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breakout churches

Is Vision Overrated?

Dr. Charles Revis, Executive Minister, ABC of the Northwest

First Baptist Church of Somewhere, Idaho having heard of the benefits of crafting a compelling vision, formed a vision committee. The committee went off for a Friday evening and Saturday morning retreat to do the work. After considerable discussion, a smattering of prayer, and not a little debate over wordsmithing they finalized a vision statement. They were pleased with the final product. At the annual congregational meeting the motto was presented and affirmed by a 92% vote. The pastor wrote an article on the new slogan for the monthly newsletter. The vision committee made a nice banner with the vision statement inscribed on it and hung it on the sanctuary wall. For the next several weeks the vision appeared in the weekly bulletin. For the most part, everyone was pleased with the new statement.

Six months later the motto has gathered dust, and is forgotten. Everyone can see the vision statement on any given Sunday, because it’s still in plain view on the banner. On occasion it makes an appearance in the bulletin and even the newsletter. No one talks about it. If you were to ask the average attender about the church’s vision they couldn’t recite it. Has the vision statement been effective? Judging by attendance, baptisms, new members and giving, one would have to say no. Not one of these categories has shown an increase. Most would agree that formulating the new vision statement was a waste of time.

This all too common scenario begs the question: Does vision matter? I think it’s safe to say that FBC Somewhere’s experience has been replicated in hundreds of churches resulting in few measurable results. Additionally, there seems to be a number of churches that are growing without any articulated vision.

In the book, Breakout Churches, Thom Rainer identified thirteen turnaround churches for study. His purpose was to demonstrate that these churches had implemented, mostly unaware, the principles of the book Good to Great, by Jim Collins. He hoped to convince other churches to implement his findings and potentially experience their own breakout. The research revealed, interestingly enough, that few of the identified churches, contrary to common wisdom, had a clearly defined vision statement at the outset of their turnaround.

Let’s return to the question at hand: Is vision overrated? Perhaps even a waste of time? There has been so much emphasis placed on vision one could expect a level of “vision weariness” among pastors and churches. Maybe it’s better to say that some suffer from “vision wariness”. Why bother with vision if others have experienced such dismal results? As a pastor or leader, you may be tempted to ignore the question. We’ve all heard truck loads of experts extol the benefits of a compelling vision. Yet, the results seem to fall short of expectations. Should the church have a vision? And, what can we expect from it, if it does?

Those of you familiar with Breakout Churches know there was more to the story when it came to the role vision played. Those “breakout churches” pastors were confident about direction and what their churches were striving to accomplish. They were passionate about their congregation’s purpose. Many of these churches eventually developed full‐blown mission, vision, values and belief statements (the components in the DNA of a church).

A common theme emerged from Rainer’s study. All the breakout churches were led by a pastor with vision. On the other hand, the breakout churches didn’t devise some elaborate process to discover vision. Over time it was almost as if the vision discovered the leader, and the congregation. The researchers found that vision had been discerned through the intersection of three factors: the passion of the leader; the needs of the community; and the gifts, abilities, talents and passions of the congregation. Furthermore, they found that the quest for vision was accompanied with a commitment to excellence. This value assisted the congregations in pursuing ever more effective forms of ministry. So, a second look at the breakout churches reveals that vision did play, and does play, an important role. It’s just that they arrived at vision in a more inductive manner than we would expect. Over time, as vision crystallized it played an increasingly central role in the congregation’s growth and health.

This reflects an insight that comes from Dr. Paul Borden, author of Direct Hit and Hitting the Bullseye. He maintains that a church doesn’t need a vision statement. Instead, the church needs to adopt Jesus’ commands as it’s vision, and allow His dictates to determine the church’s purpose and direction, starting with the priority of the Great Commission. Relentlessly seeking to obey the Great Commission will cause a church to become more outward focused, which is at the heart of Jesus’ intentions for His Body.

