In 2002, psychologists William Gehring and Adrian Willoughby published a fascinating study in Science magazine. Volunteers engaged in a computer-simulated betting game wore electrode caps that recorded changes in brain electrical activity after winning or losing. With each bet, the medial frontal cortex showed an increase in activity. But what intrigued researchers was how medial frontal negativity showed a larger dip after a loss than the rise in medial frontal positivity after a win. They concluded that, neurologically speaking, losses loom larger than gains. Stated another way, the aversion to loss of a certain magnitude is greater than the attraction to a gain of the same magnitude.
Gehring and Willoughby’s neurological study has huge ramifications when it comes to leadership in the church. Could this aversion to loss explain why we fixate on sins of commission—don’t do this and don’t do that—or why many of us take a “better safe than sorry” approach to the will of God? I wonder if it’s also why so many of us play defense instead of playing offense for the kingdom. We need a paradigm shift—one that’s modeled in the Bible by Jonathan.
Acting on Our Behalf
In 1 Samuel 14, the Israelites and Philistines were engaged in one of their epic conflicts. This time the Philistines had the upper hand—they controlled the pass at Micmash. While his father, King Saul, sat on the outskirts of Gibeah, Jonathan came up with a daring plan. He decided to climb the cliff and engage the enemy. The end result? That single act of courage was a tipping point that changed the balance of power and ended with Israel’s victory.
We don’t know all the circumstances surrounding this story, but one verse reveals Jonathan’s gestalt. In 1 Samuel 14:6, the king’s son says to his armorbearer: “Perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf” (NIV).
I love that modus operandi. Unfortunately, many Christians function with the opposite mindset: Perhaps the Lord won’t act in my behalf. We let fear dictate our decisions. We live as if the purpose of life is to arrive safely at death.
So here’s the question we’ve got to figure out as leaders: How can we overcome our natural aversion to loss and cultivate a visionary culture that inspires people to take God-ordained risks? I think Jonathan can teach us a few lessons when it comes to vision casting.
No. 1: Get a Vision
I love how Jonathan didn’t even tell his father what he was going to do. That speaks volumes to me. This wasn’t about impressing his dad, the king. This was about being obedient to what God had put in his own heart.
I can’t tell you exactly how to get a vision. They aren’t linear or logical in nature. Many of my visions have come at random times in random places. The church where I serve, National Community Church (NCC) in Washington, D.C., is currently one church with eight services in four locations. But it all traces back to the corner of Fifth and F streets, Northeast. While walking home from the office one day I had a vision of NCC meeting in movie theaters at metro stops throughout the D.C. area. There was no hallelujah chorus, no writing on the wall. But it was undoubtedly a “perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf” moment. I knew it wasn’t just a good idea. I knew it was a God idea.
Lots of pastors have faux visions. Their vision isn’t really their vision; it’s someone else’s vision. It’s a knockoff. And that doesn’t cut it. If you want to cast a vision, you’ve got to first get a vision—and it better be your own.
No. 2: Pray Like It Depends on God
Once a vision is conceived in your spirit, you need to pray like it depends on God. If there is one key to dreams becoming reality it is prayer. Prayer isn’t just a dream incubator; it’s a dream sustainer.
About eight years ago the dream of building a coffeehouse where our church and community could cross paths was conceived in my spirit. That dream has since become a reality. In fact, Ebenezers was voted the No. 1 coffeehouse in the metro D.C. area by AOL City Guide in 2008. But for many years it was nothing more than a ridiculous prayer. We would do prayer walks around the piece of property we wanted to purchase. We laid hands on the old dilapidated building that was there. And we did prayer meetings with one objective: Lord, give us that piece of property.
Here’s what we discovered after praying for eight years: If you pray long enough and hard enough, God might just do something beyond your ability. I love what Jonathan says as a follow-up to wondering if God would act on behalf of the Israelites: “Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few” (1 Sam. 14:6, NIV). He knew that victory would not be a byproduct of his own ability. So are you dreaming God-size dreams or human-size dreams?
No. 3: Put Feet on Your Faith
You can’t just pray like it depends on God. You also have to work like it depends on you. Vision casting isn’t just about inspiration; it’s about perspiration.
It’s easy to overlook this element of Jonathan’s story. He had to be physically exhausted at the end of the day after climbing cliffs and fighting the Philistines. But there’s no greater feeling than giving everything you’ve got for a noble cause. I’m sure he slept well that night.
