“Additional Thoughts on Our Theological Vision:
What Is a Theological Vision Anyway?”
1 Corinthians 3:5-9 & 1 Corinthians 9:19-27
March 6, 2022
Faith Presbyterian Church – Evening Service
The Reading of the Word
This morning we began new series. I want to say a bit more about what to expect from that.
For eight weeks, with the exclusion of Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, we will have parallel and related series in our morning and evening worship.
In the morning, we are outlining our theological values and vision as a congregation. This morning we talked about our core purpose as a local church: Why do we exist?
For the next four Sundays, we will consider our core values – the things we highly value, that distinguish us from other churches in our theological tradition, and that we are already working to live out.
Then, after a pause for Palm Sunday and Easter, we will spend three Sundays on our aspirational values – on three things we know are important for us, as a congregation, but which we also know are not where they should be – areas we know we need to grow.
That is our plan in the morning sermon series.
But then, for many of those sermons, there will be a counterpart sermon in the evening, with some additional thoughts on that topic.
So, one morning sermon we will talk about how we approach the Bible here. That evening we’ll say a bit more about why we approach it that way and what some of the problematic alternatives might be.
Another morning we’ll talk about the shape of our morning worship service. But then that evening we may dig a bit deeper into the sources and the practical outcomes of that shape.
So, the idea is that someone can just attend in the morning, and get the big picture overview, but for those who return in the evening, you get a deeper explanation and understanding of our theological vision, and why it matters.
But, that very statement brings us to our main question tonight: What is a theological vision anyway?
With that question in mind, we turn now to the Scriptures.
Please do listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this evening.
From First Corinthians 3:5-9. The Apostle Paul writes:
3:5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. 9 For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.
And then from First Corinthians 9:19-23 (ending a bit earlier than what is in the bulletin):
9:19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.
This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)
So our question this evening is: What is a theological vision?
To answer that question, I think we need to break it down into a few parts. And so we’ll ask a few questions this evening.
In what follows I’m drawing from a number of sources, though chief among them are Patrick Lencioni and Tim Keller [and so I will not cite each instance]. What I’m calling a “theological vision” is really a blending of what Lencioni calls clarity of values and strategic planning [Lencioni, 73-138], and what Keller calls a “Theological Vision” or “Ministry DNA” [Keller, 13-26]. How I’m using the term probably doesn’t completely overlap with either one, but draws heavily from them both. In any case, our goal tonight is to get a better sense of how this kind of theological vision functions in the life of a church like ours.
And to do that, we will ask a few questions.
Where Does a Theological Vision Fit?
First: Where does a theological vision fit? By which I mean, where does it fit in among the other things that we believe?
Some of you have heard me explain this before, but it’s worth clarifying again so that we are clear about both what a theological vision is and what it’s not.
First, a theological vision is not the basis of our beliefs – that is the Bible. Second it is not a statement of our core doctrines – that, for us, is the Westminster Standards. Third, it’s also not an outline of our institutional structure and procedures, because that, for us is our Book of Church Order.
Rather, a theological vision, first assumes all of those things, and is built upon that doctrinal foundation. It assumes that doctrinal foundation, rather than repeating it. Which is why the doctrine of the Trinity or justification by faith do not appear in our theological vision, because those things are much more foundational for us than our theological vision.
The Scripture is the bedrock of who we are as a church. Upon the Scriptures we have our doctrinal foundations: the essential doctrines of the Christian faith and the vital doctrines of Reformed theology. Our theological vision then builds upon that.
Its goal is to summarize the values of our particular congregation, and how we plan to pursue those in our particular time and place.
It might be helpful to think of it this way: You can go to five different PCA churches, with the same Scriptural bedrock as we have, and the same doctrinal foundation that we have, and yet those five churches, in how they worship, and in how they do ministry, can look very, very different from one another. Those differences are often rooted in different theological values. The difference is not whether we believe in the Bible, or the same doctrinal standards, but rather, what are the values we have focused on and how have we sought to apply them.
