My “Vision” for Pastoral Ministry at Bridgeway Church2
Although most of the NT epistles were written to address unique circumstances and challenges in each city, there are at least two texts that I believe reflect the Apostle Paul’s “vision” for his ministry and for all the local churches in which he served.
In Ephesians he articulates the purpose for God having gifted leaders in the local church. It was so that the saints would be equipped “for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12). The ultimate aim or goal of all such ministry is to enable believers to “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). The same truth is stated in his letter to the church in Colossae. “Him [Christ Jesus] we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Col. 1:28-29).
The two primary means by which this goal of maturity in Christ Jesus is attained are the Word of God and the Spirit of God (numerous texts could be cited that appeal to Word and Spirit as the primary catalyst for Christian growth, witness, and worship; there are undoubtedly other means of grace that contribute to Christian maturity, but Word and Spirit are primary).
So, when people ask me: “Sam, what is your ‘vision’ for Bridgeway Church?” my answer is not shaped in terms of greater financial resources or increased numbers of people or a more visible and influential voice in public and civic affairs or the expansion of physical facilities or a greater presence on social media or the internet. My “vision” for Bridgeway is, I hope and pray, the same “vision” that Paul had for the church in Ephesus and in Colossae and in every other city in the ancient world.
Having said that, I marvel at how God has graciously blessed us financially and numerically and expanded our influence in OKC and beyond. Since my arrival in 2008 we have tripled in size, our financial resources have increased substantially, we have consistently devoted 12% of our budget to missions, both local and global, we have fully paid for a new office building, and before Covid we were on the verge of a significant renovation of our current facilities. Those achievements have never been the conscious focus of my philosophy of ministry or any so-called “strategic” planning for our church. I welcome such increase, if it be God’s will, but I view them as the indirect fruit of our primary goal of building up people for the glory of Christ in this city through the faithful reliance on both Word and Spirit.
Again, if asked, “Where do I see Bridgeway in five years, ten years, and beyond?” my response is the same that I would have given 12 years ago when I first arrived here: “My vision for what Bridgeway should be next year or five years from now is a church family in which men and women, young and old, are ever more mature in Christ as a result of their ever-increasing knowledge of God’s Word and experience of God’s Spirit. This, I believe, is the “vision” for every church as stated in the NT. It is for that, to use Paul’s words, that “I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Col. 1:29).
I don’t begrudge any church that has grown numerically and financially and has extended its “footprint” in a city or beyond. But such considerations do not factor into my decision making or planning. I suspect that such so-called “vision” for any particular local church is largely the result of the transformation over the past 50 years or so in what people expect of their lead pastor. When I first began preparing for pastoral ministry, the expectations for a local church pastor were that he be sufficiently educated and able to teach, preach, and apply the Scriptures, that he be devoted to prayer, evangelism, worship, ministry to the hurting and oppressed, and faithful in his administration of the ordinances of the church (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper).
Toward the turn of the century, there were added to the above the expectation that a senior pastor be a “visionary” leader, an entrepreneur who could effectively launch new ministries that would expand the size, numbers, and influence of the church, a person with highly effective managerial skills, an active participant in community organizations and activities, and that he play a significant role in denominational or network politics.
To all of these, there have been added today an ability and commitment to so-called “relevant” preaching that speaks to the “felt needs” of the congregation. What we need, so it goes, is a consistent diet of religiously-oriented TED talks and a pragmatic growth strategy. In addition to this many insist that he have a knowledge of social media and other contemporary forms of technology, be a skilled administrator, a mobilizer and coordinator of teams, and, if possible, a competent counselor with answers and solutions to virtually every human crisis.
When searching for a senior pastor, many today prioritize someone with the managerial skills of a CEO rather than the heart and spiritual gifting of a pastor-teacher. Might it be possible for a leader to be both? Perhaps. But my experience tells me that such an individual is extremely rare and that, if he does exist, his inclination toward a corporate-business model of local church leadership will eventually swallow up his time and diminish his inclination for shepherding the sheep of God’s flock.
Let me be perfectly clear. There is nothing wrong if such skills or talents are present in a senior leader. Praise God for his having bestowed such blessings on certain men. Even better is when God raises up on a pastoral staff or Elder board people who can complement a senior leader by providing insights, skills, wisdom, and spiritual giftings that the senior pastor himself may lack. But such are not what the NT describes in terms of expectations and gifting in the one who provides senior leadership for a local church.
Returning briefly to the question of what a local church “vision” should be, most “experts” say that it is different from your “mission”. The vision of a local church is what the mission will look like when it is lived out in the church and in the community. Vision points to the end result of having faithfully fulfilled the mission that one believes God has given to a church.
With this in mind, I suppose the “vision” for Bridgeway Church is that we, by the power of God’s Word and Spirit, would be a gospel-centered church that is increasingly effective in exalting Jesus in the City through joyful satisfaction in him. This will come about only to the degree that we, by God’s grace, grow and deepen in our identity as a diverse spiritual family of commissioned disciples, passionate worshippers, and heartfelt lovers of God and one another.
Simply put, my vision for Bridgeway is that we continually increase in our God-empowered efforts to be the best and most Christ-exalting embodiment of those values. It is to that end that I “toil” and “struggle” consistent with the principles of God’s written Word and through the power of God’s Holy Spirit.
There is one objection that I must answer. It typically sounds like this:
“Paul’s vision for the local church was crafted in the context of the first century and was designed for people and ministries within that time frame and the peculiar features of a culture that no longer exists. We live in the 21st century. Ours is a different age, a different culture, with different challenges and demands on people. Shouldn’t we contextualize our vision and adapt it to a modern, technologically sophisticated, highly mobile society? Shouldn’t leadership be trained in skills and techniques suitable to the present century and not one 2,000 years in the past? Don’t we need a new type of leader for a new age?”
There is a measure of validity in the question. But I believe the principles and truths of what the people of God most desperately need are trans-cultural and apply in every age. I’m persuaded that it is precisely because leaders have refashioned and reshaped the truths of God’s Word to make them palatable to modern sensibilities that largely accounts for why the church’s witness is so anemic and ineffective in addressing the most basic and urgent needs of all people. Yes, there is a place for cautious and wise contextualization, but not to the degree that the spiritual and theological principles of Scripture and its teaching on local church life and ministry are eroded and adapted to the peculiar demands of our secular society.
There may well be an additional skill set essential for senior leaders in the 21st century. That’s a point worthy of further consideration. Yet, I remain convinced that what our society needs today are pastors and elders who are wholly committed to the uncompromising, unadulterated, unchanging truths of God’s Word that are always relevant and applicable no matter the culture or historical period in which we live. It is not the calling of the church to adapt itself to the prevailing culture. Rather, the church and its pastoral leadership have been called and equipped by Word and Spirit to build up the people of God who in turn exert a Christ-exalting, transforming influence on the culture.