Vision is Overrated image

Vision is Overrated

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I was told the other day that our church did not have a clear vision, and that this was a problem. The couple who said it are good friends of mine, and love the church, but they were concerned about the lack of vision being expressed publicly. They talked to me for a while about it: they quoted Mahalia Jackson, and Proverbs 29:18, and Martin Luther King. I was beginning to feel a bit flat, and wonder whether perhaps I wasn't very good at my job, when I experienced a moment of clarity. "But the vision we have," I said cautiously, "is basically for the church to become more effective missionaries, and to see more people saved." My friends looked underwhelmed, even disappointed. "We've had that vision for fifteen years," one of them said.

Which, of course, we have. Kings was planted nearly twenty-five years ago, and I doubt it has ever had a fundamental change of vision. We might have used different phrases for it - grow and build the church, become more effective missionaries and see more people saved, impact the community, love God and love people, or even go into all the world and make disciples of all nations - but the essence of the “vision” has been the same throughout: worship God, grow together to be more like Jesus, and tell other people about him so that they and their communities change. To go one further, my guess is that almost all the readers of this blog are in churches which have the same essential description of their hope and purpose (which is just as well, since that is what Jesus told us to spend our time pursuing). Spend some time trawling church websites, and you’ll see what I mean. Rhetoric notwithstanding, almost all evangelical churches with a “vision”, from Willow Creek and Saddleback down to St Mary’s Tiddling-in-the-Marsh, have roughly the same one.

So what’s the deal with “vision”, then? What is “vision-casting”, and why is it such an indispensable tool for church leaders? If all Christians have the same ultimate mission (Matt 28) and the same ultimate hope (Rev 7, 21-22), then why does every church need a vision, and why is coming up with one such a vital component of every leader’s ministry? (It certainly is, if you read the leadership books; few words are mentioned as often in chapter headings as “vision/visionary”, apart perhaps from “strategy/strategic”. It’s like listening to Azhar from The Apprentice.) To be honest, I’m beginning to suspect that “vision” is overrated, and in fact that there is widespread confusion about what the word actually means.

Biblically, vision is essentially prophetic. A vision, in the scriptures, is what happens when God reveals something to somebody: “If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD make myself known to him in a vision” (Num 12:6). It could be a covenant promise (2 Sam 7:17), a change in salvation history (Acts 10:3), an oracle of judgment (Ob 1:1) or an encounter with God himself (1 Sam 3:15); that’s why prophets in Israel were also called “seers”. This is the sort of thing Proverbs 29:18 is about, and modern translations have replaced “vision” with “prophetic vision” or equivalent to make this clear: “where there is no vision the people perish” has nothing to do with the lack of what we now call “vision-casting” from the key leader, but refers to a lack of direct revelation from God in Israel. If, on a “vision Sunday”, a local church leader reminds the church of what God has spoken to them prophetically, and how they can best respond, then that’s brilliant, and biblical. My guess is, though, that’s not what always (or usually) happens.

In the modern church, by contrast, vision is essentially about a preferable future. So when Bill Hybels talks about the importance of “vision” as a leader, he is not talking about the spiritual gift of prophecy, but the need to present a picture of a preferable future, so that people don’t lose sight of where they are going. The classic parable here is of the janitor at NASA in the 1960s who, when asked what he is doing, replies “I’m putting a man on the moon”: the picture of the preferable future inspires him to perform, and gives meaning to an otherwise very humdrum job. Communicating and reinforcing this bigger picture, of course, is a very important part of a leader’s job, and it’s what Paul was doing in texts like Romans 1:8, Colossians 1:6 and 1 Thessalonians 1:8. But I can’t see why this means that a church needs its own “vision” (and as I’ve said, most church vision statements aren’t that different from each other anyway). Surely, the preferable future towards which we are working, and which gives meaning and purpose to our otherwise humdrum labour, is made very clear in the scriptures: the earth being filled with the glory of God, and people from every tribe and language being united in worship. Isn’t it? Would Paul have encouraged the Philippians to cast their own “vision”, in distinction from that of the Corinthians? And if he wouldn’t, or didn’t, why must we?

At an everyday level, “vision” has also come to mean something like proposal, related in particular to programmes, projects or property. When leaders show people an architect’s plan, or even a video simulation, of the building they are proposing to buy or build, they will talk about it as their “vision for a new building”. When leaders are urged to set vision in connection with their annual budget, they can often end up simply describing their proposals for programmes they are planning to start or projects they hope to complete. Now for the record, I don’t think there is anything at all wrong with property, programmes or projects, and our church has gone zealously for all three. But if this is what we jump to when we cast “vision”, and imagine that in doing so we are doing the same sort of thing as either NASA or the Bible, we risk trivialising the word by over-use. The vision of Scripture, of a world transformed by the presence of God and a worshipping community from every people group, should not be confused with a popular album or a new auditorium carpet.

Then there is the Martin Luther King sense, of vision as powerful rhetoric. Dr King found a way of describing his hope for the future - which could ultimately be reduced to “an America where people aren’t racist any more” - in language that was so soaring that it stirred the hearts of the crowd, got replayed repeatedly on television, and became the iconic moment of the civil rights movement. Since then, all public oratory has been secretly measured against that standard, and numerous churches have tried to express their “vision” (or, in even more self-conscious imitation, their “dream”), in terms that match Dr King for rhetorical impact. “Make disciples of all nations” and “love God, love your neighbour” are thus reworded to increase their capacity to move people, usually with a lot of repetition and anacolutha, in ways that make them sound fresh (at best), or hackneyed and inauthentic (at worst). When the word “vision” is used to refer to a beautifully phrased statement of purpose (“I have a dream ...”) rather than the reality to which the rhetoric points (“a non-racist America”), its raison d’être has been lost altogether.

There are other nuances of the word - vision as prediction (“on current trends we will have two hundred members in five years”), or even as provocation (“imagine a world in which nobody had to sleep on the streets”) - but these strike me as the main ones: prophecy, preferable future, proposal, and powerful rhetoric. It’s important to reiterate that I don’t think any of these are wrong. I seek them all, and I encourage trainee leaders to seek them all. But I think the word “vision” can create confusion, thanks to its usage in the world, the church and the Bible all being different, as exemplified by my friends who were frustrated that our church’s main hope for the future was to carry on preaching the gospel. And I think the value of every church having their own “vision”, and often their own “vision statement”, is probably a good deal lower than is often believed, since the ultimate vision of any Christian church is the Scriptural one which unites us all, summarised in Romans 8:18-25, Revelation 7, 1 Corinthians 15 and Revelation 21-22. In that sense, I think “vision” is, quite literally, overrated.

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Andrew is the author of several books including, most recently, If God, Then What?.

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