Sonny P. Livingston

Nearly forty years ago a group of enthusiastic immigrants founded Mountain View Church in western Canada. The group was small, but what it lacked in size it made up in determination, youth, and spiritual vigor. Most of the members worked as hired hands on surrounding farms. The families were large and income was minimal; but no one doubted that given time, hard work, and
God’s blessing everyone would prosper, including the church. They did and it did. Seven years later the church had its own building, a Christian school met in its basement, and there was talk of starting a second church. Even though no one wrote it down, there was common agreement on the purpose of the church: it was to be a communal home in a strange land, a place where God was
worshiped and children taught his way. There was a high level of satisfaction with the church and its ministry.

Today, thirty-five years later, the original frame building has been replaced by a larger brick building. The language of worship is now the language of the land. A retirement home has been built. None of the members are hired hands at area farms. Instead, they are prosperous farmers, tradesmen, small business owners, and professionals. Families are small, and inmost cases husband and
wife have separate incomes. It is an older group now; many of the young people have gone to college and settled in larger cities. And dissatisfaction with the church has set in. It seems that no minister can measure up to the members’ varied expectations. Evening services are poorly at-tended.

Evangelism programs are started but soon die because of lack of participation. Now is the time to ask if the church’s original vision is still valid. What is the purpose of Mountain View Church?

In a sleepy Midwestern village vast changes are taking place. A Japanese auto parts company has decided to build a large plant on the outskirts of the village. A fifty-three-family church is experiencing an influx of new members as members of its denomination move in. But already some of the new members are leaving the church. They say, ‘All this church wants is to do last year
over again.” In other words, they feel the church has no vision and no goals, except to remain the same. The village has awakened, but the church has not.

But if the church will recognize in step opportunities, renew its vision, and energetically set to work moving into God’s future for them, it will not only keep the new members from its own denomination but attract others as well.

Young and June Choy are a pastoral team with a vision for urban evangelism. With the promise of a three-year denominational grant, they are developing a new church in the heart of a large city. The scars of urban blight are etched deeply in buildings and family life here. The Choy’s vision is for a church of several races, unified by a desire to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and to establish a kingdom outpost in the midst of human need. Part of their vision is to start house-hold groups that will meet together monthly for communal celebration and worship. Soon after the first three groups are established they express a desire to meet weekly with the other groups.

Together the pastoral team and the groups forge a new vision, which is enthusiastically adopted by all. The new vision energizes the group. Now it is not only the Choys’ vision but a common vision.

These and many other stories demonstrate the church’s need for the power of vision. The need for a fresh vision becomes evident in situations such as these:

– A long-time pastor retires or leaves.

– Church members no longer live in the neighborhood.

– Retired members have replaced younger families.

– The congregation is considering relocating to the suburbs.

– A church that was once an alternative to the more traditional churches in the denomination finds it has become a carbon copy of those churches.

– A church celebrates a significant anniversary.

– A congregation finds itself frequently reacting to a new set of problems.

In these situations a church must ask the following questions: What is our reason for being? How did we get where we are now? Do we want to stay this way? If we stay this way, what will we be like five years from now? Is that where we want to go? In a word, what is God now calling us to be and to do?

What Vision Does for a Church

Every church already has vision; at least, several of its members or groups of members hold on to certain expectations of what the church is to be and to do. These differing expectations can be confusing, however. The pastor, the church council, the worship committee, the evangelism committee-each may have definite (and very different) views on what the church should be and where it is heading. Where such circumstances exist-and these are not at all unusual-people are headed in different directions. Programs and ministries will be at odds with each other. The worship committee, for example, may structure a service that is far from the evangelism committee’s vision for the church. The result is frustration, conflict, and often ineffective ministry.

It is up to the leadership to forge a common vision-one with which all or at least most members agree. A common vision creates unity and frees the church from unnecessary conflict. A common vision will avoid the problems brought on by only privately held opinions. Where the vision is not shared, no one understands why the charter members of a congregation always vote a certain
way and the newer members vote another way. A common vision will unite the church, even when the vision contains a measure of compromise.

