The Vision Thing

Christian leaders must see through the eyes of Christ


A study published in 2006 of more than 1,100 churches examined the elements that most influence church growth. Researchers concluded that two key factors distinguish growing churches from declining churches: effective leadership and vision. These findings, reported in Lausanne World Pulse (http://www.lausanneworldpulse.com/trendsandstatistics/03-2006), reveal what many of us know intuitively: God uses leaders to build His Church. What church is not looking for more trained and effective leaders? And how many churches and organizations are mired without a clear vision?

What Are You About?

The first President Bush, running for office in 1987, complained that he just could not understand the big deal about “the vision thing.” Unfortunately, a lot of leaders dismiss the idea of vision and replace it with policies, procedures and management. It’s kind of like getting your car tuned up and ready to hit the road, but you don’t have anywhere to go. What good is a slick Cadillac just idling in the garage?

Leadership and vision go together. Leaders motivate and inspire followers by articulating a compelling vision, a mental image of a desired future. A widely shared vision can impel organizations, including churches, toward fulfillment of their goals and purposes.

Some leaders attempt to conjure up catchy phrases and promote them as vision statements. But a good vision statement goes beyond clever slogans. It must reflect the passion that drives the organization. From a Christian perspective, it must flow from the passions and purposes of God and express concisely—but compellingly and clearly—what the organization is ultimately about. The vision statement motivates people to action so that they embrace what they are doing as truly meaningful for both the organization and for the Kingdom of God.

However, simply writing a vision statement is not enough. There are software programs with templates to help you piece together vision statements. Vision is not fabricated on a computer screen. It is discerned.

Discerning Vision

Scripture reminds us that where there is no vision, “people stumble all over themselves” (Proverbs 29:18, The Message). “Vision,” in this context, points to a prophetic revelation where people hear from God and obey Him. Similarly, Christian leaders need to hear from the Lord concerning their lives and their organizations in order to articulate the vision God desires for them. Jesus said, “The Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does” (John 5:19, NASB). The leader seeking to discern vision must listen to God in the Word and in prayer, receive a fresh understanding of God and His purposes and then follow His leading.

This process may be somewhat slow as the leader wrestles with interpreting God’s direction in the midst of challenges, setbacks and opportunities. Leaders open their hearts to the Lord as they seek Him. It can be like peeling an onion as God deals with the leader at different levels. It can be a time of brokenness for the leader as he or she seeks the face of the Lord. Once discerned, vision sparks a passion in the leader and doesn’t let him or her go. The apostle Paul testified before King Agrippa, “I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision” (Acts 26:19, NKJV). The Christian leader is called to embody the vision discerned from the Lord and to articulate it passionately in word and deed, in humility and conviction.

Leading by Example

Early in my ministry, while I was still in Spanish language school, Gene Kelly, a veteran missionary based in Peru, came into my life. Here was a man filled with vision and passion for reaching the urban centers of Latin America through evangelism and church planting. This vision was summed up in the phrase, “Toward an Encounter with God.” He talked about Encounter, but more than that, he bled Encounter. His contagious spirit infected not only a few young missionaries in language school but also took hold in a whole continent. I have rarely met such an inspiring leader.

Why are leaders like this so rare? For one, many in leadership positions are bogged down by administrative tasks. Making plans, projects and budgets are important; without good management, organizations will go down the tubes. But confusing administrative functions with leadership muddies the waters. It has been said that most U.S.-based organizations are over-managed and under-led. The same can be said for many churches. Leaders can get snowed under with administrative tasks and not even have time to reflect on God’s vision for their organizations.

If this weren’t enough, some organizations’ members are invariably wary of visionary leaders. They would much prefer to control things with someone who is management-oriented than to accept the risks a visionary leader brings. These types of organizations—be they churches, denominations or mom-and-pop stores—will stagnate striving to maintain the status quo. To quote Winston Churchill, “They are decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute.” Although they may not want them, such organizations desperately need leaders with vision and members with the courage to follow.

Just recently I had the privilege to be involved in a missions conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where a good friend, Eladio Medina, was also ministering. Medina is from Chile and serves as the coordinator for the Latin America region of The Alliance World Fellowship. Medina is well-respected throughout the continent, but his vision crosses oceans. Many people think of Latin America as receiving missionaries. But there is a growing missionary sending movement that has resulted in Latin American missionaries ministering around the world.

Although soft spoken, Medina’s message during the missions conference was a compelling call for the Argentine Alliance church to take up the banner of world evangelization to hasten the return of Jesus Christ. Medina’s visionary leadership is influencing national churches throughout this region of the world and is inspiring a missionary vision that is bearing fruit in the Kingdom of God.

Vision Check

There are some words of caution for visionary leaders. First, there is the danger that the “vision” becomes more important than God and His people. The wise leader must remember that he or she is also called to love as Jesus loved. Too many Christian leaders have pounded home their ideas of vision with such force that their followers are battered and bruised. Vision sent from God unites His people and blesses them. Vision, yes! Abusive leadership, no!

A second danger is assuming that a finely crafted vision statement is all that is needed to inspire and unite followers. But that puts the cart before the horse. A vision statement should flow from the vision already born in the heart of the leader. Just having a “Vision Statement” framed on the wall doesn’t mean the vision is either clear or compelling.

A third danger is that of forfeiting authenticity. Sometimes leaders attempt to imitate role models who have inspired them. They may even repeat the same phrases or assume the same personality traits of their exemplary models. But vision communicated without authenticity will simply come across as a marketing scheme or, worse, as an insincere manipulation. Effective leaders must be true to themselves, even as they are true to the Lord and to the vision God has given them.

When the leader’s passions and values touch the vision that God has for the organization, the leader is filled with joy and infectious hope that are communicated through his or her personality and spirit. The God-given vision will inspire and motivate followers and will honor and glorify the Lord Jesus. The bottom line is that it’s all about Him. An eighth century Irish hymn sums up the heart of the Christ-honoring visionary leader:

Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art.
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

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