It’s become common to see on blogs and social media posts lists of “commonly misused” passages of scripture accompanied by explanations of their proper usage. I’m usually pleased when I see these because, often enough, I find myself in agreement with the critiques. In my interpretation and theology classes, and in my sermons, I frequently attempt to deconstruct the popular aphorisms people throw around like “God never gives us more than we can handle” (a common gross and sometimes damaging misinterpretation of Paul’s statement in 1 Co 10:13) or the way Ro 13 is often used to justify nationalism and endorsement of, or even participation in, government (unless we happen to disagree with that government). I always want to ask, “Did Paul mean that Mussolini, Stalin, and Saddam Hussein were ‘established by God?’ Wouldn’t that imply that the American Revolution was, in fact, as un-Christian as it could possibly be?” Perhaps there is another way to understand Paul—one that would keep Ro 12 in view?
Hmm…that probably isn’t a comfortable way to start.
So, I think it is good that people are saying these things. However, lately I’ve become sensitive to the kind of easy public righteous indignation that social media makes possible. So, when I deconstruct, especially online, I want to do it…well…constructively.
I’ve found myself wrestling lately with the notion of “vision.” It’s common to hear ministers and other Christian leaders talking about their “visions” for their churches and ministries. Often enough, these “visions” include large-scale budgets, building programs, acquisitions, and multi-year plans. It’s just expected that the first thing a minister must do upon taking a ministry is developing a “vision statement” and, then, pursuing that vision. I’ve heard it called “vision-casting” along with any number of similar bits of jargon borrowed from the corporate business world.
In fact, it isn’t hard to see how this kind of language is not much more than a baptized adoption of the corporate consumer model. I’m finding more and more literature revealing, and talking to more and more people who are telling me that, the common notion behind church-growth models is remarkably similar to the kind of world created by the rampant capitalism and corporate greed that developed in the 80s and 90s, and crashed in the early 2000s.
What do I mean? When church leaders stop understanding their church as a kingdom mission (or reframing their idea of “kingdom mission”) and start seeing Christians as consumers, we create the kind of church-world we see today. Churches begin working on selling a product and improving their product to attract more customers. The language of “excellence” (which is a nebulous word which can mean anything we need it to and do whatever whenever we need it to), “professionalism,” “production,” “attraction,” “marketing,” “success,” “quality,” and even “customer service” becomes common in our vernacular. Churches begin to find themselves in competition with one another, driven by ego and ambition, to expand to multi-campus “empires,” often relying on celebrity and materialism to attract, build, expand, and take over more and more of the “market share” of available Christians.
And when they’ve attracted enough Christians who’ve confused size and glitz with church “success” (as this blogger intimates is one reason people are attracted to larger churches) that they eventually shut down other churches in the area (often buying their old buildings at reduced rates), they proudly chime about how God has “blessed” their vision with a new building and a place for a new campus.
Sam Walton couldn’t have imagined a better model. But, to me, it seems a far-cry from the way Jesus talked about what the kingdom of God would look like.
That said, when I’m critical of this model, I often run into the same rebuttals.
- You’re just against big churches. Wasn’t the church in Acts 2 a “mega-church?”
In my own defense. I’m not against big churches. The truth is, size doesn’t have anything to do with it. My concern is always—ALWAYS—that often enough the way we have built big churches is to appeal to the idols we’re supposed to be knocking over. That’s why, when well-meaning defenders of the current mega-church culture so often refer to the moments of fantastic growth in the book of Acts and claim similarity to the current church-growth approach, I find that their response just doesn’t stand very well to scrutiny.
First, at the end of Acts 2, when the church grows from 500 to 3000, it’s hardly an attractional model. Peter had not impressed the crowd with a quality production. They were not blown away by the professionalism of the “worship” of the apostles. In fact, Peter had just accused these people of murdering the Messiah they were waiting for. I DARE any preacher to try that next Sunday.
