Have we been doing vision-casting wrong?
I think so. For maybe a generation or more.
I was at a church conference not long ago where the leader spent all his time trying to convince the assembled leadership team to get behind his vision for the group. They like the leader, but very few of the pastors were buying into it.
Top-down leadership is not leadership. Leaders don’t convince followers to support the leader’s needs. Leaders are committed to meeting the followers’ needs.
Some of my worst disasters in ministry came from me trying to implement my vision, only to find out that my vision was something no one else shared. They might have even agreed that it was a good idea – for me. But it wasn’t theirs.
No wonder 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 your 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.
For example, NewSmallChurch.com is part of a vision God has given me. It was birthed from experiences in the church I pastor. The congregation fully supports me in it. But I don’t push it as God’s vision for them, because it’s not. It’s God’s vision for me.
How We’ve Been Taught to Cast Vision
Here’s the way vision-casting is usually taught and practiced.
- 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.
5 Problems With Top-Down Vision-Casting
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 usually rests 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.” – Proverbs 29:18 (emphasis mine).
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 (“Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd…” – Acts 2:14), based on a vision the entire body received together (emphasis mine).
We’re 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. How many pastors are stressed, burnt out and overwhelmed by a burden we were never meant to carry alone?
4. It doesn’t factor in 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 what I heard at the above conference. “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 help us.
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 my primary roles as my church’s pastor is to help people discover and implement the vision God has given them for their lives.
The job of pastors 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. The pastor needs to be flexible. And the people need to be taught how to hear from God through his Word, so they can dream 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.
That’s my vision for how to cast a vision. What’s yours?
So what do you think? What are your thoughts about vision-casting in the church? (Feel free to disagree with me. I’d be disappointed if someone didn’t.)
We want to hear from you. Yes, you!
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