Vision Sunday 2017 – Setting a direction and coping with changes
Preacher: Rev Phil Swain
Sunday 5th February, 2017 at North Rocks Community Church
It’s the first Sunday in February and with the year 2017 ahead of us I get to preach my 12th Vision Sunday sermon here at North Rocks.
So why do we have Vision Sunday. There is loads of great research around which says that churches who have a clear picture of where they feel God is leading them and who communicate that Vision regularly with the congregation are usually churches with a higher sense of purpose, participation and ownership. That’s why we do it – because Vision Sunday is helpful in our ongoing desire to live faithfully to God’s call – both as individuals and as a church.
But there is also some other research (and I would say we have experienced this here at North Rocks) that suggest that because of the changing context we find ourselves in, the concept of setting goals and Vision Sunday is not as punchy or impacting as it has been in the past.
You see, 10 years ago we would come up with some clear goals for the church … where the church would be in 3 or 5 or 10 year’s time. We would set Goals, define strategy, set time lines … all wrapped up in a nice looking brochure. And it worked.
It doesn’t work as well now. And not just here. Many other churches are also finding that it is not working as well. Why?
Today, I want to explore this changing context – using both some sociology ideas but also the biblical narrative of the second half of the book of Acts – and maybe see how God is still at work even in the midst of this changing context.
So … why does community goal setting and setting a vision for the future not really connect deeply with people anymore? Here are three ideas that I have read and pondered … there are plenty more ideas, but here are three that really jumped out to me.
1) Individualism vs Community / Common Good
Really since the 70’s western society have been on this trajectory of being less focused on the common good and more focused on how things affect us personally. It’s now deeply ingrained in us. For example … When the federal government puts out their budget in May, how will the media communicate to us? What the budget means for you! A lot of people don’t care about the details but rather if they are going to be better or worse off. Tell me how this affects me!
When it comes to the church setting priorities or goals or a direction for the future … it seems that some people are somewhat interested in the big picture but possibly more interested what it means for them. Can you see how these two are tricky to mesh together?
So .. in this changing comment, how do we do talk about a Church Vision which is not just about how it helps individuals but how it works for the common good? For our gathered community or the wider community?
2) A modern response to Goal Setting
Another tricky aspect to goal setting in the current context is how some people now respond to goals. If I stood up the front here and said that my goal was to have 500 people attending weekly in morning worship by the end of the 2017 … how would you respond?
There is research that says that in the modern context some people would take that statement literally – and would measure the success or failure of that goal by the number of people actually coming to morning worship.
Whereas other people would not see that vision as a measurable goal but rather but rather as a statement of intent … that we hope to grow the morning worship congregation and the number of 500 is just a way of saying that we would like it to grow lots.
I can see some people looking at me incredulously … but this really happens and the perfect example of this is in politics. Politicians now make outlandish statements knowing that their supporters will hear the intent rather than the actual words. (If you still think this is not true … look at trump).
So, what does this mean for goal setting in the church? When some people want to see detail and be accountable to that detail where as others just want to have an idea of intent.
3) Technical vs adaptive environment.
And to make it even more confusing, over the past 2 years I have done lots of reading over the differences between a technical and adaptive environment.
10 to 20 years ago, if there was a problem and you needed a solution, there were experts around who could come in, or you could read a book to help with that. Every problem had a solution – you just had to get the right information or program.
So in the context of church Vision … we had people and books who would tell us if we wanted to be this sort of a church then this is what our goals should be.
But now, we are finding that we are in an environment which seems to be so complex that the solutions are much less clear and where the experts are throwing up their hands and saying, “I don’t know”. There are people who are referring to this as an adaptive environment. Where solutions are not worked out at the start but rather through creativity, collaboration, conversation and regular reviewing we will probably work it out as we go.
So in a context when we are not sure where we are going, or what the end target is, or how to get there … and we know that things are going to change anyway … how do you do goal setting or Vision casting in this context?
As I said, this is just three elements of this changing context we find ourselves in … but I ask again … how do we do Vision Sunday in this sort of context?
Believe it or not … I actually think that the Apostle Paul experienced something similar to this in the Book of Acts and although it feels like I am talking lots … trust me, I am getting to an important point. What I would like to do is step through the biblical narrative and see what it has to say to us.
Let’s start in Acts 9 – Saul is converted and changes name to Paul. Straight away, Paul wants to start telling people about Jesus but ultimately is sent to the town of Tarsus for protection and to undergo some discipleship training.
Four chapters later in Acts 13 – Paul and Barnabas are commissioned and head off on their first missionary journey. It says in 13:4 that they were “sent on their way” by the Holy Spirit but some scholars that I read said that whilst being open to the Holy Spirit … the plan for the first missionary journey was very strategic. A tight clockwise movement around the North Eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea. It was a well populated area of people who were known to be open to spiritual things.
These writers where suggesting that If you were in Antioch and were trying to strategically plan the most effective area to share the good news of Jesus … it is exactly where Paul and Barnabas went. One writer said, “I wouldn’t have been surprised if Paul and Barnabas didn’t map this out before they left and then followed the plan step by step”.
