Defining clear vision is essential in church planting. In most cases planters are starting something from nothing. You may not have people, money, a name for your church or a clue what you are doing, but you do have vision. The most basic, fundamental resource you have at your disposal is vision. Upon it everything is formed.
Defining your vision is essential. It answers the "who" you are, "what" you are, "why" you are, "where" you are and "how" you are going to be questions. Discovering the answers to these questions is exceptionally crucial. It's not only the track the train rides on, but the fuel that powers the engine. Vision takes your values and sets them in motion within clearly defined parameters towards a clearly defined destination.
However, many church planters are rebelling against a form of church they find fault with and seeking to establish a new form with an angst-driven, anti-conformist energy about them. It's passion fueled by poison, and it's dangerous. They know what they don't want to be but are unable to articulate what they do want to be. A lack of clear vision moving forward coupled with ecclesiastical wounds from the past leads to arrogance in the pulpit, close-handedness on what should be open-handed issues and a spirit of malcontent that eventually sets culture, direction and rhythm in the life of the church. It's dangerous. It happens subtley, over time. It's nearly impossible to see...without good vision.
Defining clear vision and communicating that vision well are not mutually exclusive. They are essential components of the same thing. You could have the most creative, world-changing, ground-breaking vision in all of human history, but if you're unable to communicate that vision well it will never materialize to its full potential. People won't get it. It won't become their own. They won't know what to do with it. Good vision, communicated poorly, goes nowhere.
At the same time, bad, even horrific vision, when communicated in a compelling, captivating and motivating way, produces results. Jim Jones, the notorious leader of the "Peoples Temple" cult, had vision. So much so that on November 18, 1978 he convinced 913 cult members to commit mass suicide by drinking cyanide laced juice together. Including 200 children. That's a vision, although a corrupt, sadistic one, that produced results.
The scope of this post is not to dissect the spirit or motive of your vision, but rather explore how to communicate vision in a coherent and compelling way; a way that not only makes sense to people, but causes them to believe it is something worth drinking the kool-aid for. How do we effectively move people from the sidelines to the front line of the battle, leading the charge and moving the mission forward? How do we cast vision in such a way that people see it, grab it and make it their own?
Your vision is bigger than your current situation. That's what makes it vision. It's looking beyond what is to what could be, what should be, and in your opinion what needs to be. You see something no one else does, at least not like you do. Vision is painting a picture of what the future looks like in a tangible and concrete way.
Suppose my vision was to see you lose 15 pounds. The first step was to steer you away from your favorite fast food restaurant, Chick-Fil-A, of course! As part of my scare tactic I inform you the Chicken Sandwich Meal Deal you always order is a total of 1,070 calories (sandwich = 410; medium waffle fries = 400; medium Dr. Pepper = 260). Sounds like a lot of calories, right? Yes, but probably not enough to cause you to think twice about ordering that meal again. It tastes too good not to.
But what if I were to scale it down for you into different terms and tell you that 1,070 calories is equivalent to eating nearly 4 Snickers candy bars for lunch. Would you eat 4 candy bars for lunch? Of course not. Yet that's essentially what we do with the Chick-Fil-A meal. A large number, like 1,070 calories, is intangible. We have no human experience tied to it, no frame of reference to measure its proportions by and nothing to compare it to. Since we can't see it, we discard it and choose taste over health. However, 4 Snickers bars is easy to see. It's more relatable to our human experience and much simpler to hold on to. It causes us to stop and think. It's much more difficult to discard so easily.
This is the art of "scaling" - contextualizing something of grand proportions into more tangible, relatable terms. It provides a smaller scale perspective by which someone is able to more readily see, understand and grasp the bigger picture.
As a church planter, you have to learn to scale down your vision. Not dumb it down, but scale it down so people can see it better.
For example: "We want to reach our city with the Gospel." The problem with this statement is its proportions. Its size is unrelatable and too easily discarded. The average person would buckle under the enormous task of reaching an entire city all at once. It's too big and heavy. It lacks direction so they don't know where to begin. It needs scaling. Something like this: "We want to reach our city with the Gospel, by planting 4 missional communities in year one in each quadrant of our city, multiplying those to 8 by year 2, 16 by year 3, etc."
If vision is painting a picture of the future then in this scaled statement, the future is clear. Direction is set and objectives are identified. All the major questions are answered. The cleaner and more well-defined your vision is, the more likely it will be for people to see the big picture. It's something they can wrap their minds, and their hands around.
