In a world which is constantly changing, and after a year like 2020 where everything was turned upside-down, can we make plans or set goals as a church or individuals. We will explore the apostle Paul’s experiences on his missionary journeys to see how we can plan even when things are changing.
Theme: How do we plan when things keep changing (Sunday 31 January 2021)
Series: VIsion 2021
Bible Reading: Acts 20:17-38
Preacher: Phil Swain
While it was nice to be on holidays, I do enjoy preaching and bringing God’s word to us all … and so it is great to be standing up here again.
Next Sunday is the first Sunday in February, which for the past three years is the day here at TUC when we hold Vision Sunday. A Sunday where we remind ourselves of the calling that God has placed on this church and discern where God might be leading us in particular to focus our energy on for 2021. It is a time where we share some plans and goals that we have set.
But in a sort of prequel to Vision Sunday … I wanted us to take a step back and ask the question, why have Vision Sunday.
Well, there is loads of great research around which says that churches who have a clear picture of where they feel God is leading them and who communicate that Vision regularly with the congregation are usually churches with a higher sense of purpose, participation and ownership. That’s why we do it – because Vision Sunday is helpful in our ongoing desire to live faithfully to God’s call – both as individuals and as a church.
So, yes – planning and goal setting and casting a vision is worthwhile – but at the same time, there has been some other research that suggests that setting goals is not as helpful as it has been in the past; largely because we now live in a time when everything keeps changing, and so how do you plan when things keep changing.
You see, 10 to 20 years ago, churches were encouraged to come up with clear plans and goals … where the church would be in 3 or 5 or 10 year’s time. Do you remember doing 5 year goals? We would set goals, define strategy, work out time lines … all wrapped up in a nice looking brochure. And it worked.
But we now seem to live in a world which is constantly changing. The idea of being able to plan something 5 years ahead seems crazy because we don’t know what might happen in the meantime. And 2020 is a good example of that. This time last year we made plans for the year and then the pandemic came along and made most of them irrelevant or impossible to do. How can you plan and set goals when at any moment, things can change and make all that planning irrelevant? Why bother with Vision Sunday when we are not sure what the year will bring?
And it is not only the rapid pace of change that is making visioning and goal setting hard … there are also some societal changes – such as individualism, or the changing understanding of volunteerism, or broad range of ideas, thoughts and insights that we as a community have – are also making this Vision process much more complex and the solutions or the path forward is much less clearer than what it used to be.
Because life has become more complex, and disruptions are more common and things keep changing … that if we are asked, “What is TUC or ministry or the mission of the church going to be like in 5-10 years time” … we shrug our shoulders and say “I don’t know. We can set a direction through creativity, collaboration, conversation and regular reviewing we will probably work it out as we go.”
So in a context when we are not sure what the end target is, or how to get there … and we know that things are going to change anyway … how do you do goal setting or Vision casting in this context?… how do we do Vision Sunday in this sort of context? (I am probably not doing a great job at encouraging you to come along next week).
Don’t worry … I do believe that Visioning IS still helpful and is worth investing in. I think it is important to understand the complexities that we are facing … but there is still great hope.
Believe it or not … the Apostle Paul experienced something similar in the Book of Acts and I would like to do is step through the biblical narrative of the second half of the book Acts and see what it has to say to us.
Let’s start in Acts 9 – Saul is converted and changes name to Paul. Straight away, Paul wants to start telling people about Jesus but ultimately is sent to the town of Tarsus for protection and to undergo some discipleship training.
Four chapters later in Acts 13 – Paul and Barnabas are commissioned and head off on their first missionary journey. It says in 13:4 that they were “sent on their way” by the Holy Spirit but some scholars that I read said that whilst being open to the Holy Spirit … the plan for the first missionary journey was very strategic. A tight clockwise movement around the North Eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea. It was a well populated area of people who were known to be open to spiritual things. These writers where suggesting that If you were in Antioch and were trying to strategically plan the most effective area to share the good news of Jesus … it is exactly where Paul and Barnabas went.
