The Cult of the Visioneer

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I spent my early years in ministry immersed in the language of vision and mission. Somewhere along the way, it was decided that if a church was going to be successful then it must have both a mission and vision statement. If you were really good you had purpose, vision, and mission statements. It was no longer acceptable to simply understand that your church was around to do what the church had always been around to do: preach the Word, administer the sacraments, and make disciples of the Lord Jesus. That would not do. The pastor was now cultural architect (that is an actual title a pastor in California has taken). He must be a visioneer. The shift seemed rather seamless. Who, after all, was going to dare speak out against vision and mission?

The process is simple. A church has a pastor. The pastor receives from God a specific vision and mission for his church. The church follows the visioneer.

For this arrangement to work however the congregation has to understand at least two things: 1) God speaks to our pastor directly, and 2) God gives our pastor a mission unique to our church. These have become the assumptions. They are simply not questioned.

I have explained to the church I serve as pastor that our mission has nothing to do with my going off somewhere and getting a word from the Lord. God does not give me visions. Actually the mission of the church is not difficult to discern. God has made it quite clear in his Word. The church is sent into the world to proclaim the gospel and make disciples of the Lord Jesus in the ways that he has prescribed (Matt 28:16-20; Luke 24:46-48; Acts 1:6-11).

There is simply not a category in Scripture for a pastor who receives, by way of revelation from God, a particular mission for his church. It is not there. So why does this notion continue to flourish? There are at least three reasons:

1. A misunderstanding of how God speaks. The visioneering pastor and his church operate under the mistaken notion that God speaks to us outside His Word. As a result the pastor is able to act under a sense of Divine fiat - "God told me."
2. Ignorance of the Scriptures. Too many church members (and pastors) do not know the Bible well enough to know that this approach to vision and mission is not found in the Bible.
3. A preference for the sensational. The visioneering pastor and his church risk missing the blessing of God's ordinary means of grace. The desire instead is for a divinely spoken vision. Within this way of thinking is the prideful assumption that there is something special about my church.

Combine unbiblical ideas of a pastor who receives visions from God with slick fashion, cutting edge marketing, and shameless self-promotion and you have a cult-leader in the making.

A recent info-graphic produced by Elevation Church includes the following statements:

1. We serve a Lead Pastor who seeks and hears from God.

3. We serve a Lead Pastor we can trust.

7. We serve a Lead Pastor who pours into us spiritually and professionally.

16. We serve a Lead Pastor who goes first.

This is frightening stuff. We have a Lord who came not to be served but to serve (Matt 20:28). And yet at Elevation it is plain that "Pastor Steven" is the boss who expects to be served. It gets worse. Elevation even produces coloring pages for the children which carry the caption "We Are United Under the Visionary" displayed over a depiction of Pastor Steven. The coloring page goes on to say, "Elevation is built on the vision God gave Pastor Steven. We will protect our unity by supporting his vision." I have not read language like that since the last thing I read about North Korea. Why would a church allow such cult-like manipulation?

Notice how it is connected to the language of vision. "God gave Pastor Steven a vision. Who are you to question it?" Indeed. Who are any of us to question the man who receives visions from God?

I ask my Southern Baptist brothers and sisters: Is this what is meant by church autonomy? Is there no mechanism in the Southern Baptist Convention that can provide oversight and correction to such abuses?

I raise these issues because I care about the purity of the church and the integrity of the pastoral office. I have no question that the cult of visioneering can produce results. It can attract crowds. It "works." And if it were not so blatantly unbiblical and dangerous for the souls of those who follow I suppose it would be fine.

The following are a few books that uphold the biblical pattern for pastoral leadership:
The Christian Ministry by Charles Bridges
The Cross and Christian Ministry by D.A. Carson
Working the Angles by Eugene Peterson
Lectures To My Students by C.H. Spurgeon