Should vision be top-down or grassroots?

Grassroots VisionNot really sure where I stand with this.

Is it the role of a church’s pastor to cast vision for the church and get other people on board? Or should it be a grassroots vision that grows from the body and the role of the pastors is to help the body succeed with its vision? In other words, should vision be top-down or a grassroots movement?

I’ve been around the church world long enough to know that many people are going to go middle-of-the-road with a, “It’s both!” instead of taking a stance either way. While I realize there are clearly elements of both in any church context, ideally, which direction should the vision flow? If you could wave a magic wand and make the vision flow from either direction, which would you choose and why?

My magic wand would say there’s more potential for momentum and impact when it’s grassroots, probably because it feels more natural and thus the passion may be more contagious. I’ve definitely seen this take place in amazing ways, so I know it’s possible, but it seems to happen less frequently than the top-down approach. Maybe because we’ve conditioned the people we serve to look to us for direction? Have we established ourselves as top-down leaders instead of equipping and encouraging the body to cast vision and take ownership of it?

Personally, I feel that grassroots vision can be hit or miss, but when it hits, it hits hard and moves fast. Top-down can have a better hit-rate, but may take a lot longer to gain momentum.

What do you think? Ideally, should vision be top-down or grassroots?

Posted on December 13, 2010

  • seiralYP

    Tim this is a great question. Really it comes down to philosophy of ministry in a lot of ways. I will take a stance and say it should be grassroots. When the body comes up with a vision (albeit through a process that will probably involve the leadership structure in some form) it should be a vision that they can buy into. It should be a direction that the body, as a whole, can fully support and be will be involved with or in but preferably both.

    Obviously the Pastor (and staff) should be able to buy into this vision as well and will have some hand in guiding how the vision is played out in some aspects but I think the ownership is back on the congregation. Most churches believe in some form of congregational government except when it comes to vision casting.

    I think a potential problem of the top-down approach is what if the pastor leaves? Does the vision then leave to? Often times it does. But when the vision is birthed from within then adapted to fit the church as a whole it is a vision within a structure for the church and has a better chance at surviving long term. Does this mean that the church then seeks to hire a pastor who can support their vision? Absolutely and I think that's healthy as long as the vision is obviously Biblical.

    Again the Pastoral Staff will obviously have to buy into it and help to facilitate it at some level but when the ownership comes from within I think the chances of succeeding with a vision are much greater.

  • When thinking through this I tend to lean to some Jim Collins thoughts basically first who then what, If I can sit with my core leadership team and drum up vision it flows nicely to the people.

  • tsmith0095

    The Biblical precept is to be top down. Jesus didn't go to the Disciples and say, "Hey guys, how do y'all think we should run this gig?" However, I have seen where individuals have been passionate about something and the leadership "caught" the passion. But if leadership isn't on the board with the program, there is no way it will succeed.

  • CoffeeWithChris

    It's gotta be top down. As tsmith0095 state, Jesus didn't sit around and get a sense of where the disciples would want to go, Moses didn't go with the consensus vision when the got to a little problem at the Red Sea, the prophets didn't communicate their word based on what the people's "vision" was.

    The communication of the vision and implementation of the vision is a whole other matter though.

    • Ben

      Totally agree with the "top-downers" – God will give the vision to the pastor first and confirm it with the leaders. If the Pastor is really called by the Lord – the people will get on board. This "grassroots" stuff puts far too many spiritually immature or "baby Christians" at level-footing with elders and leaders when it comes to decision making. That's the issue I had with the church I grew up in, the members (who didn't even have to complete a class to see if they were even believers or not) had more control than the pastor. Talk about the devil getting a foothold!

      By the way – our church now isn't just a one or two man show. The top down idea goes for more than the pastor. As our youth pastor, I cast most of the vision for the ministry, but my leadership has ideas of their own that I pick up and run with…but nothing happens without God confirming it through me. We've had multiple ministries started up by members who came to the pastor with an idea and he caught the vision just like the rest of the church. So in some ways, you could say it's both grassroots and top-down: but really top-down best describes each ministry.

