Tuesday, August 25, 2009

"Vision" and the Church

Over the past few months here in 2009, I’ve been in the process of interviewing for pastoral positions. It has been a harder process than I imagined. For the first six months there was no response from anyone at all, and then, in the past two months I’ve had so many possibilities that it’s been hard to decide between them. That may sound like a nice problem to have (and in a way, it is), but the process of trying to discern the Lord’s will and to make a wise decision on the basis of scanty knowledge is incredibly difficult. We’ve already decided to turn down one offer from a wonderful church, and that may have been the hardest decision I’ve ever made. In the end, we just weren’t sure we were the best fit for the church, and we didn’t have a sense of peace or God’s leading to go there.
In any case, along the way I’ve noticed a few patterns in the things that churches nowadays are looking for. First and foremost, in the case of many churches, is “vision”—the hope that the pastor will provide some of this mysterious goal on behalf of the church. In some cases, I’ve been struck with the impression that pastoral search committees aren’t even quite sure what “vision” is—they only know that it’s some special leadership commodity that they can’t do without. In other cases, churches seem to be over-the-top in ascribing the foundation of their life together to the power of a communal “vision”.
What does it mean to “cast a vision” for a church? From what I can tell, it means that one is expected to discover and communicate a picture of what the church ought to be—maybe five years down the road, maybe ten. A “vision” is a picture of what the church could be. Maybe it’s focused on the deeper discipleship of its members, maybe on a more vital prayer-focus or on a deeper commitment to world missions. Usually, it includes some aspect of being more evangelistic in one’s local community. Once the “vision” is in place, churches will articulate it in a “purpose statement” (or a “mission statement”), along with a list of clearly-articulated “core values.” And, if the church is really focused and on track, it’ll also produce a set of goals and benchmarks to guide their journey toward fulfilling their vision.
I don’t want to come across as too harsh against these concepts. They can be tremendously, tremendously helpful. There’s great value to having a cohesive, easily memorable statement of communal purpose. However, my initial reaction is one of critique. Some churches carry this too far. Take these statements from the webpage of a church I was looking at: “Determining why you exist and what you value are the first steps in realizing God's perfect plan for a church. Without a carefully focused purpose and a set of clearly articulated values there is no foundation upon which to build….[And] a purpose without a clearly defined set of core values can lead to chaos.” This is rather high-flying rhetoric, and I object to it on a number of levels. Beyond my initial skepticism that God even has a “perfect plan” for each church (I rather think that God works alongside us in all our choices, as we submit them to him for his blessing), I object to the fact that this kind of statement usurps the proper place of Scripture and the Holy Spirit in the guidance of the church and puts statements of our own devising in their place. Now, obviously, that’s not what this church was intending to do with its purpose statement and core values. But it bears asking: what if the purpose statement inadvertently omits some part of the Scriptural mandate for the Body of Christ? Wouldn’t it then become dangerous to follow, even if the things it aims for are good? What if the core values become expressions of a particular church’s culture rather than an expression of the biblical model of what a church ought to be? (And again, what if they exclude certain legitimate aims of the Body of Christ?)
In short, I find myself confused as to why such great import is placed on the issue of vision by so many evangelical churches nowadays. Frankly, the vision for each and every church should be pretty much the same: to worship and glorify God together, to grow in the likeness of Christ as individuals and as a Body, and to reach out effectively in evangelism and service to those outside the church walls (three categories that describe the upward, inward, and outward dimensions of church life). If a vision is to be biblically faithful, I tend to think that it will be so basic and straightforward that any biblically-literate church member should be able to articulate it off the top of his head, even if they’ve never seen an actual vision statement before. I would rather have a church whose members could quote Scripture than a church whose members could all quote the purpose statement and core values. The ethos and purpose of a church should be shaped by the Word of God, and the purpose and vision of the church will spring up from that endless well of authority and guidance. The danger of allowing our own words to take precedence in the church’s life, even if we think they’re a faithful synthesis of Scriptural teaching, is that we will almost always over-emphasize or under-emphasize some necessary aspect. Scripture, on the other hand, through which the Holy Spirit continually speaks, is a flawless guide to faith and practice. It challenges us away from our own ideas of balance, constantly bringing up new facets of church life that we’ve never seen before. It will surprise us and convict us—which the vision statements that we make up on our own hardly ever do. 
