Biblical Theology and Vision: Do We Need Mission Statements?

W. Jackson Watts

I was recently having a conversation with a friend who is also a pastor. He shared with me that he and his church leaders were going through an extensive evaluation of their entire ministry, especially as it relates to their church’s health and potential changes that may be needed. He raised this question: “What is the difference between a church’s mission statement and its vision?” One of his lay leaders had asked about this. There was some confusion as to which was which in their ministry.

My short answer is more or less what I believe most people would say: Mission is what you do, and vision is where you’re trying to go. To thicken this a bit, your vision is where you are hoping to go, or what you want to become as an organization. Your mission would be the thing you need to do faithfully to get there.

In the course of our conversation I was reminded of some important caveats, clarifications, and challenges that all of us church leaders need to understand and communicate about mission statements. In this article I want to explain some of the background that needs to be made more explicit in this discussion. Then, I’ll offer five theses regarding mission statements in our churches.

Learning from Others

Most of the lingo of mission and vision actually arises from outside ecclesiology and biblical studies. It arises from the vast body of leadership literature that has emerged over the last couple of generations. Those writing on organizational leadership have long discussed the relevance of having a motto, slogan, mission, and/or vision as part of founding, developing, and growing companies or businesses. I’m not sure when, but at some point this literature began to influence and shape the evangelical church world.

Let me hasten to say that I don’t view this influence as entirely negative. In fact, I’m deeply appreciative for those gifted leaders who have called attention to the need to give those in Christian organizations, including churches, clarity about what they ought to be doing to help their ministries be fruitful. In God’s common grace, He sheds abroad the knowledge of how groups of people work in coordinated cooperation toward important goals. What could be more important than for Christians to work together to fulfill Christ’s mission for us?

Of course, the first obstacle that emerges is when we listen more to corporate leadership gurus than Christ and the apostles. If Coach K has more sway over how we seek to lead and make men than Jesus, we’ve got a problem (and I like Coach K!).

As with anything that can resource our ministry, we have to filter it through the grid of Scripture. The New Testament must have more purchase over our thinking about growth, leadership, and structure than Warren Buffett, John Kotter, or even believers like Thom Rainer. I have benefited from people like these, but sometimes you get the impression that having a short, memorable mission statement is next-to-godliness.

The Center of the Bible: The Debate Continues

The question of balance and emphasis naturally leads us into what Scripture may contribute to our thinking about mission and vision (however you choose to define those). Biblical theologians are scholars who seek to trace out patterns and themes in Scripture as they unfold. Unlike systematic theologians, biblical theologians tend to place more emphasis on identifying specific themes or teachings across Scripture (or genres of Scripture) as they unfold organically. Think Graeme Goldsworthy or G.K. Beale (biblical theology) versus Wayne Grudem or Kevin Vanhoozer (systematic theology) for modern exemplars of these two approaches. We have seen some efforts to bridge biblical and systematic theology, but generally theologians tend to occupy one lane more than the other. Some will dispute this characterization, but I think it’s fair.

What does this have to do with mission statements? It’s a question of emphasis and focus. For example, there has been a long-standing debate in biblical theology about what theme stands at the center of Scripture. In recent years we have seen several significant book-length treatments on this issue, such as God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment, Kingdom through Covenant, and more recently, God’s Relational Presence. And it’s not just writing theologians who are in on this project. Retired pastor John Piper’s emphasis on Christ’s supremacy in all things and enjoying God forever permeates all of his writings. These themes are compelling because they seem to fit with what a plain reading of Scripture reveals: it’s all about God!

So when we’re trying to develop short, memorable statements that describe where a congregation needs to go, or how they intend to get there, it’s crucial that those statements are grounded in Scripture. Generic and unclear statements like “our mission is to have an impact,” or “our vision is to be excited about Jesus,” while well-intentioned, probably fail to reflect a clear New Testament message.