  • I go with top down also. Think about if Moses went grassroots. The Jesus grassroots thing is good also.

  • why not ask these guys:
    they're pros who think exactly about such questions…

    my personal answer goes like that:
    a pastor should be the first amongst equals who should be on a par / at eye level with his parishioners…
    his job may be to initialise (top down) a process which leads to a vision which the whole congregation shares (grassroots)…
    long story short – at least that's the way i did it in my parish (and it worked like a charm)…
    the point is that the pastor should be ready and willing to get challenged himself and to be part of the process!
    what do you think?

    um… does that make sense in english?
    (apologies for my inchoate english language skills…)

  • I personally feel the overall vision should be top-down, but how to carry that vision out should be a combination. I think a lot of leaders don't encourage grassroots vision because it can be very difficult to handle lots of ideas. You have to be sensitive to people's feelings and you really have to pray and seek God's wisdom for the best ways to put the vision into action.

  • Jason

    I'm going with Top-Down, but I'm going to leap frog the Sr Pastor / Lead Pastor / Elders and say that our vision for church ministry comes from God as He revealed it to us through Himself as Jesus and His Scriptures.

    There are a lot of ways to say what every church's vision should be: love God, love people; the Great Commission; THE Cause; for the glory of God and the salvation of humanity; etc. The idea is that the vision God has provided us for ministry is to glorify Him and reach the world. And if I understand Scripture the two are inseparable.

    Beyond that, I think it is the job of Church Leadership to lead their local body to that end and maximize the gifting of their congregation for that vision. Being a bit of a cynic, I think we spend for too much energy talking about what the Church should do when God arleady defined that for us. We need to spend more time getting the job done.

  • pjski

    2 great books to read to see where vision should come from: 1. Nehemiah 2. Visioneering by Andy Stanley which follows Nehemiah. It should be a top down approach as the leader receives it from God. If it is received and followed correctly it will be to SERVE the people being led. This means that it will be accepted by those at the grassroots and also they will end up taking ownership over something that is obviously for their benefit.

  • James Hooper

    I want to say grassroots because honestly, it sounds cool. But for me it would be top down. A good quality leader (Pastor) will take a vision and make it a grassroots movement. The question is how do you make that happen. Giving people the "buy in" of a vision you'll see amazing things taking place. The chances are if the Pastor is seeking vision and the "body" is seeking vision, the pastor may articulate exactly what the body has been feeling. I agree with pjski.

  • I second Jason in terms of vision coming from God. But let me reframe the question just a bit. How is vision discerned? How is that supposed to happen in a church context? Are there any clues in Scripture? I think there are two truths that pop out at me: 1) Godly leaders (in both the OT and the NT) tended to lead their people/flock in seeking God's mercy and in asking to know his will as a corporate body via prayer, mourning, and fasting. 2) In terms of answering the question, "What direction are we going?" I think it's pretty clear from Scripture that providing vision is an expectation of godly leaders.

  • rueful

    Ideally I think its a Top Down thing, but agree with your statement of grassroots gets more momentum. I think I true leader is someone who can have the vision and get others to buy into it. I know of several ministries that got started by a church leader who had a vision but, in essence, gave it to someone else to run with it, knowing that it would never have taken off if had come from them. If that makes sense?

  • I think it's grass roots. Here is why. Most of the support on this thread for a top-down approach uses examples where the "followers" were not in the right place literally, figuratively, or spiritually, therefore God called a Moses-type figure to come in and lead them. For a bunch of church leaders (of which I am one) to say that leadership should always be top-down is a little arrogant. Henry Blackaby taught in Experiencing God (can you believe I remember something from that archaic study?) that people should find where God's spirit is moving and join him there. Rick Warren has a similar teaching in the Purpose Driven Church. I think the difference is though, that we are talking about a congregation where hopefully the hearts of the people are in the right place, rather than needing a spiritual reprimand as is the case in many biblical leadership accounts. Church leaders are notorious for complaining that their people don't get involved enough in leadership and the pastor/leader has to do everything. Then we turn around and say it has to be top-down. We can't have it both ways.

