Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The Peril and Promise of "Vision."

The concept of "vision" is at one and the same time neccessary and confusing. As both the church and business world continue to employ this buzz word, its meaning becomes ever more fuzzy. While Proverbs 29:18 is true, there is a corollary truth to the statement "Where there is no vision, the people perish." That corrollary might well be summed up in this way: "Where there is unclear or misunderstood vision, the people just die more slowly and painfully."

Nevertheless, I fear that many churches and pastors, as well as many in the business world, are buying into a consumerist, commercialistic understanding of the term, largely due to our stress of "emphasis" over "explanation." Widening the discussion a bit, Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, opens his newest book Winning with a discussion of how terms like vision, mission and values are "among the most abstract, overused, misunderstood words in business." Exacerbating this problem are the business schools, which Welch accuses of "having their students regularly write mission statements and debate values, a practice made even more futile for being carried out in a vacuum. Lots of companies do the same to their senior executives, usually in an attempt to create a noble-sounding plaque to hang in the company lobby."

In short, when vision is discussed, and even crafted, the end result is often far from the mark of reality. This is an unfortunate truth, mainly because vision is so vital, especially when one is planting churches. While our church planter assessment process here in Maryland measures for about 16 different behavioral characteristics, visionizing capacity is at the top of the list, and is considered what we call a "knock-out" category. Regardless of how well a potential planter may assess in every other area, if he proves unable to project beyond the present into the future, arguing in a way convincing to others the need for something that does not presently exist and verbally painting a picture of what the needed church will look like, we don't place him in the field to plant.

The reason for this is primarily Biblical. As Proverbs clearly states, the lack of such a futuristic picture and its possibilities leads ultimately to death. The literal translation of the text is actually that without vision, people "are unrestrained," or "wander aimlessly." Obviously, the first readers of this text would have had an instant flashback to the forty year Sinai experience, in which all but two members of an entire generation died because they lost their sense of purpose and destiny. That story is an eternal testiment to Solomon's claim that without clear vision and direction, aimless wandering ensues, and death eventually results.

Still, this begs the question: "What is vision?" The normative definition used in church planting is that first coined by Aubrey Malphurs, who describes vision as "a clear and challenging picture of the future, as the [church] leadership believes it can and should be." In short, vision is not a drawn-out strategic plan that includes all of the milestones involved in planting and/or growing a congregation. Nor is vision always incredibly specific. It is, in the end, a 'snapshot' of where the people in a given church should be headed. And in church planting, we are more specific to state that the church planter must have the capacity as the primary "visionizer."

The problem here is that often, in an attempt to match a perceived idea of what it means to be a 'visionary,' pastors and church planters end up sounding more like Amway salesmen than prophets of God's truth. Our culture has for the past two decades developed a picture of what a "visionary" looks like that is driven more by popular perception than reality. Yet pastors, church planters, and even business leaders have seemed to buy into this pop-picture, and the tragedy of this shortcoming is two-fold. First, those attempting to be "visionary" feel it neccessary to pretend that they have the future all figured out: where the land is going to be located, how many square feet the first, second, and third sanctuaries are going to be, and the exact demographic and psychographic "target" that will be reached. In the end, the church planter or pastor comes off sounding like the "autonomous knower," arrogant, over-confident, proud, and overly-obsessed with his own "Kingdom-building." Second, aspirations toward acheiving identification with this pop-version visionary keep the leader from becoming what he really needs to become to lead his church to greatness.

Jim Collins' best-selling book Good to Great, which addresses these issues from a business world perspective, states that the best leaders of the best corporations are not flamboyant, charismatic, eloquent salesmen. Instead, Collins found that the leaders of the world's most successful corporations exhibited modesty, resolve, and a commitment to build something that would outlast their tenure at the company. Similarly, Thom Rainer's new book Breakout Churches, which is patterned after Collins' work, revealed that Senior Pastors in the most successful "turnaround" churches in America brought to the table a blend of humility and confidence, love and persistence, all of which was undergirded with a high view of Scripture and solid belief in a miracle-working God. In short, neither these visionaries nor the visions they cast would have been recognized as particularly compelling when compared to the more "colorful" personalities of some of their colleagues. Nonetheless, these leaders were able to bring their corporations and/or congregations to a point of owning a vision and accomplishing far and beyond even what they themselves expected.