Where Shall We Go?

With that being said, let me suggest five theses about the use of mission statements in our churches. I think the same would apply to vision statements, but I’ll focus on the former since they tend to receive the most emphasis.

1-Mission Statements are only as good as your ministry alignment. Not unlike James’ words about being a hearer and a doer (Jas. 1:22-24), we may be able to develop a mission statement that is pleasing to the ear and thoroughly biblical. However, if we don’t persevere in the intentional, long-term work of developing all areas of ministry to work toward the fulfillment of that mission, then the statement is useless. Having a mission statement might be necessary, but it’s insufficientfor getting everyone moving in the same direction. People may know it, but if they aren’t shown how to take practical steps toward it (including specific changes), then the mission will remain just a statement on a wall. As an aside, I use the word “persevere” above intentionally. If you’re not planning (or willing) to stay in your current ministry for another ten years, don’t spend the next year trying to launch a new mission statement. It’ll take much more time than that to make real progress toward it.

2-Mission statements can benefit all church members, but they’re essential for the leaders. Leaders have to first buy in to the stated mission of the church. They make most of the decisions for the church day to day, from the development and implementation of policies, the care of members, the teaching of classes, and most importantly, modeling what it means to be a faithful member.If they don’t believe in the mission, or are constantly at odds with other leaders about the specific strategies that will fulfil the mission, this will have a cascading effect on the rest of the congregation.But if the leaders are committed to and excited about the mission, this can be contagious, in the very best sense of the word.

3-Mission Statements don’t create health; they can create clarity. Sometimes when churches have been around for several decades they’ve had time to see many ministries started. Often these ministry areas lose focus, compete for resources, and/or lack the volunteers they need to be truly effective. Underneath all of this is the question, “Do these ministries actually work toward a clear goal that is not at odds with other ministries?” A mission statement can bring clarity to an organization or church where there is a sense that everyone is going in different directions. It’s not even that everyone is doing badthings. Rather, they’re just not examining those directions in light of the larger direction that God intends for his church. Clarity, then, is vital. It won’timmediately bring health. But they can be partof a path toward greater health.

4-Mission Statements are no substitute for the problem of ignoring Scripture. In some ways thesis four is an extension of thesis three. If a church intends to become healthy and stay healthy, it’s not enough to add a mission statement or tweak an existing one. Even once a church anchors its mission statement in Scripture, it has to be committed to a full range of biblical principles and practices. Side step any fundamental command for the church, and you’ll have an unhealthy church with a great mission statement. To illustrate, if sin isn’t addressed, it will spread. If discipleship is a buzzword and not a regular behavior, the church will flounder. So if your mission statement is something like, “Our mission is to glorify God by living the Gospel,” and there is no actual recourse if members don’tlive the Gospel, or they get no help in living the Gospel, then you have mission failure.Don’t expect the church to be fruitful if you’re not being faithful to Scripture.

5-However you define mission or vision, be clear and consistent. Ultimately I don’t think that the precise definition a church uses for these statements will determine success. I will say that whenwe present and adopt statements as churches, we need to clearly explain their meaning, how they relate to each other, and what functional authority they will have over how decisions are made. If we do this, I think it will help the entire congregation have the right expectations.  

Augustine, Arminius, and R.C. Sproul on Christian Perfection

Matthew Pinson

Sometimes Arminius has been (inaccurately) interpreted as laying the groundwork for a doctrine of Christian perfection. With regard to perfectionism, Arminius said in his Declaration of Sentiments that he “never actually stated that a believer could perfectly keep the precepts of Christ in this life.” Nor did he deny it. He left it as an open question, contenting himself with the sentiments of Augustine. In short, citing Augustine, Arminius believed that, through grace, perfection was a logical possibility but that an individual who had attained it had never yet been found! [1].