    • Jason, there is no one else that would want to agree with what you say more but I can't. There is no Biblical precedent for grassroots vision. A leader catches God's vision and that leader adequately communicates that vision to his flock. We have to remember that we aren't the shepherd.

    • That's actually what I was thinking in regards to the Jesus/Moses analogies, too. To play devil's advocate, maybe that top-down was more contextual for them. But I'm not really thinking of any good examples of grassroots vision in scripture either. It just seems so much more vibrant and contagious when it's grassroots.

      • Second chapter of Acts appears to be grass roots. Sure you have the teaching of the Apostles, but the people were essentially leading themselves as they were devoted to that teaching. Another problem with our biblical interpretation I've seen is that Paul is a leader. The majority of the NT books are Paul's instructions to churches. Since these are essentially letters to the churches, we don't get the complete picture of what the other side looked like. What did the ministry at Corinth, Ephesus, Galatia look like? Sure, we have Paul's instructions, but we have a very limited view of how those congregations functioned.

  • jay @ bethegospel

    I think it works different ways in different church contexts.

  • It depends on the gifts and calling of the pastor.

    Some churches are led by pastors who are empowered by God to be His mouthpiece, while other churches are being prodded by pastors who are not gifted in this area but have been stereotyped into that role.

    In contrast, some churches are led by a group of people who ask a pastor to guide them spiritually as they live out the vision of God on their life; other churches are prodded by a group of people who are putting a leader on a leash by making him manage their thoughts.

    In each category, one option is of God and one isn't.

  • Kevin H

    Top down. God delivered vision to all leaders in the Bible. Many obeyed and relayed. Some did not (Jonah). In any case, the delivering of God's vision for the people was never hindered. But it was almost always through a leader. Noah, Moses, Isaiah, Samuel, John the Baptist, the Apostles. It seems that every time the people develop a vision, it is for their own pleasure (the history of Israel, Mt Sinai, Corinthian church).

    I think it's appropriate to use the titles "shepherd" and "overseer" in this case. God delivers the directions to the shepherd who then guides and protects the flock and keeps them in line with the received vision.

    Not to say that ideas and desires do not arise from the congregation. But it's the pastors' role to align these with the reveal Word of God and cast the vision to the people.

    Great question and great responses.

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  • This has really been working my noggin, and here are three more thoughts:

    1) Is the idea of getting vision in a grassroots sort of way something that is a construct of our democratic point of view? I'm not yet sure. I'd love for supporters of the grassroots point of view to offer some biblical examples for that kind of approach.

    2) If it is supposed to be grassroots, to what extent are leaders accountable for what happens in the congregation? The Bible gives leaders and teachers very stern warnings regarding how they are to teach and lead; how do those warnings make sense in a truly grassroots context?

    3) This Sunday at a specially called business meeting where our congregation approved the purchase of some property for one of our campuses, a person in support of the acquisition made an interesting comment, something to the effect of, "I believe our leaders (meaning the pastors and deacons) are responsible and faithful, and so God calls us to be obedient to them."

    • 1) In the situation I'm thinking of, a vision started with me (top-down) but quickly became grassroots because I haven't been involved with it for a long time. Others picked it up and have taken it much further much faster than I ever could've. It's grown into a grassroots movement without me.

      2) In the situation I mentioned here, there's no accountability for me. But in a paid pastoral position, the accountability is, "How well are you helping this body move forward with its vision?"

      3) Yes, that is definitely a top-down perspective. "This is their vision and we're called to support them."

  • jmgreenhill

    I'm gonna sell out and still say both. I think personally a prefer the top down method partly because I can look at the entire need of the church (or in my case the youth ministry) I can see where the needs are and I'm constantly seeking where God is taking me. I've seen a lot of grassroots movements start because there is a perceived need and the people want to address it. That may be good and all but how does that affect what God is doing here as a whole.

    I mean it's great that you high school boys want to have a lock-in but how does that live in to our mission here in our area? Are lock ins bad? no (debatable..i mean really no sleep + caffeine + middle schoolers?)