That is where a “theological vision” fits, in relation to other aspects of who we are as a church.
What Is the Goal of a Theological Vision?
Second, what is the goal of a theological vision?
The goal of a theological vision is to help us bridge the gap between our doctrinal foundation, and the concrete details of how we will do ministry as a church, in a way that intentionally keeps with our theological values.
Let’s break that down a little bit. We have a core theology, as Christians and as a church. We have that on one end. And then, on the other end, we have our particular situation – our specific ministry setting, in this congregation, at this particular time, in this particular place, living in this particular culture.
We have these two things. And we need to recognize that there is something of a gap between them. There is an open question of how, exactly, we will apply our theology to our particular time, and place, and setting. And that is not an automatic thing. First, many details of application are left unspoken both in our doctrinal standards, and in the Bible itself. A huge amount of detail is left unspoken. There’s a gap that needs to be bridged. And different churches do that in different ways, depending both on what they value, and what their immediate context is.
Different contexts will require different applications in the life of a church. But different values will result in different applications as well.
The goal of articulating our theological vision is to be intentional about all three of those things. To be clear about not only our doctrinal beliefs, but about the needs of our particular settings, and the values we want to preserve and draw from as we seek to bridge that gap in our ministry and life as a church.
In this series we are focusing especially on three types of values.
The first is our core purpose. That is what we talked about this morning – that the purpose of our church is to be God’s instruments in making, maintaining, and maturing disciples for Jesus Christ. That is a key principle that must guide how do what we do together, to keep us from losing our way in the details.
Our second set of values are our core values. These are things we highly value in how we operate and work, and which we see already are a part of our life and ministry. For these we identified four things:
- Deep Exposition of the Holy Scriptures
- Thoughtful & Robust Liturgical Worship
- A Culture of Reformed Catholicity
- The Nurture & Equipping of Covenant Children
We will say more about each of those in the weeks ahead, but for now the point is that these are some of the key values that we want to guide how we do ministry – how we apply our doctrinal beliefs to our ministry practice.
And then third are our aspirational values. These are more influenced by our situation, because they are things we know are important for us in this time and place, but which we also know we need to improve on. They are both values and areas of needed growth. For these, we have identified three things:
- Relationships & Community
- Shepherding & Discipleship
- Evangelism, Outreach & Missions
These three categories help us think about the needs of our church in a way that is aimed at preserving our historic biblical values, taking seriously the needs of this particular moment in the life of our church, all while not losing sight of our core purpose.
That is the goal of a theological vision.
What Are the Alternatives to a Theological Vision?
That said … we might wonder whether or not this is really important or not … or is this just an example of really overthinking things?
It’s a fair question. And to answer it, we should ask our third question: What are the alternatives to articulating a theological vision?
We could say a lot here, but generally speaking, I want to focus on the two main alternatives to articulating a theological vision, which are more common in church life: One is modern pragmatism, and the other is historic idealism. Let’s unpack those a bit.
One alternative to building an intentional bridge between what we believe and what our practices are is what we might call modern pragmatism. And what this often looks like, is the absence of a bridge. It is a way of operating with a disconnect between what we believe, and how we operate as a church.
What we believe, doctrinally, is one category, and our ministry practices is another. And in many ways, these two things are disconnected. Questions of ministry practice are generally answered pragmatically, not theologically. The main question to ask is: What works? And so we look at what other churches have done and what worked for them. We look at what has worked in the business world, and we adapt it for the church. We search for a technical solution, and when we find it somewhere, we simply drop that methodology into our setting, in the hopes that it will work just as well here.
And sometimes it does. But a lot of times it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t, it’s often because the method we adopt, with our pragmatic mindset, either doesn’t fit with our doctrinal beliefs, or it doesn’t fit with our setting, or both.
And there is a whole set of books like this, that promote a particular methodology in the life of the church, but that have little to say about doctrine or about differences in setting.
This approach, on the whole, tends to focus on success, and on finding the right technique to achieve it.