Given how many times I’ve heard Calvinists say this about Arminius, I found it interesting when my friend Chris Truett, in a sermon on why God calls us to rely on Christ’s work and the gospel, not on our own standards of perfection, quoted staunch Calvinist R. C. Sproul as saying what Augustine and Arminius said. I went and looked up where Sproul said this, and here’s the quotation:

“Can a person be perfect? Theoretically, the answer to that is yes. The New Testament tells us that with every temptation we meet, God gives us a way to escape that temptation. He always gives us enough grace to overcome sin. So sin in the Christian life, I would say, is inevitable because of our weakness and because of the multitude of opportunities we have to sin. But on a given occasion, it is never, ever necessary. So in that sense, we could theoretically be perfect, though none of us is. [2]

_____________

[1] Gunter, Declaration of Sentiments, Kindle locations 3313-3314; cf. Arminius, Works, 1:677-78. Keith Stanglin, in his book Arminius on the Assurance of Salvation appears to agree with this interpretation of Arminius on perfection (Leiden: Brill, 2007, p. 140).

[2] R. C. Sproul, “Be Ye Perfect,” Ligonier.org, July 28, 2010; https://www.ligonier.org/blog/be-ye-perfect/

 

Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart

Matthew Pinson

Lately I’ve been hearing from a lot of Millennial-generation ministers in the Free Will Baptist Church who are getting burnt out on the market-driven model of church still being celebrated in certain segments of evangelicalism. These are younger ministers who, as recent surveys have shown, prefer the organic over the organizational, depth over shallowness, doctrine over pop psychology and self-help, substance over style, and shepherd over CEO.

As I mentioned in a recent blog, they’re a part of a generation, two-thirds of whom prefer traditional over modern church architecture and prefer the adjective “classic” to “trendy” to describe their approach to church. This is backed up by recent studies by Barna, LifeWay, and Gallup. (I cite this not because I think there’s one “sanctified” church architecture, but because it shows that studies of Millennials explode the myth some in my generation still seem to believe—that all younger people like their church experience to be like their coffee shop experience: “hip and trendy.”)

Frankly, if it weren’t for all the studies, I’d be surprised by how many of these young ministers complain about the Gen-Xers in my generation who don’t get them, who prefer CEO’s over shepherds as the model for modern ministry. The last several conversations I’ve had like this have led me to mention a book I’ve been reading by Harold Senkbeil, The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart. The book’s publisher, Lexham, has also published a practical ministry strategy manual by Senkbeil in its Lexham Ministry Guides series entitled Church Leadership and Strategy: For the Care of Souls.

The sorts of things this 70-year-old pastor says about ancient, organic ways of shepherding God’s flock offer a more sustainable model than the CEO approach to church leadership that seems to be failing so many pastors who’ve tried it. These sorts of things resonate with these young people who desire to invest themselves in more organic, sustainable ways of life rather than the throwaway disposability of contemporary secular culture.

I still haven’t finished the book; I’ll let you know what I think of it when I do. I wondered what it would be like to read this conservative Lutheran pastor (with whom I have obvious ecclesiological differences). But his aim is to write in such a way that conservative Christians across denominational lines can benefit from it, and it has endorsements from well-known Baptists and people from a host of other denominational backgrounds. The thing that stands out the most about it is that much of it reminds me of the biblical wisdom I’ve heard from treasured personal mentors of mine in ministry—people like L. V. Pinson (my grandfather), Leroy Forlines, Melvin Worthington, and Lewis Williams (my pastoral predecessor in Colquitt, Georgia).

So I was surprised when this book I’d been reading was receiving so much positive press at the very same time when so many people in my own generation in certain quadrants of the church are still rehearsing the corporate and market-oriented models of pastoring. The Gospel Coalition has lauded this book as one of the best books on pastoring in a long time. It won the “Best Ministry Book of 2019” award from Christianity Today magazine. A number of well-known Christian leaders have promoted the book. There’s all this praise for a book that is simply discussing the time-honored, classic pastoral tradition that was handed down to me by the ministry mentors who shaped me.

