This excerpt from chapter two of A New Day in the City: Urban Church Revival by Donna Claycomb Sokol and L. Roger Owens addresses the complex issue of casting a vision within a congregation.
So what does a pastor do if she doesn't cast the vision and describe the destination in vivid detail to the congregation?
First, we'll tell you what she doesn't do: corner every parishioner at every moment and give a "stump speech'' about where the church needs to go… There's certainly nothing wrong with being energetic and inspiring when we talk about the future. But churches will be more faithful – and many pastors will be less stressed – when pastors lay down the mantle of persuader-in-chief and recover their proper work as pastoral leaders and become theologians again and spiritual guides, helping congregations discern the most faithful way to live in the kingdom landscape.
That proper work means more than giving vision stump speeches and being a persuader. The leader gets to have more fun as she recovers her role as interpreter, storyteller, imagination inspirer, and discernment facilitator.
The pastor as interpreter performs the ongoing task of interpreting God's kingdom here and now. She spends time in the scriptures and in prayer, trying to understand how the ancient language of God's reign inaugurated in Christ and witnessed to by the church helps us to see more clearly our identity and purpose here and now… Week in and week out, through sermons and Bible studies and devotions before meetings, the pastor gets to help interpret the reality of God's kingdom for us here and now.
The pastor helping to lead a church in renewal also becomes a storyteller. He will look for and tell stories of how the church is already embodying its identity and purpose in God's kingdom. Where are signs of faithfulness as we inhabit together the landscape of God's kingdom? Where is fruit beginning to grow on the newly pruned branches? Where are shoots of new life already visible? For many churches struggling to live into a future full of hope, despair blinds the eyes to these signs of life and faithfulness. The leader then acts as a mirror – showing the church's life to itself, helping it see both the times when it simply wants to bury its head, but also where it is responding faithfully to God's always in-breaking kingdom.
I (Roger) heard Donna do this once in a particularly memorable sermon. The church had discerned that one of the ways it was being called to inhabit the landscape of God's kingdom in its particular context was to practice hospitality throughout its life and work. It is not "casting a vision" in the traditional sense when Donna says, ''As we continue to grow in faith as a congregation, I've learned that there are two things most important to us as a body. One is being a church where all are abundantly welcome. The other is providing a way to be a blessing to people who are currently unhoused." She's not telling the congregation where it needs to go or what it will look like in five years. Rather, she's reflecting back to the congregation the very heart of its life in God's kingdom that they discerned together. Much of the rest of the sermon tells stories about where she has seen this kind of hospitality happening in the congregation.
Along with interpreting God's kingdom here and now and pointing to ways the congregation is already living in that kingdom, the pastor inspires the imagination. No one can see the future with certainty; so we are unable to say, especially amidst constant change, exactly where we will be and what we will be doing. But that doesn't mean we can't inspire the imagination and help people to ask: If we continue to live our identity in God's kingdom with increasing faithfulness, what can we imagine we might see happen? What might our fruit begin to look like?
This is exactly what Donna did in that sermon. She reflected to the congregation its own commitment to hospitality, told stories about where that hospitality is already being embodied, and then asked what might be next. Where are the places and the ways this hospitality can be extended? She offered examples from her own praying and imagining: "This week I've allowed myself to dream. I've been dreaming a lot, and my mind and heart have been consumed with what we could do." And then she shared her dreams – not to make "converts" to her side, and not to impose a vision untested by prayer and the congregation's discernment, but to inspire their own holy imagining. Her dreams weren't an agenda for the church she planned to push. Rather, they were examples of what the congregation could be if it continued to follow Jesus faithfully through the landscape of God's kingdom.
Finally; the pastor acts as facilitator of discernment. Given our growing understanding of the kingdom, our sense of how we are already faithfully living in its landscape, and imaginations opened and awakened to holy possibilities, we finally get to the question: What do we do next? The traditional answer, imported along with vision-casting from the business world is: Come up with a strategic plan, one that will get you from point A to point B.
Certainly there is planning involved. But if renewal is more about living into God's kingdom than about what we want to do, then what urban congregations need, more than a strategic planner, is a discernment facilitator – someone who can create the spaces for the congregation to begin to ask and answer questions like: Given who we are, our unique identity in this time and place – in this city – what is God inviting us to do? What new ways are we being invited to embrace?