One writer said, “I wouldn’t have been surprised if Paul and Barnabas didn’t map this out before they left and then followed the plan step by step”.
But this is now to do it, isn’t it? Paul had a Vision – to tell everyone about Jesus. He had a clear strategy – go to the populated areas near Antioch. He broke it down into a plan … Cyprus, Pisisia, Galatia and Lyconia … and he followed it through. He did not deviate from the plan. This is how we did church vision 15 years ago.
However, we get to Paul’s second Missionary Journey in Acts 15. The Vision is still the same, but this time the strategy was different. Acts 15:36 – Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.”
He still had a defined plan (just in reverse) … but something happened when they were implementing their vision.
Acts 16:6 -10
6 Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. 7 When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. 8 So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
They had a clear plan, but now God was leading them in a different direction through the prompting of the Holy Spirit. So how did Paul respond to a change in the plan? Did he say, “No, we can’t do that – this is the plan and we are sticking with it.” No – Paul adapted. Actually Paul became very used to adapting on his second missionary journey as this was wasn’t the only unforeseen event:
- While in Philippi they were arrested, lived through an earthquake, converted the jailer but ultimately had to leave the town
- In Thessalonica they were arrested again, were released and the brothers in the church told them to go onto Berea but they stirred up trouble there too, so the brothers came and escorted them to Athens, then Corinth.
- In Corinth, there was a threat on Pauls life, but this time he was told by God in a dream to stay, and he did … for a year.
- Eventually they got back to Antioch
Interesting isn’t it – the first missionary journey was very strategically planned and the plan was followed. The second journey was planned, but there were a lot of changes along the way.
Then we come to the third missionary journey. Once again, Paul has a plan, a strategy – to travel “throughout the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening the disciples”. (Acts 18:23). But I think by now Paul has learnt that have a plan and what actually happens are not always the same. His plan was to go to Galatia but he ends up in Ephesus, where he stays for 2 years.
Then in Acts 19:21, Paul decides he needs to go to Jerusalem and then Rome. Why? In our reading in Acts 20:22 we heard Paul saying, “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen when I am there.”
Don’t you love this line? I feel that God is leading me to Jerusalem but I have no idea what that means or what is going to happen.
Preparing this sermon, I really found it interesting the progression of Paul’s approach to his missionary journeys.
- The first was logical, strategic, structured, planned, and followed through.
- The second was also strategic, structured, planned but had to be adapted throughout as Paul was either listening to the spirit or adapted to the circumstances he was facing.
- The third was somewhat planned … there was a sense of direction but by this stage even Paul is saying, “but we are not sure what will ultimately happen”
I think this is what we, and many other churches, are facing at the moment. We have been through an era where strategic, well defined, logical plans were very successful.
And we have been through an era where we have been faced with lots of changes – both through listening to the spirit and also external changes in our environment – and have learnt to adapt the vision or plan as we have gone.
I think now, we are entering an era a bit like Paul’s third missionary journey. We have a sense of the direction that God is leading us, but we know that there will be changes along the way … and if we are honest, because things will change and be adapted, we are not even sure what the end goal looks like and we are not sure what is going to happen when we get there. But we are still going to head in the direction that God is leading us and see what happens.
Exciting, isn’t it?
So, how do we do a Vision Sunday talk in this sort of a context?
Tune in next week and find out! (But to give a hint, we will be reminding ourselves of the direction we are heading, addressing the challenges before us and finding ways to be helping in moving the Vision forward). I really encourage you to come along next Sunday and hear this important sharing.
But I also hope that today was helpful in understanding a little of the context that we are doing ministry and mission in – and that we can not only gain some insight from the experience of Paul but also hear his encouragement as we head into this new year –
- (20:28) Help and support each other in the church like shepherds care for their flock;
- (20:32) Commit ourselves to God and the Word of his grace;
- (20:35) in all we do, work hard and help the weak and give generosity; and
- (20:36,37) pray together, embrace each other, accompany each other as we move forward.