Questions from my students: how do you determine the vision for a church or ministry?

“Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” — Proverbs 29:18 (KJV)

Churches die for enough reasons to justify books to be written about all of them. In an effort not to oversimplify a certainly complex issue, it is safe to say that one major reason a church struggles is a lack of what pastors like me call “vision.”

A vision is a compelling view into the future, of what a congregation could be, what it desires to be, and ultimately, what the leadership believes it must be. Church vision statements are meant to guide the body into the future. Vision statements will help make decisions, move money, raise money, hire staff, shape budgets, build facilities, launch programs, and all the other things churches busy themselves with doing.

In other words, the vision is everything.

The vision of a church answers the question, Why should this church exist? Strangely, this question — and many questions like it — are often ignored by leaders simply because their love for their church eclipses their love for those outside of it. This leads to a kind of faulty thinking where elders and pastors think, “Who wouldn’t love our church?” and they would rarely (if ever) entertain a question of existence. In their mind, of course we should exist—because we’re amazing! In this strange mixture of contentment and entitlement, we will start to watch the slow demise of a (maybe) once great church.

If the vision of the church is everything, how do we form it? How do you come up with such a vision? And how do we know this is from God? How can we be sure that God is giving us this vision and not a group of power-hungry, attention-seeking pastors? I’ve spent some time thinking about this and see three key words as guiding a church in its vision:

Prayer, Scripture, and Wisdom.

If you can, imagine each of these words as concentric circles of equal size, all over-lapping each other in a Venn Diagram style — are you picturing it? Now, in my understanding, most churches get into trouble with seeking out a compelling vision by inflating one of these circles too much. As I discuss each, you will see how all must remain in a kind of balance. Too much emphasis on any one of these words could lead a church to a disastrous path. We must balance these three ingredients with great care as we form a vision for a church.

Prayer is one of the essential ingredients in all of ministry and certainly must not be left aside when discussing vision. How will we have any hope of hearing from God if we do not ask him? All church vision-making processes must be saturated in a kind of desperate prayer. The prayer of Jehoshaphat is appropriate: “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (2 Chron. 20:12). Each leadership team must dedicate a lot of time to prayer. Prayer is not what you do before work, it is work. And it is essential in the laboring of vision formation.

But an over-inflation of this circle can lead a church down a bad direction. You might be thinking, how can we have too much prayer? If prayer is over-emphasized in a leadership team, you’ll find very little actually getting done. Sometimes when we pray about everything we end up doing nothing. Additionally, prayer can lead us to thinking we’re hearing from God even when we’re not. People will arrive at meetings claiming they’ve heard from God, and if prayer is your only way of gauging where God wants you to go, who are you to say otherwise? If people are praying, and someone says God showed them the vision for the church, how are you to counteract that? This is why Peter tells the churches throughout the Diaspora to “be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers” (1 Peter 4:7b, emphasis mine). A lack of self-control and a wild mind can lead to some irreverent prayers that miss the whole point of the practice.

Scripture is a perfect ingredient to balance with prayer. In Holy Scripture we find the boundaries and guidelines for the vision of a church. Through prayerful study of the Bible, we arrive at what theologians call an “ecclesiology,” or what we believe about the church. When forming a vision, we have to be sure we’re not making the church something it was never intended to be. For example, Scripture says little-to-nothing regarding personal fitness (Yes, I know the reference in 1 Tim. 4), and even less about the church being involved in it. If a church decided to open a gym, would that be in line with what Scripture says the church must do? It may be said that the gym is in the church so that the congregation could better reach its neighbors. But wouldn’t the church be more effective in reaching its neighbors if they left their church building and joined their neighborhood gym to reach their unbelieving friends there? On the other hand, it is very clear that the churches in the New Testament all cared for the poor in a multiplicity of ways (Acts 2:45, 6:1, Romans 15:26, 2 Corinthians 8:2, Galatians 2:12), which makes one think we must do likewise. Scripture keeps us in line with what the church does and what it does not.

But an over-emphasis on Scripture leaves a church lacking creativity and, at worst, paving a road towards fundamentalism. The difficult part about Scripture is that you can pretty much make it say whatever your want (you don’t need to look much further than the news for various examples of this). This is why prayer and wisdom must go along with reading our Bibles. We can allow the Scriptures to do what they’re meant to do, illuminate the truth about God. He is sacred, but most everything else is up for grabs. A good church vision will include some bold moves filled with creative energy and imagination beyond the text of Scripture.

Wisdom is a kind of knowledge based in a rich experience of the past, all under God’s rule. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,” is one of the most famous Proverbs (Prov. 1:7). Wisdom doesn’t always have a chapter and verse, but it always includes a kind of reverence for the God who has been faithful and will be faithful. Because of its reverence before God, wisdom doesn’t operate out of fear of repeating past mistakes, it instead simply takes it all into account and works towards the most sensible solution. Churches will need wise minds and hearts in the room as they form the vision. This is perhaps one reason why Paul tells Timothy that an elder should not be a new convert “or he may become puffed up with conceit” (1 Tim. 3:6). Wisdom sits over a decision for a bit, not quick or fearful, but acts swiftly when the right decision is clear. When formulating a vision, leadership must be willing to close their Bibles, open their prayerful eyes, and wisely make some decisions.

But too much wisdom can lead to “irreverent babble” and meaningless conversations about strategy and theology. An over-emphasis on wisdom without any prayer or Scripture reading often means a bad decision. Paul boldly calls the cross a kind of “foolishness” to those perishing because, “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” and “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1:20, 25). A lot of smart people in a room can actually be a dangerous thing if that knowledge is not humbled by prayer and a study of Scripture, for “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1). The vision statement must not come from a place of arrogant know-it-alls about “how the church should be.” Scripture and prayer lead us to fear God, and at that very place, we have a shot at wisdom.

All three of these areas are broad enough for us to be creative within them, and hopefully specific enough to lead us in a right direction. These ingredients can help a church avoid its death, and instead, be given a fresh breath of life through a compelling, Biblical vision. May we as leaders provide people with a prayerful, scriptural, and wise vision.

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Chris Nye

Living in Portland, Oregon with my wife and son. Doctoral candidate at Duke University. Author of a few books: chrisnye.co/books