Monday, January 11, 2010

Why Your Church Needs a Written Vision

In 1833, an employee at the Patent Office in Washington, D.C., wrote the following letter:

Dear Sir:

Because everything that can be invented has already been invented, it is inevitable that this office should go out of business. Inasmuch as I shall soon lose my position, I hereby resign to look for work elsewhere.


Up to that point, less than 500 patents had been applied for in the United States; but by the time World War I was over, more than 60,000 patents had been issued. Today the number runs in the millions.

We read this person's letter and think, How shortsighted. How could someone possibly believe that all that could be invented had already been invented?

Whoever wrote that letter clearly lacked vision.


Vision is a buzzword in church leadership today. Who worth their ordination hasn't seen, read, or heard something about vision? What pastor hasn't wondered, What if my overseer asks me if I've got one of those things for my church?

But vision is more than a buzzword; it has become a necessary tool of every pastor—no matter what the location, size, or age of his or her church.

Vision is not what we dream about during a Sunday afternoon nap or after eating spicy chili after 10 p.m. It is rarely a "burning bush" experience like Moses'. When pastors look for a vision for their church through these methods, they run a real chance of shipwrecking their church's future.

Vision, as modeled in Scripture and throughout church history, came as God's people saw the needs around them and then sought God for what He wanted them to do. Moses' leading the people of Israel out of Egypt, David's fighting Goliath, Nehemiah's rebuilding the temple wall, Jesus' calling His disciples, Paul's writing to the church in Corinth—these and other stories in Scripture indicate the vision of these leaders. They saw in their mind a future that was preferred more than the present. And their vision propelled them forward to do courageous things.


Here are four reasons why your church will be strengthened by contemplating its future.

1. Vision gets you on God's program and off your own.

God already has a plan for every church. He is not confused about where your church should go in the next 5 years. The problem comes when you don't take time to seek Him and discover His plan. Most pastors and church members are too busy maintaining their lives and church work. Prayer is often the first "extra" to go. Yet it is a vital component in discovering vision. In Jeremiah 33:3, the Lord said, "Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know." 1

Prayer alone is not enough, though. It also takes work on our part. James 2:26 states that "faith without deeds is dead." As Christian leaders, we are in constant tension on these two points. It is our responsibility to let God reveal His future to us and to see the future as God sees it. A church that fails to listen for God's vision will not experience all that God has planned for it. We have a tendency to let the budget process, a crisis, or a pastoral change drive our plans when, in fact, God wants to reveal a future that will excite and challenge us. But this takes prayerful listening and work.

2. Vision helps our dreams become bigger than our memories.

Churches fail to reach their full potential because their memories are bigger than their dreams. They spend more energy recalling and celebrating the past than on contemplating the future. The church may also be holding on to old ways of doing church that are no longer effective. Or the church keeps having revivals, hoping to instill new life into the church. But after each revival, people go back to the same old patterns.

John R.W. Stott, an English theologian, states, "Vision begins with a holy discontent with the way things are." It is possible to become so content with our church that we become complacent. We are busy building homes, families, and careers, while trying to live in a chaotic, change-filled world. Sometimes the last thing church members want to see changed is their church. They like the stability of church being the same week after week. Unfortunately, that sameness can breed complacency and weak ministry.

Discouragement may set in, even bitterness. And the lighthouse God called into existence only emits a weak light. But with a vision, the future begins to grow and become clear and larger than the past and present. Discouragement and complacency are replaced with hope.

3. Vision gives your church a target.

Aubrey Malphurs, in his book, Planting Growing Churches for the Twenty-first Century writes, "People can't focus on fog! As someone once said, 'If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time!' " He further states, "[Vision] is the ministry compass that helps a congregation and the leaders navigate through the ocean of decision." 2

All organizations fit into two categories: Those with vision have a sense of direction and destiny; those without vision seem lost and befuddled. A church that develops a vision puts a compass in the hands of its people. Instead of the pastor pulling and pushing, the people have a common sense of destiny.

4. Vision gets people in the game.

What church does not need more laypeople actively involved, using their gifts and energies to advance God's kingdom in their community? There are many reasons why laypeople do not become involved in church work. One of those reasons is lack of vision.

With a clear and compelling vision that laymembers help shape, a church is better positioned to invite laypeople into the challenges and excitement of Kingdom work. Without it, it's just one more class to teach, room to clean, or meeting to attend.


Scripture says that without vision people perish. Each one of us dies a little when we don't have our eyes on the future. But for most pastors and church leaders, there aren't enough hours in the day to focus on the future. The present is in our face, and we need a way to lift our eyes from the present to the future so our dreams become bigger than our present experience and memories. That takes a process. The best vision comes out of a process of prayer and the dialogue between a cross-section of church leaders, led by the pastor.

Discover or reaffirm the vision God has for you. This process will involve many people in your church. Why? God has implanted in the minds and hearts of your committed members a vision for your church. You need a process to help your church hear what God is saying to key lay leaders and to release their visions and blend them with the visions of other churches.

You might ask, "Why involve lay leaders? Isn't it my job as pastor to develop the vision?" As a culture, we are no longer comfortable with a top-down style of leadership. We resist leaders with a command-and-control style; we want to participate in the decisions that affect the future of the organization. The church is not immune to this cultural shift. In past decades, church laity were often content to participate in the direction of the church through an annual business meeting. But today, more and more people want to have a voice in the direction of their church.
Pastors can be lulled into thinking this isn't true about their church when members seem apathetic about the church's future or attendance is poor at meetings called to discuss an important decision facing the church. When people don't show interest, it is often because they feel they have no voice or influence. Trust must be regained by offering a participatory process—one that allows people to speak.

The pastor has the lead vision-development role, but involving others is key to their ownership of the vision. Without participation, the pastor is forced into selling his or her vision to the congregation.

1.Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.
2.Aubrey Malphurs, in his book, Planting Growing Churches for the Twenty-first Century (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1992), 234.

[By J. David Schmidt, president of J. David Schmidt Associates, a management consulting firm working with churches.]