Vision will energize a church to do its task better. Having agreed upon a purpose, the church is free to work out that vision in its life and ministry. It can “stick to its knitting” instead of being diverted by extraneous demands. It is better to do a few tasks well than many tasks poorly. By implication, vision enables a church to say what it will not emphasize. Vision places boundaries around a church.

A common vision gives a church identity and thus a healthy self-esteem. Such identity and self-esteem help project a definite image in the community and establish a reputation for doing certain things well. Ideally, the church is all things for all people. But in a society where there are many churches, not every church can do everything and expect to succeed. Churches that establish a good reputation in the community usually do so because they do a few things very well.

A well-articulated vision enables a church to recruit the right kind of staff for its ministry. The day has long gone that any seminary graduate could serve any church. Churches and ministers recognize that there must be a match between the two for there to be a fruitful and God-glorifying ministry. Similarly, vision enables a church to clearly state expectations for its members. These expectations can be taught in the new member class so that members know what to expect from one another. Churches that clearly state the kind of behavior and participation expected from members will attract more members than those churches that expect very little (and frequently get it). A good vision statement acknowledges needs that exist-some of them in the church and some of them in the world. No single congregation can meet all the needs it sees. Formulating a statement of vision will force a church to examine its strengths and to match those strengths with needs it has identified. This will help the church to concentrate on those things to which God is evidently calling it with the strengths and blessing he has supplied.

Finally, a shared vision will give direction to all the church’s ministries and activities. It will express the general purpose on which each committee can build its goals and objectives. This gives the church away of measuring whether it is going where it should be going. Vision enables the church-leaders and members alike-to be successful. Leaders can lead, and all can contribute to the fruitfulness of the congregation.

The Origin of Vision

The church takes its cue from God. God’s message and his purpose for church and world are in his Word, the Bible.

Every generation of believers searches anew in the Bible for what God is saying to that generation and how he expects the church to order its work, worship, and witness. No generation, however, can do this as if it is the first one to have done so. The church has existed for centuries. It has a rich heritage and history. Studying this heritage and history can help avoid the errors of the past and give stability to the future. Nevertheless, a fresh understanding of what God says and requires is essential to the articulation of vision.

When a church sets out, therefore, to define its vision it is driven back with renewed interest to God, the cross, and to the creeds and confessions-while at the same time claiming, believing, and working to-wards God’s vision for the future.

God’s Vision

It was a splendid vision that brought order out of the primeval chaos described in the first verses of the Bible: “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep. . . .” Only an infinitely creative and visionary God could envision, plan, and execute with one explosive word: “Let there be light.” From there the vision moved to firmament, dry land, green growth, sun, moon, a million galaxies, birds, fish, and mammals of immense variety and beauty. And finally, the grandest vision of all came into being: “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and
let them rule. . . .”

When God examined what his vision had created, he blessed it and called it good, even very good.

In the fall, the vision became undone. What pain this caused not only to the creation but to the Creator! Death, the ultimate end of vision, came into the world. But vision is persistent. If the vision is from God, not even death can finally destroy it. Therefore God entered into covenant with the entire creation, the whole world (Genesis 8 and 9):

“Never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease. The sign of that covenant with all humankind is the rainbow. God gave again the original mandate to Noah: “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.”

God’s Vision and Misison

Within the fallen creation the hope of a new creation was established when God said to Abraham, “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you,  and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12) How does one respond to and take part in this vision? Through faith: “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15). The rest, of course, is history. But time and again God’s vision for a new creation is repeated. The Psalms and prophets are full of it. A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. . . . The wolf will live with lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat…. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him. (Isaiah 11)

This vision is often called God’s mission. In God’s mind, vision and mission become one.

The vision and the mission are the good news of the kingdom of God. The vision was republished and affirmed when Christ came into the world. He came to seek and to save the lost, continuing what God began when he called out in the garden, ‘Adam, where are you?” When Jesus had finished his work of reconciling heaven and earth, he restated the original mandate to be fruitful and multiply by saying, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20). This has become our new mandate, our new vision.

