Reviewed by Trent Hunter
I recently walked into a camera shop and was greeted by an empty reception room with photographs of beautiful scenery on the wall. Then a young lady asked if I’d like a massage. Alas, I wasn’t really in a camera shop. In this one small building were two businesses and the signage didn’t coordinate with the entrances. Massages are great, by the way. I just wasn’t after a massage, and as it is I’d go to my wife for one of those.
This was something like the experience of reading Finding a Vision for Your Church: Assembly Required, by Michael A. Milton. This is a good book, but it’s not what I was expecting. I’ll explain how it was a good book, then I’ll explain how it could have been reframed. I’ll conclude with some suggestions for how to use this book in your church and ministry.
A Book Filled with Sermons for Improved Biblical Vision
The chapters that make up Finding a Vision for Your Church began as a series of sermons preached by Milton in 2001 at the start of his preaching ministry at the historic First Presbyterian Church of Chattanooga, TN. Milton, by the way, is clearly a capable shepherd and leader. He served at this church for seven years, he has planted churches, founded a Christian academy, and now serves as Chancellor and CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary. For these sermons to be turned into a book ten years later, we may assume that they marked the start of a fruitful season of ministry. As a newly installed pastor, Milton’s purpose in this preaching series was to “help [his] congregation focus on [their] common life together as a church” (15). The book’s purpose is obviously closely related: “to fulfill God’s purposes in the world today” (16). Here’s how Milton frames up his book with respect to vision:
Of course, a vision statement for a church is vastly different from a vision statement for a corporation. The church’s vision statement, its very identity and purpose, must be thoroughly grounded in the Word of God. Nothing else will do. …
The overriding purpose of this book is to cast a vision for the church, for God’s holy bride. (20-21)
No surprise, then, this is not a book merely about strategic planning and vision casting. Chapters like, “Value the Bible,” and “Value the Great Commission,” represent texts, encouragement, and exhortation important for centering any church on the important things. Chapters like, “Expository Preaching,” “Living Worship,” and “The Ministry of Prayer,” likewise unpack the Bible’s important teaching on dimensions of the church’s life that we neglect to our peril. These chapters are not general introduction summaries of the Bible’s teaching these topics, but pastoral reflections based on a limited number of texts. Milton’s chapter on worship will illustrate this (157-169). From two texts, Psalm 84:1-4 and John 4:16-26, Milton unfolds this outline:
- Living Worship Is Not about a Prop, but about a Person
- Living Worship Is Set in Living History
- Living Worship Requires a Living Faith
- Living Worship Must be Based on the Living Word
- Living Worship Leads to a Living Lord
Milton’s sermonic and textually focused approach to these topics is clear from a peruse through any chapter, but it may not be clear from a glance at the Table of Contents. This makes the book more useful for laypeople in discipleship than for ministry teams looking to sharpen their focus and philosophy of ministry.
A clear advantage to the original packaging of this material as a sermon series is a sense of pastoral connectivity with the reader that pervades the book. Milton is not distant. He is talking to his readers as though they were his own congregation. He has the tone of a loving shepherd. To worship leaders he has this to say: “Oh, may you lead your congregation to know him through your leadership and your worship services!” (165). To all of us he says: “As you read this, I am praying for you. You and I need to know that grace is the only way we can relate to God because that is his plan for saving us … Does that kind of grace mark your view of the church?” (59). Personal anecdotes, loving encouragements, direct exhortations, prayers, and important questions like this are a strength of his book.
All of this content is tethered to the Bible and will help clarify anyone’s vision for a more biblical view of the church and its work in the world.
Not a Book About Leadership and Vision
Milton’s material and manner is a model for much of the pastor’s work in leading his flock into the future, and these chapters certainly inform our vision of church. For the reader looking for encouragement in how to think about what the church is about, this book will encourage their growth. However, for the reader looking for help in the leadership mechanics of casting, guarding, and leading out in vision, this book will disappoint. Given that vision is a category within the broader literature on leadership and strategic planning, the language of vision in the title meant I was expecting that kind of book.
I’d say this was my misread, except the book actually reinforces the promise of the title in a number of ways. For example, this question on the back of the book whet my appetite: “How do you inspire your church to create and follow through on a vision?.” At the end of the first chapter, we were instructed to “write a rough outline of a vision statement for your church (30). So, when earlier chapters were on the more foundational aspects of church health, I expected later chapters to get to the mechanics. But even chapter 7, titled, “Transforming Vision,” only derived principles from Philippians 1:3-14, like a sermon might. Further, it was the only chapter that revisited the vision statement in its concluding questions. Even an Appendix section, titled, “The Implementation of a Vision and Ministry Plan for a Local Church,” includes some good counsel on being passionate, patient, and a good listener, but not the kind of concrete implementation or planning wisdom I anticipated.
In my estimation, we have a good book here that needs reframing to make sure it gets into the hands of laypeople, or retooling to help it deliver on the promise of its title for church leaders. Reframing would mean a new title and changing up some of the parts that address pastors, worship leaders, etc. Retooling would mean adding a section with framework, mechanics, and wisdom for leading God’s people in the area of vision. I would be eager to read a section like this from this author, given his ministry background and responsibilities. In addition, retooling would mean reworking the questions at the end of each chapter to help lead the reader through the work of discerning, articulating, casting, protecting, and leading out in the area of vision related to that chapter.
Retooling would also mean clarifying the meaning of the terms vision and mission and how these ideas relate. I’m just one reader, but I’ve grown to use these terms in a very specific way, mission being the primary and timeless responsibility of the church in the world (i.e. the glory of God, the great commission, etc.). Then, I’ve used the language of vision to refer to that “picture of the future” which takes into account the context of the times and our church’s particular location (e.g. planting a church, starting mission based community groups, begin partnering with area Native American reservation churches, etc.). Strategy, then, refers to the game-plan for getting from here to there. I was assuming these definitions until chapter 8, when I read, “A vision is what you want to become; a mission is how you get there.” Since he tied vision to identity and purpose in the first chapter (20), it may be that we are using these words in opposite ways. These aren’t biblical words, so that’s fine, but definitions, illustrations, and explanations earlier on will help the reader get the most out of the book.
Suggestions for How to Use this Book
Many books on church vision can be put safely in the category of many leadership and productivity books for a non-church audience. If they interact with Scripture, it’s awkward, superficial, and unnecessary. These books tend to develop a paradigm and then find in the Bible that paradigm at work. Whatever it may have to say by way of leadership wisdom, the glory of God, the centrality of the church, and the Bible are not properly regarded. That is most definitely not the case with this book.
This book under-delivers on the promise of its title, but it’s a fine resource for pastors and Christians seeking a healthy grasp on some important dimensions of church life. So, how should you use this book? Use it as a reference in designing a sermon series for centering your church on the main things. Use it for discipling young Christians in the basics of the Christian life. Use it for challenging a relaxed church with the Word of God on its important role in God’s world for his glory.
Trent Hunter serves as Pastor of Administration and Teaching at Desert Springs Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
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Finding A Vision For Your Church: Assembly Required