I was listening to an interview with Senkbeil by Dan Darling last week, on his ERLC podcast “The Way Home.” I thought the readers of this blog, including many young pastors who are trying to find their way toward a biblical, authentic, sustainable ministry in a world of gimmicks and “get-big-quick” schemes, would find it intriguing. Here it is.

Editor Addendum: Senkbeil’s book is currently for sale at a discounted price at Westminster Seminary’s online bookstore.

Making Sense of Religious Liberty

Jackson Watts

Recently a friend of mine at the Helwys Society Forum, a site I also contribute to, called attention to Robert Louis Wilken’s book, Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom. I had somehow overlooked this title, though I had admired Wilken’s work for years. He is William R. Kenan Professor Emeritus of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia. My first encounter with Wilken’s work was reading his book The Christians as the Romans Saw Them over ten years ago. I was riveted by his description of early Christian practices and teaching and how Roman civil authorities perceived this strange new cult.

Then about five years ago while I was studying at Concordia Seminary, Wilken came to lecture on the church fathers. Even in his 80s, he was clear and compelling. I should also add that he was personally warm. What drew me to this more recent book was the subject: religious freedom. We are living at a time when increasingly in the West earlier assumptions about the value and necessity of liberty of conscience aren’t fully recognized, or only for a scarce few. Even now at least four cases that somehow relate to this subject are being argued, or have been recently argued, before the U.S. Supreme Court. This issue is not going away, and will only intensify in the coming years.

Though Wilken’s argument is more limited in scope, I think it complements the overall project of articulating an understanding of freedom of conscience that benefits all people, not just Christians. I want to briefly summarize Wilken’s argument, then make some observations that relate this to our present challenges in the area of religious freedom.

A Common Misconception Exposed

Among historians there has been a tendency to see religious freedom as the product of Enlightenment thought. The argument goes something like this: During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, bloody religious wars were all too common. As the Enlightenment emerged, philosophers and other intellectuals saw the need for civil society to move past this needless and unfortunate bloodshed. In that unique context the need and case for religious liberty emerged. Increasingly people were free to practice their own religion, and form their own confessional communities without oppression or restriction by the state.

Here’s where Wilken (and other scholars) help debunk this misconception. He ably shows that the origins of religious freedom didn’t begin with Enlightenment philosophers, John Locke, or the founding fathers. Instead, he shows that as early as Tertullian (3rd century A.D.), Christian theologians saw in Scripture a basis for religious freedom. As Wilken puts it, “Religious freedom rests on a simple truth: religious faith is an inward disposition of the mind and heart and for that reason cannot be coerced by external force (1). Or to put it in Tertullian’s words:

It is only just and a privilege inherent in human nature that every person should be able to worship according to his own convictions; the religious practice of one person neither harms nor helps another. It is not part of religion to coerce religious practice, for it is by choice not  coercion that we should be led to religion (from Ad Scapula).

Wilken then develops his argument by showing how Lactantius and Gregory the Great joined Tertullian in providing a fairly early Christian perspective about religious liberty. Now I should add that this argument wasn’t fully developed, and certainly its application was not widespread. However, it refutes the argument that Enlightenment thinkers came up with the idea over a thousand years later.

Throughout the next several chapters Wilken walks the reader through Christian history, showing unique developments in which these early Christian ideas were received, appropriated, repackaged, and unfortunately, sometimes ignored. One interesting feature of the book is Wilken’s attention to Reformation era developments in several European countries, and how the case for religious liberty was made and often unevenly applied.

This latter point is really crucial. Jesus warns us about the problem of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy hinders people from seeing and receiving the truth. While living out of the faith inconsistently doesn’t logically discount the truthfulness of the faith, Scripture is clear that people see Jesus through seeing His people (John’s Gospel and first epistle really hammer home this point). So perhaps one reason why it is so easy for modern people to believe that religious liberty is not a cherished, ancient notion is because religious people themselves have at times been inconsistent in its application.

