As the Elders of Walnut Hill Church take the next steps in the development of our ministry we will renew our discussion about the Vision and Mission of the church. We will be asking ourselves:
- What is it God wants for us to be and to do in this particular time and place?
- What is our “dream” for the future of this church?
These are important questions – questions I enjoy working through. In this process it is important that we learn to discern the leading of God from our own whims and fantasies – something that is not always easy to do. It is important that we listen to one another. It is important that we know our community: the needs, the make-up; while recognizing what God is already doing around us. These are a few of many important considerations.
At the same time, having undertaken this process in other churches, I am convinced that the most important thing for us to do is to constantly remind ourselves what our Lord said about developing ministry:
“I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” –Matthew 16.18
“Unless the Lord builds the house its builders labor in vain.” –Psalm 127.1
It is God who builds the church. If not it is not worth doing. As Proverbs 19.21 says:
Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.
With this in mind, I think D.A. Carson, in his book The Cross and Christian Ministry, offers an important perspective that our church, and any church, would be wise to keep in mind while working through the vision process:
Western Evangelicalism tends to run through cycles of fads. At the moment, books are pouring off the presses telling us how to plan for success, how “vision” consists of clearly articulated “ministry goals”, how the knowledge of detailed profiles of our communities constitutes the key to successful outreach.
I am not for a moment suggesting that there is nothing to be learned from such studies. But after a while one may perhaps be excused for marveling how many churches were planted by Paul and Whitefield and Wesley and Stanway and Judson wihtout enjoying these advantages.
Of course all of us need to understand the people to whom we minister, and all of us can benefit from small doses of such literature. But massive doses sooner or later dilute the gospel. Ever so subtly, we start to think that success more critically depends on thoughtful sociological analysis than on the gospel; Barna becomes more important than the Bible. We depend on plans, programs, vision statements – but somewhere along the way we have succumbed to the temptation to displace the foolishness of the Cross with the wisdom of strategic planning.
Again, I insist, my position is not a thinly veiled plea for obscurantism, for seat-of-the-pants ministry that plans nothing. Rather I fear that the Cross, without ever being disowned, is constantly in danger of being dismissed from the central place it must enjoy, by relatively peripheral insights that take on far too much weight. Whenever the periphery is in danger of displacing the center, we are not far removed from idolatry.
Let me be clear, I am not suggesting that there is anything inherently wrong with vision and ministry planning. If I thought this, we would not be entering into these discussions at Walnut Hill Church.
I agree with Carson that there is nothing “spiritual” about seat-of-the-pants ministry. Churches that forgo community assessment and the vision process because, in their opinion, these things are too “worldly”, are often guilty of neglecting opportunities for ministry around them. Such churches are often inwardly focused, or in-grown, and are unfaithful to the mandate of Scripture to participate in the Missio Dei (Mission of God) in their own communities. I suspect these churches may one day hear the same admonition from our Lord that was written to the Church at Laodicea, in Revelation 3:
“You are neither cold nor hot. Because you are lukewarm I will spit you out of my mouth.”
Further, planning is clearly not wrong or worldy. Proverbs 15.22 tells us:
“Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisors they succeed.”
The emphasis here is that failure often comes because we do not plan well enough. We do not commit ourselves to the task. We do not seek out enough, or the right, advisors. But again, God must be the ultimate advisor.
But what Carson cautions is something that needs to be kept in mind: While Vision & Mission Statments can be helpful, we must be careful not to elevate them to the status of necessary.
If we view these things as necessary, rather than merely helpful, important, or wise, we are in danger of adding to the gospel. We are viewing something as equal to the gospel, or as Carson suggests, subtly dispacing the gospel. This cannot be. Only the gospel is the power to transform people and communities. Our plans must, at most, serve the teaching and advancement of the gospel. The gospel must never be viewed as a tool to advance our plans.
Carson’s warning also guards against pride. When we see “our” plans coming to fruition it is easy to forget that it is God who builds the Church. It is arrogance to think that we may have discovered (or invented) the key to success. So we must ask oursleves:
- How do we explain all those churches that have developed enviable, clear, precise vision and mission statements, but nevertheless remain somewhat enemic and impotent?
- How do we explain the effect of the ministries of those like Paul, Whitefield, Wesley, etc, who may have had a plan, but had no pithy mission statement to entice people to get on board?
No. Vision & Misison Statements may be helpful, even important, but they are not necessary.
Still we will work through this process, and I expect we will be the better for having worked through it. We will make our plans, seek God’s heart, and depend upon his grace. Along the way, hopefully, we will regularly remind ourselves of Solomon’s counsel from Proverbs 16.9:
“In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps.”