Vision and the Church

On the day of Pentecost all God’s children were ordained to pursue the vision. The Holy Spirit is God with us, inspiring and leading the church to fulfill the vision. He is also the “deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who’re God’s possession-to the praise of his glory”(Ephesians 1:14). Vision and mission are uppermost in Paul’s mind as he prays for the church:

I pray also that the eyes of your heart may been lightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and
appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. (Ephesians 1:18-23)

It is only as the church is wrapped up in God’s great vision that it begins to understand passages such as these.

The Vision Fulfilled

The Bible ends with the completion of this vision:

After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne in front of the Lamb. (Revelation 7:9)The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever. (Revelation 11:15)And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making every-thing new!” He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life.” (Revelation 21:3-6)

The Vision Today

It is this great vision, proclaimed from Genesis to Revelation, which the church claims as its own and which enables it to endure and be renewed. God’s vision is a kingdom vision. Wherever a glimpse of it is caught, believers break out in doxology: “Our God reigns.” This kingdom is administered by way of the covenant. Believers and congregations are therefore partners with God
in making the vision come to pass. Each generation’s believers must rediscover it, live by it, and make it their own.

It is very easy in the daily activities, problems, and concerns of the church to set aside the vision and the mission and to deal only with the immediate. The tyranny of the urgent always threatens to make the church maintenance- and survival-oriented. Churches can reverse such drifting only by making vision and its practical consequences a priority.

Components of the Vision

Once a congregation and its leaders have seen again God’s grand, universal vision, they must ask this question: “How do we express this vision for this congregation at this time in history in this community?” There are several ways of doing this. One way is to identify different parts of the vision and to work at these one at a time.

Begin with a purpose statement, from here on called the church’s concept of ministry. The concept of ministry catches something of the grand sweep of God’s mission and vision, yet it is not so general that it could be said of any church. It expresses what the congregation believes God is calling it to be at this time in its history, with the gifts God has given and the needs that exist in church and community. It is the congregation’s mandate or charter. A concept of ministry is sometimes called a mission statement or the church’s philosophy of ministry.

Once a congregation has hammered out its concept of ministry it is important to write goal statements. Goals are general statements of intent and desire which apply the concept of ministry to specific areas of church life. Goals are long-range and general.

Once a congregation adopts its goals, it should attach one or more objectives to each goal. An objective is a specific, well-defined component of a goal. Objectives are measurable and attainable. They are milestones on the way to achieving the goals and therefore help to measure progress. Objectives are usually short-term. Once goals and objectives are adopted it is often a good idea to ask, “Who is going to do this, and how?” The answer to that question is the action plan-concrete steps to reach the objectives. The action plan will include such things as time lines, programs, costs, and personnel responsible for achieving the objectives.

It is useful to remember that the concept of ministry, goals, and objectives must not be so idealistic as to depress the congregation. That would undercut the very reasons for engaging in this process. On the other hand, the adopted statements and plans must also demand growth on the part of the congregation. A concept of ministry can be a catalyst for hope and faith. God is a God of
infinite resources and power!

The Concept of Ministry Process

Writing a concept of ministry with accompanying goals and objectives is not a single act but a process. In fact, the process is nearly as important as the end result, for the process communicates how much importance the leadership attaches to the concept of ministry. If the leadership decides on its own at a retreat what the contours of that congregation’s ministry is going to be like
in the next several year end then communicates this via the Sunday bulletin, the congregation’s reaction is likely to be, “That’s interesting; let’s see what they do with it.” But if the leadership involves as many people as possible in this process, the congregation’s response will be, “This is what we have decided we are going to be and do as a congregation.” All the gifts of God’s people are crucial to discovering God’s vision for the church.

Each congregation has its own way of coming to major decisions. Much depends on the pastor’s style of leadership and the size of the congregation. Most of the following elements, however, will be present:

1. The leadership decides the congregation should have a written concept of ministry and appoints a Concept of Ministry Task Force to recommend a process and guide the congregation through that process.

