It was a frustrating time for me in the spring of 2008. I had just been to the eye doctor and discovered my eyesight was continually getting worse. A few years earlier I had developed myopia—nearsightedness. While I had no trouble with things up close, my distance vision had gone from 20/15 to 20/20, then 20/30, then 20/40 to 20/70. I was told I would soon be at 20/100. I never could get accustomed to the feel of contact lenses, so here I was in my early-30s depending on prescription glasses to see. I still loved playing basketball and baseball, but those sports aren’t real friendly to guys-with-glasses. Even though I was still young enough and athletic enough, I was going to have to give up those sports and try to cope with my eyesight changes. That’s why I was so frustrated.
When pastors are called to serve a several-decades-old church, vision problems often exist. Some time ago the church was effective, seeing their community clearly and reaching people with the good news of Jesus. As time went on, however, their vision began to change and they couldn’t see past their own four walls, focusing all their attention on ministering to their own, because it was too difficult to see beyond that. Some churches grow use to this kind of myopia, but pastors and church leaders must do something to correct it or they will face frustration with spiritual nearsightedness.
What Is Meant by “Vision”?
When thinking of vision for the church, many quickly turn to Proverbs 29:18—“Where there is no vision, the people perish” (KJV). A few ultra-conservative scholars lament this translation, insisting on the NIV understanding—“Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint.” These scholars claim the notion of “vision” is manmade and has no place in the church. Are they right? Not exactly.
Let me say, first, there are some leaders who overemphasize vision and stress the creativity of man. Guys who aren’t creative by nature stand no chance of ever getting there church to buy into a new vision. But there’s more to this notion with a closer look.
The better understanding probably comes from the ESV—“Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint” (or “the people are discouraged”). The word for “vision” also occurs with the prophetic visions found in Ezekiel 12:27; Daniel 8:13; Nahum 1:1 and others. It refers to the “revelation” given by God and spoken in a timely way to His people.
Thus, when I write about vision, this is what I believe God’s Word on the matter means: Gaining the Lord’s wisdom and insight from His Word in order to reach your community. With this understanding in mind, let’s consider what it means to get new vision and direction for your church.
Getting New Vision and Direction
You already know your church has a vision problem. What you need is a biblical solution to the vision problem. Let me share with you a few steps I’ve learned in getting new vision and direction for your church. I don’t mean to imply my church is perfect or that we’ve gotten past all our vision problems, but by the grace of God, we’ve made some steps in the right direction under new vision.
1) Seek the Lord’s help. You are probably thinking, “Duh. I know to do that!” But stay with me a second. I’m not just talking about prayerful dependence on the Lord, though I certainly intend to include that. I also mean looking closely at God’s Word to see where it speaks to your situation.
When I first came to First Baptist Sweetwater, there was a Vision Team ready to finalize their 2-year study. One of the members was wise enough to suggest they not finish their report until the new pastor put his footprints on it. I had very little say-so in the report (after all, in their minds, it was already complete!), but they allowed me to add a couple of things. The most important was a vision statement based on John 7:37-38—“Thirsty? Come (to Jesus). Drink (from Jesus). Live (for Jesus)!” or more simply “Thirsty? Come. Drink. Live! at Sweetwater.”
The Lord led me to that passage in light of our setting. I sought out His help in prayer and in His Word and He provided us a simple way to share our message with our community in light of our identity.
2) Study your community. Every successful church planter gets to know his community really well. He probably utilizes a demographic study, showing how many people live within the church campus based either on distance or time traveled. Such reports also show the average age and size of families, median income, percentages of ethnicities and more. These studies are available to revitalizers, too, and pastors can gain invaluable data from them.
I served one church where the demographics revealed the average age of our community was 41 years old, but the church began a couple of years earlier with an average age of 68—and they wondered why they couldn’t reach their community! By God’s grace we saw our average age drop to 48, but we were still a few years too old for most in our community.
3) Set a target. When you discover the surrounding demographics, create a target to reach. You won’t hit the bull’s eye every time, but failing to have a target will cause you to live aimlessly in life and ministry, and that’s one of the biggest problems declining churches face.
I serve a church tucked in the midst of a community where 52% are women, age 39, usually married with two children (a teen and an elementary age) and a higher-than-average level of education and income. Thus, we set our target to reach a 39-year-old sports mom and try to strategize our ministries to hit that target.
How do we do that? First, we make sure we can give good answers to four questions every family with kids ask. Two questions they ask themselves internally when they bring their kids—(1) is it safe? (2) Is it clean? The other two questions are asked externally to their kids—(1) did you have fun? What did you learn?
We prepare to address those questions by having clean, nice facilities (children’s area, restrooms) and men serving in security capacities. We also use material focusing on learning the gospel in a fun (non-boring) way.
Second, we give the greatest attention to our children and youth ministries. We want our best teachers and leaders serving in these places, because they will make a big impact on families.
Third, we offer lots of Bible studies and ministry opportunities for women. No single Bible study or ministry group meets the needs of every woman. Moreover, they like to discuss different topics, so we provide those options.
Quite possibly the biggest benefit we receive in aiming for the 39-year-old sports mom is hitting so many others in the process. Most of these moms are married, so we can also reach their husbands. They usually have two school-aged children we can reach, and because most of them are in public schools, they have several friends which we may be able to reach indirectly. These moms also have friends which can indirectly be reached. They also usually have parents still living, sometimes even in the area. Thus, aiming for the bull’s eye often benefits us in reaching far more than we would without a target.
4) Focus on your strengths. Unless you are a mega-church, you cannot be the spiritual Wal-Mart of your community. No matter how hard you try, you cannot have effective ministries to seniors and youth and children and women and special needs and…. So what do you do? Focus on your strengths. If you are in an older community with the average age 60+, then pour a lot of resources into having a great senior adult ministry. If you are in a new subdivision with lots of millennials, invest in young marrieds and preschool ministry.
As I mentioned above, one of the strengths of my church is it is an educated people. We focus on doing things with excellence, because we know our people expect excellence in their workplaces. We cannot offer everything, but we can offer a few things really well.
You need to know I’m no longer frustrated with my eyesight. I still get to play baseball and basketball. A few months into my diagnosis, I found out about Lasik eye surgery and one doctor was offering a two-for-the-price-of-one special. I made a small investment which paid huge dividends on my daily routine. I believe the same thing can be done in your church as you seek the Lord for new vision and direction.