An article over at Christianity Today drew my intention as it connects to the central thesis in my book, Thrive. “Bonhoeffer Convinced me to Abandon my Dream,” reflects on contemporary church leadership trends through the lens of Bonhoeffer’s book, “Life Together”.*
Bonhoeffer levels a clear admonishment against pastoral leaders succumbing to the allure of “visionary dreaming“. It’s something, “God hates.” Eighty years later his challenge remains true. Leadership formation has succumbed to corporate-style framework of success metrics. It generates pastoral leaders casting their own visions for the church, complete with grandeur and size. It neglects a posture of humility and receipt of God’s pathways.
The current state of the contemporary church is proof we’ve steered into the ditch. Basically, every denomination is in decline. Some are dwindling to extinction. Some chosen few are getting bigger and bigger, albeit not necessarily deeper. We have replaced the pastor shepherd with the pastor manager capable of balancing the demands of congregations. Church leaders are so inwardly focussed to maintain what’s left rather than bridging into God’s mission beyond.
What does this have to do with Bonhoeffer’s words on dreaming? Does God really hate visionary dreaming?
The systematic decline of Christianity in the West requires NEW imagination to succeed with ensuing generations. A rethinking, or re-imagination, of what constitutes “church” is a necessary exercise for every generation. The fact we haven’t done this well is a chief reason why the church has lost its capacity to connect with new generations. We no longer speak a language that encounters the longings of mainstream culture. Here’s where I disagree. We actually need more dreaming, not less.
Bonhoeffer does qualify his statement. Visionary dreaming confuses our ambition with God’s plan. However, a posture of receipt that seeks to join the already unfolding kingdom in the context of church community should be our pursuit.
But still, saying God hates visionary dreaming is a strong warning. It makes me wonder can we dream and where should we be wary?
I would argue we have good reason to dream. The very nature of Christ is the mystery of incarnation. God, is translatable. God will encounter you in your midst. Scripture too is deeply contextual, waiting to be translated into any modern vernacular, and its truths interpreted to fit (which flies in the face of colonialism but that’s a topic for a different day). Both are contextual and both require an imagination–dreams and vision–into the present.
The church too has been given specific gifts to build. We are given gifts, abilities, traits, that all count as key pieces to build the body (the church). That takes some level dreaming and discerning to discover new possibilities. Perhaps this is the necessary nuance. It’s not insomuch “new” possibilities as it’s responding to the already unfolding kingdom in our midst. When we do this, it’s inescapable–we do dream of something better.
Daydreaming or re-imagining how the local church can re-orient itself to participate with already unfolding Good News should be a constant and continuous process. Not an individual effort, but in the prayerful consideration of community. We need this imagination because without I don’t think the church can thrive. What comes next for the institution and what lies beyond, requires new thinking and practices we’ve never seen before.
How else can this happen without dreamers being released to do just that? Does God really hate this process? I don’t think that’s what Bonhoeffer is saying.
There are two key pieces to honour what Bonhoeffer is saying without stifling innovation. Posture and Community.
Bonhoeffer warns against vision casting that obfuscates God’s plan. But how are we to know when we’ve crossed the line? Ultimately, we have our traditions and community to act as filters. Not to say these are infallible, but they do serve to defend against “cheap” forms of visioning that merely seek to increase the local church selfish reasons.
Fundamental posture is also important. Most vision casting shouldn’t seek to re-invent the wheel, sort of speak. It’s a manner of prayerfully listening to where God is already at work, the plan already in place, the mission already unfolding, and joining. This approach challenges those contemporary leadership models because it’s far slower and at times painstaking. But it’s also honoring and offers greater depth than the alternative driven for increase and steeped in its own vain privilege to realize looming demise.
The value of human imagination given our image-bearing identity forms the roots of our purpose to be repairers and restorers of the streets in which we dwell. Was Bonhoeffer against the gifts and image-bearing qualities of the church? Was he really against all forms of dreaming of better? If it’s rooted in lifeless forms of vision casting perhaps. But when it’s a living and breathing response to the already unfolding hope to come, then I don’t think so.
*An astute early reader of my manuscript was the one who warned me my central thesis in Thrive stood in tension to Bonhoeffer’s thoughts. That’s why there’s a footnote on page 2 of the book :P. (Thanks, Jared.)