2. The Task Force (or someone appointed by it)gathers facts and statistics about the church and its community.

3. Everyone involved needs instruction from the Bible and the church’s confessional statements on the nature and task of the church. Additional instruction in church growth principles may be given-perhaps through a series of sermons.

4. A good deal of interaction takes place on the facts and statistics and the Bible study. Some of this takes place in small groups, committees, elder districts, or at congregational meetings-whatever is appropriate. The more discussion, the more the congregational ownership. As many members as possible should feel that they have contributed to the church’s vision.

5. During the interaction, formulation of the vision begins to take place. Provisional statements emerge and become more permanent as the Task Force leads the congregation through the process.

6. Finally, the concept of ministry and the goals are formally adopted by the congregation. The objectives and action plans may also be formally adopted or left to the leadership or committees to work out.

The above process may require the better part of a year. It is often a good idea to begin the process in the fall and plan to finish it the following spring. Once the concept of ministry and goals are adopted, other steps need to be taken:

7. The concept of ministry should receive constant affirmation by means of the weekly bulletin, newsletter, stationery, banners, the new members class, and so on. Everyone should be frequently reminded what a church’s ministry is all about.

8. Implementation begins immediately.

9. Now it becomes important to add the element of celebration. Whenever goals and objectives are achieved, the church should draw attention to this as publicly as possible.

10. As the church moves into its future it should evaluate all that has been adopted at least annually. The concept of ministry statement should last a number of years but needs to be examined every year. Goals will last at least a year but may be adjusted annually. New objectives should be set every year.


There are numerous resources to help a congregation evaluate where it is now and decide where it should be going. Most denominations offer consultation services. These are especially valuable in obtaining an objective view of the church’s situation and suggestions for the future. A consultant, however, cannot decide where the church should be going or what it should be doing. At most the consultant can suggest forks in the road so that the congregation and its leadership can choose which way to go and what goals to meet. And it is dangerous to let an outside consultant set a church’s direction, since the church will not feel it “owns” a vision it did not help create. Ownership is created when the congregation itself makes the basic decisions.

There are a number of helpful books on this subject. One of the most useful is Twelve Keys to an Effective Church by Kennon L. Callahan (Harper & Row, 1985). Callahan discusses six relational and six functional aspects of the church and includes a rating guide on each of them. This will help a church discover its greatest strengths and plan its future on those strengths.

In To Dream Again (Broadman Press, 1981), RobertD. Dale writes with a view to making the church come alive. He covers many aspects of church and has twelve action exercises, each consisting of a number of questions. By answering the questions, the church goers to know its needs and hopes and thus begins to construct its own vision.

Kent R. Hunter has written Your Church Has Personality (Abingdon, 1985). He urges each church to discover its own distinctive personality and then to construct a philosophy of ministry based on that personality. Each of the eight chapters concludes with discussion questions.

In Planning for Your Church (Westminster Press, 1984), Douglas A. Walrath describes the steps necessary for effective planning. He discusses the process of analysis, how to draw conclusions, and how to decide on a plan of action.

The chief value of Vision and Strategy for Church Growth by Waldo J. Werning (2nd edition, Baker Book House, 1983) is the eighteen evaluation charts that form the appendix of the book. The eight chapters discuss what church growth is all about and how a church can incorporate plans for church growth in its strategy.

FOCUS is a workbook published by Christian Reformed Home Missions (1986); its subtitle is “Concept of Ministry and Goals for the Local Church.” The manual leads a church through eight steps in formulating a concept of ministry and goals. The church studies its own situation and that of its community in light of Scripture passages and confessional statements. Six examples of concept of ministry and goals statements are included, along with sample charts. The workbook offers suggestions on how to arrive at a congregationally owned statement.

This article is from: The Healthy Church Series, Church Development Resources, Grand Rapids, Mich. This material is copyrighted and may be used for research and study purposes only.

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