ChuckWarnock.com

Confessions of a Small Church Pastor

Vision: An overblown concept


On my bookshelf are at least a dozen church books on vision.  Written by some of the outstanding authors in church-related publishing today, each of them describes a “vision” for the church — build your church by small groups, become a church of influence, raise your church’s standards, grow from the inside out, focus outwardly, and so on.  Plus, I have a bunch of books on leadership, and most of those talk about the leader’s responsibility to cast the vision.  But for the small church, vision is an overblown concept as it is presented today.  Here’s why I have come to this conclusion:

  • Vision can replace mission as the focus of the church.  God’s people are people on mission.  While there may be a vision of a desired result ahead, like getting to the Promised Land, mission is the on-going, day-to-day focus of the community of faith.
  • Vision often is the product of one person’s thinking — the pastor.  I attended a seminar recently, and the presenter said, “A function of pastoral leadership is vision.”  I would tweak that statement by saying that the pastor creates the atmosphere in which the vision of God can emerge, but there are not many voices out there in support of God’s vision for the church coming from God’s people. 
  • Vision is an ego-feeder.  The bigger the vision, the greater the pastor.   From time to time, I have been afflicted with what I call the “Moses Syndrome.”  Symptoms of the Moses Syndrome are:   thinking that God only speaks to me, that no one is tuned into God’s plan for the church but me, and that no one gets it but me.  Sunday we celebrate Pentecost, which is the reversal of the Moses Syndrome. 
  • Vision often does not connect to the church’s shared memory and history.  In my experience, my vision for the church has usually been “let’s change it, fix it, get past it, or remodel it.”   But our strongest and most common practice, communion, is a call to remember the work of God in the past, present, and future.  The future of God is connected to the work of God among His people in all their history. 
  • Vision is usually about how a church can be bigger, not better.  I haven’t seen much vision-casting about how a church can be more faithful or authentic.  The emerging church conversation is an attempt to address the issues of authenticity and faithfulness, in my opinion.  Bigger isn’t bad, but it isn’t the only vision option out there either. 

Okay, so I’m vision-bashing a little bit here.  But I’m also learning that the small church has a story, a history, a shared memory, and that the future of God is among the people of God.  Does this mean we just all drift along like leaves in a stream?  No, but it does mean that we are constantly in conversation within the community of faith about what God is doing, where God is taking us, and how we are participating in the mission of God.  And that conversation is not a monologue.

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Categories: Congregation, Missional Church

7 replies

  1. Chuck – Thanks for your thoughts about vision. I would like to put forth an addendum to the fourth point that you put forward here. I think that it is critical that vision come out of the history of a community. If it does not, then many of the critiques that you have put forth hold true. However, if the pastor acts as a facilitator of a visioning process that involves many in the congregation, recognizes the past and looks to the next step a vision may emerge that is applicable and relevant.

  2. Andrew, I agree and you said it very well. I like the “pastor as facilitator of the visioning process.” — Chuck

  3. Interesting thoughts with regard to vision. I’m still thinking about your first point regarding vision replacing mission. I’ve always pictured vision as shaping a particular church’s mission as it relates to our larger Christ given mission.

  4. That’s one creepy avatar Pastor Warren.

    My question is this, what if the history of the church stinks?

    So many churches are dead. Their past practices got them to the cemetery. Why do I want to go back there? Part of getting a church into the race is leaving the past behind and focusing on the future. I’m not willing to apply your insights across the board Chuck (and I’m sure you didn’t intend that).

    Some churches need to be buried deeper, some can be revived by a good look at their past, and others can catch fire when a vision for a healthy future takes hold.

  5. Dave and Pastor Warren,
    Thanks for your comments. Yes, vision can shape a church’s mission, but sometimes the vision can become the mission, which I think is the problem. A corollary to this would be pastors only interested in praxis without theological basis. Just because something is effective, doesn’t mean it is valid for the church of Jesus.

    Which brings me to Dave’s comments — even if the history of the church “stinks” — and some do — you need to know that history. A new pastor walks into a church story in progress. Whatever came before it, good or bad, is part of the story. Vision can connect to the past by recognizing the failures of the past, by leading the church to repent of the past, or by sifting those positives from the past and building on them. Mark Lau Branson’s book using appreciative inquiry — Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change — provides an excellent model for having a congregation tell it’s story, and then building on the strengths of their story. Sounds complicated, but really its a good conversation to have, and I’ve done it here at my church. The result is I have a better sense of the story I have “walked into” than I did before.

    Hope that helps clarify my thoughts, and thanks for stopping by! -Chuck

  6. Well, it all seems to depend what you are thinking of vision! The things outlined definitely are a very thin understanding of vision! Vision is not just about the quantity – a bigger church, but also about the quality – a deeper church! Vision is not a person driven, but a God driven. I think your understanding of vision is rather shallow and very misunderstood understanding of the concept what a vision really is and should be! I would like to challenge you to revisit and to redeam your understanding of vision.

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