5 Problems With Top-Down Vision-Casting – And a New Testament Alternative

One of the pastor's primary roles is to help people discover and implement the vision God has given them for their lives.

Have we been doing vision-casting wrong?

I think so. For maybe a generation or more.

Some of my worst disasters in ministry have come from trying to implement a vision, only to find out that no one else was buying into it.

They might have even agreed that it was a good idea. For me. But it wasn’t theirs.

So they didn’t get behind it.

And no, I do not believe the alternative is to do a better job at convincing the group of the vision. If the church doesn’t get behind the pastor’s vision, maybe the pastor’s vision for them isn’t God’s vision for them.

There’s a better way.

Leaders don’t convince followers to meet the leader’s needs. Leaders are committed to meeting the followers’ needs.

How We’ve Been Taught to Cast Vision

Here’s the way vision-casting is usually taught and practiced in the church.

  • The pastor gets a vision for the church through prayer, Bible-reading or the latest church leadership conference
  • The pastor preaches about the vision
  • The leaders and congregation get behind the vision
  • The vision is supported, preached, and repeated regularly

From the top. Down to the bottom.

Here are some problems I see with that way of casting vision.

(Watch next week for my follow-up article, When Is Top-Down Vision-Casting The Right Choice For Your Church?)

1. It’s More Old Testament than New Testament

When we talk vision-casting, we tend to use Old Testament images and stories. Moses going up, then coming down the mountain. Ezekiel in the Valley of the Dry Bones. Elijah and the still, small voice.

There’s nothing wrong with teaching from the Old Testament, of course. But it’s not the best model for how Christians hear from God. The Day of Pentecost changed the top-down, lone-wolf prophet model for hearing from God.

Acts 2 does not give us a picture of Peter hearing from God in private, then coming to the disciples with the vision. It shows the Holy Spirit descending on the entire church, with Peter being the spokesperson to the community for what the entire church experienced.

The church gets the vision from prayer-soaked time in God’s Word. Then one of the leaders speaks that united vision to the community. When was the last time you heard that in a vision-casting message?

Speaking of the Old Testament…

2. It Relies On Obscure and/or Questionably Interpreted Bible Passages

There are two default passages used to promote the importance of top-down vision-casting.

  • Where there is no vision, the people perish.– Proverbs 29:18
  • Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it. – Habakkuk 2:2

The first passage is almost always taken out of context. What I quoted isn’t even the entire verse! The whole verse reads “Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” – (KJV)

When the last half of the verse is included (a bare minimum for biblical integrity) it’s about keeping God’s laws, not vision-casting. Not to mention, it’s one of the few times modern church leadership teachers ever quote from the KJV because if you quote it from any modern translation, it sounds very different.

  • Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint; but blessed is he who keeps the law. (NIV)
  • Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained, but happy is he who keeps the law. (NAS)

In the Habakkuk passage, the best we can say is that it has something to do with the importance of writing things down when communicating a message. But it has little, if anything to do with casting a vision.

These passages are slim biblical support for something we’re told should be used as a foundation for everything a church body does. Too slim.

3. It Puts All the Weight on the Pastor

In Acts 2, Peter did not bear the weight of the vision. He spoke in the company of the apostles, based on a vision the entire body received together. “Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd…” (Acts 2:14 – emphasis mine).

We are not Moses on the mountain. Jesus never intended for pastors to live on the top rung of some self-created ecclesiastical ladder. Or, to use different imagery, as the foundation upon which everyone else’s dreams and visions rest.

Instead, we’re called to live as an under-shepherd with the sheep (John 21:15-17). How many pastors are stressed, burnt out and overwhelmed by a burden we were never meant to carry alone?

4. It Doesn’t Include the Dreams and Visions of Church Members

When I go to a church leadership conference, it’s not to find out what the leader’s vision is and how I can help them fulfill it. I go to get tools to help me fulfill the vision God has given me for my life and ministry. I think a lot of people would come to our churches if they could get that help from us.

This may be one of the primary reasons for the growth of New Age, Find-Your-Inner-Vision books being gobbled up by otherwise Christian people. People want to know how to dream their own dreams, like Acts 2:17 says they will, but that’s seldom what they get at church. What they usually hear is “You’re here to help me fulfill my vision for this group.” So they go elsewhere and receive unbiblical advice, instead.

The reality is, if church leaders will see our role as helping others find and fulfill God’s vision and purpose for their life, people will put their lives on the line when we need them to step up.

5. It Requires Constant Selling

The three most-taught principles of vision-casting are “repeat, repeat, repeat”. I’ve been told constantly that if I don’t remind people at minimum of once a month about the vision, they’ll forget it.

That’s a problem.

Any vision that needs to be sold to me that constantly … I don’t know … maybe it’s not God’s vision for me.

There’s nothing wrong with repeating principles. That’s a basic tenet of teaching. But when God puts a vision on a person’s or a church’s heart, you can’t shake them from it.

When someone has truly bought in to a vision, they couldn’t stop thinking about it if they tried. They don’t need constant, obsessive, exhausting reminders.

A Possible Alternative

One of the pastor’s primary roles is to help people discover and implement the vision God has given them for their lives.

The job of pastors (along with apostles, prophets, evangelists, and teachers) is “…to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.” (Ephesians 4:12). Now that’s a passage which is neither obscure nor taken out of context.

Shouldn’t part of that preparation include inspiring them to hear from God for a vision for their own life and ministry? But how can they dream their own dreams if they’re constantly pushed to give time and money to support the pastor’s vision instead?

It’s a basic premise of leadership. Leaders don’t ask people to support their vision. They ask “how can I help you reach your vision?”

Small Churches Are Especially Suited for This

I believe much of the emphasis on top-down vision-casting has been the result of our big church leadership obsession.

It’s hard, if not impossible, for the pastor of a large number of people to design and implement ministries that allow for people to dream their own dreams. When a group reaches a certain size it requires more singularity of focus – one vision, with the parts all fitting in to it. That’s not bad. But it’s not the only way to do it.

For a community of people to allow individual visions to thrive, then see God meld them together into an only-God-could-do-this moment, the group needs to be smaller. And the pastor needs to be flexible.

When people are taught how to hear from God through his Word, they start dreaming their own big dreams.

I’m not the first person to note that there were 120 believers worshiping together on the Day of Pentecost. That’s small church size. But when they allowed the Holy Spirit to use them in this way, they had seriously big impact.

A community of believers, worshiping, dreaming and working together as guided by the Holy Spirit speaking to and through everyone. Now that’s a vision worth writing down and running with.

(Photo by Billie Grace Ward | Flickr)


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