The Number-One "Vision Problem"

I believe in the importance of vision and leadership. Still, I've grown almost allergic to the statements that seem to be so common about having and casting a vision. It's why I love this quote by John Ortberg in Ready, Steady, Grow, a book by Ray Evans. Ortberg says:

Vision is fundamental to the health of your church, but it’s probably not the kind of vision you’re thinking about.

Someone gets gripped by a vision that will not let them go. But it is not a vision of what they’re going to do. It is not a vision of a preferred future. It is not a vision of human activity. It is a vision of what already is. It is a vision of God, and how good he is, and how wonderful it is to be alive and a friend of such a Being.

Out of such a vision flow desires to do good things for such a God. Sometimes these activities may lead to results... And then other people may gather, and some decide they’d like to be involved...[But] people begin to pay more attention to what they are doing than to the reality of God.

At this point the mission replaces the vision as the dominant feature in people’s consciousness... people are living under the tyranny of Producing Impressive Results.

The number-one ‘vision problem’ with churches today is not (as is widely held) leaders who ‘lack a vision’. The real problem is when our primary focus shifts from who God is (a vision alone that can lead to ‘the peace of Christ reigning in our hearts’) to what we are doing.

Great quote. The number one problem with vision in our churches is that we lack a vision of God. Until we have that, almost nothing else matters.

This Church Opens Wide Her Doors

When people walk into church, according to Ray Ortlund, they have been beaten up all week. We live in a social environment in which we never measure up. We are soaked in an environment of criticism and comparisons, so much so that it feels normal. We are made to feel small at work, in advertising, and in almost every area of life.

We swim in an ocean of criticism all week, and then we walk into church.

That’s why Ortlund gives a little speech at the beginning of the worship services at Immaneul Nashville that he adapted from James Boice from Tenth Presbyterian Church:

Ray Ortlund's notes

Ray Ortlund's notes

To all who are weary and need rest;
To all who mourn and long for comfort;
To all who feel worthless and wonder if God even cares;
To all who are weak and fail and desire strength;
To all who sin and need a Savior —
This church opens wide her doors with a welcome from Jesus,
the mighty friend of sinners,
the ally of his enemies,
the defender of the indefensible,
the justifier of those who have no excuses left...

Ortlund says, “I just want people to know, it’s going to be different now. You just walked into grace. We can relax. We can own up. We can be honest. We can face the living God through the blood of Christ and let him speak to us.”

Sign at Redeemer Church, Bellingham, Washington

Sign at Redeemer Church, Bellingham, Washington

In the next hour, he wants the souls of the people to be re-oxygenated, so that when they walk out of the service they feel alive again.

I love this! As you can see from the picture, others have borrowed it from Ortlund as well.

Check out Ray Ortlund’s excellent message at The Gospel Coalition Atlantic Conferences — this post is based on his comments at the 19 minute mark — as well as the other messages. I felt my soul re-oxygenated as I soaked in grace under the teaching at this conference.

I Need to Be Reminded Often

Every once in a while, I need to pick up Everyday Church: Gospel Communities on Mission and reread the first chapter to remind myself what is true about our context.

Let me confess: I am prone to think about effective ministry in all the wrong categories. I tend to forget an important truth: that “the Christian gospel has moved from the center of our culture to the margins” (p.13). As I look around, I still see churches using familiar methods, and it seems to "work." I forget that those methods are reaching a declining number of people. “People can be attracted to a church by what it offers,” says Jim Petersen, “but . .  . increase of this sort isn’t church growth at all. It’s just a reshuffling of the same fifty-two cards” (p.18). I agree with the thesis of the authors:

We want to suggest that most of our current dominant models of church and evangelism are Christendom models. This needs to change as we move to a post-Christendom and post-Christian context. (p.23)

So here are some quotes I need to read that give you a taste of why I need to read this chapter regularly to remind myself of what is now true. If they’re right, and I think they are, then the implications are profound.

We have the opportunity to become communities focused on Jesus and his mission…What is fast disappearing is the opportunity to reach notionally religious people through church activities.  (p.13)

Merely opening our doors each Sunday is no longer sufficient. Offering a good product is not enough. (p.15)

What is clear is that great swathes of America will not be reached through Sunday morning services. (p.15)

Seventy percent of the United Kingdom population have no intention of ever attending a church service. That means new styles of worship will not reach them. That means fresh expressions of church will not reach them. That means Alpha and Christianity Explored evangelistic courses will not reach them. That means guest services will not reach them. That means churches meeting in pubs will not reach them. That means toddler churches meeting at the end of the school day will not reach them. The vast majority of unchurched and de-churched people would not turn to the church even if faced with difficult personal circumstances or in the event of national tragedies. It is not a question of “improving the product” of church meetings and evangelistic events. It means reaching people apart from meetings and events. (p.17)

We cannot claim to be faithfully proclaiming the gospel to the lost through our Sunday preaching when most of the lost do not attend church. (p.27)

We cannot rely on business as usual. It cannot mean more of the same. It must involve a qualitative change rather than simply a quantitative change. (p.27)

I know these things. I just forget them as I default to old mental models. It's why I find this chapter helpful every time I read it.

