(Prov. 29:18 KJV) Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.
This verse is in the running for most-misused Bible passage of the 21st Century, and even though there’s a lot of century left, it seems a nearly guaranteed winner. But it does look nice on the first page of any church’s 5-year mission plan.
Of course, it appears in the KJV because only the KJV uses words that sound like a modern, Western mission statement. The more recent, more accurate translations differ in important ways —
(Prov. 29:18 ESV) Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law.
(Prov. 29:18 NASB) Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained, But happy is he who keeps the law.
(Prov. 29:18 NIV) Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint; but blessed is the one who heeds wisdom’s instruction.
As you can see, “vision” refers to a prophetic revelation, not a white paper by a church committee. And “perish” is just a bad translation. The Hebrew is plainly “cast off restraint” or even, as in the NLT, “run wild.” So do not use this as part of your next vision statement!
But I do want to talk about vision in the 21st Century business plan sense. Rather than “vision,” let’s talk in terms of leading or, better yet, piloting the church. For as long as there have been boats, there have been pilots — someone charged with directing the course of the ship among the waves, the rocks, the currents, and the whirlpools. And God gives us members equipped with this skill —
(1 Cor. 12:28 NIV) And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues.
“Guidance” (also translated governments, administration, managing, or leadership) is κυβέρνησις (kybernesis) meaning, literally, piloting a ship, but was used idiomatically to refer to people in a position to guide the direction of an organization. Therefore, God equips some of our members to give direction to his church.
God, of course, sets the purposes of the church, but each church has to make decisions about goals it will pursue as an organization — and this is to be done under the leadership of members equipped by the Spirit as spiritual pilots. The fashionable term is “vision casters.” I rather prefer “pilot” myself, even though it sounds like someone flying an airplane. But I think more people know about piloting a ship than vision-casting for a church — which sounds rather too much like weather forecasting or fly casting to me. I mean, to “cast” is, according to Merriam Webster —
1 a : to cause to move or send forth by throwing <cast a fishing lure> <cast dice>
b : direct <cast a glance>
c(1) : to put forth <the fire casts a warm glow> <cast light on the subject>
(2) : to place as if by throwing <cast doubt on their reliability>
d: to deposit (a ballot) formally
e(1) : to throw off or away <the horse cast a shoe>
(2) : to get rid of : discard <cast off all restraint>
(3) : shed, molt
(4) : to bring forth; especially : to give birth to prematurely
f : to throw to the ground especially in wrestling
g : to build by throwing up earth
So I don’t see what “cast” has to do with a church’s vision. But I’m often out of step with the latest in church fashions, and our preachers do love to write “vision-caster” on their resumes. Oh, well … I guess the ability to read a few evangelical books on church vision and preach a sermon series is a preacher-skill worth mentioning — but a far more valuable skill would be “vision discerner.”
You see, I really don’t care what the preacher’s or elders’ vision for the church might be. I’d far rather know what God’s vision is. Hence, vision is to be discerned from the scripture, through prayer, and by observing the movement of the hand of God in the church — not from a book by a mega-church pastor. Do you see the difference?
And how do we observe the movement of the Spirit of God in our church? Well, first, we pay attention. Second, we talk to the members. Who know whom God will choose to speak through. He spoke to Balaam through a donkey. God may choose the most humble, least likely member of the congregation as the vehicle for his revelation. Who knows? Well, you — if you ask. Ask.
That is, it’s great for elders and ministers to spend a weekend retreat talking about the church’s vision. But most of the time not spent in prayer should be spent discussing process — not vision. That is, how will we discern what God wants of this congregation? What is the process?
The lazy, easy process is to let the preacher who’s been there all of three months tell us what God has in mind, based on the best seller he bought at the local Bible bookstore. The better process is to take the time to speak with the members about what they see, where they think God wants the church to go, and what the church would look like if the Spirit could shape us into whatever it is he truly wants us to be.
Now, it’s entirely possible, even likely, that you get to similar places by both processes, but there are real advantages to the second approach —
- If you take the time to prayerfully seek God’s will for the church, rather than imposing a plan from evangelical pop literature or what worked at X mega-church, you’ll more likely find the answer God wants you to find.
- By including the congregation in the process, you’ll get more buy in from the church. Most visioning processes accomplish next to nothing because they are imposed from above by the hierarchy rather than being discerned from the membership — recognizing that all members have the Spirit. To truly have the Spirit’s input, you need the input of as many members as possible.
So take surveys or hold meetings with small groups or Bible classes or even focus groups — something that lets the church give its input and truly be heard. This will take us from vision casting (just throwing a vision out there and hoping someone bites) to vision discernment (believing God to be active throughout the entire church through the Spirit and that we’re to find God’s vision).
On the other hand (and this is really important), your members are not trained experts in church growth. This is not a democratic process. Rather, you need to listen for the voice of God being spoken through the members — and ignore the human opinions that can hide God’s voice in the noise. Hence, it’s a discernment process.
A loud, opinionated insists that we should do “Meals on Wheels” because her sister in law’s church is doing that and having great results may or may not be the Spirit’s will. Does she care enough to run the program? Has God provided you with the gifts you need?
You’ll get far more ideas and opinions than you really need. Most will be of little value, because the members will be parroting what they’ve seen at other churches or read in evangelical pop literature. But if you listen closely, you’ll find some words of great wisdom — and you’ll learn the heart of your church.
You may be deeply disappointed and disillusioned at what you learn, but if so, then you know the problems you should be working on — and there’s your vision. God may speak by causing your members to reveal their selfishness, their broken relationships, their poor parenting, their financial problems … who knows? If they complain about the air conditioning rather than the lack of baptisms, you have your vision revealed.
If someone steps up and says she wants to oversee the Meals on Wheels program and has found three people willing to contribute seed money, then maybe the Spirit really wants Meals on Wheels. Find people’s passions for what they themselves are wanting to do — not what they want others to do while they cheer them on. Not what services they want for themselves.