Where There Is No Vision…

For the second time in my life, I am going to a physical therapist (or is it “terrorist”?). I was first assigned a therapist after I tore apart my Achilles tendon during a USTA tennis match. It was slow, restorative work. Atrophy had set in and had to be reversed. My present weekly appointments are a result of back and hip issues. In both cases, they go back to a failure on my part to do one of my least favorite things—s-t-r-e-t-c-h. But I am learning if muscles don’t stretch and elongate, they tighten, putting pressure on joints and other things. It’s now a daily ritual.

I am also realizing how critical it is to stretch something else—the mind. This too tightens and becomes rigid, especially as one ages. The daily stretching of the cranium has its own pain and discomfort. We are forcing ourselves to look out into the unknown. We are questioning things we may have mindlessly assumed. But it’s when we elongate our minds that we start to imagine, envision. And thinking long is the key to dreaming big, which is the key to attempting great. So writes Will Mancini and Warren Bird in their recent book, God Dreams.

It is timely that I just finished this read. We have been discussing this a lot in leadership classes. Getting a handle on the distinction between vision and mission is critical. Tomorrow’s leaders will need to be missional, strategic—and visionary. He/she will need to answer the why, the how and the where of one’s particular ministry.

I am also realizing how critical it is to stretch something else—the mind. This too tightens and becomes rigid, especially as one ages. The daily stretching of the cranium has its own pain and discomfort. We are forcing ourselves to look out into the unknown.

Last weekend I was working with church leaders, tasked with discerning a God-formed vision. It’s mind bending (and knee bending) work, but it is the stuff of leadership. Leaders, true leaders, are called to rouse the imaginative abilities and awaken the latent energies of those they lead—with a vision, a picture of tomorrow. We have to do this—both personally and corporately. It is the necessary work of setting direction and helping people come around to the idea that there’s more available than what we are imagining—there’s something extraordinary if we will trust God.

This last summer we began to clear a path through the adjoining forest next to our cabin. We are working to create a prayer walk. It is slow, back breaking work, encountering stubborn roots and rotting stumps. Along the way, you hack and slash. You might also stir up a nest of angry, imperceptible, stinging insects—and other things. You have to decide what remains and what goes. It’s the necessary work of letting in light.

Envisioning is like this. Like an ax—a vision clears the path of old ways, outdated ideas, and rigid habits. A vision will stir up the nest of those of those whose mantra is “Come weal, come woe, our status is quo.” It is splashing cold water on one’s complacency. But pressing forward, a vision also lets in the light. We begin to see with greater clarity the questions we must always be asking—

  • Who are we becoming?
  • What does a picture of our long-term future look like?
  • What is it we want to ultimately contribute?

Surprisingly, most churches, like most lives, seldom get to this important work. We get distracted by the day-to-day treadmill. We get pulled so deeply into the present—or drawn so dearly back to the past—that we cannot see the way ahead. Or maybe we refuse because we have grown cynical or given up hope. And this comes with significant cost. We begin to settle for the mundane.

A vision pulls people out of the ordinary and routine to something ambitious—maybe even epic. This is what we began to experience last weekend. What if we go after a dream that says an older institutional church can be the hope of tomorrow? What if we chase after a vision that says this church will be the model of how a church should prepare people for eternity? Dreaming out into the future creates energy, provides hope, and gives the necessary direction. A clear and concise vision motivates people to invest their gifts, their time, and their resources to make it happen.

A vision pulls people out of the ordinary and routine to something ambitious—maybe even epic.

Imagine life without a vision. The Reformation would have never happened. But it did because God gave certain men a mental picture of laity liberated to exercise new levels of leadership. If Bill Bright had not received a vision to reach the world, beginning with college students, there would be no Cru. If a prominent football coach from a college in Colorado had had not visualized stadiums filled with men getting right with God, there would have been no Promise Keepers. Without a vision of aimless European intellectuals discovering truth, there would have been no L’Abri Fellowships.

If we don’t have a vision that compels us, it is the wrong dream. We tend to err in embracing a vision that is little more than a rephrased mission statement (“We exist to call men and women to be followers of Jesus”). A true vision goes beyond the generic—beyond something common, nondescript, and plain. A vision has to answer—“What has God set me free to do with this one life, that is unique and in tune with my passion and my strengths?” “What particularizes my mission?” “What will wake me up tomorrow and say—‘Now!’?”

Last weekend, these leaders understood that they can’t just sit here and hope the ministry they long for will come to them. Time to s-t-r-e-t-c-h the mind. As McManus in his Wide Awake puts it, you have to dream with your eyes wide open and find the courage to do it. Some dreams are not worth losing sleep over, but there are others we had better not sleep through.

About John Johnson

John Johnson is the former lead pastor at Village Church in Portland, OR. Presently, he is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Western Seminary and devoted to writing.