Essentially, I believe that Dr. Borden is correct. It is the right place to start. It requires no motto or time away with a vision committee. However, over time, as an individual church follows Jesus’ commands, and moves from inward focus to outward focus, it will discover it’s particular “call”, or “thumbprint”. When this is articulated with passion, and stringently pursued, I believe it plays a major factor in the church’s development.

All of this is to say that vision has little to do with catchy slogans or flashy mottos. If this is vision, then, yes, vision is overrated. To the contrary, vision that rises from the heart of the Father, motivated by the love of Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and informed by God’s Word, will set a church on fire (the good kind of fire, spiritual fire). It is this form of vision that is in short supply. Prayer, meditating on scripture, embracing the heart of Jesus, listening to the Holy Spirit, discerning the needs of the surrounding community, discovering the gifts and passions of the people, and summoning up from deep in the leader’s heart what truly drives him or her…these are the stuff out of which vision emerges.

As odd as it may sound, the fastest growing church in the northwest, and the largest church in the northwest, is located in Post Falls, ID (a town of approximately 20,000). The church which started in a living room eight years ago is presently running 8,000 in five services, and is in the midst of planting six daughter churches, one of which is already close to a 1,000 in attendance.  Real Life Ministries is located only two miles north of the Region office. Because of its proximity and its phenomenal growth I have endeavored to learn more about the church, and what makes it tick.

One thing has struck me as a result of my investigations. The pastor always declares the church’s vision at every service. The vision is simple, compelling, attainable, and utterly biblical: “We exist to reach the world for Jesus Christ, one person at a time.” Then he reports on their progress. This is usually accompanied with videos of baptisms from the previous week (usually 15 to 35 every week). The congregation responds with cheers. Then he reminds everyone that the church doesn’t exist to serve them, or provide them with comfort. Rather, the church exists to serve those who are not yet followers of Jesus Christ. Again, the congregation cheers.

After that, he explains the church’s mission: “We seek to develop disciples of Jesus Christ through relationships in small communities.” (Think of their mission as the next circle out from their most core purpose, their vision.) This leads to a one minute invitation to connect with a small group because, as the pastor, explains, “We do not attend church, we are the church, and we can only be the church when we are in community, not by showing up at a worship service.” In this way, the church moves people into “real relationships” to tackle “real life issues” with insight from scripture so that they will continue in their growth as disciples of Jesus Christ. There is nothing flashy about this. There is no hype. Just deep conviction and strong passion. It takes three minutes to deliver. The old timers know it by heart, but no one seems to tire of it. It strikes me, that this compelling, biblical vision is one of the reasons the church has made such a profound impact in the Post Falls environs. And, it is one factor among many others for its phenomenal growth.

As a leader, it is vital that you help your congregation grasp its God given vision and mission. Vision is mostly about knowing the church’s core purpose and pursuing it relentlessly. Vision rightly discerned will provide energy, direction and clarity. It will help to fend off extraneous pursuits that dissipate energy. It will assist in avoiding cul‐de‐sacs. You don’t have to figure it out by yourself. This is best done with a small, earnest group that prays, dreams and discerns over a period of time. I do believe, that once the congregation discerns its vision, that if you are the pastor it is up to you to be the primary vision caster. Incarnate the vision in your own life and ministry. Talk about incessantly. Tell stories that illustrate it. Externalize your passion for the vision. Too many pastors underestimate how much redundancy is required to instill vision among a group of people. Just about the time you are tired of hearing yourself talk about the vision, your people will be at the first stages of getting it.

Is vision overrated? Perhaps so, if all we’re talking about is a motto crafted by a committee. On the other hand, a vision that springs from the heart of Jesus Christ, is probably underrated, and underutilized. May you have ears to hear, and eyes to see, and hands to grasp, the vision that Jesus has for your congregation. For, without a vision, the people perish.

Originally published February 2008 © Dr. Charles Revis, ABC Northwest