A Free Will Baptist Contribution

A book that deals with this subject couldn’t avoid the contribution of Thomas Helwys. Wilken devotes significant attention (for a relatively short book) to Helwys’ articulation of religious freedom. As an aside, my colleagues at the Helwys Society Forum have done this also, and we continue to marvel at the non-Free Will Baptists who are interested in Helwys who contact us about what we’re doing. But even Wilken sees Helwys as a major figure in this story. He quotes the famous line from Helwys that gets to the nub of the matter: “Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews or whatsoever. It appears not to earthly power to punish them in the least measure” (180). For an early English General Baptist to be the one making this case is something for modern Free Will Baptist to be proud of. But we should just as quickly feel surprise, for another inconsistency in the story of religious liberty is the fact that Christian thinkers were not always quick to acknowledge the need for full freedom for other groups to practice their faith. Helwys throws the doors wide open to Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, and Jew.

Tensions that Linger

I have alluded now a few times to the circuitous path it took for religious liberty to be widely observed. Part of this is due to some tensions that not only existed in earlier times and places, but ones that are still with us today. I’m going to highlight just two of the issues we still need to wrestle with and learn to articulate with clarity.

Coercion or Persuasion?

When we read about some earlier Christians discussing religious toleration (more limited) versus religious freedom (more expansive), one issue they were concerned with is how to persuade people to adopt the Christian faith—and their specific confession—while not coercing it. Again, if one accepts the premise that religious faith is a matter of the heart or individual conscience, then it cannot be coerced by some kind of external force. This external force could be threat of death, or something less severe like threat to civil well-being. Naturally believers who want to be evangelistic see persuasion as a legitimate Christian activity. The apostolic pattern certainly bears this out. But when does persuasion slip into coercion? When does an attractive argument become an inducement? Wilken’s book gives a few examples of this problem being worked out in a few circumstances, but we still have to think about it today.

It is possible to preach and evangelize in such a way that we give the impression that people should adopt Christianity if they intend to be loved or valued by us. Yet there is a distinction we have to make. We are called to love and respect the worth of all people, regardless of whether they come to Christ or not. There is indeed a special love, care, and commitment that believers share in the body of Christ that unbelievers are, by definition, excluded from. But I think we have to try to communicate this wisely so that we can be sure to seek to persuade people, while not coercing them. We may not wield a sword, but it’s possible that we would try to win people to Jesus using extraordinary means that win them to our means, or the external benefits of what we preach, and not to Christ himself.

There are other examples of this problem. In an earlier generation belonging to a church (and “espousing a religion”) helped build one’s social profile, especially if you were going to run for a local political office in certain communities. And though this trend has increasingly disappeared, it still points to the problem of believing without truly believing.

Private Belief or Public Practice?

Perhaps the part of Wilken’s book that I found most compelling is the problem of how we define religion. At times some Christians saw religion as merely, or at least predominantly, private belief. Obviously they did not see their own faith that way, but they were often tempted to limit it to private belief when it came to what would be allowed of others. Naturally you cannot compel someone to truly believe something in their heart. However, when it came to public expressions of that belief, those in power often differed on what would be accepted.

At the same time, many in favor of religious freedom for others recognized that this was inconsistent. Religion pertains not only to individual, private beliefs, but the expression of those beliefs, in practice, with other believers. This means there is always a public dimension of true faith. This was of course unsettling at times for civil leaders who thought that preserving order in their particular realm required conformity in matters of external religious observances. It’s like saying, “What you want to do and believe in the privacy of your own home is fine, but the moment you step outside, gather with other likeminded individuals, or stop supporting the existing religious order, then you’ve crossed the line.” Liberty ended at the threshold of one’s home.

