Monday, October 02, 2006

Is Vision Really Necessary in the Church?

Vision casting is a big catch phrase in ministry today. A quick look through a Christian book store will yield more books on leadership than any person could be expected to read in the course of a year. Inevitably, all books on leadership within the church, and most on secular leadership, address vision casting in some form or another. Unfortunately, even with all of the information available on vision casting, many churches and church leaders are yet to grasp the concept or to see the need for casting vision beyond their current situation. The purpose of this paper is to examine relevant literature and classroom material that deals with vision casting and to determine the need for new vision and appropriate ways to cast and implement vision in the local church.
It is sad to note that even after many years of writing and teaching on leadership and vision casting, there is still little fruit to show for the efforts. There continues to be such a great need for visionary leaders that the book market is filled with leadership material. Vision casting has become such a huge market in our current church culture that some men, such as Andy Stanley, have based nearly their entire writing ministry on vision and leadership. But before anyone can properly cast vision, it is essential that vision be understood. In his 2001 book, Visioneering, Stanley lays the “blueprint” for establishing personal vision. The first chapter of that book defines vision as that which is “formed in the hearts of those who are dissatisfied with the status quo…Something that should be done…the element that catapults men and women out of the realm of passive concern and into action” (Stanley 2001a, 17). On the same page, Stanley quotes Aristotle who says “The soul never thinks without a picture.”
Webster’s 1970 edition of The New World Dictionary lists six definitions for vision, the fourth says that vision is, “the ability to foresee or perceive something not actually visible, as through mental acuteness.” Myles Munroe says, “Vision is the ability to see farther than your physical eyes can look” (Munroe 2003, 17). According to George Barna, “Vision transcends time” (Barna 2003, 15). Yet another author says vision includes optimism and faith and is venturous (Sanders 1994, 56). Jim Collins sees vision a bit differently. His “hedgehog concept” is realizing the one thing you were called to do well and focusing and filtering all other ideas through that one concept (Collins 2001).
Biblically, a vision can be several things. Isaiah had a vision of the Lord in the temple. Samuel’s vision of the Lord in 1 Samuel 3 was auditory and apparently not even visible since Samuel responded by going to Eli three times before receiving the vision through the voice of the Lord. Paul’s vision of the Lord was both in Word and sight as he experienced the resurrected Lord on the way to Damascus. In Hebrews, faith is described in the ESV as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Needless to say, the definitions for vision are seemingly endless; but for the purpose of this paper and to understand the appropriate use within the church all of these definitions are important. However, since the basic definition of “vision” suggests that it is clearly seen, a definition of the term must be given for this paper. The definition of vision as understood by the author and as intended by this paper is, seeing beyond current situations and circumstances into the clear and necessary possibilities of the future. Vision means knowing where the ship is going, even if the captain is not completely sure how to get there. Even in the midst of the storm, the vision of the captain is not on the waves and winds, but rather his port of destination. Vision enables the captain to maneuver through the obstacles of maritime travel because he knows where he is going.
Having established then a clear definition for vision, vision casting becomes a relatively easy term to define. Vision casting is the process of making the vision known. The ship captain “casts vision” by telling his crew their port of destination. Jesus, cast his vision to the disciples by telling them where they would go and what they would do, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” but he did not tell them exactly how it would all happen. John Maxwell says, “All great leaders share their dream with others (Maxwell 2003, 60). Vision casting is not necessarily a road map, but it is an address.
Effective vision casters—or visionaries—are those people who are focused on their vision and not on the processes of their church, company, or organization. Much has been written in recent years on the failure of systems seen in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries because of advances in technology. Visions are the catalyst for creating systems. Systems may fail, but those systems that have been created in response to a vision have the ability to change and adapt because the end result (achieving the vision) is the goal, the process of production is merely the means by which the goal is reached. True visionaries in the church build their ministries around their vision and not vice versa. It is for this reason that visionaries are able and willing to change worship styles, or small group structures. The effective vision casting leader places focus on the vision of the church (you may fill in the blank to fit your vision here) rather than on the carpet color, music style, the church bus, or the traditions of the specific church in which they are ministering.
