The Vision Spiral

By Rodney Shaw

Mission vs. Vision and the Vision spiral

Mission and vision are often used interchangeably. Some organizations have mission statements, some have vision statements, and some have both. Further, some define Mission the way others define vision and vice versa. For the purposes of this article, a mission is a destination and a purpose. The church’s mission is what the church is all about. It is the core purpose that justifies and defines the church’s existence. The mission has already been given to the church by Christ: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19, NKJV). Vision, on the other hand, is the unique way in which an individual or a group approaches and accomplishes this mission. A vision is the way the mission is envisioned within a particular context. It is not a destination but a direction. Based on present circumstances, available resources, and personal giftedness, the vision for various Christians and churches may be radically different, although we are working toward the same mission – making disciples of all nations.

Vision is a dynamic phenomenon. It is how we see ourselves accomplishing our mission at a given point in time, and it often changes or evolves over time. This is what I call the vision spiral. The vision spiral can be framed in the form of a question: What does my God-given vision look like in relation to my God given mission at a particular point in time?

This spiral can be seen in the early church. God’s mission for the church was to make disciples of all nations. Jesus specifically told the disciples, “But you shall the Holy Spirit has and you shall be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8, NKJV). This was their mission. But their vision was not large enough to accomplish their mission.

They seemed to understand their mission, though they basically congregated in and around Jerusalem. It took the martyrdom of Stephen and the persecution of the church to get them out of Jerusalem. (See Acts 7:54-8:4.) Through this tragedy they were forced to expand their vision of revival to include Samaritans and distant Jews. (See Acts 8; 11:19.) Even after Samaria (which consisted of people with a mixed Jewish heritage) it took a super natural encounter with God for peter to take the gospel beyond Samaria (half-Jews) to Cornelius, a Gentile. Even so, it wasn’t until God intervened in the life of Paul with miraculous conversion that significant inroads were made into the Gentile world. The early church’s vision spiraled from near Jews, to Samaritans and distant Jews, to near Gentiles, and finally to distant Gentiles, but only with divine or circumstantial intervention.

This spiral can also be seen in the history of Israel. God’s ultimate mission for Israel was to produce a Messiah who would be a blessing to the whole world. However, God led them gradually through many progressive stages, including bringing Abraham out of Ur to live a life of wandering, preserving the Israelites in bondage in Egypt, delivering them through the exodus, and the events go on. These events ultimately led to a manger in Bethlehem, where, “When the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law” (Galatians 4:4).


God often reveals a part of a vision to move us toward fulfilling the mission. Once we attain that particular aspect of the mission, God uses circumstances or direct intervention to propel us a little farther, oftentimes in the form of a renewed or revised vision. There are several reasons for the vision spiral.

1. The nature of revelation.
This principle is clearly seen in the story of redemption throughout Scripture. Although Calvary was in the plan of God from eternity past, God only revealed the specifics of salvation gradually from the time of the fall until Pentecost. Throughout the centuries God unveiled His plan through types and shadows. (See Galatians 4:24; Colossians 2:17; and Hebrews 10:1.) This seems to be consistent with the way God reveals information, for He usually does not reveal all of His plan at once. This is why God spoke to Israel incrementally: “For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little” (Isaiah 28:10).

2. Human limitations and finitude.
We are unable to comprehend and appropriate the grand vision in a single moment. We are limited, finite beings. Even when God reveals His plan, we often cannot, or do not, receive it. When we do, we often fail to implement it properly and consistently.

When Habbakkuk demanded an answer from God concerning the plight of Judah, God responded: “I will work a work in your days which you would not believe, though it were told you” (Habbakkuk 1:5). God was about to do a great work, but He was going to use unconventional means to accomplish His plan.

Even when we can accept God’s plan, we are often incapable of implementing it at that moment. For example, God’s ultimate plan for our lives is too grand for us to comprehend the moment we are converted. Furthermore, we do not have the resources or talent to accomplish the things God wants to do. The grand mission is too much for us to achieve all at once, so for our own well being, God takes us step by step as He did Israel during their conquest of Canaan. (See Deuteronomy 7:22.)

3. The principle entropy. Things tend toward disorder. If God gave us the entire vision at once, it is unlikely that we could remain faithful to it or maintain it over the course of our lives. We are in periodic need of a corrective from God.

4. God reveals His plan in part to test our faithfulness. Jesus taught this principle in the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:15-28) and in the parable of the pounds (Luke 19:12-27). God entrusts us with small pieces of vision in order for us to respond in faithfulness. As we prove to be good stewards of what God does, He allows us to progress to greater responsibilities. This is true in individual lives as well as in the life of a church.

5. Cultural considerations. What was suitable in the first century may be obsolete in the twenty-first century. What is relevant today may have been incomprehensible in previous generations. The way we operate today could not have been articulated during the first century. Accordingly, vision must change, even from decade to decade, in order to address cultural factors.


Vision is not the exclusive domain of leaders. Even so, leaders typically have priority in the reception of vision. Accordingly, leaders often see the next loop in the spiral long before the organization does. For the reasons listed above, an organization may not be ready to move to the next loop. The leader is responsible to prepare his followers for the transition. Long before the crisis moment comes that propels the group from their existing loop to the next, the leader talks about the next loop, gets agreement from his inner circle, and formulates a plan. Even so, the leader cannot force the group into the transition. The timing has to be right, and this often requires intervention from God, a crisis, or some other external intervention.

In some instances, the leader will not know what the next loop is until it arrives. Sometimes major transitions are unforeseen. Even so, the leader plays a great role in helping the organization navigate the change. Visionary leaders must anticipate and facilitate change. A leader must have the courage to expect his vision to be changed and stretched. As one man once prayed, “Lord, give me the courage to turn around when I have misunderstood your call.” That takes a great leader.

The vision spiral should not be confused with a leader who is spiraling out of control! Jumping from one vision to the next may be symptomatic of instability, not moving from one spiral to the next. A healthy spiral has the following characteristics: (1) the coming loop in the spiral is obvious and natural based on the circumstances at hand. (2) The coming loop builds upon, not abandons, the previous loop. (3) The coming loop is essential because the previous loop has reached its maturity. (4) The coming loop is not an escape from a vision that has gone bad but the next step for a vision that has gone exceptionally well. (5) The coming loop is a logical progression toward fulfilling the mission.

Leadership is about change. If you are not involved in change, you are not leading. Perhaps Paul’s words have some relevance here: “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (II Corinthians 3:18).

The vision spiral as seen in the book of Acts

Mission = Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:16-18; Luke 24:44-50; Acts 1:8
Vision = Fearful and hiding
Intervention = The Resurrection and Pentecost (Acts 1-2)
Vision = Jews in Jerusalem only (Acts 4:16; 5:16, 28; 6:7)
Intervention = Persecution and martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 7:54-8:4)
Vision = Samara and distant Jews (Acts 8; cf. 11:19)
Intervention = Peter’s vision (Acts 10:9-16)
Vision = Gentiles in close proximity (10:17-11:18)
Intervention=Conversion of Paul (Acts 9)
Vision= the whole world

From, “Forward Magazine”/November-December 2008/Volume 39, Issue 6/Page 12-13, by Rodney Shaw

This material is copyrighted and may be used to study & research purposes only