Friday, December 17, 2021

Too Hot to Handle: Where There is No Vision ...

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Kevin Miller is an Executive VP at Christianity Today International. In this article he lays out a number of ways that one can go about developing a vision.

Tom: Immanuel Can, Miller is ignoring the elephant in the room: he starts with the unstudied assertion that good leaders must always be men of vision and charges right into how we can all acquire it without addressing why this quality is allegedly a critical component of leadership.

And he’s not alone.

Immanuel Can: You’re right, Tom, there are a lot of people talking about our lack of vision as Christians today. What do you think accounts for this widespread concern, and how legit do you think it is?

Vision, Vision Everywhere ...

Tom: What accounts for it? Well, first of all, it is the hot preoccupation in the world, isn’t it: if you Google “lack of vision”, you’ll find everyone from Australasia’s National Rugby League to Apple defending against attacks on their corporate culture because of a perceived lack of it. It’s all-but-universally construed as a major problem to lack vision. Look how excited America got when President Obama was elected. He was visionary! He was transformative!

I can’t say how much that manufactured concern has actually crept into the church, but I’d be surprised if the general flap in society over finding and promoting visionaries hasn’t contributed to some extent. It’s certainly popping up in Christian circles, like this new book:

Vision Map is not a formula for overnight success, but it is a template to start anyone on the path to envisioning their God-given dream to start a business or start a family or run a marathon or lose 20 pounds or plant a church or read through the Bible or write a book or climb a mountain! Or whatever else you and God can dream up.”

IC: Is having “vision” always good? Suddenly I’m thinking of passages like Colossians 2:18-19, in which having certain kinds of “vision” is actually one of the symptoms of an unspiritual mind, and something contrary to the will and word of God. I would say that anyone who is campaigning for “vision” had better also say where he/she is getting that “vision” from.

How Legitimate is the Quest?

Tom: That’s something that in my experience is rarely considered. But back to your original question, which was How legit do you think this is? My answer would be “Not very.” I mean, I understand the worldly concern with “vision”. That’s established. But what is a genuinely scriptural concern? Why are Christians all in a flap about finding leaders with “vision”?

IC: You’re asking me to speculate, then?

Tom: Absolutely.

IC: I suppose I can. I think that a lot of churches today seem to be “drifting” — not, I think, in a way or at such a speed as to alarm Christians about our ultimate direction, but rather in a lazy, slow kind of way, with no one really at the helm. It’s like no one really knows what we’re supposed to be doing, although there are a ton of opinions, a new one every five minutes from the professional “church consultancy” industry.

There’s still a schedule of meetings, a rotation of speakers, a series of committees, a number of routine prayer requests, an annual expense report, Christmas and Easter programs to prepare, a Sunday school, a youth group, a music program … but all for what? Where is the unified purpose that makes sense of all these activities? Is it the gospel? Is it worship? Is it community? Or is it tradition or just keeping an institution going? People want a sense of what the Big Purpose is here.

A Sense of the “Big Purpose”

Tom: That’s the question, isn’t it: what are we looking for, and assuming we can find it, how do we go about doing that? I mean, it’s all down to one verse, because that’s the one everybody cites, and I’ll use the NASB: “Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained.”

I mean, this is a proverb, which is not to demean it, but it is not a specifically Christian thing. It’s pulled out of Solomon’s wisdom literature, and suddenly it’s the most important thing about church life in the ’90s and thereafter? How does that happen?

IC: The misunderstanding of this verse is a huge problem. People use it all the time to say, “Leaders must have vision”, by which they usually mean a plan, a direction or a strategy. That’s not what the word means. It actually means a revelation or a [prophetic] vision [from God]. It is, in particular, a lack of a vision of the Law that is worrying the author, not some sort of deficiency of personal motivation or direction. And the traditional “perish” is more accurately translated “cast off restraint”. As you can see from the second half of the verse, the opposite of this fault is identified as “lawlessness”. So it means, “When the people have no view of the Law, they throw off restraint and act lawlessly.”

