For at least the past decade, many churches have been turning to a process that is called visioning for the purposes of planning the future of the church. Personally, I believe that this process is contrary to the manner in which God would have us deal with the church, and so I have decided to set forth my thoughts in this blog entry.
I have been through these visioning processes at least three times that I can recall. On two of the occasions, I was on the church council at the time of the visioning. Without exception, each visioning was a failure. Each of the churches that turned to these visioning processes were in decline, and contrary to the hopes of the councils involved, the visioning process ultimately added to the decline. In my view, there are several reasons why these visioning processes fail, but the primary reason is that it is an effort to place man's principles on the church.
You see, the visioning process is a good one in a business environment. After all, the purpose of a business is to increase its market share. The visioning process allows the business to focus more fully on what the business already does well and to use that as a basis for planning for growth over the next five and ten years. However, when a business grows, it is largely due good planning by the owners and managers. A church, however, grows because the managers (read, elders and members) turn it over to God and rely on God to grow the church. Hence, a church, unlike a business, doesn't grow because it sticks to what it does well, but because the church (meaning both its leadership and members) surrenders itself fully to what God would have the church do. This may have nothing to do with what the church has done in the past.
Now, that doesn't mean that we don't have a part. We are called upon to be good stewards. We are called upon to use what God has given us wisely. But the visioning process always involves these questions: "What do you see as the mission of your church?", "What do you see your church as being like five and ten years from now?", and "What demographic group do you want the church to reach out to?" In other words, the focus in on what we want and what we foresee.
Of course, I understand that all churches begin the visioning sessions in prayer. Obviously, we call on God for wisdom and guidance, and that is certainly part of the process. However, I think that we don't take the wisdom and guidance that He has already revealed to us through the Bible when we engage in this process. In other words, we have a habit of praying for guidance, but then only take the guidance that may come when someone feels as if God is telling them something while largely ignoring what the Bible has to say on the subject in the first place.
The other problem with these visioning efforts is the lack of follow up. If the process goes well and we somehow see past our own desires and really put together a mission and vision that reflects God's Word, the churches I have been involved with have done a very poor job of following through. This is primarily the result of a lack of decision at the outset about who will be responsible for overseeing various parts of the process.
Nevertheless, I don't want to simply be negative. I want to make a couple of suggestions as to the mission and vision of the church as well as the issue of which demographic churches should be pursuing.
The mission idea crystallized for me when I looked at the mission statement for a Domino's Pizza I once did work for. It was "To deliver a delicious, hot pizza to the customers' doors in thirty minutes or less." It sort of encapsulates the essence of the business in a very brief statement. Churches almost always take this statement and negotiate some type of statement that includes both inward- and outward-focused goals. Hence, you get something like this: "To be a community of believers who care for each other and reach out to the world with the Light of Christ." That's actually not bad since it contains some Biblical principles, but it isn't what the Bible says is our mission.
The Bible is pretty clear what our mission should be. Look at these verses:
"So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God." (1 Corinthians 10:31)
"Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory." (Isaiah 43:6-7).
"Welcome on another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God." (Romans 15:7)
The pattern is obvious to me. As John Piper said in "Don't Waste Your Life":
"God created me—and you—to live with a single, all-embracing, all-transforming passion—namely, a passion to glorify God by enjoying and displaying his supreme excellence in all the spheres of life."
So, here is what ought to be the mission of every church: "To glorify God." This single sentiment reflects the purpose for which we have been created and drawn together. It reflects, in sum, the purpose of our lives both individually and as a collected body of believers. Hence, adding anything more to this statement (such as “and reaching out to the world”) will do one of two things: (1) limit its scope or (2) merely be repetitive of what is already intended by "to glorify God."
The Vision of the church is another matter. This is, again, an area where people get involved in trying to make sure their own pet-projects are incorporated into how the church should proceed. Hence, you get things in this section like, "we will be a church that reaches out to the poor" or "we will have lively, energetic services" or "we will be loving to each other." All of these things are good, but in my opinion, they miss the point.
The vision for the church should be open to allowing God to work. It should call on the people to renew their relationship with God and with each other. It is only if we are in proper relationship with God and each other that God will bless the church.
Consider this: using the business plan model, the purpose of this visioning committee is to get a sense of purpose and goals for the church. It is hoped that this planning will result in church growth. However, if our product is not particularly good, then our marketing plan will only have a very minimal effect. It would be like trying to increase the market share of Sam’s Club cola – not bad, but why go there when Coca-Cola is available elsewhere? People are, after all, attracted to the real thing. (Pun intended.) Hence, the only way for the vision of the church to work is to transform ourselves first. When we are transformed to a vibrant church where the majority of the members are actively seeking the heart of God the church will be blessed which will naturally result in growth.
Hence, to make my recommendation for the Vision Statement, I would suggest this: "To be a body of believers covenanted to God and each other who honestly and diligently seek to live their lives in accord with Biblical principles." This statement focuses on building a stronger community of believers who have covenanted with God to seek His face, and as a result, will be driven to tell others about God. The telling of others will be effective because God will bless us because we will have a better "product."
I would like to add a final thought on demographics. One of the issues that always comes up in these visioning processes is "what demographic should we be seeking to reach?" Usually, there would be a report about how many people are in each demographic in a particular area, and the church leaders would examine it and decide to reach out to a particular group regardless of the demographics. That group? Families with children.
Don’t get me wrong: I would also like to have more families with children. But there is a bit of selfishness here. Rather than reach out to those who are most in need, the reaching out to families with children usually represents a desire to reach out to people who are like us. However, in watching the "Truth Project" videos (an outstanding series from Focus on the Family which examines the comprehensive Biblical worldview), I find more and more that I think we should be reaching out to people like the individual in the video named Flash – a tattoo artist. He, and others like him, are the people who are being lost, but can be reached. They are also people who God loves and is calling to, but the type of person the church usually ignores.
But there is an even larger picture here. I think that it is a mistake to identify a particular demographic which we should be targeting. I think we need to let God lead us to people. How effectively we reach these people will depend entirely on God’s blessing and how well we fulfill our covenant relationship with each other and with God. If we, as a church, are fully committed to and following through on our covenants, God will bring the people whom we should be reaching into our circles.