The sad truth is that you do not have to be a Millenial or Gen X or a non-denominational or missional or a pastor or even a Christian to have plans and dreams -- along with a desire to have a higher power give his blessing to your yearnings and help you achieve your plans. It was, after all, the sin of Eden. Adam and Eve knew well the plan of God and rejected that in favor of their own dreams and desires. Even the threat of death did not sway them when opportunity and a voice told them to listen more to themselves than to the Word of the Lord. It is not a new thing. It is as old as Adam and Eve.
Somehow it has become new again and fashionable. Men do not want to be pastors but leaders of men. Women are the same. Both have ideas of how they think God can use them best and then build an imaginary house of cards on their hopes and plans. Much of the time they seek to help others to cast off the shackles of constraint and learn how to dream with them. If you can dream it, you can achieve it. The Gospel becomes some emotional and inspirational Ponzi scheme or religious Amway franchise. What we want to do becomes central and what God has done becomes peripheral. It may even succeed for a time but it will not last. It has no foundation and it lacks God's mandate, promise, and blessing.
For many, life is seen as a great adventure. Faith is an adventure, a journey, a destination, an experience. The Christian wants to do something big for God, build something great to show how dedicated and committed the Christian is. There is a burning desire to make a big impact, a big splash and with it all comes a disdain for the ordinary of church. In fact, there grows a resentment against the worship services of the past, the piety in which they were formed, the routine of Word and Sacrament, sin and grace -- to the point where they cannot even call what it was church. It is dead to them and lifeless. They insist that there must be something more. And they see themselves as just the kind of leaders to rescue a moribund church from itself.
This author came across Dietrich Bonhoeffer's classic book Life Together. I’m not sure what motivated me to pick it up. Maybe it was its deceptively small size. Whatever my reason for starting the book, I was entirely unprepared for four words on page 27: "God hates visionary dreaming.”
It makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.
In the midst of this, I came across Dietrich Bonhoeffer's classic book Life Together and ended up blindsided by its condemnation of visionary leadership: "God hates visionary dreaming.”
Bonhoeffer was the one who helped this dreamer see how his pastoral imagination lived not in the space of God and the Spirit but his own selfish wants and desires. In the end such a visionary imagination has the power not only to cripple the man but kill the churches he serves. The people become slaves to that vision, pulled away from God and His efficacious and unchanging Word toward the shifting sand of a dream planted not in hope but in the never land of what if. The vision crushes and kills and success becomes the goal rather than faithfulness. The people we are called to serve become our enemies and are quickly cast aside as impediments to the grand plan. If they will not fund or follow, we will find better people. It is obsessive and yet somehow we are convinced it is sacrificial and exactly the call of God. So powerful is the voice within that it shuts our ears to the voice of God speaking to us. When it all comes crashing down, neither the visionary leader nor the people are left with much to salvage except their bitterness, resentment, doubt, and emptiness. They are even more hardened against the work of the Spirit by their so-called spiritual experience of building a new age and church for God.It makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.
It always sounds so good. Who can resist? I know I came out of seminary filled with dreams and found my first parish a crushing blow to my ego. How could God expect me to work here, with these people, and accomplish the grand plan to raise up a new church for a new age? But no calls came. I was left with the people and resources I had found so woefully inadequate. God did the service of breaking me down and leaving me only with His means of grace. Finally in the surrender of my great vision, things began to happen that I did not see or plan or expect. The means of grace DID work. The people grew in faith, grew in the grace and knowledge of their Savior, and the congregation grew. No, it did more than this. It flourished. The Word called their hearts to hear, believe, and follow and I was but a tool in it all. Where I had written off success, God brought what I could have never accomplished.
Through it all, mature and steady voices encouraged me and senior pastors helped me and a great bishop cared for my broken dreams. I still wrestle with the temptation to build my vision of what the future should be, what the church should be, and what I need to make it all happen. But the surprise of God's grace has left me in wonderment. It was never me. It was always Him. His Word and His Sacraments. His gracious favor and mercy so undeserved. I am merely a servant of that mercy as well as a recipient of it. If God is good, He will allow us enough freedom to fail, enough faithful Christians to reach out to us, enough grace to rescue us from ourselves, and enough wisdom to see beyond the darkness of our own self-delusions to what only He can and will do. So far, God has been pretty good.