‘Where there is no vision...’
One of the most compelling series of commercial advertisements in recent years has been the ‘Should’ve gone to Specsavers’ campaign. The harmful effects of poor eyesight are illustrated in a jocular tone by someone appearing to mistake a bus shelter for another similarly shaped object in the city, like a vending machine, an ATM, and a door, or by a young woman mistaking an engagement ring box for a pebble on the beach as she sends it flying into the water, much to her would-be fiancé's horror. The impaired vision can be corrected - of course, by wearing Specsaver glasses!
The problem of vision is one which has particularly afflicted the church in our times. Not the question of eyesight but of inadequate moral and spiritual vision. It is not a new problem. In the book of Proverbs, the relationship between lack of vision and moral decline could well be applied to the social history of the world we are living in today:
Where there is no vision the people cast off restraint
It was heartening to hear that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, listed ‘vision’ as essential to the rebuilding of both Church and Nation.
With so many people coming to our church, it is good to ask ourselves what the vision of Sandyford is for the years ahead. In one sense, the question cannot be adequately answered during the vacancy. Yet, it is posed by many newcomers, and will almost certainly be a key issue when the nominating committee reaches the stage of interviewing any potential sole nominee for the vacant charge of minister. While not wishing to enter into a debate which has often divided the church, the emphasis here is on vision in the singular, and not on visions in the plural.
In the Order of Service sheet handed out to everyone coming to our church on a Sunday and on the back of the Congregational Record the rationale for the existence of the church is clearly stated:
To honour and enjoy God
To strengthen spiritual life through the systematic exposition of scripture and worldwide intercession
To offer Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour
To serve and influence our world in a Christian way
There is not scope to go through in sufficient detail each one of the bullet points, or to look at the strategies for realising this vision, though elders will gladly give a fuller explanation of them. It is hoped that this letter will stimulate thinking about vision, both personal and congregational.
Underpinning all four statements above are a concern for the glory of God and a love for the people He has called us to serve.
The vision here in the first bullet point of our rationale is, in the words of the hymnist, to ask God to be that vision. In a wonderful passage in the Old Testament we see the difference between a God-centred and a man-centred vision. Elisha looks beyond the army of the king of Aram to see what the God of the impossible is doing (2 Kings 6: 15-19); his servant can see only the vastly superior army of the enemy. Elisha had to pray: ‘O LORD, open his eyes so that he may see’ (v. 17). Is this a prayer that we need to make as we so often look on the horizontal rather than on the vertical plane?
One of the immediate applications would be for us to engage more fully in worship. In the New Testament, those who were added to the church were added to a worshipping community. How much, we might ask ourselves, do we think about what God derives from our services? Those who lead the services prepare very thoroughly. No effort is spared by both our organist and the praise band to try and help us have fellowship with God in our singing. Yet, in our Sunday worship, we can so easily be preoccupied with thoughts about ourselves. Does the singing of the hymns and songs lead us to worship, to ascribe to God his true worth? How easy it is to focus on the people leading the worship; or sometimes on the things which have preoccupied us during the week. Sometimes the service can be well under way before we have truly recognized God’s presence. And when the person leading says ‘Amen’, can we always say ‘so be it’ in our hearts? Tiredness can play a part. And sometimes we need to ‘shake off dull sloth’ in the words of the ancient hymn. So many churches struggle in this area. Yet the encouragement God gives us is immensely rewarding: ‘Whoever offers praise brings glory to me, and prepares the way so that I may show him the salvation of God’ (Psalm 50: 23). This praise extends throughout the week in the way we live, as ‘no hymn glorifies God as much as a holy life’.
However, we can sometimes confine worship to singing. Our God-honouring focus has also to be seen in our response to all aspects of the service, especially to the preaching, and, indeed, to the reading of the Bible. So many of the passages studied should leave us at the end of each service with a desire to worship and to enjoy God more. Preachers have commended the congregation for the rapt attention given to the preaching of the Word. But we have to recognise here that Satan hates people honouring and enjoying God. Sometimes a blessing is snatched away by conversations afterwards or by the menu we serve up for Sunday lunch of roast preacher, garnished with roast praise band and/or roast organist, or roast whoever has crossed our path inauspiciously! God is doing something distinctive among us and we have to be careful that we do not lose out.
