Competing Visions of the Church

Competing visions about the church’s purpose are one of the greatest tensions a church can experience. These can be especially obvious during a pastoral transition.

Imagine a new pastor coming into a church. One of the first things (s)he does is to announce a visioning retreat. The pastor and leaders go off and start with a blank slate. The pastor asks questions about how the church can reach new people or how the church can grow. (S)he says the church needs to change its worship style. You can’t reach unchurched people with this church’s style of music. And they need to get out of the building more, focus on community service or evangelism projects. Replace potlucks with service projects.

Some people on the new visioning team agree. They’re excited, ready to reach the world—or at least to make their church grow. Others are resistant. They like the current worship music. They see each other as family, and the potlucks promote that.

One of the reasons this is happening is because of the strong focus on leadership in clergy world. We’re expected to be leaders, change-agents, visioneers. If you don’t come into a church and wipe the slate clean for a fresh vision, what are you doing? The biggest metric of accomplishment in clergy world is church growth. If you don’t believe me, look at the lineup of speakers for any clergy conference. How many are introduced as pastors of large or “fastest-growing” churches? Success looks like building a machine that grows the church. It’s a focus on outreach and witness.

But when a pastor comes to a new church, the reality is that (s)he doesn’t arrive to a blank slate. (S)he arrives to a group of real people who probably already have a vision. More than that, they have a life together as community. They have people within who are looking to the church, and to the pastor, for care. Many of them see the church as a nurturing community.

These two visions of the church often run in conflict with each other. Are we building a machine of outreach and witness to new people (change the music to appeal to the masses!) or are we creating a community of nurture (those old, familiar hymns nurture our souls)? Sometimes we can see the tension divide three ways instead of two: you have the people who cherish community (nurture), those more interested in going outside the walls to serve in the community (outreach) and those more interested in bringing new converts inside the church’s walls (witness).

A mentor told me that two factions tend to arise in a church. One wants the pastor to be a CEO, boldly leading them into new territory. That’s the outreach and witness focus. This group is usually younger, though not exclusively. The other group wants the pastor to be a chaplain, visiting them when they’re sick, tending to their souls. They tend to be the older group, though not exclusively.

The problem isn’t that one of these is right and one is wrong. The problem comes when we view these as conflicts to resolve rather than tensions to manage.[1]

A church must be a place of nurture. And the pastor, above all others, must remember that. The pastor can’t delegate all of that nurturing responsibility so that (s)he can be out evangelizing the world. Pastoral care is a responsibility of the whole church, but especially of the pastor.

And a church must be a place of outreach and witness. Pastors who attend conferences or report to denominational management usually don’t need to be reminded of this. If you’re in some of the same worlds I’m in, there’s no shortage of people asking how our churches are growing or reaching people. Most of clergy world is telling our clergy to be bold, change-making leadership CEOs. This may be why some of our pastors rush into new churches and declare a big, bold new vision, then begin getting to know names. They’ve been trained to be visioneers, not chaplains.

Churches must ask questions about outreach and witness, especially because we can easily become focused on ourselves alone. A pastor can’t simply resort to the role of chaplain, especially if (s)he limits the chaplain’s responsibilities to those who cross the sanctuary’s threshold.

Of course, sometimes the outreach and witness questions lead us in all the wrong directions, even when we mean well by them. They can lead us away from being ourselves, into something forced and unnatural. Millennials[2] can warm to singing hymns when those around them sing with conviction and devotion.[3] They’re less likely to warm to a lackluster attempt at the latest K-Love song.

Is the church a nurturing community for its members or an outreaching and witnessing community to the world? The answer must be both. Many of our tensions and hasty decisions come when we believe we can only answer one way or the other.

[1] Thanks to Andy Stanley for this terminology––even if much of this post aims to contradict other things he’s teaching.

[2] I use millennials because they seem to be the group our churches are all visioneering to reach.

[3] For any who think that you need “contemporary” music to “reach the young people,” know that a lot of those young people are looking for expressions of our faith with deeper roots. (Though most of them will also tell you that the “roots” they refer to go long past the Gaithers and Fanny Crosby, so your traditions will need to run deeper.)