Tag Archives: congregational vision

Without a Vision, the People Perish!

Text:    Acts 16:6-15

Do you ever have the feeling you are going around in circles and getting nowhere?   Do you ever feel that our church is doing that?     It’s a frustrating feeling!   You feel like you are trying so hard—-you are doing so much work—-but you don’t seem to be achieving much or getting anywhere.

One of the key reasons for this happening is our not being able to see what our destination or goal is.   Without that destination of what God wants you to do in mind, we are not  able to focus on where we are going——and we keep going in circles.

Although I grew up on a farm until 5th grade, we then moved to Abilene.   My last two years of high school and first two of college I went to work for a farmer near Abilene who farmed 500 acres of wheat as well as other crops..   After the wheat harvest was over it was then time to do the plowing with a five bottom plow.   If my employer wanted the field plowed so all the furrows were in the same direction, I found very quickly that thr first thing I had to do was plow a straight first furrow.   The only way to do that was to find something directly across the field from me and fix my eye on that and head the tractor straight toward it.   If I took my eyes off the destination for even a moment I would have a crooked furrow .   I had to stay completely focused on my destination.  

Long ago, the writer of Proverbs said words that relate to this example.   He wrote:   “Without a vision, the people perish”, as translated in the KJV.   It was important for Israel to keep in focus their vision of being God’s chosen people to spread knowledge of God to the rest of the world.

It is just as important for a congregation today to have a vision that they can focus on to achieve.   If it is to be achieved successfully, it must be God’s Vision, not just the congregation’s. Do you know what this church’s vision is?   (Please don’t all answer at the same time in telling me)   Is it a common, shared vision.?   Is our church focused on it?

A VISION should answer these important questions:

WHAT is our congregation’s purpose for living?

WHY is our congregation here in this specific place?

WHAT specifically is God calling us to do as his church?

HOW is God using us, or wanting to use us to make a difference in our world—-right here—right now?

If we have no such shared vision for our congregation, we really have no reason to live. WITHOUT A VISION, THE CHURCH WILL PERISH EVENTUALLY!!

In today’s text, the Apostle Paul is having a vision problem.   He and his missionary group were going in circles and not getting anywhere it seems. Paul’s idea was to head into Asia but that idea was nixed by the Holy Spirit.   He then decided that they would go toward Bithynia but this decision was also disallowed by the Spirit of Jesus.   Paul and his companions appear to be on the verge of traveling in circles when he finally received a VISION in a dream that directed their mission to Macedonia—to the West and not towards the East and Asia.  In Paul’s vision he saw a man in Macedonia calling for their help and immediately they set out for Macedonia—following the vision sent to him by the Holy Spirit.   They arrived in Philippi and there with the help of Lydia establish one of the strongest churches on their missionary journeys.

Two important things must be noted here about Paul’s actions. First, he was aware of the Holy Spirit’s leadership of their journey and when the Holy Spirit blocked where he thought HE wanted to go—twice—-he followd the leadership of the Spirit of Christ.   Secondly, after first being blocked and then again, Paul didn’t sit down and pout when denied the door to Asia. He didn’t say—“I’m not going to do anything until the Holy Spirit tells me what to do. He didn’t just sit and bemoan the fact that Jesus didn’t want him to go to Bithynia but Paul kept moving—thinking that “if we can’t go that way we’ll try this way”—But he listened for the direction of God’s Spirit as to where to move!!!   That is what we must learn from this scripture passage.

We listen for God’s Spirit to move us through prayer..   I’m sure Paul was in prayer most of the time.   We must never undertake any journey in the name of Christ except through prayer.   That is how the guidance of the Holy Spirit will come.

The English philosopher/political economist, John Stuaret Mill was prepare for his profession by a stern Scottish father, James Mill—himself a recognized philosopher/economist/ historian.   His father observed his son’s early brilliance and determined that the boy should be educated exhaustively in literature and the arts, science, history and philosophy.   However, he declared that religious learning was unnecessary and distracting, so he kept his son away from any religious education.   Later, John Stuart Mill (the son) declared, as he looked back on his youth, that he realized the profound sense of lostness and longing that had pervaded his heart.   Although his mind was crammed with information, John Stuart Mill declared his soul was “starved.”   Without the directional guidance of a God personally known through prayer and faith Mill likened himself to a well equipped ship, but with no sail.

