The greatest reality affecting our vision is always God.
—Wayne Pohl

The story is told of a major corporation that launched a new brand of dog food: Through research, they developed the most sophisticated, most nutritious dog food to date and poured millions into marketing it.

But it didn't sell.

Out of frustration, the corporation gathered in a Chicago hotel. The national sales manager got up and said, "What's the problem? We have this nutritious product that is cheaper and better marketed than our competitors' product. Why is nobody buying it?"

There was a long, uncomfortable silence. Then, from the back of the room, a salesman from Iowa drawled, "The dogs don't like it."

Vision, it seems to me, is overrated. As this story reminds me, it's no match for reality. I've discovered this truth in the only institution that teaches it: the school of hard knocks.

Several years ago, our church purchased fifteen acres of prime real estate along a main artery in the Detroit metropolitan area. Our current three-acre site was constricting our growth, and so we saw this purchase as a way to fulfill our vision of reaching the lost.

Shortly after purchasing the property, however, we discovered that the cost of building a new facility was prohibitive. To build a facility the same size as we currently had would have cost over $14 million—and we needed to expand. We then stumbled upon the fact that our present church facility would not be easy to sell.

To top it off, we discovered our new property lay 400 feet outside the city of Trenton. It might as well have been 400 miles. Our church identifies itself with the town of Trenton; we couldn't move without altering our personality. So, after some huffing and puffing, we opted for staying put; we hired an architect and added space to our current facility.

Reality rarely matches our dreams. Perhaps that's why I'm a little skeptical about all this recent talk of vision in the church. Typically, anyone who pastors a large church is said to have vision. But many pastors who have seen growth, when pressed, will confess, "I'm not sure how it happened. I was just trying to do ministry."

I suspect that most pastors have more than enough vision, even too much vision. The pastor leading the megachurch and the one struggling to shepherd 75 people both have dreams. What most of us need, then, is not more vision but a greater grasp of reality.

What follows is the fruit of years of learning the balance between vision and reality.

The draconian twins

Pastors who dream face two draconian realities:

First, church culture is just about the toughest soil in which to nurture vision. The ceos of major corporations work with board members who at least agree upon what makes their stockholders happy. Pastors work with volunteer boards that have a hard time agreeing about why the church exists. The diverse backgrounds of board members only complicate matters.

Let's say you have one board member who formerly lived in Southern California where he and his family attended a church of 5,000. He expects your church to have all the amenities of a large church.

But another board member grew up attending a church of 75. "Pastor," he says, "aren't we big enough already?" He expects a staff member to be present during all three hours of his wife's gall bladder operation. That's what his former pastor would have done.

Both members deserve to serve on the board if they're spiritually gifted and qualified to lead, yet their philosophies are as far apart as the north and south rims of the Grand Canyon. Add to the board another half dozen people who are just as diverse, and it's no wonder they don't read off the same page. To make matters worse, just when you've developed consensus among the board members, their term is up. Suddenly, the board is filled with new faces who don't share the vision.

A second difficulty for visionary pastors is that the subculture is constantly in flux. Our community of Trenton, for example, is pricing itself out of the reach of young families. Only older families, buying their third or fourth home, can afford the mortgages. Many women in our church, in order to send their kids to the best colleges, have gone back to work. As a result, we're losing our adult volunteer force.

Today, many church attenders feel more concerned about time than money. They'd rather pay Chem-Lawn $40 to spread fertilizer over their lawn than take an hour to do it themselves.

In these changing times, the pastor who clings to the same approaches to vision for more than two years simply isn't living in the real world. Of course, the church's core mission to reach the lost never changes, but the way in which that mission is accomplished should constantly be up for revision.

Winning traits

Given the above realities, it's not surprising that the number of churches rallied behind a clear vision are few.

But people-rallying visions are possible. Successful visions seem to possess several characteristics. Here are three to consider.

Solid in core. People rightly get frustrated when the reason the church exists changes. St. Paul Lutheran Church, for example, has this primary mission: "We will live the Great Commission." (See Matthew 28:19-20.) Although our church ministers to the poor through our food pantry, feeding the poor isn't why we exist; we exist to reach the lost for Christ.

Let's say, though, I decided to swap our vision of reaching the lost for feeding the poor. Every program would have to be altered; every mission statement would have to be rewritten. That would put a heavy strain on our people, who enlisted under our present mission. People don't like the core vision to be radically shifted.

Ways to achieve the core mission may change, but the core mission needs to be set in concrete. A fixed mission is the church's ballast during times of upheaval.

Flexible in execution. We use every means possible to interest unchurched people in the gospel. For example, sports are a good opportunity for Christians to interact with non-Christians. So our church sponsors a men's hockey team, which plays in one of Detroit's city leagues. This nontraditional church program has helped us evangelize. (We confess, though, that one of our associate pastors led the league in penalty minutes.)

A realistic vision must also allow for all sorts of creativity.

Local. In the early 1980s, one ecclesiastical rage was satellite churches: a church would operate as the hub of other churches it began nearby. Each "campus" would share staff and money with the main campus. This model was touted as the wave of the future.

So I traveled to various churches piloting satellite campuses and then convinced my leaders that we needed to do the same. Suddenly, we had a vision. We planned to start four satellite campuses in various Detroit suburbs: Woodhaven, Grosse Ile, Gibraltar, and Riverview. Our timing seemed impeccable.

When we were ready to launch the first campus in Woodhaven, we gathered together the people from our church who lived in Woodhaven. "Here's what we've been dreaming about," we said. "We're going to buy an old school in Woodhaven and start St. Paul of Woodhaven. We'll serve you with the staff of the main campus and pay their salaries. You'll have to worship in a school gym for a while, but we'll upgrade your meeting space as the church grows. We'll be the same church, just in two locations."