Unfortunately, effective visionary churches seem to be the exception rather than the rule today. Perhaps the reason that most churches are not living by vision is because most churches have no explicit vision. Leaders of previous generations tend to rely on the systems present within the church rather than on vision to guide the church. For example, a visionary pastor with a vision to glorify God in worship will make necessary changes in the worship to be confident that God is glorified in the service. A pastor stuck in the paradigm of previous generations will hold firm to old traditions because that is the way that the church has always worked. The leader stuck in old paradigms fails to recognize that the systems present within the church today are in place because there was a vision in the past and the systems of the church (whether worship style, government, Sunday School or a wide variety of other things) were created in response to that vision.
Because the old systems have failed, it is essential then that pastors take their hands off of history and dream toward the future. The most terrifying aspect of scrapping old systems in view of new future vision is leaving the security of those systems behind. Erwin McManus, in his book Chasing Daylight, talks about the fear of the unknown in the future. McManus uses Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego as an example of people who let go of the past and stepped into an uncertain future following their vision. If their vision was to see God honored even in exile, their purpose statement certainly was not “step into a blazing furnace.” Surely those three young men would rather have experienced the presence of God in the temple; however, they were willing to face an uncertain future as long as it was in line with their vision. There was security for those three boys in silent and secluded prayers, but the future was uncertain when their faith was found out and exposed in public. God, however, honored both their willingness to pursue him in an unusual circumstance and their decision to be true to their vision (McManus 2002, 100).
The future is uncharted territory; it always brings some level of risk and discomfort with it. The future in the absence of a security blanket can be downright terrifying. Before being overly critical of pastors who do not embrace vision, it is worth noting that no God-called pastor desires to see membership decline and churches die. The problem is not desire, the problem is fear. The new way, Visioneering, as Stanley puts it, is scary, but it is necessary. It is necessary because the Great Commission is still not complete and the church is still called to be actively spreading the gospel. Surely Paul had no idea early in his ministry how he was going to accomplish the task put before him by God. However, near the end of his life, he does not tell King Agrippa, “I did it the same way I’ve always done.” No, in Acts 26:19 Paul says, ‘I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision.” Paul did not always know the way, but he knew the destination. God gave Paul a vision, and it was this vision that kept him on track.
Realizing that overcoming the fear of change is essential for the church to grow, the process of establishing vision is a necessary task before vision can be cast or implemented. Aubrey Malphurs, in Planting Growing Churches for the 21st Century, suggests six elements that are necessary in every vision. “First, a vision is clear” and easily communicated and understood. “Second, a vision challenges.” Any idea that does not challenge is not a vision. “Third, a vision consists of a mental picture.” The leader should be able to visualize in his or her mind the vision lived out. ”Next, a vision relates to the future.” If it relates to now, it’s a news report, not a vision. “Fifth, a vision can be.” In other words, vision is a noun and a verb, all at the same time. The vision must be understood and seen (noun) as well as lived out in the life of the church (verb). “Finally, a vision must be. A critical sense of urgency [must exist] about a vision” (Malphurs 1998, 264).
Malphurs goes on from describing the necessary elements of a vision to giving an outline of six events for establishing vision. Those events are very functional, but the main idea is to pray hard and specific about developing a vision, dream big, and take plenty of time. Great visions usually do not appear overnight. The vision for a church or other ministry may indeed be many months in the making. However, if good things come to those who wait, then the aspiring visionary can rest assured that the time and effort put into a meaningful vision will reap rewards in the future. God’s timing may not be the preferred timetable of the future leader, but “those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength” (Isaiah 40:31). Strong, clear vision that is in line with God’s will is an invaluable ministry tool.
Once a clear and definite vision has been established, it must be clearly communicated and implemented. If the vision is urgent, as Malphurs suggests it must be, then a sense of urgency about implementation should and must accompany the communication of the vision. Change is always uncomfortable. The leader, therefore, must understand that people will need a good reason to change. A sense of urgency communicates a good reason for change and motivates people to accept and live out the vision. Often times the sense of urgency is communicated through education.
Aubrey Malphurs, in Advanced Strategic Planning, points out that a growth curve is present in every living organism and organization in the world. There is always a growth phase, a plateau phase, and then a decline phase. Educating a congregation on the realities of the growth curve is a beginning point for instilling a sense of urgency. That urgency can be further stressed as the congregation is shown where they are on the curve. For instance, a congregation who begins to understand the growth curve and discovers that they are in the plateau stage will know that the stage of decline is just around the corner. A church that finds itself in the decline stage should realize that survival mode is necessary, and even a growing church will realize that growth will not continue without beginning a new “S-curve” (A growth curve follows the general shape of an S, and is thus referred to as an “S-curve.”). Education gives birth to urgency (Malphurs 2005).