The growth found in Acts 2 can be attributed to two things: The Holy Spirit, and the fantastic way Peter and the apostles appealed to their Jewish listeners with a distinctly Jewish message. Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 (a brilliant sermon), drew on Jewish expectations about the Messiah to prove that Jesus was who he said he was.
The difference between Peter and the current trend in church growth? Peter did not appeal to the idols of their culture to attract listeners. He didn’t promise that Jesus had come to free Israel from the Romans or reinforce the temple cult. He knocked over their idols by showing them that they had misunderstood the Messiah. He told them that the Day of the Lord had arrived and they’d chosen the wrong side. He called them murderers and offered forgiveness. And a large number of them responded well. (Notice that Luke does not tell us in 2:42 ff that they built a new church building or produced “professional quality” worship services.) But not everyone. In fact, the experience for much of the rest of the book is not the kind of response we would typically consider successful. Most of the growth that occurs after the Day of Pentecost is cellular and relational. It’s never attractional.
It should also be noted that the growth of that church was true growth. It had produced followers of Jesus where there weren’t followers of Jesus prior. However, what the current trend of church-growth focuses on is not making new followers but attracting people who are already followers.
- But without a “vision” the people perish! You have to have a vision.
This is the one I’ve been thinking about lately. It seems like a show-stopper on the whole conversation. This passage gets thrown around by “visionary” people because the people who follow them tend to think, “Well, it seems I’ve read somewhere in the Bible that we’re supposed to have ‘visions.’ Maybe I shouldn’t be critical of using corporate business language in the church and I should just follow this visionary.” And that would certainly support the whole “vision-casting”/vision-statement approach to ministry. However, there are some problems with this improper use of Proverbs 29:18.
First, it isn’t at all clear that “Without a vision, the people perish” is even a proper translation of Pr 29:18 (keeping in mind, that’s only half of the actual verse). The KJV translates it this way, but I don’t think that’s accurate. Perhaps a brief translation comparison would help.
- Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he. 
- Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint; but blessed is the one who heeds wisdom’s instruction. 
- Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law. 
- When people do not accept divine guidance, they run wild. But whoever obeys the law is joyful. 
While this passage is often used by people to sell “visions” and “growth plans” and even ego-driven ideas of what the church should be, it is far from a divine mandate to have and follow a growth vision or a vision statement. It may be true that lack of a “vision statement” in the capitalistic corporate business world will make for a confused company. But it is not true for the church. What Solomon is arguing for here is simply not a growth vision at all, but a call for people to follow the law of God. Notice that the word vision is, in some translations, even translated “revelation” or “prophetic vision.” It would seem that what Solomon is telling us is that if people don’t know what God wants, they will live lives unrestrained. But those who follow God’s laws will be the ones who are blessed.
And when this passage is used to promote a specific vision, the question begged is “Just whose vision is this thing supposed to be?” When it comes to the church, one vision just isn’t as good as another. In fact, if we take Solomon’s advice in this proverb seriously, it should make us far more critical of the visions people try to sell us. What we should be asking is not “do we have a vision” but “what IS our vision and is it in line with Jesus’ vision of the church and or our ministry?”
It seems to me that Jesus just wasn’t that impressed by large numbers, powerful personalities, and buildings. Nor was he interested in allowing his disciples to remain impressed with those things. Jesus was always trying to challenge those idols and get people to think about one another. Service. Mission. Love. Relationship. Community. Compassion. These seem, to me, to be hallmarks of Jesus’ “vision” for the church.
Would that his vision were ours and that our ministers and members were less interested in the trappings of “success” (as this world defines it) and more interested in the act of following Jesus on the hard road of the cross. Would we not be better off with more churches and less glitz?
 The Holy Bible: King James Version. (1995). (electronic ed. of the 1769 edition of the 1611 Authorized Version., Pr 29:18). Bellingham WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
 The New International Version. (2011). (Pr 29:18). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Pr 29:18). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
 Tyndale House Publishers. (2007). Holy Bible: New Living Translation (3rd ed., Pr 29:18). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.