel and his leadership team. 

As you can tell, I think strategic timelines are very dangerous and mainly to be avoided.  However powerful they are in a secular setting, that is the very problem: the secularization of the church is greatly advanced by strategic timelines, even ones that are well-meant and driven by biblical aspirations.  It is a means that does not tend to support biblical ends.

5.  Church visions emphasize what is distinctive about particular churches (their context, target audience, etc.) rather than what they hold in common with all other churches (God's Word, Christ, the call to personal holiness, etc.).  In the eyes of many, one of our main problems is that Reformed churches are all the same -- and there is something to this.  Especially in Reformed circles, we have a tendency to do everything exactly the same, with the same allocation of resources, regardless of our cultural and sociological context.  The effect of this is that while we are devoted to perpetrating "the work of the church," we often fail to look out the window and concern ourselves with the needs and opportunities right around us.  Church visioning can do a lot to change this. 

Again, herein lies the danger.  By any biblical definition, the "work of the church" is pretty constant: the ministry of the Word, prayer, and sacraments.  If we want divine power for salvation, these are the means God has implemented.  Other means do not have God's promise for saving grace.  Notice that the visioning language is typically secular and betrays the logic of Madison Avenue and the Wharton Business School: target audience, market penetration, and the like.  It is this logic that has caused evangelical churches increasingly not to look like "traditional" Christian churches, for the simple reason that they have deemed the common possessions of Christianity (God's Word, prayer, the gospel) to be irrelevant to their local vision.  In this way, we end up with effective ministry businesses and we simply cease to be the Christian church.  Because of our union with Christ and his headship over the church, and because true churches share the same manual of operations (i.e. the Bible), the reality should be that our churches look and act more alike than they are different from one another.  Visioning tends in the opposite direction.  So while some kind of visioning process can help us to be more effective in a missional sense, it had better be subjected to a brutal biblical analysis, and the church vision should be supplemental at best to the basic identity and calling of the church.  (But this is not the tendency). 

6.  Church visioning has the positive effect of causing churches to think in fresh ways about their local context and the missional impact they might have.  This follows from point #5, which emphasizes local distinctives over the common calling of Christ's church.  Yet there are a lot of our churches which need some freshening up and a great deal more interest in their local missional impact.  These are the churches who might benefit from a visioning process.  I would not recommend visioning for a church plant -- start-up churches need to establish themselves on the ordinary means of God's grace -- or a church revitalization work -- God-given life comes only from His Word, prayer, and God-centered worship.  I would only recommend visioning for an established church that needs some fresh thinking about its missional impact.

7.  Since every church has a strategy and methods (explicit or not), visioning causes explicit reflection on them. And it is good to be explicit and intentional in what we are doing.  Many of us might ask, "Are we really as biblical as we think we are?" Not if we fail to seek a gospel impact in the world around us!  Not if we are only perpetrating "the way it's always been done," for its own sake.  Whether or not a formal visioning process is undertaken, church leaders need to openly discuss their priorities, their strategy and their methods.  And you have them all -- the only question is whether or not you are willing to think about them openly and honestly about your strategy and methods.

In conclusion, I would suggest that church visioning is probably a good idea only for churches that are strongly established with an ordinary means of grace emphasis, but who need to pay more attention to their missional context.  Also, I would suggest that a visioning process should be conducted only periodically so as to set some longer term trajectories for ministry aspirations.  The document should be kept ready so as to offer its analysis to future decision-making (hiring decisions, budget priorities, etc.), and then the church should continue to focus on its God-given mission of serving the Kingdom of Christ through the God-given strategy of Word, sacrament, and prayer, with biblically-defined elders and pastors serving a biblically-shaped church.  The reality is that the leadership and management processes involved in a full-fledged visioning process are very powerful, so much so that they tend to be definitive of an organization.  And since it is the nature of the case that process management involves assigning attention and effort to things that man can influence directly, visioning will always have a fleshly orientation.  This is perfectly fine with a secular organization, but it threatens the church with the loss of her identity, his God-given mission, and her fidelity to Christ.  Remember what God's Word says:

"Though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds" (2 Cor. 10:3-4); and

"For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.  For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men... [Therefore,] I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor. 1:21-25, 2:2).

 

Posted March 10, 2008 @ 10:21 AM by Rick Phillips
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