Catch the vision

An inspiring commentary on the need for a clear, God-given vision for ministry

Don Shelton pastors the Goldsboro, North Carolina, church and is the Eastern Carolina ministries director for the Carolina Conference.

The letter was distressing enough. That it was from a young man made it more distressing. He wrote at length about his spiritual journey. It had been long, hard, and unfulfilling. He had obviously sought hard for deep, inner satisfaction. He described how none of the worship services in his Adventist church had helped him. He had tried the Sabbath school and the divine service. His church seemed to lack life and vitality. The fellowship seemed dull and the preaching came short.


After pouring out his feelings, the young man ended: "I'm no longer attending our church. Where I am now I get the gospel, the fellowship, the love and warmth of what Christianity is all about."


This man's experience is not uncommon. Many young Adventists tell similar stories, and some more seasoned by the years comment from time to time about the lack of vitality they see in their churches. Across a wide spectrum of congregations and individuals, we are hearing appeals for renewal. Pastors, lay leaders, and church administrators all look for a new vision from God.

The need to see a vision and move forward

What is vision? How do we get it? What will it do for our lives? How will it trans form ministry?

"Where there is no vision, the people perish," says Solomon (Prov. 29:18). Unless we possess a clear understanding of where we are heading, we tend to adopt a fortress mentality. We become afraid of going any where, and in the process end up going no where! Instead of moving forward, a visionless congregation focuses on protecting its own flanks, and shoring up the protective walls of what has become an ecclesiastical fort instead of a vibrant spiritual organism. Instead of possessing a vision that propels the church, lack of vision causes stagnation and a spirit of resistance to genuine progress. Enthusiasm and excitement fade and apathetic inertia born of fear takes over.

Often churches that have been planted by visionary leaders lose the vision that originally stirred the hearts of those who heard the message fresh with passion and insight. When the founders of a church are gone, when the zeal that sparked the soul of the people dissolves, when the children of the church come to the fourth and fifth generations and no longer have a sense of mission, when the vision is lost then only the organizational forms are preserved, and the church no longer moves forward with the drive of those who began it.

Adventist pioneers in America were involved in the issues of their time. They spoke out against slavery. They rallied with drive and confidence against the liquor industry during the great temperance movement. They fought Sunday laws right up to the nation's capital. They spoke out for the right of women to vote.

Most of the founders of the Adventist Church were young when they assumed leadership positions. They knew what they believed. They caught a vision from God Himself of what could and should be and moved forward in the power of God.

A fading of the fervor

Unfortunately, the exciting truths that are the foundation of this church and the issues that moved our pioneers have lost too much of their appeal among subsequent generations. Teachings that have grown out of the experience of our founders have not been greatly valued by later generations. To many, they have become mere hand-me-down traditions.

It hasn't helped matters that some well-intentioned saints, in trying to maintain the look and feel of days gone by, have tried to bind younger generations to the church by artificially enforcing tired lists of do's and don'ts. Yet these same saints have refused to involve themselves in current issues such as abortion, world hunger, racial justice, and the equality of all God's people.

Many among the younger generations of the church have sensed the emptiness and inconsistency behind much of this constraint. The walls of the fortress, built to keep corruption out, to them feel like walls built to keep them in. They perceive the church as constricted and constricting, with no meaningful future. We urgently need a vision directly from God to stir ourselves and these young Adventists so that they be come the "movers and shakers" that plant new churches, conquer new frontiers, catch a prophetic insight and communicate the essence of Christianity and Adventism.

"Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth" (1 Sam. 3:10) was one of the first verses of Scripture many of us learned. Samuel was just a boy working in the Temple with Eli the priest. Things were not going well in Israel, and so "the word of the Lord was rare, there were not many visions" (verse 1).

Things are not all that different in the church today. Deep in ourselves we identify with this description of Israel, and with the cause-and-effect relationship between the word of the Lord being rare, and there not being many visions, or much vision. An other way of saying it is that the vision that we have is too narrow, often focusing more on the negative than on the positive. There are very few all-encompassing visions that inspire the church to march forward with a renewed sense of purpose. It is not coincidental that in the direct context of the description of the rareness of visions in Israel, Samuel's life sets off a new prophetic impetus for the nation, beginning with the words that bring vision: "Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth."

Vision and mission

We need a vision that assures people that God has a plan for our lives and our church. They need to hear that there is an eternal reason behind our existence. The youth need to hear and to know that the church has passion and energy, and wants to unleash it to accomplish a divinely directed mission.