The other alternative, on the other end of things, is what I’ll call historic idealism. And if the first approach tends to focus simply on success and technique, then this approach tends to brush those things aside, and focus instead on faithfulness and idealism. It brushes aside modern ideas of success, and instead says that as long as the church is sound in its doctrine and godly in its character then all will be well. It can tend to treat the different challenges unique to different setting as of little importance.
Of course, the problem is that the doctrines and the practices of the church still need to be embodied. Worship, and preaching, and the life of the church still needs to take some kind of concrete form. And so, while they might not articulate it this way, the forms that these churches often adopt are the forms of whatever historic period they view as a golden age of Christian life.
The details of church life and Christian like are often simply transplanted from another time and place in the history of the church that that particular congregation admires. And so, whether it is the early church of the fourth century, or Calvin’s Geneva, or the seventeenth century puritans, or a beloved period of American history, the practices of that age are simply adopted and considered “biblical.” The preacher aims to preach like preachers of that historic idealized time. The liturgy is largely copied from that historically idealized time. Patterns of family life, or evangelism, or courtship are adopted from that idealized time. And we could go on.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with drawing from and learning from the past – in fact, that is part of what a theological vision seeks to do, as I’ll explain a little later.
But there is a problem with taking one time and place as our ideal for ministry expression and church life, and then ignoring the details of where we are, and who we are.
It’s a problem, because it stops trying to connect with and minister to the people around you. It’s a problem because it tends to ignore the actual modern problems the people in the church face. And it’s especially a problem because it’s not the pattern we see in the ministry of the New Testament church itself. It’s not what we see in the ministry of the Apostle Paul. It’s not what the Scriptures call us to.
Instead, the Bible calls us to take both our doctrines, and our setting seriously. And it does this by calling us to a pattern not of technique-focused pragmatism, nor of disconnected historical idealism, but of the faithful pursuit of fruitfulness. [Keller, 13-14]
And that is what we see in our passages tonight.
Modern pragmatism tells us that with the right technique, we can make success happen in the church. Historic idealism tells us not to worry about success or setting. But Paul here gives us instead the image of a gardener – the image of a farmer.
This is not the modern image of technical control and success. Because it is not something we can control. Paul may plant. Apollos may water. But neither one of them can guarantee the results. Neither one of them can make growth happen. And if they cannot, then certainly we cannot.
God is the one who must give the growth. God is the one who brings about fruitfulness – not us. Paul was not a modern pragmatist when it came to ministry.
And yet, he also wasn’t a historic idealist. He knew that what he did mattered, and that in his work he had to be aware both of the truth of God, and the realities of those he ministered to. Farming is, after all, a skill. And doing it well means knowing about your seed, knowing about your setting and soil, and knowing about the best way to connect the two. It is a form of labor, as Paul says in verse eight, and it is skilled labor, that requires thoughtfulness about both the seed that is planted, and about the time and place where it is planted. It is not historic idealism that brushes aside cultural and chronological differences of setting – it is a thoughtful approach that takes both the seed of the word, and the location it must be planted into account.
And lest that begin to sound like I’m just kind of running with the metaphor according to my own imagination, take a look again at First Corinthians 9. There Paul, without any metaphors, makes exactly this point. Who he is ministering to matters. The setting matters. Paul did not find an idealized way to do ministry in the synagogues of Palestine, and then just tell everyone everywhere to copy it. He had no golden-age or golden-location model that he just plopped down in different places, regardless of the setting, and called it faithfulness.
Instead, he became like a Jew when he ministered to Jews. And he became like a Gentile when he ministered to Gentiles. He ministered to the weak according to their weakness. He became “all things to all people.” And this was not compromise for him, but, he says in verse 23: “I do it all for the sake of the gospel.”
And that wasn’t just his model for evangelism, but for all ministry, as, in Galatians 2, he went head-to-head against the Apostle Peter over the fact that Christian Gentiles should not be expected to live like Christian Jews. [Galatians 2:14] Setting matters.
We are not called to modern pragmatism that separates our theology from our practice. We are also not called to historic idealism, that tries to just repeat the patterns of the past.
