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“Church planter, you need a vision in order to successfully start your church.”

“Pastor, if you want your church to be healthy again, your church needs a fresh vision.”

You’ve heard those words. I’ve said those words. For the most part, they’re true, but let’s get one thing out in the open: your church’s vision is a shot in the dark if you don’t understand the pillars on which it rests.

Healthy vision does not come out of thin air. Sure, good vision is creative and usually the result of a decent dose of inspiration. And any church’s vision should be Spirit-directed and covered in prayer. It should be the overflow of a Spirit-filled congregation. However, hunches and good feelings are not the meat of vision, and direction from the Spirit is never untethered from the truths of Scripture or the realities around us.

A church’s vision is found at the intersection of three basic aspects of the congregation: the biblical mission, the context of the community around it, and the unique composition of the congregation itself. If you have ever heard someone say that every church should have a unique vision, this is why. Two of those three pillars (context and composition) are different for every, single church. That said, one of them (the biblical mission) is the exact same for every, single church. Understanding this distinction is imperative for crafting a healthy vision for planting or pastoring. Vision is what happens when an unchanging mission meets a unique congregation in an ever-changing context.

The Biblical Mission

A lot of confusion surrounds the terms mission and vision. This is due, in part, to churches borrowing language and terminology from the business world in order to explain their strategy. Mission and vision can be amorphous terms that are often used interchangeably in business writing, and multiple definitions exist for each. When talking about a business, this is fine, but it is not so with the church.

Simply put, your mission and vision are not the same. Mission is prior to vision. These are not interchangeable ideas. In fact, your church does not have a unique mission. Unlike a business, your church has a God-given mission that is the exact same as every other local church that has ever existed. The mission of the church is a biblical given. Its objective and parameters are set within the pages of Scripture. Your task as a church is not to reinvent your mission, it is to move in obedience to the directives handed to you by Christ for his glory and the fulfillment of the Great Commission. Anything less, and your church is not being creative, it is off mission. When establishing a church’s vision, a central question must be how this vision addresses the one, biblical mission of the church. You cannot properly set your vision for planting or pastoring a congregation until you truly understand the mission.

An Ever-Changing Context

Although the biblical mission of the church is unchanging, this mission must be accomplished  in an ever-changing world. Every community is different; every neighborhood has its own story. What is more, these stories take place across time and change as the years go by. Like any good story, the narrative of a community shifts and changes with the plot of the neighborhood. This means they are all unique, and they never stay the same.

The beauty of the local church is just that: it is local. It is the answer to a specific context at a specific time. In this way, the church’s task is taking the unchanging mission to an ever-changing context. Vision becomes important when a local church considers its context and the responsibility of accurately testifying to the gospel among its neighbors.

Context sets the agenda for how we accomplish the mission as local churches. This is where we get the world contextualization. As Dean Flemming notes in Contextualization in the New Testament, contextualization refers to “the dynamic and comprehensive process by which the gospel is incarnated within a concrete historical or cultural situation.”1 A healthy local church vision must first grapple with the biblical mission and then consider how the particularities of their context set the rules of engagement.

Vision-casting requires depth in discovering the community around the church. Often times, this process reveals not one but many differing communities around the church, sometimes competing communities. Multiple narratives exist in the same block of streets. An easy example is the twin stories created in a gentrifying area: one a story of economic renewal and the other a story of land-grabbing and displacement. Vision requires a church to understand the many social groups that may exist in their context and attempt to provide cultural manifestations of the gospel that make sense to those groups. Context sets the agenda for vision.

A Unique Congregation

Finally, the aspect of vision development that may be most overlooked is the unique makeup of the specific congregation. Like the context, every congregation is different. Consider Paul’s body analogies for the church: each part is different, and every part has a role to play. In this way, a congregation is a unique assembly of gifted individuals who are called together to accomplish the mission of the church. This truth should greatly impact vision development in the congregation.

Leaders should lean into the strengths and corporate personality of the their congregation.  Vision must always consider where the congregation is now, what they have to offer, and how to enable those in the congregation to put their best toward the mission. Too often, however, vision is set with an eye toward the ideal not the actual. This is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, the ideal is really just in the mind of the person setting the strategy. Second, it overlooks the foundational purpose of vision, namely leading those in the congregation from where they are to a preferred future of appropriately engaging their context and making new disciples.

Leaders can come to the table with ideal components of strategy, such as a full music team for a specific kind of worship. When the congregation does not match their ideal, the temptation is to look outside the congregation to find those pieces. If the leader’s mental concept of ideal is off, this will not reach the context. Furthermore, the knee-jerk reaction is to look outside the congregation for the resources necessary to accomplish this idealized vision. If more leadership is needed to accomplish the idealized vision, then we try to hire from outside. If leadership thinks better music is ideal to reach the community, then leading worship is outsourced. And the list continues. At its base level, this approach to vision ironically circumvents the congregation that already exists in order to accomplish the congregation’s mission. Pastors must shepherd their flock, and that requires engaging them in the mission.

These three pillars are the platform for a healthy local church vision. All churches are tasked with the same mission, but they are given a unique assembly of people and an ever-changing context. Understanding each is imperative, or vision is little more than a shot in the dark.