Church is a Gift

By: Mike Bishop
*originally published on June 19, 2020
“God hates visionary dreaming.”

I remember the first time I read those words written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his tiny, but revolutionary book, Life Together. I was a newly-minted church planter in 2001 with heady dreams of a movement of Jesus followers springing up from the dry ground. The sentence, on page 27 of the English version, stopped me in my tracks. I did not underline or star it as I often do with ideas that stand out to me while reading. Truth be told, old Dietrich offended me.

On the same page, there were two other quotes I did underline:

“By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world... Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive.”

I could get on bored with those two ideas. Who wants to live in a dream world? Authentic community is where it’s at. That’s what I wanted to experience. The ideas I had, my plans for church, my vision…it was all from God after all, right? My vision wasn’t some wish-dream. Was it?

“God hates visionary dreaming.”

It didn’t make sense. My training as a church planter and leader put a high value on vision. Isn’t there that verse, “Where there is no vision, the people perish? (Oh, King James, how you have often unintentionally led us astray. “Vision” in that proverb is much better translated “Prophetic Revelation”.)

Bonhoeffer challenged my training and offended my sense of responsibility as a leader. Later, I understood what he meant and repented for my offense. Visionary leadership is effective at gathering crowds, starting programs, raising money, or finding volunteers. But it completely misses the point of Christian community. Church is a gift, not a vision to realize.

Today, I’m grateful for the offense and repentance I experienced as a young church planter. It saved me from many years of going down a path that one day I would wonder, “How did I get here?” Instead, I chose to receive what God would give me by his grace, even if it was small and insignificant in the eyes of the dominant Christian culture. That decision wasn’t easy and there have been plenty of times when I’ve doubted if it was the best. But then I remember the individuals and communities I’ve had the privilege of serving and I am left with an enduring thankfulness.

In 2020, the church in America has been given its most significant challenge in a generation. If your vision involved large crowds gathering on a regular basis, that has been put on indefinite hold. If your vision catered to white, upwardly mobile conservatives, what do you have left to say to your black brothers and sisters or those who lean left on the political spectrum? If your vision required vast financial resources to make viable, what happens when the economy struggles and giving declines?

Historically, when the church faces insurmountable natural forces and dreams of influence die, it goes back to its roots. This is called renewal. I believe we are in one of those periods now. Make no mistake, God will accomplish his Kingdom purposes on the earth. He is looking for men and women who are willing to lay down their dreams and pick up His.
So what does this look like in practice? First, Christian leaders need to repent from the ways they have tried to manufacture authentic community and healthy churches. Let’s stop with trying to outdo each other with production quality and instead try to outdo each other with love and goodness. Instead of “taking the city for Jesus,” find ways to serve those that the city has left behind. Does the world need more Christian social media influencers accumulating “likes”? Abandon influence for doing the fundamental work of making disciples.
Authentic Christian leadership is service, more service, and service again. Visionary dreams lead to false hopes, pride, and idolatry. Real leaders roll up their sleeves and prepare the way for the church to be everything it is supposed to be. Jesus said, “The greatest among you must be a servant.” That takes character, trust, patience, and love. All of those are fruits of the Spirit and all cultivated by grace.

Let’s determine to become servant-leaders who receive the gift of authentic community rather than visionary dreamers who inject our own dreams that cripple the Body of Christ. In doing this, we will invite the world into a reality where the broken find wholeness, the orphans find family, and our restless nation finds peace.

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