"What a wonderful idea, Pastor," they said. "But why don't you make Grosse Ile the first campus?"

Not a bad idea, I thought. So we gathered the Grosse Ile members and delivered our spiel. They responded, "Great idea. But why don't you start the first campus in the Gibraltar community?"

To make a painful story short, we scrapped our vision, or should I say, someone else's vision. I had to learn what now seems obvious: you can't necessarily import a vision created elsewhere. Vision is local.

Preemptive strikes

There are myriad reasons why a vision doesn't catch fire. Sometimes it's a problem with the vision; other times it's a problem with how it's presented. Here are several ways to avoid setbacks.

Admit your failures. When I arrived at St. Paul in 1974, this congregation was long on potential but short on commitment. We had more than 500 people on the rolls who hadn't attended in the past year. As an energetic, thirty-three-year-old pastor, I set about correcting the problem. I created a program called "My Brother's Keeper." The program attempted to match the committed with the uncommitted, the attenders with the Christmas and Easter crowd, helping both grow up in Christ.

At the program's inception, a lay leader named Harold said, "Pastor, I want to tell you that this won't work." Harold was not a crank operating on the church fringe; I respected his opinions. But I wasn't swayed by his criticism and pressed ahead. After two years, however, the program died. At a Sunday evening service shortly thereafter, Harold stopped me and said, "I told you so."

He was right, which was hard on my ego. But I smiled back and admitted his genius. Harold turned out to be one of my most energetic supporters until he retired and moved away.

Few of us married the first person we dated. We had to go out with a few dates before we found our one true love. The same is true of vision: A church will probably need to court several visions before the one true vision is found. In the process, its leaders will stumble a few times, so we'll need to say, "Boy, I really blew that call."

That's not easy for many pastors. Yet for the lay leader, there's something almost alchemical about hearing the words "I was wrong." People trust a pastor who 'fesses up when he's wrong.

Challenge your people. On Sunday mornings, an adult Bible class called Breakfast Bible meets in our church gym. Besides biblical insights, the class offers a continental breakfast: coffee, doughnuts, bagels, and fruit. It meets during the Sunday school hour, and the children who pass by the gym where the class meets occasionally grumble that they never get to eat any of the goodies.

So the Sunday school department issued a challenge a week before Friend Sunday: if the kids brought more unchurched friends than the adults did, for the month of April they got to eat the food—while the adults watched in envy.

You can imagine who won. At St. Paul we're not afraid to challenge our people to fulfill our vision of reaching the lost.

In a recent sermon before Friend Sunday, I said, "The only people who shouldn't bring a friend on Friend Sunday are those who don't have a friend. There are only two options: either you won't speak to your friends about Christ, or you don't have a friend. If you don't have a friend, you're in real trouble, and we'll pray for you."

My intent wasn't to shame but to challenge my listeners. Visions often fail because the leader fails to rally the troops around the cause. Our culture is filled with people dying to find significance. The gospel is worth giving our life to, and when challenged with its eternal significance, people will rise to the occasion.

Offer skills to reach vision. One Sunday I said, "If I could get every man in our congregation to spend one tenth of the time talking about Jesus Christ to his friends as he does talking about the ncaa tournament, the whole downriver area of our city would be converted."

I put the onus on the leaders of our church: it is our responsibility to train people to share their faith. People have a right to expect us to give them the tools needed to achieve the vision.

Connect ministry with mission. In many churches, nursery workers are recruited with the line, "Boy, we need somebody to take care of the screaming kids. Would you do it?"

With that approach, you may find someone willing to serve, but not for long. Guilt is a poor motivator.

Our church has 430 nursery workers, all volunteers, so to fill every slot is not easy. We attempt to connect the job of nursery worker with the mission of the church. When we ask someone to volunteer for nursery duty, we say, "You know, maybe next Sunday a young couple who has drifted away from the Lord will be here. They've got a youngster who needs special attention. Through your ministry, this couple will have the chance to hear God's Word."

In that light, our volunteers are not baby-sitters; their work contributes directly to the church's mission. Consequently, fewer people respond, "I did my turn in the nursery when I had kids, but now my kids are grown."

Whatever their niche in the church, people must believe their work has eternal significance and contributes to the church's mission.

Stay around. One of my professors in seminary said, "It takes three years for a congregation to know a pastor, another two for them to love him, and then another two for them to trust him."

Most pastors give up too soon. If their visions aren't executed within three years, they move on "to some church that will appreciate me."

It's trite but true: the failure of local church vision can often be traced to a string of abbreviated pastorates. Stability enhances the chances of vision's success.

The reality of God

Surely vision is important. Without it, the Bible says, the people perish.

But the longer I'm in ministry, the more I'm convinced it's important to face and accept reality. For it's in the reality of church life—even its painful limitations—that we grow.

Several years ago we kicked off a campaign to raise money for a new facility. Shortly thereafter, the bottom dropped out of the Detroit economy. The automotive market slumped, and many people attending our church lost their jobs. Our timing couldn't have been worse. Not surprisingly, the final pledges came up short—25 percent short. The reality of the economy had taken a huge bite out of our vision.

But we plunged ahead anyway, and I spent a few sleepless nights worrying about our financial future.

Because the economy was so lousy, however, builders all across Michigan were hungry for work and scrambled to bid on our project. The competition drove down the bids, and, as a result, the final cost ended up being 25 percent lower than our projections. It matched our 25 percent shortfall!

It was clear who had engineered the final outcome. The lesson was not lost on our church: the greatest reality affecting our vision is always God.