At the heart of Samuel's story is a young man running to a priest trying irrepressibly to get a clear sense of who is calling him, and what that calling is. It is interesting that Eli was not called, but that he realized that God was present to give Samuel a vision for ministry. And so the priest tells Samuel to say the one thing most needed: "Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth." Then the vision begins to break into consciousness for the young man. God speaks to him because he is listening. Pie is listening now not to a voice he has assumed to be human, but one he now knows is divine. With the hearing of the voice comes a strong sense of vision and direction.

Today we must prepare ourselves to hear this voice and to receive a vision from God. Any true and worthwhile ministry begins with this kind of vision. For a Christian leader an individual chosen by God to move His people forward vision is not to be regarded as an option. Vision is the in sight that instructs leaders and directs the destiny of the whole church. If we attempt to lead God's people without God's vision for us and our ministry, we are simply playing a game. Without vision, ministry is no longer a calling but merely a profession.

Catching God's vision

Catching God's vision is not a new concept. Paul's story is clearly not one of a man who had nothing better to do with his life or who had limited options. "Five times my own people gave me thirty-nine lashes with a whip. Three times the Romans beat me with a big stick, and once my enemies stoned me. I have been shipwrecked three times, and I even had to spend a night and a day in the sea. During my many travels, I have been in danger from rivers, robbers, my own people, and foreigners. My life has been in danger in cities, in deserts, at sea, and with people who only pretended to be the Lord's followers. I have worked and struggled and spent many sleepless nights. I have gone hungry and thirsty and often had nothing to eat. I have been cold from not having enough clothes to keep me warm" (2 Cor. 11:24-27, CEV).

Paul was a well-educated, articulate leader. By virtue of his background, he was a man with options. And yet he was deter mined to serve Christ and to endure outrageous suffering and personal sacrifice as a result of this decision. There can be only one reason for this courage and tenacity. Paul was an individual driven to fulfill a vision for ministry that God had entrusted to him. In 2 Timothy 1:11 Paul indicates the nature of his calling to be "a preacher, an apostle and a teacher" (NKJV). This remained clear to Paul throughout his life.

In the latter half of Acts the chronicle of Paul depicts a man preaching, teaching, admonishing, and planting churches with a kind of fervor not found in a person who is merely earning a wage. Paul was convinced of God's vision for his life, and he worked tirelessly to fulfill God's calling. He was compelled by God's vision to commit his life to working out that vision in his daily life.

The Bible is the story of people possessed with a specific vision that defined a clear mission constraining them to follow and fulfill it.

Vision makes the difference between health and sickness

Vision has flourished beyond the lives of biblical characters. Our century is filled with numerous examples of people who, by human standards, showed little promise for greatness and little hope of being able to change the lives of people around the world. These people, having captured God's vision for their lives, have lived with a power and energy undeniably capable of transcending their natural capacities. They have lived with an intensity of commitment that far exceeds anything they had previously demonstrated in their lives.

A church led by someone who has caught God's vision brims with confidence. It is a church that serves the Creator and Sovereign of the universe. It is a church that relishes rather than retreats from a stiff challenge. A church built on vision knows it can make a difference in the world. Such a church is one that has higher expectations and therefore performs at a higher level. It is a church that is not content with just being present.

A healthy church one that is positively impacting the community in which it is located; one that is also reaching out to the world in a tangible manner; one in which the membership is growing in Christ is a church that has a leader or leaders who have caught the vision of the Lord for their ministry.

A visionless church is inevitably diseased. It is a congregation that is not growing spiritually or numerically. It naturally prefers simpler yesterdays to uncertain tomorrows. The healthy church grows and is renewed by its visions and dreams. The diseased church doubts and questions itself to death.

Time to dream again

It is time to dream again. We must not prevent ourselves from doing it, or allow anyone from within or from without to deter us from it. We need visionaries who are listening to the Lord and have a vision for God's work in their neighborhood, nation, and throughout our world. We need people who can specifically see and articulate a re vitalized future for the church. It doesn't take much to see the problems in the church. Anybody can be a critic. The challenge is to transcend all of this, moving the church to fulfill its God-ordained destiny.

It takes a Spirit-filled individual who is close enough to God to hear His voice, dream His dreams, and catch a focused vision for a revitalized church. Vision is about change. God wants leaders who are change agents. Vision is about stretching reality to extend beyond the existing state. A living, contemporary vision, based on divine direction, empowers us, in the face of any environment, to implement the call of God.

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Don Shelton pastors the Goldsboro, North Carolina, church and is the Eastern Carolina ministries director for the Carolina Conference.

June 1997

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