Using the word “vision” these days is like Mother Hubbard’s dress, it covered everything and touched nothing.  But once a certain tool becomes popular, everyone has to have one.  In fact, these days if you don’t have a vision statement for what you are doing, you are surely a failure, a follower, or at best a poor leader—and we will avoid those labels at all cost.  Once the highly “successful” person attributes his “success” to his obtaining of a “vision” (especially a divine vision), all who desire “success” will quickly follow the pattern, hoping for similar results.

According to Mother Goose, Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard to get her poor dog a bone, but when she got there the cupboard was bare and so the poor dog had none.  We, too, read the vision statements that are supposed to have come from God and walk away unconvinced that it is scriptural and from God at all.  They may range from cookie cutter style to wildly imaginative, some claiming absolute divine intervention and others being merely good advice.  If you lack imagination, you may easily borrow from hundreds online.

As with many contemporary subjects, we may read what we want to read into vision statements.  Some writers use the word as a synonym for a good idea or even a burden to get something done.  Others include “divine” or “God-given.”  For example, A.B. Bruce, an older writer, in his commentary on Hebrews uses the word as merely insight, “For this sad state of matters there is but one radical cure: clear vision of the ideal, vivid realization of the grace wherein believers in Jesus stand, insight into the incomparable value of the Christian faith.”1 But Andy Stanley, in his contemporary and wildly popular book, Visioneering, repeatedly uses phrases such as, “a divine vision,” “a divinely-ordained vision,” “God’s intervention,” “a God-given vision,” leaving the reader wondering just what he means by “vision.”2

There is an obvious difference in how contemporary writers describe God’s part in the individual’s vision and how many other writers describe it.  George Barna says, “When God raises up leaders, He has a specific vision for the people those leaders have been called to mobilize. . . This entails developing a vision statement, which is a brief, punchy declaration of the unique purpose for which God has allowed that specific ministry to exist. . . . Vision, in short, becomes the centerpiece of the ministry—and of the leader’s life.”3 On the other hand, John MacArthur writes, “They are undermining the Bible when they do not regard it as the single authority.  Those who believe God speaks regularly with special messages for individual Christians trivialize His Word.”4

I know many will say that writers like Stanley and Barna do not mean that God actually speaks to them, and others will say that writers like MacArthur are only talking about Charismatics.  But this is the problem.  Those of us who read English can read what Stanley writes, and unless he intends for us all to be imprecise postmoderns, we have to take him for what he says.  On page 56 of his book he is describing the virgin Mary’s vision from Gabriel.  On the next page he says, “Think back for a minute.  Can you remember one Old or New Testament story in which the responsibility of figuring out how a divine vision would be fulfilled fell to the men or women to whom God gave the vision?”  He then uses Moses, David and Jesus as examples.  On the same page he writes, “If we were talking about good ideas, that would be different.  Good ideas are limited to our potential, connections, and resources.  If you are simply pursuing a good idea, then you need to devote a great deal of time and energy trying to figure out how to pull it off.  A divine vision, on the other hand, is limited only by God’s potential and resources. . . When God gives you a vision, there’s a sense in which you stand back and watch it happen.”5 Now, how is the reader of English supposed to take Stanley’s use of “vision” when he compares the believer’s “vision” to Mary, Moses, David and Jesus?  And yet in other places he calls loving one’s wife, raising one’s kids, and witnessing to one’s neighbor as “divinely inspired visions.”6 Such comparison of apples and oranges in dealing with a single subject is amazing.

In his fine book Escape from Church, Inc., E. Glenn Wagner takes issue with the current trend toward personal vision by leaders.  The problem, as he sees it, is that there is an unbiblical emphasis in the ministry on leadership rather than on shepherding.  This has caused men who should be humble shepherds to strive to be successful visionaries.  He writes, “A leader’s effectiveness is built on vision, not trust or character.  Shepherding is just the opposite.  Shepherding is built on character, with vision growing out of earned trust.  That means the number one goal for a pastor is not to articulate a great vision but to help his sheep trust him and know him.”7

Terry Conley (MCR, CCIM, and husband of our contributor, Debra Conley) has successfully navigated the business world for many years as a believer.  He replies in an email, “A lot of the current thinking about vision is being driven by a book that was published a few years ago, Good to Great, by Jim Collins.  One of the main themes is that you need to get the right people ‘on the bus’ and in the right seats before your vision for the future can take hold.  In the book he mentions various ways to get people either on the bus or off and if on, into the correct seats to support your vision.  I have even heard his term BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) used in sermons when talking about the future of the church.”

Unfortunately many pastors are using their “vision” as a way to get the church to adopt what they wanted to do in the first place.  After all, if this vision is from God, who are the laymen to oppose it?  If pressed for proof that this vision is from God he can disclaim any real divine activity, but when in need of extra clout he can press the divine element as authoritative.  The vote of the congregation becomes simply an affirmation of the pastor’s closeness to God.