How many of us are “ships without a sail today”?   In our personal lives and in our churches we are often without direction and work aimlessly and futilely to reach a vague destination that we do not know because we are not prayerful in communication with God.   And if God does communicate with us and his breath fills our sails—-are we willing to listen and rechart the direction of our lives as the Spirit leads us?   Because when God’s Spirit fills our sails we will often be taken into scary, ucharted waters.

I am fascinated by the fact that Paul never sat back and waited for God to give hims instructions.   God almost always seems to have to interrupt Paul on a journey.

Paul was on the road to Damascus to persecute the people of the Way when the Light hit him.

He had it in  his mind in the text today to go to Asia when God said, “Whoa” !

Then Macedonia opened up. Lydia was out there looking for God, a God seeker, a God fearer, when Paul came upon her and other women praying by the riverside in Philippi;

This leads me to think that maybe we need to get up and start doing what we think is God’s will now and trust that he will tell us what to do while we are on the way.   Maybe God never gives us more directions and more information than we need and until we have started moving in one direction, there is no need for God to correct us and tell us to change directions.   Perhaps to hear the voice of God as clearly and as fully as Paul heard it we have to be heading in some direction so that God can correct our movements..   Perhaps God will not give us more light than is needed for each step..

Our church is seeking a permanent pastor-–one that will work with us to build the church and to be a shepherd and a pastor to God’s people here in Eureka at Christian & Congregational Church.   The Search Committee cannot just sit and wait for God to send the pastor we need.   They must develop, through prayer, a clear idea of what that pastor should be.They must work and examine and search for a pastor—-but most importantly they must be in constant communication with God for guidance toward the right person—-the one that God intends for this church.  They must listen for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.   They must be willing to change their minds and change their directions as the Spirit leads them—-just as Paul was willing to be lead by the Spirit.  

We say we want to be a church that attracts children.   We have formed a task force to do that.   That task force must meet and discuss—-and work toward that goal—-but they will only be successful if they listen to God’s Spirit and let the Spirit lead them in directions they may have not thought possible. We must be able, through prayer to see what God’s picture of that church to attract children will be.   It will not perhaps be the pictre that the Task Forces has in its mind—it must be God’s picture.   That is only discerned by constantly talking and listening for God’s guidance.

God has a reason for this church to exist.   God has a purpose, a dream for this church to fulill in Eureka.   We must be open to the vision that will open to us as God leads us forward.   But meanwhile we must be striving to prayerfully find the answers to those questions I gave in the early part of this sermon:

  • As we struggle to answer these questions we must be prayerfully open to God’s Spirit and let that Spirit guide us to the answers that fulfill God’s dream for our church.   Once we have seen the vision, then we will be able to focus on it as Paul did..   Amen.

Why Do Churches Exist?


Why do church congregations exist?   What is their purpose?  What mission do they have?   Why do we need churches, anyway?  What vision do they need to share with the world around them?   These are questions that many Chrisitian congregations should be answering.   And they need to find those answers quickly, because, at present, most mainline congregations are only religious social clubs.   Congregations must be more than social clubs if they are to be relevant in today’s world.

I recently led a leadership group in  a local congregation in an evaluation of where they were as a church on the life cycle of institutions.    They decided, correctly I believe, that they were in what George Bullard called the maturity phase, as he defined  in his book,  Pursuing the Full Kingdom Potential of Your Congregation:    “Maturity is that period when Relationships, Programs and Management are dominant.   Vision is no longer dominant.   Management is controlling the direction of the congregation.   A congregation that is past it’s prime characterizes Maturity.   It is more passive than active.   It is still successful in many areas.   For the most part it has a positive spirit…..It is no longer focused.   It is no longer clear about its vision.  The success culture of the congregation keeps it moving forward .  It is blind to the fact that it no longer has an empowering vision that is fueling it forward. “

That lack of vision and mission became evident when I asked the leadership what the purpose or vision of their church was.   No one had an answer.   They are still struggling with why they exist as a church congregation!    While I suggested how to go about creating a vision for their church they have not  followed through with my suggestion and the congregation they lead  still has no clear vision of God’s purpose and mission God desires  for their congregation.  .   I gave them several examples to think about to get them started:   “To Be a Nurturing Church in a Hungry World”;  “To Live the Great Commandment in the Community Around Us”;   and the vision of the Saddleback Church as stated in Rick Warren’s “The Purposeful Church.” (With a Great Commitment to the Great Commandment and the Great Commission, God will Grow Our Church).A vision shared by the entire church should define the mission of the church.  The raison d’etre for their existence.   Without a vision of their mission a  congregation is just another social club.     I suggested that the leadership group  needed to form a small task force to do develop this vision of mission  with much prayer,  Bible Study, and discernment so as to arrive at a  vision and mission that all in their church congregation  could “buy into”.  As of yet, almost a year later,  none of this has happened and things go along the same way they have for some time—-downhill.

