With the arrival of 2020, many leaders and organizations, including many churches, seem to be thinking and talking about vision. Just as 20/20 vision implies clarity and accuracy, so an organization that has a “2020 Vision Statement” seems to promise that it sees where it is going, and that its declared direction can be trusted.
But in organizational or even church life, vision casting faces a couple of major challenges.
One challenge is that it is too easy, and therefore too common, for leaders to simply dream up lofty goals or bold statements and call them vision. In the Bible, vision is something that is received from God, usually as a result of an encounter with God. What the future holds becomes clearer, for better or worse, because the light of God’s presence and word illuminates it.
Vision encounters in the Bible were rare, and certainly not something an organization could expect to receive for each of its annual planning cycles. What leaders often mean when they talk about vision for their organization is “where they would like their plans and work to lead them,” or “what they would like things to look like in a preferred future.” Those are certainly good things to think through, and to map out. But vision, true vision, may be a word that we tend to use too lightly.
The good news for churches about vision, and the Bible’s high standard for the word, is that it’s not really necessary for each church to come up with an original vision, even for the year 2020. In knowing Jesus, and understanding his Great Commandment and Great Commission, every church has an encounter with God and an illuminated vision for its future. In other words, a vision statement that declares a church will love God, love one another, and make disciples of Jesus throughout the world has its own 2020 clarity.
But that introduces the second challenge. Even a clearly articulated, biblical vision is often not enough. In fact, in my experience, it is not usually a lack of vision that limits a church’s effectiveness, but a lack of strategy, or will, or follow-through to execute the vision.
I remember serving at the North American Mission Board 20 years ago when our church planting team presented a “2020 vision.” In fact, I remember being impressed with the very idea of such a far-sighted vision. The team had done the math, and calculated that 50,000 churches would need to be started by 2020, just to keep up with North American population growth.
At a very inspirational retreat, the “vision” of planting 50,000 churches by 2020 was declared. And we set off to do that work.
A couple of years later, we were still falling far short of the 2,500 churches a year that the vision required. So the vision was modified to say that 50,000 churches by 2020 was still the goal, but that the growth curve would start more gradually, and not be linear. We would start by planting 1,500 churches per year, and then as 2020 grew closer, that number would grow to 4,000 or 5,000 a year.
A few years later, we didn’t talk about that bold vision statement any longer. And now, as we enter 2020, Southern Baptists are planting a few hundred churches a year instead of a few thousand.
And so as we enter this special year of 2020, perhaps we would do well to remember these two lessons: biblical vision is more than a declaration of lofty goals. And fulfilling even a biblical vision requires the will, follow-through, and hard work of execution.
Vision is easier to talk about than to fulfill. But working hard to fulfill the vision of the Great Commission is worth everything it costs.
Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association.