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Advent: Perfect Time for Churches to Pursue Vision

It was Vaclev Havel who described the dilemma every leader has with the issue of vision.
“Vision is not enough; it must be combined with venture. It is not enough to stare up the steps; we must step up the stairs,” Havel said.

By venture, of course, he means action. Simply describing a vision of a better future is relatively easy. In congregational life, it is a key step in sound strategic planning.

Name the future you want to live into and do so in inspiring and motivating language. Many a church has gone through a lengthy process to produce a dreamy description of their future.

On a regular basis, I encounter churches that dream a vibrant future easily, but stumble at the point of venture.

When implementation begins, they resist the changes that will actually impact them and their world.

Congregational vision plans that fail often do so because the vision is not matched by a commitment to venture.

My friend and congregational thought-leader Tom Ehrich recently wrote about this phenomenon in churches.

He suggests that incremental congregational change comes about much like a person recovers from an addiction. Change comes “one day at a time” if it comes at all. He is right.

What we know about the churches that will thrive in the 21st century is that they will be willing to practice relentless alignment between vision and venture.

Healthy churches start with a powerful, shared vision that captures God’s dream for the church and then work tirelessly to embrace it across every aspect of congregational life. Of course, that is just the issue that confounds us.

Relentless alignment inevitably means adjustment and change. Someone is going to be forced out of a favorite comfort zone, some committee is going to be decommissioned, someone who currently “owns” a ministry or area is going to be displaced, some sacred cow is going to become a gourmet burger.

I saw a cartoon recently depicting a pastor search committee at work. One member summarizes their conversation to the rest of the committee. “Basically, we’re looking for an innovative pastor with a fresh vision who will inspire our church to remain exactly the same.”

I love the title of Ed Friedman’s epic book about leadership, “A Failure of Nerve.” Too often, that lack of backbone shows up when a vision begins to move into the venture stage.

Most churches take a break from such thinking during the Advent season. Our calendars are full and we want to give our full attention to the arrival of the Christ-Child.

This year, I believe that the season of Advent is an especially appropriate time to think about vision and venture.

Remember, venture shares a root word with Advent. A venture is a “risky or daring journey or undertaking.”

Advent refers to the “anticipated arrival of a notable person or event.” Put them together and you get adventure.

The blending of anticipation and a resolve to act is at the heart of Christ’s arrival, but also his life.

Jesus did not come to inspire us to simply hold lofty thoughts and ideals, but to live changed lives.

He had more in mind for his church than handwringing or wishful thinking. He intends us to turn our communities upside down by adventurously walking our faith talk.

Strategic planning that is heavy on vision and light on venture leaves us empty and frustrated.

We don’t need any more churches that have been enticed to dream of a dynamic future, only to be disappointed when nothing changes and the dreams evaporate.

Instead, the adventure of a vision that actually becomes a reality is what motivates us to share, attend and sacrifice.

This Advent season is a perfect opportunity to turn our time of anticipation into a congregational faith venture.

Let’s use the remainder of this season to remind us that the baby’s arrival heralds the start of a grand adventure that is still unfolding.

God is with us and invites us to help bring his kingdom to our community, even as it is in heaven.

Such a vision is not only lovely, but also the venture to which we, too, are called to give our lives.

The baby Jesus eventually turns tradition and organizational assumptions on their collective heads.

The warm sentimentality of Christmas is a prelude to the hard challenges Jesus will present to every person with whom he ever crosses paths.

No one meets Jesus and walks away unchanged. Some welcome the change, while others resist it with all their being.

Before this Advent season ends, I hope your church will gain a fresh and compelling vision for what Christ desires you to become.

Alongside that vision, I hope you will also embrace the call to boldly venture out and make that dream a reality.

Blending the two into a grand adventure of faith is the real reason for this season.

Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Healthy Churches in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. You can follow him on Twitter @BillWilson1028 and the center @ChurchHealthy.