    I think in the end I agree with most of the youth ministry books I've read that have stated to start the vision that you think God is leading you to and then work with church members to prayerfully refine it. You have ownership, they have ownership and the vision is more likely to gain momentum.

  • Kory Mereness

    Top down.

    I think a good leader will lead in a way that gives people such passion and ownership that it will appear as though it is grass-root-y (which is how I would describe Jesus and the disciples.) Grass roots ministries have their place in the world–and most churches are a result of a grassroots idea–but when it comes to keeping all of the oxen pulling the one cart in the same direction, a church needs a pastor to be a leader who uses and channels people's enthusiasm to benefit a vision that enables the whole church, rather than riding on that enthusiasm of a small contingent, wherever the wind may blow.

  • This was a great topic for discussion. Church's should be (Theocratic) which mean "God ruled". We have to remember that Pastors are people who were called to their position by God. Therefore, their purpose is to lead and/or direct their flock in the way that he or she is suppose to go. Such as a parents are to do for their child. I believe that vision is created by God but facilitated by chosen people. So, I do accept Top-Down vision.

  • Ann Pursche

    I suspect that many of the answers given reflect one's own experience or position – a pastor or layperson in a church in which top down leadership or vision casting is seen as positive will tend to view that style as normative or prescriptive for the church. A person who has seen grassroots work effectively or who has seen top-down approaches as autocratic or abusive might view grassroots as preferable. I am often amused by pastors who want to be "in charge" as opposed to "trusting the ungodly thinking of the congregation" to make leadership decisions. (Never-mind their predecessor who was a tyrant or moral reprobate.) Then there's the congregations that run roughshod over their staff because they are merely hired hands at the mercy of the majority that voted them in.

    The problem with using Moses, Nehemiah or some Old Testament prophet as an example of how vision should work in the church is in how the Holy Spirit worked then versus today. These people were called and filled by the Holy Spirit to a specific task, that of being a prophet. The very nature of their position required that they provide extraordinary vision and voice of God's message to God's people who themselves not indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Using Jesus who is God Incarnate and His disciples who were not filled with the Spirit until Pentecost after Jesus left is also not analogous to the church in which each member of Christ's body is filled by and empowered for ministry by the Holy Spirit.

    One of the great tragedies of the modern church is viewing "professional staff" as somehow more called or empowered to do ministry or provide leadership than the non-professional. Pastor, teacher, evangelist, prophet are spiritual gifts, not offices in the New Testament. The only offices given are that of elder (overseer) and deacon, no specific spiritual gift is associated with being an elder or deacon. Furthermore, the idea that leadership "resides" in the position of a sole or Senior Pastor is totally unbiblical. While we need to be obedient to those overseers, the church functions best when the multiplicity of gifts, strengths and callings are used.

    • That's a good point about the difference with the Holy Spirit from the OT examples. But what about Jesus' example? Some would argue that His approach was "top-down," too.

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  • Troymac

    Love this thread.

    Here is what comes to mind as I read. Consider what may be heard when we use the words, "top down." It reminds me of Jesus' teachings about the first becoming last and the greatest becoming the least, the servant of all. How about the top becoming the bottom? How about a bottom up model? That Moses was said to be the most humble man on the face of the earth (Num 12:3) is significant.

    I think that ultimately someone has to be the leader and lead. But that leader must always be seeking direction from the Spirit of God. The leader who does not diligently and continually seek direction from the Spirit of God always ends up leading others in the ways of man/the world.

    So I guess my point is… While to some it may go without saying. It should not go without saying. Let's be sure we are first seekers of the Lord's will. Then we have a vision/message/direction worthy of sharing.

    May His will be done, may His name be glorified, may His people be blessed.

  • randy

    been in church most of my life. When a new pastor comes he usually observes for the first year. He can see from being an outsider how the church has functioned for the last several years, and if it needs a shake up or not if he does any history look up at all. People who have been there forever generally don’t think too much out of the box, like being comfortable right where they are at. To me that’s where a new vision can come from the top down to get them excited about their future. Too many Cheifs and not enough Indians is not the way to go. A pastor tends to be more in tune with a vision, congregations tend to think only about what they want…….

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