The problem as I see it is an elastic use of the word “vision.”  Especially in Andy Stanley’s Visioneering, the author jumps back and forth between prophets and apostles receiving direct communication from God and average believers seeking God’s will.  No distinction is made between the two.  Though he is careful not to use charismatic-type lingo, there is still a definite proposition that God will give you your own vision.  As I have already shown, no safeguards are placed on just how God does this sort of thing.  Here are a few notes that I have written down.

First, if people really receive information from God which becomes the basis for their life, then God is still in the business of giving revelation and we have nothing to say to the Charismatics or the cults.  Second, the vision can become the basis for the Bible rather than the other way around.  For example, one website has it, “We envision all of our people constantly growing in their knowledge of the Bible.”  Think about that.  The vision tells them to study God’s Word.  Third, if, as Stanley says on one hand, every thing you determine to do in life is God’s vision for you (loving your wife, raising your kids) then everything in life is a vision.  But then, of course, nothing could be a vision.  Fourth, Stanley uses Mother Teresa as a great example of having a vision from God.  Evidently then, theology (specifically salvation) doesn’t matter in God’s selection of vision recipients.  Fifth, it would be better to call most of these things God’s will, or God’s calling, or God’s leading rather than to force these into divine communication language.

This would be a good place to include some Biblical data about the word “vision.”  There are basically four Hebrew words that are translated with our English word “vision” and only one Greek word.  All of these words have meanings such as appearance, sight, dream, revelation, seeing i.e. vision.  These occurrences  ALWAYS speak of miraculous interventions.  The great majority of them are in the prophetic passages of the Bible.  22 are in Daniel alone and 13 in Ezekiel, both highly visionary books.  Its only use in the Gospels is from the transfiguration when the disciples are instructed not to relate what they saw until after the resurrection.  12 of the 17 New Testament usages are in the book of Acts and, again, all relate miraculous communication from God.  In other words, if we would be completely Biblical in our vocabulary, we would only use the word “vision” to speak of times when God communicated His Word directly to revelatory writers and speakers.  Such limited usage would eliminate confusing definitions and manipulation.  However, seeing that this will not be the case, I would only encourage believers to use the word “vision” in the plain sense of burden or desire.

A final illustration will serve as a reminder of these thoughts.  In the late 1700s William Carey and his fellow Baptist Pastor Andrew Fuller were burdened by God to do more for world-wide missions.  Through their efforts modern missions was born.  Carey became the missionary and Fuller was the president of the mission board, apologist, and theologian.  In fact, Spurgeon called Fuller the greatest theologian of his day.

If ever men could have used the word “vision” to express what God had laid on their hearts, it would have been Carey and Fuller.  Rather, in Fuller’s voluminous writings he argues for just the opposite.  Among his many writings are personal letters, diaries and theological correspondences with various people of his time.  In one correspondence addressed to a prominent member of his own church he wrote

After a while, I began to suspect, whether this way of taking comfort, or of casting it away, or of judging of future events, and regulating my conduct accordingly, were either of them just or solid.  And in a little time I perceived that I had no reason given me in Scripture to expect the knowledge of my own state, or of the state of others, or of any future events, by such means.  I knew that the prophets and apostles had extraordinary revelations made to them, being divinely inspired to write the Holy Scriptures; but, vision and prophecy being now sealed up (Daniel 9:24) and woe being denounced upon the man that should add or diminish (Revelation 22:10), I concluded that we ought not to look for any new revelation of the mind of God, but to rest satisfied with what has been revealed already in his Word.

Indeed, I did not formerly suspect that I had been carried away by a supposed new revelation; but, seeing my impressions came in the words of Scripture, thought it was only the old revelation applied afresh by the Spirit of God.  But, upon examination, I found myself mistaken; for, though the words of Scripture were the means of the impression, yet the meaning of those words, as they stood in the Bible, was lost in the application.8

In the end, Mother Hubbard became subject to the dog she was trying to help.  The last line of the long poem reads:

The dame made a curtsy,

The dog made a bow;

The dame said, “Your servant,”

The dog said, “Bow-wow.”

Notes:
1. A.B. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Minneapolis, Klock & Klock, 1980) 405.
2. Andy Stanley, Visioneering (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 1999) 12,63,71,75 respectively.
3. George Barna, The Second Coming of the Church (Nashville:  Word Publishing, 1998) 164.
4. John MacArthur, The Master’s Plan for the Church (Chicago:  Moody, 1991) 26.
5. Stanley, 56-57.  6. Stanley, 26.
7. E. Glenn Wagner, Escape From Church, Inc.  (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1999) 148.
8. Michael A.G. Haykin, ed. The Armies of the Lamb (Dundas, Ontario:  Joshua Press, 2001) 117-118.