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Comeback Imagination — Envisioning New Life

If you are going to imagine a new reality for your church, it must combine a clear understanding and communication of the current reality and envision and tell an alternative story.

By Ed Stetzer

Imagine it. Dream it. Picture it in your mind. Compose a new symphony. Envision a different story. Then, begin living and telling that story.

Someone asked Ivan Illich if societal change would happen best through revolution or reform. He said neither — not if you desire long-term change. Rather, he said we need to tell an alternative story that draws others because of its irresistible nature.

Apparently, many churches, trapped and mired in plateau and decline, need to tell an alternative story. Many think: Is it possible? Could things be different in my church? Does God desire that my church grow? Dare I take time to pause, pray, and think about how God conceives this church? Does He envision a healthy and growing church — one that reproduces disciples and churches?

For many, this sounds impossible. How could we realize that kind of future? To even consider it may seem like a hopeless effort to envision a fantasy world of sunshine and lollipops. And, you might be right if you are going to imagine a different future without first defining reality.

Over 30 years ago, John Lennon released his hit song Imagine. Here are the words that echo in the minds of many well-intentioned people:

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky.
Imagine all the people
Living for today …

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too.
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one.
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one.

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man.
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world …

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one.
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one.

While the words express some wonderful ideas, they are not based in reality. As believers in Jesus Christ and the Bible, we know the song lacks understanding of the reality of sin and the One who could create such a reality. What is the point? If you are going to imagine a new reality for your church, it must combine a clear understanding and communication of the current reality and envision and tell an alternative story.

Vision

In the book, Comeback Churches, that I coauthored with Mike Dodson, we talk about one of the keys to comeback leadership — catching vision and transferring that vision to others. Comeback leaders learn how to activate a shared vision. This kind of leadership requires embracing the reality of the situation along with people from the congregation. Then, with God’s help, it requires engaging these people to seek a new direction and put it into action. We write in this book: “Pastors face the ‘vision challenge’ every day. They must cast a vision so people can respond. People only get on board when they see the boat. God uses this vision to help us commit our time, talent, and treasure to the cause. Anytime we call people to commit to a strategy, we must cast vision. It is essential in church revitalization.”1

We also discuss some important aspects or general principles of vision that you can apply to your situation and help you envision new life:

We need vision because it stretches us beyond where we are and helps us embrace something bigger than ourselves. People want to know they are committing their time, talents, energies, and resources to something worthwhile, to something that is going to matter and make a difference. A compelling vision describes something that must be done — it moves people from passivity into action.

Vision comes from Kingdom faith. Jesus often spoke about the kingdom of God. He helped people see the bigger picture by comparing it to scattering seed on the ground that grows until the crop is harvested. He also talked about the tiny mustard seed becoming a huge plant that provides shade for the birds. By faith, paint a new picture of the future for your church.

Face the challenge of convincing followers to own the vision by filling your credibility tank. Timing is important when casting vision. Do you have the credibility to do it now? Do you need to earn some credibility by building on some small wins before you go for bigger things?

Paint a compelling verbal picture when casting vision. Convince people things are not acceptable the way they are, then motivate them to pursue a better future. First, think and pray through what the future should look like and write it down. Second, practice communicating that verbal picture. Third, get feedback from a few key people in your life and let them help you communicate it better. Last, cast that vision at the right time. Do not unpack it all at once.

Paint a realistic verbal picture when casting vision. Do not simply talk about how great things are going to be. Remind people that achieving the vision will require work and sacrifice. Fulfilling a God-sized vision will always involve risks and challenges.

Focus on key leaders who are persuadable and work on moving forward with them. Initially, the majority will probably not enthusiastically buy into the vision. Some will probably never jump on board. Present a challenging, yet attainable, vision that at least some people can and will follow and put into action.

Vision alone will not grow a church. Growth takes a leader casting vision, followers who are ready to listen, and a group ready to act to build a new reality and accomplish the vision.

Having comeback imagination involves reality and fresh vision. If you are going to seek God’s design for a preferable future in your church, then it will require a renewed focus on your part to dream, to imagine, and to envision something different from what exists now. Paint a picture of reality; then paint a different picture for the future. Tell the sad tale of the current reality, then tell an alternative story of where God wants things to go. Squeeze the lemons, and let God make some sweet lemonade.

Focus

Imagining a different destination for your church is going to take focused attention. Here are helpful tips toward developing comeback imagination:

Focus on where the church is to get the focus on others. Defining the current reality is just the beginning. If a church is in decline, the leaders must acknowledge and discuss that fact (and acknowledge and discuss why it is true) to come to realize they are not reaching new people. Because the church is not reaching people, the gospel is not transforming lives. Things must change so the church can place a renewed focus on reaching the lost and seeing lives changed outside the walls of the church. Define the dismal reality to get focused on meeting the needs of real people in the community.

Focus on why God wants your church to grow to refute why that seems impossible. Study the Bible to discover 50 reasons God wants your church to grow. If you want to be really ambitious, go for 100. This will help you and others in your church be transformed by the renewing of your mind in Scripture. Some people will come up with reasons your church cannot or should not grow.

Focus on thinking beyond where you are so you are not wallowing in mediocrity. Churches end up in plateau and decline because they get comfortable where they are. Doing things halfway or casually becomes the norm. If a church wants to grow beyond where it is, it needs to think and act like it is bigger than it is right now.

For example, some churches are not growing because they are not doing anything intentional to minister outside of the church. Church services are business as usual. They do not give any thought to welcoming guests, toning down churchy language, breaking up fellowship huddles to engage visitors, or following up newcomers.

Focus on keeping the vision fresh instead of thinking people get it. Church leaders often think that if they have communicated something a few times people get it. (I like to think that people should just get it after I have said something once.) People have many things going on in their lives that distract them. Define reality, envision a new future, start living the new life, and keep telling the new story … again and again and again.

Here are ideas to help keep the vision fresh:

  1. Plan some simple events to minister to people that involve a group of people from the church. Then have someone share a brief testimony about that outreach experience.
  2. Develop an outreach plan for the church and then highlight one different part each week in the worship services.
  3. Pray for God to change your heart and the heart of the church during public prayer times. Pray Luke 10:2.
  4. Provide training opportunities — such as Sharing Jesus Without Fear — to help people learn to become better witnesses.
  5. Make a big deal about baptisms by explaining what they represent and invite candidates to share their testimonies before the congregation.
  6. Meet monthly with key leaders to update, recast a vision for outreach, and pray for God to move in the lives of the church family to act on the vision.
  7. Develop a list of people who do not know Jesus and pray for them regularly with key leaders and before the congregation.

Conclusion

Take a moment with God and imagine your church being transformed to reach people in your community. Imagine how the community might respond. Imagine how God would be glorified:

So, take a deep breath and a big gulp. With God’s help, define the current reality in your church and start dreaming and envisioning what new life for your church would look like. Start living with comeback imagination. Then, start telling that alternative story … again and again and again. May God help you envision new life and a new future and bless you abundantly with comeback imagination.

ED STETZER, Ph.D., president, LifeWay Research and LifeWay’s missiologist in residence. He lives in Gallatin, Tennessee. He is the author of several books, including Planting New Churches in a Postmodern Age and Lost and Found: The Younger Unchurched and Churches That Reach Them.

NOTES

1. Ed Stetzer and Mike Dodson, Comeback Churches: How 300 Churches Turned Around and Yours Can Too (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2007), 46.

2. Robert Lewis, The Church of Irresistible Influence (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 13,14.

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