But this is now to do it, isn’t it? Paul had a Vision – to tell everyone about Jesus. He had a clear strategy – go to the populated areas near Antioch. He broke it down into a plan … Cyprus, Pisisia, Galatia and Lyconia … and he followed it through. He did not deviate from the plan. This is how we did church vision 15 years ago.
However, we get to Paul’s second Missionary Journey in Acts 15. The Vision is still the same, but this time the strategy was different. Acts 15:36 – Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.”
He still had a defined plan (just in reverse) … but something happened when they were implementing their vision.
Acts 16:6 -10
6 Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. 7 When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. 8 So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
They had a clear plan, but now God was leading them in a different direction through the prompting of the Holy Spirit. So how did Paul respond to a change in the plan? Did he say, “No, we can’t do that – this is the plan and we are sticking with it.” No – Paul adapted. Actually Paul became very used to adapting on his second missionary journey as this was wasn’t the only unforeseen event:
• While in Philippi they were arrested, lived through an earthquake, converted the jailer but ultimately had to leave the town
• In Thessalonica they were arrested again, were released and the brothers in the church told them to go onto Berea but they stirred up trouble there too, so the brothers came and escorted them to Athens, then Corinth.
• In Corinth, there was a threat on Pauls life, but this time he was told by God in a dream to stay, and he did … for a year.
• Eventually they got back to Antioch
Interesting isn’t it – the first missionary journey was very strategically planned and the plan was followed. The second journey was planned, but there were a lot of changes along the way.
Then we come to the third missionary journey. Once again, Paul has a plan, a strategy – to travel “throughout the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening the disciples”. (Acts 18:23). But I think by now Paul has learnt that have a plan and what actually happens are not always the same. His plan was to go to Galatia but he ends up in Ephesus, where he stays for 2 years.
Then in Acts 19:21, Paul decides he needs to go to Jerusalem and then Rome. Why? In our reading in Acts 20:22 we heard Paul saying, “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen when I am there.”
Don’t you love this line? I feel that God is leading me to Jerusalem but I have no idea what that means or what is going to happen.
Preparing this sermon, I really found it interesting the progression of Paul’s approach to his missionary journeys.
• The first was logical, strategic, structured, planned, and followed through.
• The second was also strategic, structured, planned but had to be adapted throughout as Paul was either listening to the spirit or adapted to the circumstances he was facing.
• The third was somewhat planned … there was a sense of direction but by this stage even Paul is saying, “but we are not sure what will ultimately happen”
I think this is what we, and many other churches, are facing at the moment. We have been through an era where strategic, well defined, logical plans were very successful.
And we have been through an era where we have been faced with lots of changes – both through listening to the spirit and also external changes in our environment – and have learnt to adapt the vision or plan as we have gone.
I think now, we are entering an era a bit like Paul’s third missionary journey. We have a sense of the direction that God is leading us, but we know that there will be changes along the way … and if we are honest, because things will change and be adapted, we are not even sure what the end goal looks like and we are not sure what is going to happen when we get there. But we are still going to head in the direction that God is leading us and see what happens.
Exciting, isn’t it?
So, how do we do a Vision Sunday talk in this sort of a context? I think we can do it in two ways.
Firstly we are remind ourselves of the discernment we did in our 2015/6 mission planning process – because I and Church Council still feel that this is where God is leading us.
In that mission planning, we defined 9 core values that have and will continue to shape our church. These values included Jesus and the bible (the foundation of all our values), discipleship, hospitality, a heart for Justice, an intergenerational approach, creativity, compassion, openness and big dreaming.
The other key aspect of our mission planning the 5 practices of fruitful congregations – Passionate Worship, Radical Hospitality, Intentional Faith Development, Risk-taking mission and Service and Extravagant Generosity.
When then put these practices against the people we feel God is leading us to reach out to and serve and we came up with these 5 priorities:
1) Building on the touchpoints that we have with our local community
2) Intentionally teaching and growing faith in all people
3) Developing engaging, attractive and nurturing worship
4) Expanding opportunities for Mission and Service, and
5) Addressing Church issues of sustainability & governance
This is the direction we are heading in … but we are not sure exactly what this might look like or what the end result might be. We do however, have some ideas, and next Sunday I have invited the ministry staff and the Church Council Action Teams to share briefly of what some more specific things that we would like to try this year, what areas that we would like to prioritise in 2017 and how you might be able to be a part of this. I really encourage you to come along next Sunday and hear this important sharing.
But I also hope that today was helpful in understanding a little of the context that we are doing ministry and mission in – and that we can not only gain some insight from the experience of Paul but also hear his encouragement as we head into this new year – (20:28) Help and support each other in the church like shepherds care for their flock; (20:32) Commit ourselves to God and the Word of his grace; (20:35) in all we do, work hard and help the weak and give generosity; and (20:36,37) pray together, embrace each other, accompany each other as we move forward. Amen.