In my opinion, this is the reason for many of the mainline churches being on a downward spiral and increasingly  shrinking both in numbers and in their influence on their society.  That society is becoming  increasingly immoral or amoral, violent, greedy, not  compassionate with the needs  of the most vulnerable in our society,  polarized in politics, distrustful of government and each other.    These church congregations have forgotten that the one they are named after—Jesus the Christ—-gave them a mission which is to continue the mission Jesus began of sharing the good news of God’s adoption of humandkind as God’s children—as a part of what Jesus called “The Kingdom of God” .  That is the rule of God in people’s lives that  reflects the love and passion of God for all the world—-all the world.   Jesus saw good news in God sending him into the world to show what life lived in the Kingdom could be.  He didn’t just tell us about it, he lived it.  And life in the Kingdom of god is-pretty much the opposite of what the life of most people is now in the U.S.    We have a mission as a church to bring about the new way of living  that Jesus referred to as the Kingdom of God that was breaking into the world in Jesus’ time and is still here with us.   The Kingdom of God exists now—not later—-not after we die—Now—in this world!

It is not our mission as the church to sit on the sidelines, bemoaning the thin moral air in our society and the lack of morality, the violence,  the greed, the distrust, the polarity in politics, the lack of compassion for the vulnerable.  It is the mission of the church to step up to the plate and deliver a faith that gives stability,; to work with love and compassion to overcome the victimization of the most vulnerable;  to offer a way of peace to replace the violence that infects our society and world like a terminal disease;  to offer caring for others needs to replace the greed upon which our economy is now based;  to insist on compromise over polarization in our political arena.   The mission of the church is not to get along with the world as it is.   Not to be part of the present establishment governmentally,  politically or religiously; , but to point toward a better way—-the Way of Jesus that he demonstrated for us in the Gospels.  

We should never settle for the status quo—-the mission of the church is to transform lives, to change lives,  and in transforming  lives transform the society in which  we live our lives as church iby showing how that can be done using our lives as an example.

Let me illustrate with this story:

Edwina Gately is a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania.   In their newsletter  she wrote about the following incident:

“I once worked in a downtown overnight shelter.   It was a big, basement shelter, and every night when the homeless came in, I would stand at the door handing out blankets.   Once this guy came up to me and said, “Edwina, could I have one without lice?”   “What?” I said.   “Could I have one that doesn’t have any lice on it?”   And I said, “Oh, er…okay,” and starting holding up the blankets to see if I could find one without lice.   “Here.  I’ve got one here.   This one’s got no lice.   There’s nothing moving on this one.”

And suddenly I thought to myself, “What am I doing?  Here I am picking out blankets without lice and urine for certain folks.   This is all wrong.”

So I went to the supervisor and said to him, “This is not right.   We should launder these blankets every day instead of every week.   We can’t do this to these folks.   They deserve better than this.”   The supervisor looked at me and smiled.   He shook his head and said,  “Edwina, let me tell you something.   When you have been here as long as I have, you get used to it.”

NOOO!  ..something in me screamed.  WE MUST NEVER GET USED TO IT.  WE MUST NEVER ACCEPT THE WAY THINGS ARE BECAUSE WE ARE TOLD, “Well, it’s always been like this.”    The world was not meant to be like this!!   We were not meant to live in poverty.   We were not meant to be hungry.   We were not meant to be homeless.   We were not meant to have to sleep in lice-infested blankets.   When we accept the system with “This is the Way it is” we become a part of that system.   We are part of the oppression, the injustice, the diminishment.”

The Church is meant to take action for change in many areas of our society that need to be improved.    Blessed are the Christians who never get used to it and continue to work for change!



Congregational Myopia….

