I’ve just come back from the annual gathering of our denomination. There were lots of high-lights, and hours of enjoyment in worship, catching up with old friends, fantastic preaching and teaching, and more(!) but the most compelling moments came out of the ‘open mic’ sessions following the key-note addresses. The first of these brought together in a powerful way an issue I have been wrestling with personally, in my own leadership of our local church, and at the national level.
Over the last few months I have been resisting the pressure from within me and without to come up with a ‘vision’ for the church. I don’t want us to have a smart little phrase or slogan that we think sums up what we are here for. I can’t stop myself from thinking that to have such a thing comes far too close to idolatry. So I’ve been preaching that our vision is nothing but Christ our Lord – anything else is too little. What do we want to be like? Christ. What do we want to see in five years time? Christ. What is our highest ideal? Christ. For those who complain that this isn’t concrete enough, I have to ask what bible you’re reading? Can there be any historical figure who leaps so vividly from the printed page as Jesus Christ?
The real question is not “What should we do here and now?” or even “What would Jesus do?” but “What is Jesus Doing?!” If we are to be at all ‘successful’ in mission and ministry, and, more importantly, if we are to be faithful to our calling, we have to ask ourselves not “what do we want to do?” or “What do others want us to do?” but “What is Jesus doing?” and join in with that. Answering this question requires some very simple things of us.
The first is that we get to know he who we follow. We need to spend time each day in his presence. We need to learn to listen for his voice. We need to check our ‘subjective’ impressions against the witness of the scriptures, the stories of those who have gone before us, and the living community of saints of which we are part.
This openness to what God is doing here and now by his Spirit is the only means by which we can be effective followers of Jesus.
So what has this to do with our national gathering?
The weekend prior I had sat with some of our congregation in prayer and planning, and as part of the preparation for the planning part, had asked them to write down – and then bin – their plans, dreams, visions, hopes for the church. The point being simply that we cannot afford to keep anything back, to hold onto any particular plan when we elect to follow Christ. We can only receive from his hand. And we must be prepared to give up anything if that is his will. Unsurprisingly this didn’t go down too well.
Afterwards, when writing up the session I found a quote: “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter.” It was from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together, and was so relevant to what I had been thinking and saying that I looked it up. It was relevant, but what came next was utterly gobsmacking!
God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of the brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself. (pg. 16, SCM Press, London, 1965)
I felt as though Bonhoeffer had been eavesdropping on my own dreams and thinking for the past decade, and certainly on that of our denominational meetings, with the huge emphasis we have had on becoming leaders of ‘vision’ and ‘vision-casting’. He named my sin and its cure.
Bonhoeffer’s situation was different to ours. His theology is harshly dialectical, and perhaps unnecessarily so. But here I felt he nailed it, and so when a friend stood in the assembly and suggested that we may need to repent then I was impelled out of my seat to share this prophetic word. I had arrived at the assembly determined to speak out, then found that so many people were saying the same thing, that I decided I didn’t need to do so. But God had other plans, and I found myself on my feet.
This assembly with its open sharing and the frequent urging for people to heed the work of the Spirit has been, I believe, a turning point back to health. Health is not the vision; it’s just a precondition. Growth is not the vision; it’s just a description of what happens when God goes to work and takes us with him. Church is definitely not the vision, an inward focus inevitably unbalances us. Christ is the vision and the goal, our purpose and our path. He is the vision we can all face together, and work for together, and enjoy together, without fear of stifling differences – all of which are insignificant compared to the unity we share in the one who has called us.
When Christ is our vision it can be argued that we are unable to aim because we are aiming too high! Therefore we never achieve our goal! I reject this for two reasons. firstly, we usually fail in our goal even when we have ‘SMART’ (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-framed) goals. Usually because the life of the church is so dynamic that the only ‘goals’ likely to be achieved are so banal that it doesn’t matter if they were achieved or not. A goal worth having is almost bound to be undershot – but the higher the goal the greater the achievement, and I don’t know of any goal I’d rather fail at than Christ.
The second reason is that when we do give God our best shot but don’t determine of ourselves what the outcome should be, then we leave room for the grace of God to be found and celebrated in our lives.
Obviously any aim is going to lead to practical actions; but if I decide the vision, then I decide the actions, and God doesn’t get a look in. When God gives us the vision, then God gives us our directions too. I’m looking forward to what happens next.