To effectively scale vision in a clean and well-defined manner you must use language your people can understand. Consider yourself a missionary into a specific culture. An effective missionary does not project his native language onto a foreign people, but rather learns the language of the people and redeems it for Kingdom purposes. This does not mean church planters can't teach and train their people to use new language to describe new concepts, but it does mean you can't speak over the heads of your people and expect them to understand what you are saying.
In their book, Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath discuss how the more we know about something, the harder it is for us to explain it to someone who knows nothing. They call it "The Curse of Knowledge". We've all experienced it when talking to a doctor, an engineer or any other expert in their field. They use words and illustrations that don't make sense to the laymen. They suffer from the curse.
At the root of the issue is faulty assumptions. We make assumptions about what people do and do not know. As the Heath's say, "Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it...it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others" (page 20).
The Heath's site a study conducted by a Ph.D. student at Stanford University in 1990. People were assigned into one of two groups: tappers and listeners. Tappers were given a list of very well-known songs, such as "God Bless America" and "Happy Birthday". They were then instructed to tap out the rhythm of the song while listeners were to guess the song based on the rhythm they heard being tapped. Over the course of the experiment, 120 songs were tapped out, and only 2.5% of the songs were correctly identified by the listeners. That's 3 out of 120.
The results, while dismal, would be of little interest had it not been for what took place prior to the experiment. Tappers were asked to predict how many songs the listeners would correctly identify. They predicted 50%. Through the course of the study, tappers were able to get listeners to correctly identify songs a mere 1 in every 40 times, although they thought their success rate would be 1 in every 2. In the end, tappers failed to get their message across as well as they thought they would.
The problem is that tappers have been given knowledge - they hear the song in their head. It's impossible for them to not hear it, and therefore incredibly difficult to put themselves in their listeners state of mind. There is a tune playing in their head that their listeners can't hear.
Without recreating your listeners state of mind, your vision becomes an incomprehensible tapping in their ears. No matter how loud or how often you tap, they still won't hear the song like you do. The result is frustration - you won't understand why your people aren't "getting it" and they won't understand why you're constantly beating them over the head with the same annoying message.
The only remedy to the Curse of Knowledge is the transformation of how you communicate your ideas. A growing trend in the church planting circuit is a rhetoric that only makes sense in the church planting circuit. We speak of "the gospel" and "gospel-centered", or "missional" and "contextualization", and for good reason. These are powerful terms that carry powerful messages. But sometimes in using terms like these we are assuming too much on the average person, namely, that they can hear the song in their head like we do in ours.
The reality is most people don't understand those terms, or many other sound bites and kitchy phrases floating around the church planting world right now. They don't think about God, church or ministry like that. As a father I'm constantly reminded that I have to contextually adapt my language on a regular basis. I have to speak to my 2 year old differently than I do my 4 year old, and both differently than I do my 6 year old. If I speak to my 2 year in the same terms I speak to my 6 year old in, she'll stare at me confused and eventually walk away. Of course I want my 2 year old's capacity for understanding and communication to grow and develop, but I have to learn how to communicate with her where she is now in order to mature her to where she one day needs to be.
The same is true for communicating vision. Sometimes people leave churches for wrong, sinful, selfish reasons; and sometimes for good and right ones; and sometimes they leave because they are confused and don't know what to do, so they simply walk away. It's our jobs as church planters to abandon any use of language that is assuming too much on people. We must communicate with people on a level they can understand. Not to pacify them in elementary terms, but to set them on a trajectory that will develop in them the capacity to learn and eventually adopt a new, more developed language on their own.
Before you can expect people to live "gospel-centered" lives you have to first teach them what the gospel is. Before you can send them out to "live missionally" they have to first understand what the mission of God is. Eventually, over time, they will adopt this language as their own; not because they are regurgitating your words but because they are experiencing the reality of those words first hand in their own lives.
You have a song in your head, and your job is to get other people singing that same song. Teach them the lyrics, word by word by word, and they eventually will sing it on their own.
Right now, your people understand only as much of your vision as you have effectively communicated to them. Not withstanding the power of God to do what He wills, the results you are seeing materialize in your ministry are very much proportional to the effectiveness of your vision casting. Are you casting vision in a way people can grab on to and run with? Are you communicating to them in a way they can understand, learn and grow from? Are you satisfied with the overall understanding and alignment of vision your people currently have?
Love your church more than you love your vision for your church. Love your people enough to communicate well and be patient with them. Your people will love what you say if they know they are loved.