Here’s a simple instance, one that I preached on recently: in more than one place in the New Testament, we’re exhorted to confess our sins to one another. But the evangelical traditions I’ve grown up in almost never do this. We confess our sins to God, but not to each other. And because we’ve grown up in that tradition, we’re often blind to a necessity that Scripture clearly places before us. Very few evangelical churches list this as one of their core values: “We are a church that confesses its sins openly and freely to one another.” But maybe we ought to be doing just that. The point is that our purpose statements and core values will be inherently narrow and myopic thanks to our natural blind spots, while the Scripture is the only proper guide to church life, because it constantly challenges us to rethink how we ought to live out the Christian life.
Another critique: most vision/purpose statements, as I’ve come to know them, tend to place too much focus on one part of church life. In most evangelical churches, the vision puts its focus on mission/evangelism and discipleship. These are good and necessary, to be sure. But I think it’s a bit too narrow, and it starts in the wrong place. The purpose of the church begins with the glory of God. Our purpose is to worship God, to walk with him as a community, to enter his presence with joy and thanksgiving, and to be transformed by him. Our vision and purpose begins with worshiping God for the glory of who he is and what he has done. Churches who focus exclusively on evangelism and mission often end up being frustrated and feeling guilty at their lack of growth. But if we truly understand that the purpose of the church begins in worship, then what we do every Sunday morning, simply by gathering together and entering the presence of God—regardless of how many people are in the sanctuary—is ultimately valuable and important. From that initial purpose grows fellowship and discipleship. As we are transformed by the presence of God, we become more and more the image of Christ to one another and to the world. Fellowship and brotherly love are part of this process—growing in love with one another, not merely growing closer to Christ as individuals. And then the third purpose, of course, is mission and evangelism, and it flows out of the other two. But the point is this: most vision statements fail to capture the full dynamic, and of course no vision statement (even my little summation in this paragraph) matches the vision for the church that we receive from Scripture’s own words.
I’m also hesitant to jump on the bandwagon of the absolute necessity of vision statements simply because it’s such a new movement. Don’t get me wrong: I can see why it’s helpful. Clearly-articulated goals do help most people to move toward the Scriptural vision of the church. Without the leadership of the church setting out goals for, say, a new evangelistic program, that program probably won’t get done. But what I object to is the modern tendency to make “vision-casting” one of the fundamental, irreplaceable aspects of church life and pastoral ministry. Historically speaking, such an assertion is ludicrous. Isn’t it remarkable that the church survived (and actually grew) for more than nineteen hundred years without vision statements! Read any of the great classical texts on pastoral ministry; you’ll find virtually nothing on the topic of vision-casting and setting goals for the church. Rather, you’ll find the emphasis on other aspects, where I heartily believe the emphasis should be: the ministry of the Word and Sacrament; of teaching the Scriptures, praying, caring for individual members of the flock with spiritual guidance, and leading the church in its communal worship. The current emphasis on “vision,” “purpose statements,” “goals,” and “core values,” all comes from 20th- and 21st-century business-leadership models. It never existed in the church before that. 
So I won’t deny that such things are helpful, but come on—let’s not pretend like these things are the foundation of everything that we ought to be doing as a church. Leadership is important, to be sure, but it’s the duty of the whole congregation, as it is bathed in the Scripture and led by the Holy Spirit, to grasp and pursue the biblical vision for what the church ought to be. If only the pastors and leaders are expected to be doing that, then we have a church that is mightily impoverished. Give me a church that’s looking for a classical pastor—a minister of the Word and Sacrament—who will partner with that pastor as they all pursue together the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the Scripture; that’s the kind of church I want to be a part of. As a pastor I do hope to be a leader-among-brothers, to guide the congregation in its understanding of Scripture and to help in setting goals and pursuing a vision of what it can be. But my allegiance is first and foremost to the Scripture and to the pastoral office as it has been shaped over countless centuries, not to the whims of every new organizational fad that our culture produces.