Where There Is No Vision: Asking Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How


Where there is no vision, the people perish…
—Proverbs 29:18a

I haven’t written much lately because I’ve been spending more time observing and listening. As an American, I suffer from what most of us Americans do: I tend to spout an opinion before all the facts have come in. Given the inflammatory nature of our punditry nowadays, I think we’d all be better off saying less and ruminating more.

It is no coincidence that, this month, several Christians from different churches have dropped the same statement to me:

“I have no idea what the vision is for our church.”

Oddly, for most of those people, the vision statement for their church is ever before them. It’s printed on their church bulletin every Sunday. Some have it emblazoned in big letters on a wall in the church lobby. The pastor even talks about the vision of the church in his sermons.

But it might as well be buried in the silt at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, because little of that vision plays out among the lives of the people in the seats.

Who is to blame for this lack? The leaders of the church.

Leaders lead. And one huge aspect of leading is communicating vision in a way that people get it.

In most cases, I think the leaders of a church do have a vision. This is not to say that all do, though. Some leaders fall down in their responsibility to get a specific vision for their church from the Lord.

When the Lord speaks to the churches in the early chapters of Revelation, it’s clear that each church has its own flavor and character. They are in different regions, and those regions have a personality. Therefore, the way a church in that region operates will reflect a vision that matches where it is located. For this reason, not every church will have the same vision or act the same. This is the beauty of how the Holy Spirit operates in the lives of leaders: communicating a unique vision.

So if you are the leader of a church and you have no unique vision for your church, you darned well better find out what it is the Lord would have you do.

And it better be specific.

I add that because a simple pass through the New Testament shows that the Lord, more often than not, is specific in what He wants church leaders to do. He names specific names (set apart Paul and Barnabas), directs people to specific places (come over to Macedonia), and tells people what they should do (bring one Simon, who is called Peter). This is the normal Christian life. If it is not the norm for our leaders, then we need to get leaders for which this is the norm! If a leader isn’t getting direction from God, then he or she is not a leader. Period.

But assuming our leaders do have a vision, how is it that we end up with the generic, bland visions that practically define Evangelicalism today?

Here are some perfect examples of vision statements that often make their way to the front cover of a church bulletin:

To present every man mature in Christ

To make Jesus known

To love our neighbor as Christ loved us

Here’s my one word comeback for those bold statements: How?

How are we to present every man mature in Christ?

How are we to make Jesus known?

How are we to love our neighbor as Christ loved us?

Ask most people in the seats the question of how with regard to their church’s declared statement of vision and you’ll see dumbfounded expressions on their faces. Why? Because they don’t even know where to begin to answer the question. In fact, most of them have never asked anything of their church’s vision statement, much less a tough question such as how.

Some may attempt an answer, but further drilling uncovers a shakier and shakier foundation for their reply.

The problem is, if the people in the seats can’t answer the question How, you can bet that they are just as shaky on the rest of the journalist’s other favorite questions of Who, What, Where, When, and Why. Who, what, where, when, why, and howIf those questions go unanswered, then it is nearly impossible to say that church leadership has effectively communicated the vision of the church. If people cannot answer those questions, then they can neither own the vision statement in their own lives nor carry it out in practice. Effectively, that vision statement becomes worthless.

Asking Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How of any church vision statement will show how shallow—or deep— it may be.

That shallowness begins with leaders. If they can’t ask themselves those six questions of their church vision statement and answer them quickly and fully, then thinking the people in the seats can is foolishness.

Beyond that, the six questions expose the shallowness often found in the vision statement itself. The questions uncover just how impossible it is to fulfill a vision that lacks details.

Why are we to present every man mature in Christ?

Where are we to make Jesus known?

How are we to love our neighbor as ourself?

We can’t hit a target we can’t define. Yet this is what churches attempt when their mission statement withers under any kind of scrutiny. An unfocused vision can’t be enacted because the enactors will never know the justifications for that vision. In America, we see the results of that failure every day.

If you are a leader, put your church vision to the six question test. How are you plainly and regularly communicating the answers to those six questions to your congregation?

If you are one of the people in the seats, have you ever asked your church leaders to explain the church vision statement in such a way that the Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How of it are fully answered in a way that makes practical sense to you? If not, why not?

Folks, if we want our churches to look like the company in the Dilbert comic strip, let’s keep our vague, high-sounding vision statements that make us feel good about ourselves but which have no practical expression in the world beyond the doors of our churches.

On the other hand, if we want to get serious about the Faith and our praxis, let’s not be afraid to subject our pontifications to a little fire. If they are worthy, they’ll stand. If not, then we know what we need to do.

And while we’re finding answers to Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How, let’s thank journalists for helping us to be better Christians.

See, the Press IS good for something.  😉

7 thoughts on “Where There Is No Vision: Asking Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How

  1. Travis Seitler

    Call me the biggest cynic on the planet, but I never took those things as having any meaning for the congregation. They looked like they were just meant to fulfill the requirements of Incorporation or getting bank loans or something.

