I came across the above phrase in a book by Messrs Beck and Kleeberger entitled Fresh Expressions of the Rural Church. The book is written for an American context; nevertheless, the above line caught my attention. They argue that defining vision is perhaps not the foremost task for the rural church leader, whether clergy or lay.
Because I was part of a church in the early 2000s that emphasised vision, mission, and values, I have always thought it is important to paint a picture of the future early on; to get people excited and bring them along with you. Many successful businesses talk about the importance of a clear vision, which can tempt those who lead churches to do precisely the same. A vision is a long-term plan for an organisation's future meant to bring everyone together behind a common goal; nevertheless, I am becoming less sure of its primacy when it comes to church.
‘Where there is no vision, the people perish’
Proverbs 29:18, which has been cited as evidence for the necessity of having a vision as well as a criticism of why some churches fail, is probably familiar to you. This verse is occasionally quoted to leaders in an effort to pressure them into developing a strategy. When read in its entirety, Proverbs 29:18 (or the portion we recount) has more to do with being a warning about what happens when the Word of God is neglected or ignored. It is a misunderstood and oft misapplied verse. Is it right then to prioritise the development of a vision statement for our church?
I think God does give us glimpses into the future in various ways, including prophecy, insight, and even a gut feeling. However, the importance of putting down our telescopes and allowing our feet to root where we are, cannot be overstated. We can be so busy trying to devise a plan for the future that we lose the importance of listening and paying attention to the culture and context of where we are.
Beck and Kleeberger in their book state that before we lead, we must belong. Before we belong, we must be known; to be known, we need to be present in real relationships with real people we genuinely care about. They are talking about incarnational living; for me, this necessitates us stepping away from the pulpit and platform from time to time, along with the desire to cast vision and, in its place, to simply listen and live amongst. As rural churches, we are really good at this – being embedded in our community; it is one of our strengths. We might never be able to 'compete' with some of our larger urban/sub-urban cousins with the diversity and quality of their programmes. We can, however, 'out-relate' them. Programmes don't make disciples; God uses disciples to make disciples. We can lean into our inherent intimacy and enable following Jesus to become personal rather than professional.
So, I encourage you to join me in putting down your telescope and allow your feet to take root. To develop the spiritual gift of curiosity, to notice what is thriving and where God is leaking in your community. To listen in silence, in prayer, in conversation. To carve the time out to be present, hang around, sit, and notice. Expect to encounter people where they are, to become known as someone available. To ask what the economy of the Kingdom might look like if it were to be lived out in this place. In doing this, God will reveal His vision to you gradually, gently, over time. It just might take several years more than you expect!
“Surely the LORD is in this place, and I wasn’t even aware of it!” Genesis 28:16b
Simon Mattholie CEO, Rural Ministries