Once a sense of urgency has been created within the congregation, they are more likely to be open to the new vision of their leader which can lead them into “greener pastures.” In other words, people will only be open to a “fix” for the church when they see that there is a problem. Educating the congregation about growth curves, and then encouraging the congregation to gauge itself honestly along the “S” curve reveals the reality of the current or soon coming plateau or decline within the organization. Once the problem is perceived by the church, the pastor and leadership team are given fertile ground upon which to cast their vision and see it take root.
The vision is essential at the stage of urgency because a congregation aware of a poor future is likely to become urgent with or without a definite vision. Urgency without vision results in chaos. This would be comparable to pulling a fire alarm in a crowded school without any plan of evacuation. Urgency with vision results in passionate and productive work toward seeing the vision realized. In this scenario, the illustration is of the same school during a fire drill with an organized plan of evacuation. Vision establishes order.
The convergence of vision and urgency is seen throughout history in the casting of many great visions. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech serves as one of the great vision casting moments in American history. However, King’s “Dream,” announced at any other time in history might not have found an audience. But, during the height of the civil rights movement, when minorities in America felt the urgency for equal status in society, King delivered a vision that united the movement. The results of King’s vision are now evident in America today, where his dream of equal rights has been realized.
Implementing the vision, however, will not happen overnight. The vision must be communicated clearly and overwhelmingly. In a church setting, any successful vision must be cast by the pastor. His belief in the vision will empower others to buy into the vision. The pastor must cast the vision from the pulpit first. The pastor has authority on the basis of his position in the church, and the pastor’s authority is perceived to be greatest when he speaks from the pulpit. Therefore, the vision must be cast first by the pastor and it must be cast from the pulpit. However, one mention of the vision or promoting the vision in only one way is not a sufficient way to cast a pastor’s vision for the church.
Establishing urgency, casting the vision, and then seeing the vision carried out is spelled out by John P. Kotter as an eight stage process. Kotter, writing form a secular perspective, gives a very helpful paradigm for the process of vision casting that ends with the “anchoring” of the vision into the culture of the organization. His eight stage process is:
1. Establishing a sense of urgency
2. Creating the guiding coalition
3. Developing a Vision and Strategy
4. Communicating the change vision
5. Empowering broad-based action
6. Generating short term wins
7. Consolidating gains and producing more change
8. Anchoring new approaches in the culture (Kotter 1996, 21)
A new vision for a local church must permeate all aspects of the ministry. The pastor must be the primary vision caster; but for a vision to move from ink and paper to action in the church, the leadership of the church must be convinced of the need for and usefulness of the vision. The church leadership, which may include staff, deacons, elders, board members, or other key leaders, must work to support and cast the vision as well. These leaders would be the equivalent of Kotter’s guiding coalition. The purpose of the “coalition” is to guide the organization, in this case the church, through the process of implementing the new vision.
All ministries of the church should seek in some way to provide education about the vision of the church. This is, in Kotter’s terminology, the broad-based action. The church must put into action its vision throughout the organization, not only in the front office or the worship service. Sunday School, small groups, senior adults, youth, and all other ministries of the church must take the new vision seriously enough to act upon the vision. Malphurs says that every activity within the body of the church represents an opportunity to communicate the message (Malphurs 2005, 64). The broad-based action of the church to execute the vision within each smaller ministry results in the execution of the vision by the larger church over all.
The vision should also be referred to in some way on print publications, church bulletins, and websites. If a vision is to take root in the fertile soil of urgency, the vision must be cast far and wide. Scripture plainly says that the one who sows sparingly will reap sparingly. The same is true for the vision of the church. If the vision is not cast far and wide, the leader should not expect that the vision will be accepted by a large number of congregants. However, if the leadership of the church believes in the vision and in the possibility of a brighter future and works to spread the excitement of the vision, the visionary can and should expect to see the vision carried out in the life of the church.
