"I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." —Matthew 16:18
My first pastorate was a church in West Texas. It was a white metal building with about 35 members. Most of them were retirees. I was 23.
Despite our age difference and my inexperience, they wanted to know my vision for the church. “Where are we headed?” they asked.
This was troubling, because I had no idea.
They wanted vision. I had no vision. I did not understand vision.
As luck would have it, plenty of other pastors did. Over the next decade or so, I learned more about vision than I ever dreamed of knowing. Vision was the subject of books, of conferences, of tapes (remember those?), and I consumed them voraciously. I wanted to be better at casting vision, because I wanted to be a better pastor. All the successful pastors were top-notch visionaries. And I wanted to be successful.
As you may have guessed, I jumped on the visionary pendulum and swung much too far. I’m ashamed to admit it today, but for several years, attendance numbers became my driving force, and I did and said a lot of things simply to fill seats. Lord, forgive me.
A church member eventually called me out on it, and I’m thankful for it. In my desire to be “successful,” I had grabbed tightly to a methodology that, if I was honest, was rooted in only one verse: “Where there is no vision, the people perish" (Proverbs 29:18).
I needed correction.
That’s the (much) shortened version of how I began to re-think pastoral leadership. I wanted to find a way to lead my church to do the things the Bible commanded us to do, but I wanted to stay away from embracing behaviors that were too forced, too pushy, too…icky.
Which led me to some guiding practices. I’ve used this over the last six years, and they have helped me be faithful in leading our church without compromising my integrity.
I’ll begin with the things I had to stop doing. And I think you should stop doing, too.
Stop Making Church Growth the Goal: In our church we talk intentionally about expanding the Kingdom of God rather than increasing church attendance. Do I want our church to increase in size? Of course. But Kingdom work may often mean valuable ministry in the city that will help other churches or even lead people away from your church to help other churches. The gospel has always had people leaving churches to follow the Lord’s call. Release them.
Stop Making Church Growth Your Identity: Jesus said, “I will grow my church.” Your name is not in that verse. Your job is to be faithful. Yes, be intelligent. Yes, employ skill. But when things do not go the the way you anticipated—and, yes, that will happen—you are to hold fast to the finished work of Jesus, not attendance numbers. I was once addicted to church attendance. Don’t be. It is not good. Trust me.
Stop Creating Imaginary Needs: You can probably convince your people to take part in a program. You are their pastor, and they will trust you. You can also probably picture some sort of amazing thing your church could do that would not be your church meeting your community’s needs with the gospel. But it would draw a good deal of attention. Resist the temptation. Go with what the Lord shows you are the broken places. And then take the gospel there.
Stop Employing Guilt: Pastors are to be proclaimers of grace, yet we are often top-notch emotional manipulators. If you need to make people feel guilty in order for them to join in the ministry of the church, there is a high-probability that the problem is not with your people.
That wasn’t too painful, right? Maybe not for you. For me those things were intensely painful a decade ago.
As I reconsidered my job as a pastor, I emerged with a new vision strategy:
1. Identify The Community’s Needs
The apostles preached the gospel because they knew the Jewish community was condemned apart from Jesus. It motivated them to do bold things. Your church should not be sold on a program, but you should help them consistently identify the need in your city. In my context these are: Increased lostness, increased ethnic division, broken families, and economic need. When you know the needs of your city, you know where the gospel is needed. You know where your church is needed. You see a need that you do not have to artificially create.
2. Explain How the Gospel Addresses Those Needs
No matter how large your church is, your God is big. His gospel is powerful. And it addresses needs in your neighborhood. For example, the gospel is clear that God has overcome racial barriers through Jesus. Consequently, our church is consistently exploring ways to do the same. We have recently begun a more focused effort to reach the Spanish-speakers in our area. We have begun doing block parties in an apartment complex with predominantly Indian residents. They are simple, inexpensive moves, but they move with the direction of the gospel to address a local need.
3. Make A Plan
Pastors are not spiritual and visionary holy men who climb the Mount of Revelation to solely hear from the Lord and then communicate that special revelation to the masses. They are, however, the ones who have been charged to shepherd and steward the flock. That means that the congregation will look to you for a plan.
Good news: It’s not that difficult, if you have identified needs and have thought through how the gospel addresses them. Then it’s simply a matter of praying and discussing with other leaders in the congregation about ways to embody the gospel meeting those needs. Another way to think of it: Aside from faithful worship and living, how will our church carry the gospel into the broken places of our city? When you are able to answer that question, you are beginning to make a plan.
4. Communicate the Plan
Once you and your leaders have prayed over the plan, you need to share it with your congregation. That may happen in a host of different venues. We share our plans twice a year (January and August) with our congregation on Sunday morning. To be frank, I have struggled mightily with presenting our church’s ministry plan on Sunday mornings. I am still not certain we will always do that, but, for now, it is our best opportunity to have the largest percentage of our Body to hear how we intend to engage our city.
5. Celebrate Victories
Often (but not always), I will talk about victories from the previous six months or years. I will share photographs of children being mentored or baptisms. I will share how the Lord has provided new leaders or opportunities. Just recently, we paid off one of two large promissory notes, so we burned it in worship service and praised the Lord for His provision.
We share our plan on what we call “Vision Sunday” twice a year. I don’t know if that’s too much or not enough. But I do know that would consistently share the plan, no matter what the timetable would be. We have too many people who move away and move in, not to mention those who travel, for us to not consistently keep direction in front of our congregation.
7. Always Give God Glory
Any ministry victories come from His hand, not yours. Don’t take credit, but give it to the Lord.