It’s just a thought … but I’m going to guess that many congregations and other ministries are going to make an effort to roll out a “20/20Vision.” And most of them will be fairly convinced that they have some great clarity and are quite clever to have captured the 2020 focus! God bless them. I wish them well; and may their tribe increase! As one who specializes in strategic planning for congregations/ministries, I’m all about setting a clear vision for ministry. Vision is very important.
But vision usually isn’t all that grandiose or mystical.
Vision is simply, and wondrously, faith seeing God at work in the future. But don’t confuse this ‘faith’ with the “faith by which we are saved” through God’s gracious work and promises in Jesus Christ, although such saving faith is most surely at work in the matter of vision. Nor should you confuse this ‘faith’ with the “Faith” that we believe as outlined by our creeds and our Lutheran Confessions, although these too are at work when we consider vision.
Vision, then, is the exercise of a faith or trust in God that first looks back and sees how God has been faithfully working, and then looks ahead and intentionally dreams of God’s continued faithful working among and through a body of believers even as their situation or context of ministry changes. It’s a picture of a preferred future of God at work that invites us to join with him in the grand adventure called God’s mission (missio dei).
If you’ve read this far, let me dare you by inviting you onward into a riskier venture regarding vision. I intend to redeem a word that has been coopted in science and culture by those who would deny our Creator, the Maker of heaven and earth. The word is EVOLUTION. I know. I know! It’s not a word usually spoken in our circles except in derision; but I can’t think of a better word to describe a healthy process for a congregation of God’s people at the beginning of a new year. It’s better than RESOLUTION! We usually have broken our New Year’s Resolutions by January 5th or for sure by Super Bowl Sunday!!
Now, let me state this all up front: I’m not talking about JEDP and the Historical Critical Method of biblical interpretation and I’m not talking about Process Theology. Those get us into all kinds of trouble!
What I am talking about is the work of casting vision for ministry as a faithful and faith-filled exercise in evolution. (Seriously, if you’re still reading this, God bless you! Now you just have to continue to see if I actually have a point!)
A NATURAL PROCESS OF CHANGE
What I’m suggesting is that evolution is a word that describes a natural process of “change.” It describes a natural process of change in response to a changed environment. For example: an evolution took place in my garage this past November as my lawn mower was parked in the deepest recesses and the snow blower took center stage. (In fact, even having a snow blower is an evolution as my strong young boys have moved out and no longer man the shovels!)
Faithful vision-casting is often little more than adapting an existing ministry to a new context or a changed ministry environment. To be sure, the clear message of God’s Law and Gospel as drawn from the inerrant Word of God, and outlined by our Creeds and Confessions, does not change. However, the delivery system(s), the language, the efforts at building relationships with those yet outside the Church and a saving faith in Jesus Christ, can, and sometimes must “evolve.” Such a process calls on God in prayer to show us how He might want to work through us to accomplish His great acts of mercy, deliverance, and reconciliation in a changed and changing environment.
Cursing the environment or society for changing and drifting ever farther from the true God will not stop it from changing. Nor will such an attitude demonstrated by God’s people win a productive hearing.
But will God not give us wisdom when we ask Him to change us more and more into the likeness of His Son? Will He not enable us to shine His light clearly and effectively in ever-evolving ways with vision that sees God faithfully working in the past, faithfully working in a changed and changing context or ministry environment? Surely He will!!!
Vision says, “Yes! God will work! He is faithful! He will mold and shape us to be the servant people He desires us to be for this day and for this place. By His Spirit at work in us we will ‘evolve’ to meet the opportunities to be His witnesses in our community!”
“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8 ESV). Yes! Yes! Yes! I know that and believe that! Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matthew 24:35 NIV). Yes! Yes! I know that and believe that. But look at the early Church in the Book of Acts. Peter, and the rest of the Jewish-born Christians, had to ADAPT to the new work of God through the Gospel among the Gentiles. Check out Acts, chapters 10–17. Talk about an EVOLUTION!!!
Same God. Same Gospel. Same Savior. Same Spirit at work. Same message: Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Sola Scriptura. Same Word of God, both Law and Gospel. Same Sacraments. Some things must NEVER change!
Healthy congregations/ministries must have vision: faith that sees our faithful God faithfully at work in a changed and changing environment/context of ministry. Living into that vision is God’s invitation to experience evolution, or change, becoming what God is calling us to be: faithful and effective ambassadors of the reconciliation He has accomplished in Jesus.
Let me give one quick example:
Aging Anglo congregations often want to reach young, white families of European ancestry. But what if the demographics of your community show that the fastest-growing population segment in a three-mile radius is senior citizens, or African Americans, or immigrants from Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, or Africa?
Your history has been God working through Sunday school, Vacation Bible School, and a Christian day school, all in English. (Or whatever the hallmarks of your ministry have been in the past.) God has been faithful with and through His Word and Spirit; but these ministry forms may now be under-staffed, under-utilized, and over-subsidized. May I suggest that you experience and invite godly EVOLUTION and adapt?! That’s vision-casting: looking at your environment, looking at your assets, and looking at your great and faithful God and asking Him, “How do you want to proceed and how might you want to work through us, your people? How can we be faithful as you lead us to evolve into what you want us to be in order to reach the least and the lost in your Name?”
I would submit that if your congregation/ministry is more than 10 years old, and you have not intentionally “evolved” in how you minister the Gospel to your community, then you are much less effective than you were … or could be. Your ministry environment has changed. Every year should spur us to prayerful evaluation and a New Year’s EVOLUTION.
So, happy New Year! I pray that the Holy Spirit will indeed grant you some 20/20 vision as He leads you, along with your brothers and sisters in Christ, in your New Year’s Evolution.
Possible helpful tools to ask some great diagnostic questions of ourselves and God’s purposes for us in our communities:
- Breaking the Missional Code, by Ed Stetzer (edstetzer.com)
- Church Unique, by Will Mancini (churchunique.com)
- Michigan District Webinar Envisioning Your Church in Five Years with Rev. Dr. David P. E. Maier and Rev. Dr. Robert E. Kasper (michigandistrict.org/resources)
Photo taken at Living Word, Lansing by Elisa Schulz/Michigan District, LCMS