We are called, instead, faithfully pursue fruitfulness. We are to plant and water the seed of God’s word. We are to do it in a skilled way, aware not just of the properties of the seed, but of the unique properties of our particular soil and our particular season. And we are to go about our work desiring to see growth and fruit, while also knowing that we cannot control the outcome, but the growth must be up to God.
That means taking both our doctrine and our setting seriously, and seeking to bring them together in wisdom. Which is what a theological vision seeks to do – connecting our doctrine to our practice in our particular time and place, and doing it according to our theological values.
How though, does this actually play out in the different challenges we may face?
Let’s consider a couple examples.
How Does a Theological Vision Help Us Navigate a Generational Transition?
First, and relevant to our setting, let’s ask how articulating a theological vision helps us navigate a generational transition.
We are, as we’ve said, in the midst of a generational transition as a church. This is something the leadership has been talking about for many years. Pastor Rayburn spoke about it when he initiated the pastoral transition. We’ve seen it as we see younger families among us, a younger staff, younger leaders among many of our ministries, and younger men coming onto our session and deaconate.
How does articulating our theological vision help us navigate this generational transition?
Well, here I’m reminded of something I mentioned back in September from Herman Bavinck. In his Reformed Dogmatics Bavinck identifies a “law” that he says “we see at work in every area of life” – and particularly he seems to mean in every area of social and institutional life.
What is that law? He explains: “On the one hand, there is a revolutionary spirit that seeks to level all that has taken shape historically in order to start rebuilding things from the ground up.”
On the other hand, he says, there is “also a false conservatism that takes pleasure in leaving the existing situation untouched simply because it exists and – in accordance with Calvin’s familiar saying – not to attempt to change a well-positioned evil.” [Bavinck, 1.81]
In other words, there are these two impulses, Bavinck says, which I think feel even more powerful at times of transition, or uncertainty, or generational change. One is to blow everything up and start over. Bavinck calls this the “revolutionary spirit” – we might call it radical innovation. The other is to keep things the same, whether they are good or not. Bavinck calls this “false conservatism” – we might call it rigid traditionalism.
Radical innovation destroys much that is good and necessary. Rigid traditionalism, Bavinck explains, usually bogs life down, and, in the end, radicalizes people even further, so that eventually – though it may be delayed a bit – they reject tradition altogether in an attempt to restore the balance. [Bavinck, 1.81]
Neither approach, Bavinck explains, works.
Dustin Messer, an Anglican pastor and theologian I went to seminary with, portrayed these two dangers by pairing two illustrations together.
The first is a common illustration that I have heard several times. It goes like this: A young woman, when she makes a ham for her family, always cuts the ends off of it before putting it in the oven. One day her husband asks her why she does this. She says, “Because that’s how my mother always did it.” So one day the young woman asks her mother about it. She says, “Because that’s how your grandmother did it.” So finally, they ask the grandmother why she always cut off the ends of a ham before cooking it. And she says “Well, when you were growing up, my roaster was too small to fit the whole thing.”
What’s interesting is that the practice made sense at the time it was instituted. But the situation had changed in the following generations, though the practice was still observed anyway. The point is that traditions can be silly, unnecessary, and can even cause us to do things that hurt our larger goal – in this case, two generations of households trying to cook food for their families, but unnecessarily discarding parts of the meal for no real reason.
But, Messer, adds, whenever he hears that first illustration, he thinks it’s important to add a second.
It goes like this: A boy has both red berries and other, darker blue-ish-colored berries growing in his back yard. He only eats the red ones. A friend is over one day and asks him why he doesn’t also eat the dark blue ones. “Because my brother doesn’t.” he says. They ask the brother why, who says “Because my dad doesn’t.” Then the friend tells the boy the story about the woman and the ham, and the silliness of traditions you don’t know the reason for. So the two boys go and eat a bunch of poisonous dark blue nightshade berries growing in the yard and die. The point, Messer explains, is that if we discard traditions without understanding them, we do so at our own risk.