In sum, it gives no warrant for us to seek any “vision” that is not already specified in the prophetic revelation of God in the Bible — and it actually cautions AGAINST going forward in the absence of specific biblical directives.

Where Does the Initiative for Vision Come From?

Tom: Here’s the sort of thing Kevin Miller is talking about:

“Pray and wait on God ... Maybe you’ll be reading Scripture, and the particular section captivates you ... Or you may be inspired by someone else’s ministry ... Or maybe you’ll literally have a middle-of-the-night experience.”

Doesn’t this seems a bit mundane to you? It seems exactly like what Christians all over the world have been doing for a couple thousand years. The only difference is that until now most of us haven’t felt the need to dignify our impulses, ideas and interests with a pseudo-spiritual term and the assumed authority for our actions that arises out of using it.

IC: Quite. And you’ll notice that he is only talking about getting flashes of insight or personal inspiration. He thinks the “vision” in question can as easily come from a midnight flash, or from an extrapolation from what someone else says, as from the word of God itself. Even when he speaks of “reading”, you can see he’s advocating merely using the Bible as a springboard for personal inspiration. Nothing in his statements suggest he’s telling us to discipline our insights to the “vision” the scriptures present to us.

But then, what do you think he should be saying instead, Tom?

Programs and People

Tom: Well, it’s not so much the saying as the thinking. It’s the basic assumptions that are wrong and the language just reflects that. It’s the business world again: the idea that every problem is solved either with a program or a process.

There’s nothing wrong with being inspired by someone else’s service, or by an idea from scripture, or waking up in the night thinking I should do this or that; a believer looking to exercise his or gift in the service of the Lord will do those things. It’s not the mechanism that’s deficient. It’s what we are looking to have a “vision” about.

He’s using “vision” to describe a new women’s ministry, starting a magazine, leading the college ministry, as if a new program is going to arrest that “drifting” feeling you were talking about earlier. Programs don’t do that.

IC: No, they don’t. I don’t think there’s any substitute for a sense of mission — meaning not something we invent (far less something we codify in a “mission statement”), but rather a moment of clear vision of what God has called us to be and do in the first place. I think too many people think that unless that “mission” is something unusual, something tailored specifically to their congregation and personal in its flavor, it will turn out to be deficient and unsatisfying, so they start looking for some kind of special revelation unique to them and their situation. But the opposite is true: the clearer our vision of what God has called all of us to be, the more certain will be our way, the more confident will be our tread, and the more spiritually satisfying will be our knowledge that we are walking in it.

A Vision of Christ

Tom: I think you’re on to something there. I find it impossible to imagine that the will of God for your mission in life or mine would fail to involve the spiritual gifts he has given us. Mr. Miller’s “visionary leaders” are people who start programs or figure out new ways to serve within them. But the antidote to church drift, I suspect, is a “vision” of Christ himself (by which I mean a correct and deeply appreciative view of him by means of the word of God and prayer, not some kind of dream or waking trance) that motivates us to apply the spiritual gifts he has given each of us to the particular needs that stir our hearts.

IC: Yes, I agree absolutely. We begin with a better view of Christ, and then we move outward, like ripples in a pool. The next question is What are we to him? That is, we must renew our vision of what his word tells us we are … his body … his bride … his representatives … his worshipers, etc. And then, at the third ripple (pace Francis Shaeffer) we ask How Shall We Then Live? and the practical questions all come online.

But they come at the third ripple. They are not the center of anything.

Tom: Well said. I like your second question: What are we to him? After all, vision is a function of the eyes. Last time I saw myself in a mirror, my eyes were in my head. The church has a head already. It doesn’t need my personal “vision” to know where we should be going. Rather, it needs me functioning as a part of the body, serving the other parts and responding to the direction of the head.

And when a body is genuinely responsive to its head it is impossible to “drift”. Wherever it goes is where it should be going.

IC: Ah yes. But then the question really is, “Are we holding fast to the Head, or are we losing our head to our own ‘visions’?”


  1. Usually by "vision" they mean something like "a big new ministry with me as the head". When was the last time you heard someone say they had a radical vision for holiness?

  2. Next time will be the first ...