The Mission of the Church: Vision Statements

Eucharist-Mission1I do not like vision statements. I think they’re a colossal waste of time and energy. As Exhibit A, allow me to introduce into evidence these statements I found by searching “Church Vision Statement” in Google Images:

A couple of quick observations:

  1. They are not fun reading. I bet most readers didn’t bother to read them all, and those who did were disappointed. There are some flecks of gold hidden in the sand, but there’s a lot of very tedious sand.
  2. They all sound the same. In fact,
  3. There’s nothing in any of these statements that distinguishes church A from church B. Rather,
  4. They all say little more than “we’re a church,” and
  5. They show all the marks of committee work. Every committee members gets to add a word, a thought … something … so that none of these are focused tightly enough to give any real sense of direction.

Oh, and most of these aren’t vision statements at all. They are mission statements. A vision statement declares what things would be like if the church were to accomplish its mission. A mission statement is how we’re going to get to the vision.

And this is one reason I hate vision statements. A vision is something you see, imagine, desire, yearn for — not something you memorize or recite. It’s the congregation’s goal. In college football, the vision is something like “Win the national championship.” The mission is something like “Work out. Practice. Be a leader. Be a good teammate. Trust you teammates. Do your assignment each and every play. Don’t fret over the last play; just focus on the next play. One game at a time.”

So a mission statement will tend to cover a lot of ground. The vision should be pretty simple. It might be bigger than “Win the national championship.” It might be “Be excellent students, great representatives of the University, and win national championships.” But if it’s paragraphs long, it won’t motivate anyone to do anything.

You measure your success by how well you’ve done toward your vision. If you improve from 6-6 to 10-2, you had a good year because you’re closer to your vision. If you drop from 12-0 to 10-2, for you that might not be a good year. Direction matters.

Now, the fundamental problem with church is that we think the vision is an accomplished thing. Our vision is “Go to heaven when we die,” and so all vision statement and mission statement stuff doesn’t tie directly to our vision. And so we don’t bother to actually do all the stuff the committee voted on, and the preacher’s sermons about the vision fall on deaf ears because we really just want to go to heaven when we die. And that was handled in the baptistry.

And, depending on your tribe within your denomination, you may feel that the path to heaven is regular attendance and living a moral life. Or holding firmly to your faith in Jesus. Or strictly adhering to your denomination’s doctrinal positions. Or doing whatever good works you think will buy your way in. But none of that stuff ever appears in the vision statement, and so the vision statement is … irrelevant to Christianity as most people perceive it.

And so the problem is a messed up vision. And visions that focus on process rather than ultimate goals only make it worse.

Ultimate goals

So what’s the goal? What’s the equivalent of “national championship” for a church?

And we should immediately notice that “go to heaven when we die” is an individual goal, not a church goal. A church goal might be “Make certain that we all get to heaven together when we die.” That would be better. I don’t think that’s quite right, but it’s step in the right direction.

(Where I grew up, we used to sing “When We All Get to Heaven.” A later hymnal re-wrote that magnificent line to “When the Saved Get to Heaven,” on the assumption, I suppose, that the visitors might be confused. Or that someone might die before asking God to forgive him of that day’s sins. (No, I’m not kidding.) Props to our song leader. He insisted on singing the original lyrics anyway.)

Imagine that you’ve just been converted to become a follower of Jesus. You’ve been baptized, and now you’re asked to attend a new member orientation class. And God Almighty is the instructor! What would he teach?

Would he focus on tithing, attendance, and small groups? Evangelism? Benevolence? Bible study? Picking the right denomination to join? The Five Acts of Worship? How to door knock? How to argue apologetics? Which internal church job should you volunteer for? What to do to make it to heaven when you die? Why the church down the road is wrong and going to hell? What would God’s first lesson to a new convert be?

The fact that this is a hard question for us proves that we’re not thinking through the essence of Christianity well at all. So … in the scriptures, when someone is first converted, what instructions were they given?

I have a theory. I think it would sound a whole lot like the Sermon on the Mount. Or Rom 12-15. Or Gal 5. Or Acts 2. In technical terms, it would be a lesson on the ethics of ecclesiology: how to live together with other Christians in the Kingdom/church.

And I think God wouldn’t see much difference between ethics (how to live) and ecclesiology (how to be a church), because he would assume that we will live as part of the church. That is, how we live individually and how we live as a part of the local church and the church-universal are all answered the same way.