And that “understanding them” part is pretty important. That is, after all, the difference between the two illustrations. The women discarded their tradition once they understood the reason for it, and the fact that it no longer helped do what it was designed to do. But the boys never came to learn the basis of their tradition of not eating the dark blue berries in the yard, and so they discarded it without knowing why it was there.
At times of cultural upheaval and generational transition, there can be a tendency to cling to past practices without knowing why – a rigid traditionalism. But this can often do us harm, rather than good, because it does not take our new situation into account at all. In the same way, in times of great change, there is often an impulse to simply discard the past as irrelevant – an approach of radical innovation. But this too can often do us harm (often great harm), rather than good, because it does not understand the reason for the older practice, and the fact that it might still be relevant and important.
The alternative that Bavinck preferred to rigid traditionalism or radical innovation was an attitude of reformation or receiving past traditions, while also being thoughtful about the need for reform or adjustment to take new situations into account.
And a theological vision is necessary to take such a “Reformed and always reforming” approach. A theological vision seeks to identify the key reasons behind our practices – it seeks to explain and remind us of what they are for. This helps us to see when our practices are still helping accomplish something we believe is important, when they have become dated and so need to be updated, and when they are actually starting to get in the way of the goals they once served, because the situation we are in has changed.
In these ways, a theological vision helps us to apply the wisdom of the past to the new situations of the present.
And that is what we are seeking to do right now in the life of our church. The key elements of the theological vision we are trying to articulate here were developed over decades of thoughtful ministry in our congregation. They were articulated by our church’s leadership ten years ago, as they sought to distill the values they wished to pass on to the next generation. And they have been taken up, and clarified once again by our leadership today, as we seek to navigate our next steps forward.
Our goal, in all of this, is to hold onto the wisdom of the past while facing the challenges and opportunities of the present and the future.
How Does a Theological Vision Help Us Navigate Difficult Decisions?
That is how a theological vision helps us navigate the big-picture process of a generational transition. But how does it help us in our more day-to-day, month-to-month or even year-to-year functioning as a congregation?
This brings us to our next question: How does a theological vision help us navigate difficult decisions?
And this was a point that the writings of Ron Heifetz helped me see more clearly.
Heifetz, in his work, makes the point that the most difficult decisions and conflicts that any institution faces is not usually ones where we have to choose between a good thing and a bad thing. It’s usually a decision when we need to choose between two good things. It’s usually a situation where we need to decide between two competing values. [Heifetz, 21-23, 31]
This is so often true in society and in relationships, though we rarely acknowledge it. While some political issues are black and white ethical issues, and while some talking heads would like to paint every issue as a black and while ethical issue, the fact is that so many questions of public policy deal with competing values. And those are often the ones that are the hardest to navigate in society.
The same can be true in our relationships with friends and family. Tensions often rise not because one person values a good thing and another values a bad thing, but when people value the same things, but disagree on which should trump which when they conflict. You and your spouse might both value saving for the future, and the need for time away as a family. But when you only have enough money to do one or the other, those competing values are in conflict, and dealing with that can be painful. You may both value your children’s safety and that they learn independence. But when those things are in conflict in a specific situation, you may clash over which one should win out.
And the same can be true in the life of a church. Some of the biggest conflicts come when two values that a congregation holds to are in conflict, and people disagree on which should win out in that situation.
A theological vision is meant to help us navigate such decisions. It is not a cure-all, or a flow chart. It does not hand us easy answers. But it helps us be clear on what our important values are. It does not lay out every value, but those that are especially important to us. And it helps us, when values do compete, to more easily identify which values are competing with which, and to begin to think through which values are really most important to us.
After all, as a church, we must make decisions about what to do with the limited time, energy, and funds that we have. We could pursue a virtually infinite number of good things as a church. But which ones should we put our resources into right now? Articulating our core purpose, articulating our core values, and articulating our most significant needs right now … in other words, articulating a theological vision, helps us to answer those kinds of questions.
In that way, our theological vision helps us navigate difficult decisions.
