There is one key characteristic that distinguishes thriving organizations from dying organizations, and that is vision. Tony Mayo, of Harvard, says “when initially describing someone as a ‘great business leader,’ the knee-jerk reaction is often to cite something about his or her strategic ability or vision.”1 Vision gives purpose to any business, team, or church, and without vision, an organization is rudderless.
The vision of any church should be to reach a lost world for Jesus, simply because it was His vision. He himself said he had come for the sick, not the healthy and that a good shepherd leaves 99 safe sheep to seek the one who is lost. Churches whose mission is to care for their own, or to preserve conservative ideals, or “to keep everyone happy,” have committed themselves wholeheartedly to rejecting Jesus’ call on their lives, even while they still talk about Jesus.
When a church has rejected Jesus’ vision, it picks a surrogate. Leadership guru John Maxwell writes, “If your organization has a wonderful culture, but no vision, then you might really enjoy your time together, but you’ll never go anywhere.”2 Instead of reaching for a high-impact future, a church without vision turns to memories of the glory days and talks about how great it is because of how great it was. It returns to the same leaders it has always had, the ones who provided it a vision in the past, because it does not realize that yesterday’s vision cannot be today’s. I always read news articles about churches that have failed, because the quotes from the last remaining members are so revealing. They say things like, “We used to have such great potlucks. I don’t know what happened.” They hide behind claims like, “I guess people just don’t go to church like they used to.” What has actually happened is that at some point the church settled for life as usual instead of pursuing a mission to reach a lost world. They traded vision for safety.
A vital church is one in which vision defines the church. It decides what programs and activities happen and which ones don’t. Vision defines the vocabulary, visual imagery, and public presentation of the church. A vital church is ok saying “Good-bye” to those who reject the vision. It’s not ok with saying “Good-bye” to vision in order to please the discontent.
Vital churches are churches that declare, “There goes Jesus!” and go chasing after him. It’s a vision you don’t have to second-guess, rewrite, or pass occasional amendments to. It’s his vision, and it works.