In (a bit of) defence of vision & values

I saw a bit of snark about church vision statements on twitter yesterday. To be honest, I have some sympathy. There is something that really grates on me when people seem to suggest or imply that your church will go to the dogs, or never grow, unless it has a vision statement. “Casting vision” as a church leader is similarly nebulous and I’ve never really gotten to grips with what people mean when they say it. Sounds close to casting spells, which I’m pretty sure Christians aren’t supposed to get involved in that.

Let’s just start with the obvious: church vision statement are not in the Bible. Jesus doesn’t demand them. The Apostles didn’t appear to utilise them. There is no command in the Bible for churches to have one. If you aren’t into them, don’t have one. It really is that straightforward. Of all the indifferent, unimportant things, whether you have a church vision statement has to surely be among them.

But – and I’m sure you sensed there was one coming – we also have to acknowledge there is nothing wrong with having one either. For all the sniffiness toward them – and the argument that there is nothing in the Bible about them (which there isn’t) – the question is whether they are at all helpful? Do they achieve anything? If so, what? There is nothing wrong with not having one, but there is surely ground to have one if you are clear on why it might be helpful for your church.

Cards on the table: my church has one. We have one because we think a simple statement of what we are trying to do, and be, as a church is quite helpful. It is particularly helpful for unbelievers and new believers who are from entirely unchurched backgrounds. When people have no frame of reference whatsoever, isn’t useful to say – simply and briefly – this is who we are and what we’re about? In essence, if you join this church, this is what it will be like, what we’re here for and what we’re ultimately about.

Along with vision statements often come sets of values. I don’t know exactly how they operate in other churches, but ours is a tool that we actively use, not just something that sits on a website. Our vision and values are a framework through which we assess whether we are going to do something as a church or not. These are some basic convictions about what we are aiming to do and be and so any suggestion of new ministry, or idea about something the church should be doing, gets filtered through the vision and values. Does this particular thing help or hinder us in our effort to fulfil our vision and does it align with our values?

Now, again, you don’t have to have these things. No doubt some will argue, don’t we want to filter these things through the Bible? Which is interesting when the snark comes from those who are quite wedded to particular confessions and catechisms and even use them as a framework through which they often interpret what the Bible means. That is not me having a go at them for doing that, but just making the point that confessions are often attempts to systematise the bible’s teaching and – in certain cases – trying to define what the church is supposed to be about. There seems to be little difference in purpose and practice.

Of course, one might then argue that we should just stick with the confessions and catechisms. But that forgets that confessions were typically written into particular contexts for specific purposes. They are often about proving a church holds to sound doctrine whilst departing from some of what other churches might hold. The 1689 confession, for example, was an attempt to show that Particular Baptists stand in the same theological tradition as their Reformed counterparts, but differs from them on questions of baptism and church makeup. More to the point, asking somebody to wade through the 1644 Baptist Confession – a confession I like very much incidentally – every time they want to think through whether it would be appropriate for our church to run some event or start up a new ministry seems a tall order for the new believing reader, and more so for the unbeliever wanting to get a quick understanding of what this church is about, as well as trying to force it to answer questions it was never designed to address.

Even something like the relatively short New Hampshire Confession of Faith is not very pithy and does not actually address the question in hand. It broadly defines the church’s doctrinal beliefs – beliefs that any Reformed Baptist Church anywhere could adopt (if you massage the sabbatarian clause a bit) – but says nothing about the particular mission of any given local church. Which, naturally, it can’t because it wasn’t designed to do that. Each context is different. Whilst many of the specific activities of different churches will be the same, some of their emphases may be different and what they are aiming to do might differ from place to place – not in the broad principles – but in their application. To expect a confession to answer the specific question of how this particularly local church will reach out, whom it will reach and how it will reach them stretches beyond its intended purpose.

The point I am making – again with the caveat that you don’t have to have vision and values if you don’t want – is that they can serve a helpful purpose. For us, our vision briefly explains what it is we are trying to do as a church and our values outline how we do it. These, together, help us determine what we, as this particular local church, will do. I don’t think such statements or values are essential, I don’t think Jesus is inhibited in any way if you don’t have one, but I do think they can be helpful. It makes clear to people what this church is like, why it does what it does and how it is going to do it. And it strikes me, that at least has some value.