It’s easier to sit on the outskirts of Gibeah like Saul. Yet here’s the challenge to each of us: If you don’t do anything, nothing is going to happen. Profound, isn’t it? You need to take a step of faith.
When NCC was a young church plant, we prayed for a drummer. After months of praying I felt like the Lord impressed on me to go buy a drum set on faith. It seemed like a crazy idea. Our monthly income was $2,000. The school we were renting cost $1,600 per month. And a drum set would cost $400. If you do the math, you can figure out how much was left over for our salary! By faith I went out and bought that drum set. And our first drummer showed up that weekend. I’ll never forget it because it taught me a valuable lesson. If you want something to happen, you have to do something! You have to put feet on your faith.
No. 4: Get a Pulse
A beloved leadership guru once said—and I’m paraphrasing—“You may think you’re leading, but if no one is following, all you’re doing is taking a walk.” When I had the vision to go multisite with our church, I had to make sure I wasn’t crazy. I needed to take the pulse of our people. And one of the ways we do that at NCC is via surveys.
Before launching our first location, we asked our congregation: Would you be willing to be part of a launch team? Our prayer at the time was for 100 people to step up—that was our fleece. The survey revealed that 99 people were on board; I hadn’t filled out a survey, so we nailed it.
Taking the pulse of our people gave us confidence that the vision was from God. Likewise, Jonathan, in a sense, surveyed his armorbearer. He used him as a sounding board. You’ve got to find out if the people you’re called to lead are with you heart and soul. That’s not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of wisdom. And it gives people a sense of ownership.
No. 5: Come up With a Strategy
On one level, Jonathan’s military strategy seems foolhardy. He exposed himself in broad daylight and conceded the high ground. But Jonathan knew what he was doing. He had studied the Philistines. He knew their mindset, their patterns, their proclivities. He wasn’t acting out of ignorance. He knew exactly what he was getting into.
Vision is something revealed to us by God. But once God reveals a vision, you have to do your homework. You have to come up with a strategy. Here’s how we do that at NCC: Every fall we do a planning retreat as a staff. We analyze our annual survey. We dream together and pray together. And we come up with a strategy for everything. We leave the retreat with a discipleship strategy, marketing strategy, preaching strategy, outreach strategy and staffing strategy, just to name a few. From there, we ...
No. 6: Go Public
I don’t know how long Jonathan thought about climbing this cliff, or how long he prayed or strategized. But there comes a point when you have to go public with the vision God has given you.
For the record, you’ll never be ready. You’ll never be experienced enough, educated enough or spiritual enough. For what it’s worth, not one person on our staff had ever worked at a coffeehouse when we got the vision to build a coffeehouse. We had no business going into the coffeehouse business. But God had given us a vision.
Don’t get me wrong: Our business-administrator-turned-coffeehouse-manager went to work at Starbucks before we opened. We did reconnaissance at dozens of coffeehouses and studied up as much as we could. But we still weren’t ready. For that matter, we weren’t ready to become a multisite church. If you don’t have enough volunteers at one location, how can you staff two? Cast a vision.
Here’s how we sequence our vision casting at National Community Church. It starts with staff. We want to make sure we have buy-in. Then we broaden the circle and cast vision to our leaders. We do this at our annual leadership retreat in January. You want to make sure your leaders are on board before you cast vision to the congregation. Once they’re with you, go public with the vision. For us, that happens the last Sunday in January during our State of the Church message. We pattern this after the State of the Union address that happens a few blocks from our church, casting vision for the next year with our congregation just as the president does with a nation.
Back to Jonathan. Before making a move, he tells his armorbearer about his crazy plan to climb the cliff. And instead of laughing in Jonathan’s face or pointing out the foolishness of his master’s plan, his armorbearer says, “I am with you heart and soul” (1 Sam. 14:7, NIV).I believe our churches are full of armorbearers like Jonathan’s. They want to live courageously for the cause of Christ. They want to be part of something bigger and more important than they are. They want to make a difference. But they are waiting for Jonathan to challenge them to climb the cliff. All they need is a leader like you to propel them forward. Cast the vision!
Mark Batterson is the lead pastor of National Community Church (theaterchurch.com) in Washington, D.C., and author of Wild Goose Chase and In a Pit With a Lion on a Snowy Day.