The Vision Thing: Necessary or Optional?

Proverbs 29:18a, “Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained,” refers to supernatural revelation. The word translated as vision also appears in Jeremiah 23:16b in a warning about false prophets: “They are leading you into futility; they speak a vision of their own imagination, not from the mouth of the Lord.” Today, some popular Christian writers use the word in the same sense that it is used in the secular business world. Their definitions differ slightly, but generally speaking, they describe vision as an imagined picture or dream of a church’s preferred future that they hope will actually occur. They cannot guarantee that such a vision will come to pass, whereas supernatural revelation about the future always comes to pass. Nevertheless, they consider their type of vision and vision casting to be essential.

Vision statements are also found on the mission field. When I went through team leader/strategy coordinator training as an IMB missionary in May of 2000, I was required to put together a three-year master plan built upon a detailed “endvision” that included a church planting movement. The endvision was the key component of the master plan, and after describing this vision, I was instructed to work backward and list action plans needed to achieve it. Our team completed some of the action plans, but we did not achieve the endvision.

A church can obviously benefit by having an envisioned goal that is designed to carry out the Great Commission in the unique context of that church. When I served as a pastor in the late 1980s, our church utilized a school gymnasium for our youth program on Wednesday nights, and our senior adults used it at other times. The school permanently closed, and we no longer had access to a gym in the town. Over time, momentum grew in our church to build a Family Life Center. We did not experience a Macedonian vision (Acts 16:9), but we believed that we had discerned God’s will. We prayerfully applied biblical principles to our situation as we deliberated, and we judged that we should construct the building and utilize it for evangelism and discipleship. After a two-year period during which our members sacrificially gave to the building fund, we began construction in the early 1990s. The building was eventually completed and utilized for God’s glory.

Vision casting is not a requirement for pastors. Scripture is sufficient, and vision casting is not listed as a qualification for pastors (overseers) in 1 Timothy 3. In that passage, Paul mentions leadership, but it is not the CEO type of leadership; rather, it is servant leadership in the family context. In 1 Timothy 3:4, Paul says that the pastor “must be one who manages his own household well.” Christian entities such as churches and mission agencies should be more like families than corporations, and Christian leaders should be more like fathers than CEOs.

A good pastor is like a good father. Both men are involved in loving discipline when necessary. Both men equip the people who are under their care. This equipping process involves setting a good example. Church members should hear their pastor talk about his evangelism and discipleship experiences. Even better, they should see him obeying the Great Commission. A good pastor and a good father both practice what they preach. Good shepherds lead their sheep from the front rather than driving them from behind.

Use of the word “vision” is fine in some circumstances, but some cautionary notes are in order. First, when a Christian leader uses that word, he should thoroughly define what he means by it. When a biblical word is repeatedly used with a non-biblical meaning, the person using the word should repeatedly clarify the meaning to avoid confusion.

Second, Christian leaders must realize that when they present a vision of the future that they supposedly received from God, they will lose credibility if the vision does not happen. Some followers may mistakenly think that the leader’s vision carries as much authority as Scripture, and when the vision does not come to pass, they may accuse the leader of false prophecy. Here’s an extreme example: Years ago, I met a man who had been a follower of a prosperity preacher. He told me that when the prosperity preacher’s vision changed from a new building to a private jet, he became quite disillusioned. If, after much effort, a group does not see its vision achieved, it will likely experience discouragement and a sense of failure.

Third, popular writers admit that vision statements need to change as circumstances change. Our world is changing at an ever faster pace, and thus vision statements must change at an ever faster pace. The prediction of future circumstances is difficult. James gave a relevant warning: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.’ Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that’” (James 4:13-15). Rather than spending a lot of time imagining a preferred future while constantly revising vision statements, we should concentrate on the mission statement that we were given in Matthew 28:19-20 and apply it as best we can to our current situation.

God gave John supernatural revelation about the future. Part of that vision includes the description of “a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9). That vision should grip Christian leaders, and it should motivate them and their followers to obey the Great Commission and be part of God’s glorious plan that will certainly come to pass.