This sounds all too similar to our contemporary situation in America. Christians are increasingly told that if they want to enter the marketplace they have to discard all of their religious and theological convictions, regardless of how sincerely held they are, how inherent they are to historic Christianity, or how supported they are by the First Amendment. If they try to bring their beliefs to bear on, say, how they create art, provide adoption services, or operate a college, they must conform to the established secular orthodoxies of the moment (I say “moment” because it is literally a moving target depending on which regulatory agency is writing memos that day, or if the Twitter mobs notice).

It’s all too easy to see how this current situation doesn’t just violate the plain sense of the First Amendment, but also the very ancient understandings of religion that some of the most powerful minds in history have articulated, such as St. Paul, Tertullian, Gregory the Great, John Wycliffe, Thomas Helwys, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and more recent brethren like Robert P. George and Russell Moore. We can do better. Christians need to do their best to appeal to persons of good faith to show them why every citizen has a stake in freedom of religion and conscience. Wilken’s book and argument are just what the doctor ordered in helping to equip us for that enterprise.

 

Roger Scruton, in Memoriam

Matthew Pinson

Some while back I wrote a couple of blog posts that reflected on some ideas from the book Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition by the British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton. Many readers of this blog have benefited a great deal from reading one of the more than fifty books Scruton wrote during his lifetime. Scruton passed away on January 12 after a six-month battle with cancer. He will be sorely missed by conservative evangelicals as well as others in the conservative movement.

Roger Scruton didn’t talk a lot about theology per se, although he did write a “personal history” of the Church of England and spoke often about the importance of Christianity both spiritually and culturally, and the problems our culture is encountering because of its decline. I could point out numerous points of difficulty with his theological views. But his Christianity was of the old, Tory, Anglican kind, and when it came to questions of morality, culture, and public life, he shared with conservative evangelical thinkers an affirmation of the broad outlines of the cultural and intellectual commitments of the Christian Tradition. So he was a sort of “co-belligerent” with conservative evangelicals whose theological commitments have driven them to defend the Judeo-Christian intellectual and moral foundations of the Christian West in the face of the erosion of that consensus.

I had heard of the legendary Sir Roger many times before I ever read a book by him. This Cambridge-trained analytic philosopher was prolific in writing books and articles on a breadth of topics. He wrote on economics, postmodern intellectual trends in the universities, sexuality, and politics, but mostly art and culture, with his most well-known popular contribution being his BBC documentary Why Beauty Matters.

When we began to revise our general education curriculum at Welch College more than a decade ago, to help it more consistently to reflect the Christian intellectual tradition that has always been at the college’s heart and core, Scruton’s Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Beseiged, was one of the books I asked the committee to read. Before that book, I had benefited from his masterful An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture, a tour of the problems that beset the culture of modernity and the erosion of the culture it is fast replacing. I have also enjoyed his How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism; his critique of postmodern critical theory and other brands of intellectual leftism, Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left; and later some of his reflections on art such as Music as an Art, and several lectures he gave on representational art at the TRAC2014 conference.

Theologically conservative Protestants like us need to listen to Roger Scruton. We won’t agree with everything he says about religion and theology, but we will find in him an ally against the acids of modernity and secularism that are eating away at our culture, and we will see in him a penetrating intellect rooted in the broadly Christian intellectual consensus of which conservative Protestants are heirs.

We evangelicals today are faced with a deeply entrenched temptation to separate the mind and the heart. And, ironically, the more educated and sophisticated we become, the more it seems we are tempted to succumb to an anti-intellectual approach to our spirituality and its implications not only for how we approach the faith and practice of the church but how we engage culture. This is robbing us of our nerve, and we need all the help we can get in getting it back, in regaining, as David F. Wells calls it, the courage to be Protestant. While evangelicals will have their differences with him, I believe that engaging Sir Roger as a serious conversation partner will help us go a long way in doing that.

 

Preserving and Promoting Free Will Baptist Doctrine