Understanding vision in the church


By Karen Greenwaldt
Guest Columnist

Vision. It can be difficult to describe. Certainly it’s a powerful image, an incredible possibility, a fabulous opportunity, keen foresight, and even a preferred future. But what does it look like? 

Perhaps the writer of Revelation had the greatest vision when he described a new heaven and a new earth: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth for the first heaven and earth had passed away...” (Revelation 21:1 NRSV).  

Vision releases in us energy that we never expected to find. Vision guards our temptations toward passivity and status quo. It engages our senses, gives us hope and causes restless, itchy feet. We find that we can’t stand still. We have to move. We must respond. As the ancient writers of the Book of Proverbs tell us, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18 KJV). 

Rather than being a destination, Margaret Wheatley tells us (in her book, Leadership and the New Science) that vision functions as a “field.”  A field is a power of influence, causing visionary behaviors that are congruent with vision. And vision is both “seen” and “heard.”  

Wheatley reminds us that we really know very little about the way fields affect the world as we perceive it. The truth is no one really knows what “fields” are. The closest we can come to describing what they are is to say that they are spatial structures in the fabric of space itself. When a field or a vision is present, we know it and we follow its guidance. 

Have you ever encountered a church where you just “knew” that something good was happening? Do you remember walking into the church you attend for the very first time? I do. When my husband and I walked through the door, we said, “This is where we want to be.” No one had to say or do anything. The field, the vision of the church, captured us. We wanted to say “yes” without ever having been invited. We stayed and we continue to be amazed at how the vision is transmitted by what the people say and do. The vision of God in that church was placed there years ago. Our church understands its vision to be “The beacon on the hill,” – a place that for more than 125 years has drawn people to it, and has drawn people into the heart, mind and work of Christ in that community. 

Some people like to reduce vision to a goal, but vision is not a goal. It’s a way of being rather than doing something. Vision, when it is powerful, always affects our actions, our behaviors and our choices. If it’s weak, our goals replace the vision and become powerful creators of inertia. Vision must move back into the life of the congregation so that the program practices can move away. 

We don’t begin with “we’re going to start ‘X’ new churches.” Or, “We’re going to initiate a capital funding campaign.” Rather, we begin with God’s love for all of us, and we capture the deepest yearning of God for all to hear the gospel message of Jesus Christ. The starting of new churches and the funding of ministry become the vehicles for making real the vision of God placed in our hearts in each particular place of ministry. 

Sometimes we lose the sense of God’s vision for ministry. Yes, we pray. We study Scripture, we worship, we learn and we serve in ministry to the world. Yet, all of that feels stale or static. We yearn for the energizing force of vision that will engage us once again in vibrant, vital ministry. 

Yet, even when we aren’t certain of direction for ministry, we believe that God is working actively to plant God’s vision in our hearts, minds, lives, behaviors and actions. 

Blessings to you on your journey toward understanding this gift of God. 

Greenwalt is general secretary of the General Board of Discipleship. © The General Board of Discipleship of The United Methodist Church, 2006. Used with permission.