Transposing these thoughts exclusively to the area of church ministry, it might be suggested that the particulars of what makes a given church significant aren't neccessarily the key ingredients to a compelling vision, but instead, it is the overall vision of the universal church given by Jesus as it is contextualized for a given local body. Add to this God's propensity for doing "abundantly beyond all that we ask or think," and you have a picture of the future that may lack in worldly attraction, but will guide the church in becoming most effective.

In my experience as a pastor, church planter, and now a strategist/missionary, I have seen churches with the most sophisticated and particularly detailed vision statements fail miserably. Conversely, the most successful church plants I have seen have followed the most elementary of vision statements.

Beginning in 1997 as a congregation of about 25, Marathon Community Church in Easley South Carolina was led by two brothers, neither of whom possessed any theological training. But Eddie and Brian Cox were determined to reach the growing unchurched population of this upstate area. Today, Marathon has over 4000 in attendance in multiple services every Sunday, and they have helped to plant over five other churches in the surrounding area. The mission that guided them wasn't sophisticated. In fact, it wasn't even original. It was borrowed from the Hard Rock Cafe. Still today, the banner that once hung over the bar at a Hard Rock in Florida now hangs in the sanctuary at Marathon's new campus, and on that banner are found only four words: "Love all, Serve all!" These two guys had no huge dreams of a mega-church. They simply wanted to serve their community in the name of Jesus, and remove unneccesary barriers to people coming to faith in Christ. This was the exact "vision" they cast to their core group, and it was the reference point that kept them from "aimless wandering," as they grew from an Elementary School cafeteria to a warehouse, to their present facility. The result? Well, needless to say, it was "abundantly beyond" what they asked for.

This is, I believe, the essence of "vision." It doesn't need to be flamboyant to be powerful. And leaders don't need to have the personality of a televangelist to be a visionary.

One story from the business world illustrates how simple vision can direct an organization to greatness, and that is the story of the Hard Rock Cafe referenced above. In 1974 two Americans opened up a burger joint in Great Brittan, with a simple vision of providing their clientele with a friendly atmosphere and great food. In fact, most readers will recognize the name of one of their first, and most famous customers. Musician Eric Clapton was a regular at this new food establishment, and one day, suggested to the owners that they provide him with his own reserved table. The owners jokingly suggested that if Clapton would donate his guitar, they would mark his reserved table by placing it on the wall. But Clapton wasn't joking, and not long after this conversation brought in a signed Fender to mark his territory in his favorite restaurant.

The story doesn't stop here. Not long after Clapton's guitar was hung, the owners received a package in the mail from Pete Townsend of the Who. Enclosed was one of his signed guitars with a note that read "Mine's just as good as Eric's. Love, Pete." And so began a collection of Rock 'n Roll memorabillia that to this day is unparallelled, housed in restaurants all over the world now universally recognized by the yellow, neon guitars posted outside. The Hard Rock Cafe began with a vision not nearly as sophisticated as the end result. Nevertheless, these two American shop-owners remained true to their original plan of a welcoming atmosphere and great food, and the rest is history.

That story contains much promise for those who serve God with a simple yet compelling focus. The Hard Rock began with a simple vision caught by some very recognizeable musicians. But the church begins with a simple vision that is empowered by God Himself! To ignore the crucial importance of vision in church planting is to play fast and loose with eternal souls who may end up in aimless wandering because of complacent and ultimately uncaring leaders. But to think that one has to have everything "figured out" to be a true visionary is to deny the sovereignty of God in the process of establishing His church. For church planters, this means prayerful planning that expects God to do so much more than you ever dreamed possible. In the end, if God has His way, noone will be talking about the visionary capacity of the pastor and/or planter. Instead, everyone will be speaking the greatness of God. And in the end, there can be no greater vision than this!

Other Resources:

Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don't. New York: Harper Business, 2001.

Thom Rainer. Breakout Churches: Discover how to Make the Leap. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.

Andy Stanley. Visioneering: God's Blueprint for Developing and Maitaining Personal Vision. Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishing, 1999.

Jack Welch. Winning. New York: Harper Business, 2005

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