BiVo

We’re planting a church in downtown Toronto, but we’re trying to do a little more than that. We are trying to discover how to plant churches in the condo communities in downtown Toronto in a way that is reproducible.

And there’s the rub: how do you plant churches in one of the most expensive cities in Canada, and in one of the hardest places to plant a church, and make it reproducible? One of the major barriers is money. And one of the most expensive parts of church planting is salary.

That’s why I’m interested in Hugh Halter’s book BiVo: A Modern-Day Guide for Bi-Vocational Saints.

In my opinion, the old church planting paradigm of three years to a self-funded church plant is in the process of dying. That isn’t to say that it’s died, but it’s on borrowed time. If a church is to grow evangelistically in a post-Christendom context, three years will often not be enough.

Halter argues that this isn’t just the case with church plants; it applies increasingly to established churches too. Economics, mobility, and cultural trends, and the decline in the effectiveness of the consumer-church model spell trouble for pastors who were looking for a steady paycheck. “Gone are the days when a young man or woman can graduate from Bible school or seminary and find a great church to go work for,” which may be an overstatement. “We were sold a bill of goods that if we could preach well, organize staff, and run weekend programs, we would be honored, respected, followed, and provided for. But none of that is true.”

Halter isn’t alarmed by this trend. In fact, believes “the currents of change are helping to drift back toward His design for our lives and the church.” Halter helps us understand that going bi-vocational is not a second choice. The gospel isn’t hindered by economics, and we can live as the church at a much lower cost than we think. “Making disciples is easier and cheaper than keeping consumer Christians happy,” he argues. And it may lead pastors to greater freedom at a personal and financial level.

Halter tells his own story. He then moves to Scripture, reminding us that we can’t serve God and money, and arguing that cheap church is biblical. He weaves his own story into the text and his own convictions about ministry. He provides very practical advice on how to thrive doing bi-vocational ministry. “If you’re going to try to do this,” he says, “you shouldn’t do it unless you plan to live both lives well.” It takes a lot of intentionality, and it’s not for everyone.

I really appreciate that Halter doesn’t judge those who are in full-time vocational ministry. He also emphasizes that bi-vocational ministry isn’t the goal; it’s a means to the goal. By the end of the book, I was convinced that he’s on to something. We need to consider this as a model of ministry.

Hugh Halter may be too radical for some of you. So may David Fitch, who wrote a good post a few years back called STOP FUNDING CHURCH PLANTS and Start Funding Missionaries: A Plea to Denominations. But perhaps we need to start paying attention. As J.D. Payne says, “We must shift from church planting methods that are difficult to reproduce to methods that are highly reproducible…With over four billion people in the world without Jesus, it is not wise to use methods that are counter-productive to healthy, rapid multiplication.”

Is bi-vocational ministry the way forward? Not for everyone. But if we are to come up with reproducible models of ministry to reach the billions who have never heard, it’s an option that is worth some serious thought.

You can pick up a copy of the book at the Missio Publishing website.

In Praise of Less Grandiose Mission Statements

I spoke to a church planter whose vision was lofty: to transform a city for the glory of God, or something like that. He admitted that the reality was a little humbler. Some days it's enough to hang in there another week, to disciple another young believer, to love your wife, and to preach the gospel. Then, one day, we can die and be forgotten (to quote Count Zinzendorf).

As with most things, there is a tension. There is a place for humble ambition. But we can go too far the other way and craft statements that induce nothing more than rolling eyeballs.

Greg McKeown makes this point in his recent book Essentialism, reflecting on a class that reviewed the mission statements of over a hundred not-for-profit organizations:

As the class reviewed more than one hundred examples, they noticed that some of the most grandiose were actually the least inspiring. For example, one had the mission to “eliminate hunger in the world,” but given that there were just five people in the organization, the mission felt like little more than empty words. Then out of the cluttered landscape of such loose idealism came a statement we all immediately understood and were inspired by. It was from a slightly unexpected place: the actor/ social entrepreneur Brad Pitt, who, appalled by the lack of progress in rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, had started an organization called “Make It Right” with the essential intent “to build 150 affordable, green, storm-resistant homes for families living in the Lower 9th Ward.” That statement took the air out of the room. The concreteness of the objective made it real. The realness made it inspiring. It answered the question: “How will we know when we have succeeded?”

As I said, there surely must be a place for holy ambition. But holy ambition doesn't always have to be expressed in lofty terms. To faithfully serve in a time and a place, and to make a real difference in a neighborhood, is a very ambitious goal, even if it isn't grandiose. But churches that do this are making a difference all over the world.