What a privilege to belong to such a caring congregation! While all of the bullet points could be subsumed under the first heading of a ‘God-centred vision’, an important focus in the church is on in-reach, in spiritual and practical encouragement of the church family (the second bullet point). The expository preaching is one means of making us caring and concerned for the needs of others. So many have said to me how much they have been encouraged by kind words and by practical support from members during times of difficulty. The Kirk Session recognises, however, that we still have a way to go, as is indicated by the note in this issue of the Congregational Record from Garry Osbourne, who with Mary Bonham, leads our pastoral team. One concern is that we have a truly integrated church crossing the generational divide. This requires mutual tolerance and understanding. Older members have said how much they have been encouraged by kind words and interest from younger members. And vice versa!
One of the hallmarks of the early church was the love of the believers for one another. One of the ways in which this is shown is in intercessory prayer, whether in our church meetings or in our homes and other gatherings. How encouraging it is when someone says that they are praying for us! What a challenge, too, to reassess our own prayer diaries!
The last two bullet points can be encapsulated in what has become these days the all-embracing, modish term, ‘missional’. A church which is not concerned with reaching out to the lost is unhealthy. Gordon Jenkins in his article on the latter part of the 19th-century Church of Scotland (which will be published in a book charting the History of Sandyford some time hence with, it is hoped, an article delineating the vision of the next minister, whoever that may be) traced the decline in the Church of Scotland to an inward focus, to the Church forgetting its essential mission to the world around and beyond it. Before we become judgmental let us remember how easy it is for us to slip into a self-regarding mode and to forget those without Christ and without hope in the world. God has changed the demographic landscape around us and has invited us to be partners with him in kingdom-extending. It is great to have John and Louise devising plans for implementing this vision of outreach. And a big thank-you to all who are supporting them in the various teams and by offering hospitality.
However, a growing church will also be a sending church. It is encouraging that in the last year there are 2 members offering themselves as candidates for the Church of Scotland ministry, another for the Irish Presbyterian Church, and Douglas now taking up his work in his new appointment with Friends International (see pp. 14-17). Encouraging, too, to associate with all our missionaries abroad and to support them as they renew their vision for the diverse fields they are working in. Nevertheless, the fields, here and abroad, ‘are white unto harvest’, yearning for more ‘labourers’.
Our vision to serve our world (the fourth bullet point) brings together so many areas of church life, from the concern with regard to poverty and human tragedy through our close association with Tear Fund, the attempts to improve the social condition of some who come to the Drop-in, the Marriage courses, the engagement with various organisations seeking to improve the moral climate of the Nation. And, of course, as indicated in the third bullet point, through the indirect revolution brought about by the proclamation of the gospel, which issues in social and moral change as men and women, boys and girls see a better way.
Supporting all four aspects of our vision is prayer, either explicitly in bullet point two, or implicitly in the other three. It is our prayer life, corporate and individual, which will prepare us: to worship in spirit and in truth on Sundays and to live for Christ during the week; to engage with the needs of those in the fellowship and beyond; to draw in people to hear the gospel; and to help influence the world for Christ.
In this letter we have been asking what is Sandyford’s vision of God. It is, however, a collective vision, achievable if all its members buy into it.
There is a sense in which God gives us what we ask for. If we ask for little, we cannot expect much in return. If we ask for much, and put our life where our mouth is, God will surely honour that request. Set against the salutary warning from Proverbs at the head of this letter, let us take heart from a shoemaker from Northampton, Thomas Carey, who made such an impact for Christ in India, with a vision for that people encapsulated in his much-cited exhortation:
Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.
With so much to encourage us let our vision for God be ambitious in the year ahead.
With very best wishes
Noël Peacock, Session ClerkView All Letters