As a final note on communication, nothing should be assumed in the communication of a new vision within the local church. The story is told of Vince Lombardi, one of the greatest NFL coaches of all time, that he started the first practice of every season in the locker room with a football in his hand. To his professional football players, Lombardi would show the football and say, “this is a football.” From there Lombardi explained his coaching strategy and their team objectives, but he assumed nothing and communicated everything. The pastor, leadership, and guiding coalition of a church during a new vision must assume nothing and communicate everything.
Once the vision is actively being pursued within the church, then the visionary leader is liberated to continue developing vision for the church. The freedom to do this will be given as the church finds small wins upon which it can celebrate. Andy Stanley refers to this process as “clarifying the win” (Stanley, audio). The clearly defined win will result in celebration. As the church sees the results of the pastor’s vision, the church will empower the pastor to continue implementing change upon which the church can be built. This is Kotter’s concept of consolidating gains and producing more change. In the church, one example is seen in new members. New membership will add to the overall workforce of the church. As the church is blessed with a greater number of laborers, the harvest can be even more plentiful. The visionary pastor in this situation, then, is faced with the task of implementing changes that incorporate expanded membership into the ministry of the church. A church engrossed in celebration and success can accept that change is good and beneficial.
As mentioned earlier in this paper, a great vision does not mean that there will not be uncertainty. In fact, uncertainty is the reason that vision is needed. Vision provides clarity in the midst of uncertainty. Andy Stanley suggests that leaders are allowed to be uncertain, but they must always be clear. Further he states, “The goal of leadership is not to eradicate uncertainty, but rather to manage it” (Stanley 2003, 84). “Uncertainty will not be your undoing as a leader. However, your inability to give a clear directive in the midst of uncertainty might very well be the thing that takes you out or causes you to plateau early in your career” (Stanley 2003, 98). People can trust a transparent leader who admits his fears and uncertainty as long as they are confident that the leader can navigate them through the future, regardless of what it may hold.
The visionary pastor is not a fortune teller, but he is a leader. The visionary leader is willing to say “I don’t know,” but he also says “but, we’ll find a way.” Many writers today use the term coaching in reference to leadership. This is an apt term because coaches can never predict what will happen during the course of an athletic event, but their game plan (or vision) enables them to adapt and adjust to address every situation on the court or playing field. The 21st Century is defined by rapid change. For the church to thrive in this new era, pastors and other leaders must develop and implement vision that will enable the church to address the ever changing future while remaining true to the sacred past and the command of God’s word.
The old adage holds true, if you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time. The church aiming at nothing is nearly always satisfied, but it is never living to its full potential. The church without clearly defined vision is like a person stumbling in the darkness. The apostle Paul was not content to stumble in the darkness, instead he pressed on toward a goal. Paul had a vision and he overcame all obstacles because he knew where he was going. In the book of Acts, as quoted earlier, Paul tells Felix, “I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision.” Paul knew he was obedient because he was sure of his purpose…he had a vision.
People, for the most part, do not like change. This is especially true within the church. Human beings are creatures of habit and ideas that threaten those habits are often met with opposition. However, for a church to reach its full potential, change is essential because those habits to which people become so addicted create ruts into which Christians often fall. Those ruts, over time, are dug deep, often so deep that church members can see only themselves within the ruts and not the possibilities of God outside of the ruts. Change is the automatic byproduct of an active vision. Change is not always comfortable, but change that is in line with God’s will keeps the church’s faith energized and its community excited. Routines bring order and stability, but they also put people to sleep. Visionary leaders wake up the church to do the work of the Lord.
Implementing new vision will not be easy, and the older a church is, the more difficult it will be to spur it onward to change. So, is it really worth the effort? Absolutely! Not only is vision casting worth the effort within the church, it is essential for the life of a congregation. The question that must be asked by all pastors, leaders, deacons, lay people, and even entire churches is not, “is it worth it,” but rather “can we afford not to implement new vision?” Churches holding on to a Twentieth Century paradigm for ministry and leadership will attract people with a Twentieth Century mindset. Those people will feel very comfortable and their mindset will not be challenged. However, the church will not adapt to the changing culture and as a result, the church will slowly waste away as members of the old paradigm pass away. Pastors and other leaders within the church must wake up and realize that the current model is broken and will be broken again in a short time as the world rushes by. The church model must be “fixed” and the fix will come through visionary leaders who prayerfully develop and institute exciting vision for the new century.

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