George Bullard’s pivotal work, The Life Cycle and Stages of a Congregation, reinforces what the author of Proverbs once said, “Without a vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18, KJV). It turns out this proverb holds true for churches, too. Bullard demonstrates that congregational vitality hinges on one key dynamic. This dynamic is maintaining and re-invention of a vitalizing vision. Programs, people, and proper management aren’t enough. Even money isn’t enough. Without a vision, not only do people perish but so do churches. This is especially true in the time of COVID.
I have found in work I do with churches around the country that perhaps just one-fourth of ministries are outward focused and designed to transform the status quo. The vast majority of ministries are inward-focused, intended strictly to comfort its members and attenders. Even as churches are coming back together, having a new vision is critical.
I fear that American Christianity has stopped daring greatly and switched to cruise control. Cruise control is excellent, as long as it works. But in older cars, as in older congregations, cruise control is not known for its durability.
I used to drive a 1995 Toyota Rav 4. I loved the way it looked, felt, and drove. That is until the cruise control stopped working. In those days, the legal speed limit in Wyoming was seventy miles per hour. I would set my speed for seventy-two, cruising paved-over prairies lined with sagebrush under the shadow of rising mountain peaks. Before long, my seventy-two speed gave way to seventy, then slipped down to sixty-five miles per hour. It was hard to tell when the cruise control first disengaged. I would think I was maintaining my speed until other vehicles appeared on the lonely highway and passed me. The same is true in older congregations. You can’t stay in aging cruise control long without losing momentum. Before you know it, you’ve slowed down to a crawl, and it’s all about survival.
How Can You Steward this Vision?
The survival mode isn’t working for most congregations. Especially now. When faced with the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic and all its fallout, a vision is more important than ever. It reminds you that you have a say in how the future goes. That you’re not just called to steward a building or a budget, but the dreams of Jesus.
Every time I’ve gotten discouraged enough to consider walking away from the people who gather in his name or from the religious community that honors him, my waking vision of Jesus stops me. The same vision from thirty years ago reminds me that he was intentional about coming to me. Out of that profound encounter, I’ve developed my Jesus-like dream, captured in Creating a Culture of Renewal®, which guides my ministry. That’s the power of vision. It calls you back. It reminds you why you do what you do.
When you operate without a vision, not only do you suffer, so does your community. When you refuse to exercise your right to dream like Jesus, when survival becomes more important than service, the community you serve becomes spiritually impoverished. This lack of engagement reinforces a corresponding lack of interest from the community in joining you.
Bottom line: if you find that you or your people are just going through the motions of doing church rather than being church, of stewarding budgets and buildings rather than the dreams of Jesus, it’s time to bring the miraculous back.
Excerpted and adapted from Dream Like Jesus: Deepen Your Faith and Bring the Impossible to Life (Market Square, 2019.)