5 Traction Points: Orientation, forward!
A time warp engulfs many congregations and their leaders. These churches are trying to go where no man can go, that is, back there somewhere, in the past. Much of the research regarding the state of the institutional church today identifies a misplaced aim that directs so many congregational leaders. They are trying to re-capture some past glory years or memorable times that gave them the impetus and energy for mission. It's a mission of nostalgia, the remembrance of better days, all of the ingredients of more fruitful ministry, perhaps church growth, greater community influence, and a vibrant inner life. Of course, it's a disappointing quest, attempting to go back. There can be no traction there. Like the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve were expelled, there are angel's with flamming swords standing guard over that entrance. Humans can't go there. We are locked out of the past. Only the notes scribbled in the margins of our memory allow us to remember it.
That is not to say the past means nothing. Certainly we are to remember it, cherish the milestones and hallmarks that mark the journey, even replicate and honor the foundations that established it. There are eternal truths that steer us through all of time---past, present, and future---the tenets of our faith, the people we honor for guiding us there, and the precious historical markers that remind us of his faithfulness, presence, and promises. But, they are the adornments of the journey, not the destination. Jesus aimed his followers not to the past, but to the future---his kingom on earth as it is in heaven. He delighted in telling them parables about the bride and bridegroom, about the manager coming to take account of his estate, the son that would return to the father, and the glorious coming of the Son of Man. From their earliest days he directed them up to Jerusalem, to a cross on a mountain, to an empty tomb, to the right hand of the Father, and to his coming. It was a forward vision.
Leadership traction begins by first defining the orientation of movement. And, for God's people that movement is always forward. It's an interesting dynamic in the world today, defining the direction of movement. Much of the world is trying to establish morals, values, religious positions, governments, courts, and culture based on the worn, outdated systems of the past. It's a catastrophic collision of life and death, hope and desolation, grace and law, future and past. But, Christian leaders are gripped by the promises of God. They are the vision that should occupy the Christian leader. So, the orientation question isn't a mystery. God declared it through the prophet: "Behold I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" (Isaiah 43:19).
Our staff always visualized mission as riding in a car. Everything in the vehicle is oriented toward the front. The steering is aimed forward, there are usually two or three forward gears and one reverse, and the most imposing element of the car is the front windshield. Even the passenger seats face forward. The only option aimed at the back is the rear-view mirror. And, it's designed for an occasional glance back. As my driver's ed teacher taught me in the eighth grade, if you stare at the rear-view mirror you'll drive in a ditch. And, that's the movement of ministry as well.
Once in a while a pastor will ask, how can I cast a future vision for our church? Well, here are several thoughts:
(1) Take a fresh look around your ministry field. In mission, context is everything. So, the beginning step in re-visioning the church for the future is to make note of what is happening in the areas adjacent to the church. In every area, even the most rural outpost, there are schools, bus stops, volunteer fire-departments, rural agencies, and people in need of ministry. Usually your state convention office has access to tons of demographic data about our communities. So does the North American Mission Board and other agencies of the various denominations. Access it. Study it. There are places of ministry and mission in them.
(2) Celebrate the past. In the process, be sure to reference it as the past. If possible re-cast the event in a future oriented way, allowing the past to be steppinbg stones to the future or the foundation for what God is going to do. One church I know celebrates homecoming every year. Now they use it to build memories for homecoming in 2050. What a nice change! In any event, it allows you to honor the past without worshiping it or trying to duplicate it.
(3) Appoint a vision team. The pastor should lead this group and give them as assignment to develop scenarios of the future, what the church will look like in 5, 10, 25 years. It's always healthy to dream a little.
(4) Challenge the church in their current mission commitments. Dare them to reach deeper and farther in mision giving goals, or in mission experiences. Accomplishing an audacious task or offering goal will super-charge the vision of the church, re-energize their mission impulses. and give them hope.
(5) Preach vision and mission often and regularly. You can't read The Word without encountering a deep sense of being a part of God's redemptive plan in history. Tell them the stories of Scripture and those of churches living a vision and moving forward. They are inspiring.
Leaders lean forward. So do the organizations they lead. Engaging the gears of leadership involves the first step of aiming in the right direction.
That direction is always forward.