There is no path to heaven outside the church. There are no ethical principles for how to live separate from the church. Rather, the church is an organic unity — a living body. Repeatedly, Paul calls the church the “body of Christ.” And we’re the body of Christ 24/7.

This is about communion. What drinks blood consistent with God’s will — even under the Law of Moses? Well, body parts. Blood doesn’t sustain an individual. Blood sustains parts of a body. The life is in the blood — and the blood sustains body parts — but only as long as they remain a part of the body. Cut off a hand, and the hand doesn’t gain freedom. It dies.

Now, to re-think vision, mission, and suchlike requires that we re-tell the story of scripture in missional terms. We can’t just go hunting for proof texts. We can’t just buy a neat new book. We can’t just take a course. Rather, we have learn to think in narrative terms — and then that will tell us where the Kingdom/church fit in God’s plans.

Indeed, one of great failings of our vision-statement efforts is that rarely do they speak in terms of the scriptural narrative. It’s rather like playing college football while unaware of the history of the sport or your school or that your team is part of a division and a conference or that national championships are played. I mean, if you didn’t know those things, you’d still enjoy playing the game. It’s fun. But you wouldn’t know to celebrate if you won your division or beat your hated rival or had the best record ever achieved by your team. And without knowing the bigger picture, you might not see the point of working out as hard as you could, learning your playbook as well as you should, or even running the ball as well as you could. After all, if it’s all about you having a good time, then you run as fast and hard as is fun — without regard to the impact on your teammates, your fans, your school, or your place in history. You won’t let yourself suffer just to have fun. You only are willing to suffer when you’re part of a story that’s bigger than you.

There are just a few college football programs that are routinely excellent. Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan, Southern Cal, Texas … you know the list, and yet Texas is on the list despite their recent struggles. Even though Texas is seeing tough times, if you know your football history, you know they’ll be back. Their history — their story — requires it. Because of their long story of excellence, their administrators and alumni will make certain that Texas rises to national excellence — because of the story that is Texas football.

Meanwhile, SMU was once very good, but they have a very different story and they may never be any good again. Ever. It could happen, but the odds of Texas returning to football glory are 100x higher than SMU. Different story. Different history. And therefore a different vision — which leads to doing the things that lead to excellence. And it’s not that SMU can’t be as good as Texas. I mean, if TCU and Baylor can become national powers, why not SMU? But SMU has the wrong story.

Here in Tuscaloosa, the question is never whether Alabama will win a national championship but when. How long must we wait? And we’ve been like that for 100 years. In fact, to us, winning a national championship is not so much a great accomplishment as setting the world to rights. It’s restoring the universe to its proper order. Yes, we feel every bit that entitled. And as a result, we win national championships.

So in the new members class taught by the Great I Am, what does he cover?

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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5 Responses to The Mission of the Church: Vision Statements

  1. “Oh, and most of these aren’t vision statements at all. They are mission statements.”

    I agree. And the resources spent on these are … ungodly(?) Someone is dancing with glee at these efforts. I find it odd how misdirected the most well meaning people can be.

  2. JES says:

    Over the years I have scratched my head at what we are trying to accomplish on Sunday mornings. We say we are gathered to praise God (worship), to edify (fellowship) are members, as long as we don’t take up too much time doing it, and to reach the lost (evangelize), all 1% that may be there any given Sunday. It seems that in our effort to “get it all in” we have accomplished little: and at a very high price.

    Do any of you see this dilemma?

  3. Dwight says:

    Mission statements are tag lines and are meant to instill in others what we say about us/our church. They are short blurbs trying to capture the attention of those who if when the time comes will wander in and decide whether they actually like going there or not. They are advertisements, which may or may not reflect the truth of the matter. I dislike them, because it us trying to tell others how we are, because we think we are this.
    I used to hear that we shouldn’t do this or that to entice people in, but then we do these.
    And it basically is us in competition with other assemblies, because it argues that we are this, which implies that others aren’t.
    And yes, JES I do see this dilemma. Our current procedure is very inefficient in how we teach the saved to be saved and help no one other than ourselves in this regards.

  4. JES says:

    And so sadly we feel that this process fills our spiritual duty for the week.

  5. Chris says:

    I find some church names more interesting than their vision statement. It’s like they have to cram their whole statement of beliefs/mission statement in the title of the church. For example:
    “Pentecostal holiness double anointing apostolic healing and deliverance church of the risen savior” or another one:
    “Bible Center for the purpose of Evangelical studies worship center”

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