THE VISION TRAP

One of the more abused Scripture passages I have seen in recent years is the first half of Proverbs 29.18, which is often used to make a case that the church needs to have a vision. The passage reads “Where there is no vision, the people perish…”–in the KJV version. Unfortunately for those who use this as a proof text for their calls for vision, the intention behind this 500 year old translation of the original Hebrew is better expressed by many modern translations, such as the NIV, which reads “Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint….”
The passage has important insights and can provide the basis for a great sermon but really has nothing to do with vision as we understand it today. The passage is looking at the need for people to have clear revelations from God to guide them in their lives. To use the passage as a proof text for the modern cultural need to have a clear vision driving the church is just poor exegesis, although the history of the church suggests that fear of doing a poor job of interpreting the Scripture hasn’t stopped a lot of preachers.
Many churches have been persuaded or pushed into thinking that vision is the driving force for the church–if we don’t have a vision, we are lost. Of course, to have a vision, there must be a visionary and the prevailing opinion is that the visionary needs to be the pastor. The pastor’s first task must be the vision: developing the vision, casting the vision and forcing the church to accept, follow and achieve the vision no matter what the cost.
For many small congregations, this call for vision-driven ministry has produced conflict, strife, demoralization and more. The basic problem is that small churches don’t always need an over-arching vision and when they do need one, there is a totally different process for developing that vision. Being pushed to adopt a vision that doesn’t develop in the proper way drops the congregation into the vision trap. Getting out of this trap is hard, painful and expensive and can result in the church splitting and/or dissolving. It can also lead to pastoral unemployment.
As I understand it, the purpose of a vision is to give the church a unifying direction and purpose. It seeks to bring all the people and all the ministry together to create a more effective and successful ministry. Another significant benefit of a good and successful vision is that it enhances the reputation of the visionary pastor, who gets to write books and lead seminars on his/her particular vision.
The small church already has a unifying direction and purpose. It is unified by its sense of community. Now, I know that that sense of community isn’t always healthy nor is it always particularly effective at enhancing the ministry of the congregation. But it is a unifying factor. The members do think about each other and their needs. They are concerned about those outside the church community–their family and friends who either don’t attend worship or who aren’t yet committed to the faith.
Out of this network of relationships comes ministry. I have pastored congregations that began nurseries for small children not because the nursery was part of some overall vision to reach the community but because Zeke and Zelda just had a baby and wouldn’t it be nice if the church had a nursery for them? The fact that the nursery also benefited others was a pleasant side-effect. The nursery developed because there was a need for it that was recognized by the community.
Small churches have functioned on this basis almost from the beginning of the church. When the early church found there were troubles with the program to care for widows, they developed the office of deacon–not as part of some great vision for administering the church but because some people needed something more. This story is told in Acts 6.1-7.
Ministry happens in small churches as the community responds to the needs it discovers among its members and in its wider community. Long before the North American church was calling for vision to get ministry going, the church was discovering and responding to the needs around it, not out of a great sense of vision but out of a desire to help the community in some way.
That is not to say that the small church doesn’t need vision–there are times when the small church needs a bigger sense of direction than responding to community needs can provide. We will look at when that need for vision becomes important and how to develop the necessary vision in future blogs.
May the peace of God be with you.

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