    • Travis,

      I think it should all have meaning. If the Church isn’t the last bastion of meaning in an age filled with meaninglessness, then we are in trouble. Nothing destroys the hope of a generation more than to be given simplistic answers to the hardest of life’s questions. Young people are looking for meaning from Christianity, and we’re too busy serving up platitudes with no basis in reality or praxis.

      I also acknowledge that the tidbits I included aren’t always the fullness of a church’s vision. It remains to be seen, though, if further explanations of a more comprehensive vision statement include answers to the six questions. Most I have read do not. Asking Why often generates circular answers, and asking How drives leaders to fits. Still, those questions must be asked.

  2. Or we could just drop a practice that we have no instance in the Bible of any church leader performing, and that the church did just fine without until 30 years ago.

    • slw,

      I don’t see a lack of instances of this in the Scriptures. Acts is filled with instances of direction based on what the leaders received from the Lord (deciding to reach out to the Gentiles is a major example). Maybe I’m not seeing what you mean.

      • Direction from the Holy Spirit is a bit different from developing vision statements, is it not? I do see the Bible substantiating direction inspired by the Holy Spirit, and leadership implementing that direction, but I find it less believable to see the modern exercise of management (vision and mission statements, analysis, assessment, promotion, etc.) as substantiated by that same record. Honestly, it all seems so much more like what I was taught in the College of Business at Penn State than it does anything I find in the Bible.

  3. Jeremy

    Hi Dan,

    Perhaps much of the Church’s leaders lack vision because they have been dooped into running the church more like a business than a church of God. The requirement for senior pastors now a days seems to be based more on how business savvy he/she is so that they can run their large consumer business like a CEO. So that the basis for hiring leaders is often based on what major corporations are looking for in a leader and not necessarily what God expects of them.

    Perhaps we ought to be looking within for who God is calling among us to rise up as leaders instead of putting job ads in the newspaper for a “successful young minister who has experience in telecommunications, planning and staffing skills, Windows 2010 capabilities, plays at least 3 instruments, speaks two languages, at least one degree from a certified and recognized university, successfully completed GRE’s; owner of a Bible is preferred.”

    Sorry just being silly but experience has shown me that spiritual formation is often at the bottom of the list in interviews and selection. It’s kind of the icing on the cake like “oh and they pray…that’s a plus.”

    Anyhow I get the sense from some local churches (definitely from some nationally televised churches and ministries) that the vision and mission is well…to make more money by gaining more consumers. I may be wrong but I just wonder about it sometimes. Thanks for the post!!

  4. I see this problem as having multiple roots. 1) I agree with other commenters that the business mindset has not just been occasionally borrowed from the world system, it has completely scooted God off the Power Seat as the institutional church’s idol. But there’s some other things, too: 2) Americans have this default mental setting that whatever is decided upon or achieved is permanent. I dunno where this comes from, but most of the time the assumption is just plain wrong. The scripture tells us that things are seasonal, and furthermore we are to be ever growing toward the perfect end–progressing down the path. Yet we don’t believe or receive those truths. We don’t actually believe the scripture! (Ironically, we also don’t truly belive Christ’s work at the cross truly was a once-and-done, totally finished saving work. Makes no sense; we need to be consistent.) Thusly, churches have nice signs made and hung with their decided-upon mission statements, proud of themselves as having achieved and “arrived,” but as you’ve said, seldom achieve or mainstain focus on them long enough to achieve them. Or worse–the statements cannot be achieved as written, as in “completed,” because there is no measurable end state. So what they end up doing unofficially, but never willingly make official, is divert to smaller, simpler, achieveable mini-mission statements. A drive to raise $X by the end of the month, for example. So my point here is that churches need to let go of the idea that there HAS TO be one over-arching mission statement “written in stone” that is always in effect and (supposedly) always the focus. Rather, they should choose and focus on mission statements for the “season,” however long the Lord determines that to be. When you’re in 4th grade you do 4th grade material, and when you make it to 8th grade you do 8th grade material, etc. Paul rebuked a church for still being in the baby milk stage when they should have been way further along by then–the solid meat stage. Paul wasn’t just hungry, he was telling us something important.

    Thirdly, there’s a problem of virtually zero grading or feedback to church leadership. Put someone in a class about how to write mission statements, and they’ll get a grade on their statement. If it’s weak, they’ll get a poor grade. If it’s clear, direct, measurable, etc. they’ll get a great grade. They may start out weak but by the end of the semester, with the help of the teacher and practice, they should finally achieve enough understanding and skill to do it well. But no one requires of them to be excellent (and proven) mission statement writers when they get hired into leadership, furthermore NO ONE is grading these people’s performance, so they’re allowed to run amok unrestrained and unchallenged. Why doesn’t anyone say, “Nope, that’s pitiful. It needs improvmement here and here and here. Try again.” There’s only two places I know of where you can have consistently awful performance and never get docked or fired: government work and church work. There’s this weird assumption that if they’re the church leader, OF COURSE they must be perfect at everything. But they’re usually far from that. If they started getting “graded,” they’d try harder to do better. Attendance and giving are not always proper measures of success.

    p.s. I really like the way you write, Dan! Excellent! It’s rare that I find such great writing. I enjoyed your post very much, and will return for more. Have a blessed day!

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