Without a vision the people cast off restraint. But blessed is he who keeps the law.” Proverbs 29:18

“The definition of leadership as “vision” trips a variety of cliches. Leadership as “vision” has become another way about exercising dominance and pushing other people around your ideas. Governor Gray Davis of California–subsequently recalled–was toast the minute he said, early in his term, that the state legislature’s job was to “implement my vision.” Vision has become a way of declaring dominance, of achieving alpha status and stats.
“Furthermore, “vision casting” is most often nothing more than “strategic planning” board games. “Visionary” endows shopworn ideas with new roadworthiness and respectability. Even worse, when leadership development is disfigured as “the vision thing,” we are teaching a dysfunctional system to leaders whose success will hinge on their ability to dismantle the very thing they’ve been taught.”

Len Sweet, “Summoned to Lead.”

Whatever the writer of the proverb meant, he was not thinking about strategic planning.

“Vision,” like too many theological words, was distorted through the filters of modern culture and the industrial age to mean a scientific examination of the variables so that we could control them and achieve the results we want. Those results, in turn, were run through the grid of the modern values of efficiency and the market. Organizations were then driven from the top down.. even ecclesial organizations.. by the “vision” of those in command.

Moreover, “faithfulness” was replaced by success, as defined by the ABCs.. attendance, buildings, and cash .. measures that are virtually absent from any New Testament metric of discipleship. Leadership, in turn, was assessed by its capitulation to these measures. Good leadership produced swelling budgets and cramped buildings; bad leadership produced shrinking budgets, muttering and complaints, and declining attendance.

How far we strayed from the heart of Jesus, and how far from His mission!

But what do we do with this tired and strained word, that evokes for some a command and control model where the all knowing, all powerful leader hands down his Big hair Audacious Goals, and we chart a five year strategic plan based on quantifiable variables and a predictable and stable culture? What do we do with this “vision” thing?

The word in the Hebrew of Pro. 29:18 is “nabi,” and it is a verb closely related to the noun for “prophet.” The noun could be more literally translated, “seer.” It refers to the revelation God gives to those who are attentive to his voice.

We don’t attain this kind of vision by human reason; not even by our ability to discern the changes in the world around us, or the particular texture of our neighborhoods. Yes, both these things are valuable, and both are a part of the process of missional engagement. But they are not the first part of the process, and not the only pieces we need, because we are a people who “follow” (present tense) the cloud, and who “listen” (present tense) to the voice of the Spirit, a voice that is both personal and immediate, and a power that is at work in the world around us. Mission is not finally our work nor is it the property of the local church – it is God’s.

Again and again in the Psalms we see a contrast between a human perspective, from below, and the divine perspective from above.  There are only two ways to be formed in the latter perspective: immersion in the Word, and immersion in the Spirit. God’s vision becomes ours as we dwell in the Word and as we walk in the Spirit. It was the failure of the church in modernity to do this that resulted in the corruption of this good word to eventually mean “the strategic five year plan based on our ability to know and control the variables.”

But to attribute this failure to modernity does not mean we are any more immune to it now. Our tendency to rely on our own gifts and abilities, and to follow our own way, is a legacy of the fall. As Richard Rohr put it, “Humans do not naturally see; we have to be taught how to see.” We have some unlearning to do on the one hand, and we have to learn how to listen and how to see on the other. In the beautiful little phrase of AW Tozer, echoing Jesus words in John 14-16, we must be “taught of God.”

Do you hope to lead in this strange new world? Do you hope to have your imagination renewed? Do you want to see your faith community make a lasting impact on the neighborhoods where you dwell? Allow the Spirit to form you. Return to the ancient practices of contemplation, lectio, fasting and study. We can’t plan for this new future God is bringing to pass, we can only prepare for it. We must learn dependence on the Spirit; a dependence that goes against our cultures dictates. An old koan goes like this,

“Master, what can I do to become enlightened?”
“As much as you can do to make the sun rise.”
“Then of what use are all these disciplines?”
“So that when the sun begins to rise, you do not miss it.”

The implications of learning to listen are profound. Bonhoeffer in Life Together puts it very simply: “The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them.. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either, he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God…” (97-98)

Prayer and devotion are the place where we are formed to open our arms to the wide world. Apart from this kind of preparation, mission will only always be a colonizing force, and not the kingdom hospitality God intends. Henri Nouwen has the last word:

To listen is very hard, because it asks of us so much interior stability that we no longer need to prove ourselves by speeches, arguments, statements, or declarations. True listeners no longer have an inner need to make their presence known. They are free to receive, to welcome, to accept. Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings. The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you.

Finally, “blessed is he who keeps the law.” Not the Torah in some abstract sense, but in the sense it was intended — as a means to knowing God and loving our neighbor. Keeping covenant meant keeping the practices of the covenant, so that our relationship with God was clear and our relationship with our neighbor and God’s creation was one of shalom.

“Now this is the commandment, the statues and the judgements which the Lord your God has commanded me to teach you..

“Hear, O Israel! The LORD our God, the LORD is one!
“And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.
“And these words which I am commanding you today shall be on your heart;
“And you shall teach them diligently to your sons,
and shall talk of them when you sit in your house
and when you walk by the way
and when you lie down
and when you rise up…”
Deuteronomy 6:4-7

7 Comments on vision, mission, and revelation

  1. mick says:

    Very good word, Len. Thank you for sharing what the Lord has shared with you.

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  3. exdroid says:

    Great post!!

    The first words u said – quoting Psalm 29:18 was the exact verse my old church used in a massive building campaign back in the late 80s – doing exactly what was said above – interpreting vision as strategic planning, a business.
    I never felt right about that back then, but it took my years to unpack my head of so much baggage to understand why

  4. len says:

    Sadly, it does take time to articulate these things that are often intuitive or maybe “enSpirited..” esp when our base community has its head on backwards..

  5. Bill Kinnon says:

    Very good post, Len. I’ve retweeted it and also stuck a comment and link to it at the end of my latest post.

    I remember a church where I was a level below the “senior pastor” who loved to say any vision other than his vision was “di-vision”. Pathetic but true. He lived for BHAGs and getting the wrong people off the bus. Jim Collins (who he only partially understood) was his guru.

  6. Dan says:

    The part about listening was really quite good. It reminded of a line in Fight Club where the main character justifies going to support groups for terminal illnesses he doesn’t have because people really listen to someone who they think is dying – as opposed to waiting for their turn to speak.

  7. Very helpful article as I thrash out what leaders mean when tossing that word “vision” about. The part about listening was personally very helpful.