How Does a Theological Vision Help Us Engage with the Lord?
Finally, the last question I want to consider is: How does this approach, with a theological vision, help us engage with the Lord?
I’ve mentioned a few alternatives to having a thoughtful theological vision. On the one end there is historic idealism and rigid traditionalism. On the other end is modern pragmatism and radical innovation. There are a number of reasons we can be drawn to these sorts of alternatives. But I would also argue that both of these alternatives can be ways of avoiding engaging with the Lord.
When we face the challenges of the Christian life – both as individuals and as a congregation – we can feel unstable … we can feel anxious and afraid. Our tendency is often to try to grasp onto something that will make us feel safe and secure once again … but our temptation is often to grasp onto something other than the Lord.
When we face anxiety and uncertainty, then historic idealism and rigid traditionalism can be appealing, because they tell us that someone else has already figured out how to handle this problem, and all we need to do is to follow what they did. Whatever age we point back to, whatever tradition we lay hold of, whether it is what the Puritans did a few centuries ago, or what our own congregation started doing a few decades ago, it tells us that we can place our trust in some other group of people in the past to save us from the uncertainty of the present. But as we’ve said, that may feel safe, but it can quickly become an idol for us – something we place far more hope in than we should.
On the other end, when we face anxiety and uncertainty, then modern pragmatism and radical innovation can be appealing, because it tells us that we can figure out how to solve this problem. It tells us that we are smarter than other Christians and churches in the past, and we can succeed where they failed. It tells us that we can get the technique right, and then we can control the very situation that is making us so anxious. But this too is a false hope. It is an idol. It is an idolatrous trust in ourselves.
By contrast, to approach the challenges we face not with ready-made solutions, but with our doctrinal foundation, and with our theological values rooted in the wisdom of the past, and with our eyes on the challenges of the present – that doesn’t feel safe. It doesn’t feel certain. And it pushes us away from false confidence, to seeking wisdom and guidance from the Lord – both individually and corporately. It forces us to prayer.
It requires us to walk by faith.
And that is the pattern we so often see in the Scriptures. We can sometimes miss how often things changed in the history of God’s people, as they went from the patriarchs to being a nation, as they went from wandering in the desert to being settled in the land, as they went from the tabernacle to the temple, as they went from judges to kings, as they went from exile back home, as they went from Israel to the Church.
In the Bible, many detailed instructions are given. But it’s also amazing how many things are not laid out in detailed instructions. It’s amazing how much is left unaddressed. Instead, the Bible gives a doctrinal foundation, it gives an ethical foundation, and then it calls God’s people to seek wisdom, it calls them to prayer, and it calls them to faith.
That has a lot of implications … but one of them is that it forces us to wrestle with the Lord – to go to him, and rely on him, and ask for his help. It forces us to be engaged with him, as we seek to learn how to apply his truth to the ever-changing challenges we face.
That is true for our congregation, it’s also true for our lives.
It’s not an easy task. But it is a good one.
It is a reminder, once again, that we do not know exactly where we are going, but we know that the One that we follow is good.
And so, grounded in his Word, clinging firmly to his truth, learning from the wisdom of the past, and with our eyes open to the present, let us seek to follow the Lord faithfully, in the hopes of bearing fruit here and now – in this particular season, in this particular soil … so that we might reap a spiritual harvest that will last, with him, forever.
This sermon draws on material from:
Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics. Volume One: Prolegomena. Edited by John Bolt. Translated by John Vriend. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003.
Heifetz, Ronald A. Leadership Without Easy Answers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.
Keller, Timothy. Center Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012.
Lentioni, Patrick. The Advantage. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2012
Messer, Dustin. This combination of illustrations is taken from a Facebook post he made in September 2018.
Swan, James. “My Last Post before Annihilation on Oct. 21, 2011: Bavinck and Calvin on the Necessity of the Reformation.” on “Beggars All: Reformation and Apologetics.” October 21, 2011. https://beggarsallreformation.blogspot.com/2011/10/my-last-post-before-annihilation-on-oct.html
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