Myopia is a vision problem where close objects are seen clearly, but objects further away are blurred.   It is commonly called “near-sightedness.”   Some congregations show the same symptoms when they are unable to see    no further than themselves.     When this happens, in my opinion,   the congregation stops being church and the congregation begins to die as they turn inward and away from the community in which they are located and to which they are sent to be God’s witnesses.   These congregations  have lost something very important—-their vision.   What do I mean by “vision”?   The church’s vision is what we see as the purpose of  being a church–that is the reason for which we exist.  It is our answer to the question ” Why are we here?”    What is true for congregations  is also true for each  individual Christian.   Why are we Christians ?  What is our purpose?   When we name Jesus as Lord and are baptized to show the world our commitment—-how are we changed and transformed?   What vision do we have to fulfill as a Christian?   Is there a difference between us and other non-Christians ?.     If we have no vision as individual Christians it will result in a collection of Christians (a congregation) also not having a vision!

I have been working with a church to help them evaluate where they are on the congregational life-cycle (See Bullard, Pursuing the Full Kingdom Potential of Your Congregation).   During a recent meeting with 12 to 15  of the “spiritual leaders” of the congregation we noted the place their church was on in the life-cycle.   They decided the  congregation has started on the downward slope (Maturity on the life cycle) where the first thing lost is Vision as the driving force for the congregation.   Sure enough, when I asked if they knew what the vision statement of their congregation  was, not one of these “spiritual leaders” knew  the answer!    They did find a vision statement in the part of the constitution that described what their responsibilities were—-but decided it was hopelessly out of date—-forgotten, and so lengthy no one could quite understand it completely.   They realized they needed to “re-vision” based on their current time and place.

As I pondered the problem of a congregation that does not have a vibrant vision that guides them, I wondered how they could still be a church and not just a nice social organization.    As I searched for why they had lost a vision for their church  my mind led me  to wonder  if I had asked them for a personal vision for themselves as Christians, what their answer might be.   The formula to explain lack of vision may be:    Lack of individual Christian vision = lack of congregational vision.   We have found the problem and it is us!! (to borrow from Pogo)

I believe that the church is should exist  to transform lives.   Congregations should exist to change individual lives, to deepen discipleship to Jesus the Christ, and to thus set about changing the current world to be more like God’s passion, described by Jesus in the Gospels as the Kingdom of God .   Any vision that is does not include the above is myopic.   We are here as individual Christians and as a church to make a difference in people’s lives and in our world.   We are here as a church to carry out Jesus’ ministry and mission that he described in the synagogue in Nazareth:   “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”   (Lk. 4:18-19)  

fWe are sent to do the same.    To bring “good news” to the poor.    To speak in their behalf.   To end the unfairness that our present laws put upon them.  We are to challenge the causes of poverty, not just feed the poor.   We are to speak out for health care for them—not just sit back and let the extension of medicaid in Kansas die because the governor doesn’t like President Obama’s Health Care Act which is the law of the land.   We are sent by God through the example of Jesus to make concrete differences in the lives and well-being of our fellow human beings.    To make sure all are treated fairly as God’s children.   TO DO THIS WE HAVE TO  ACT, NOT JUST SIT QUIETLY IN OUR CHURCH PEWS ON SUNDAY MORNING ONCE A WEEK AND ALLOW INJUSTICE TO REIGN IN OUR COUNTRY UNCHALLENGED.  

It was said of early followers of Jesus, specifically of Paul and Silas, by the citizens of Thessalonica :   “….these people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also…”(See Acts 17: 5-8)

What have the churches done lately to “turn the world upside down.”   What have we done to  carry out Jesus’ Great Commandment?  What have we done to continue the ministry he described?   We as congregations cannot “turn the world upside down” if we stay within our walls and never open the door and go into the world outside and challenge the powers that be to create a world that is fair and good for everyone, not just the chosen few in the name of Jesus the Christ.   To turn the world upside down will mean to take risks.    It will mean that we will dream God’s dream and work for it to become effective in our place and time.

It is a matter of clearly seeing what God wants the world to be like by reading Jesus’ description of the Kingdom of God in the gospels and then setting out to bring  that about.    As stated in the book of Proverbs:    “Without vision the people perish.”     Congregations with myopia who can’t see anything but themselves and their comfort also perish!    They really have no reason to continue existence.   Amen.