Book Review: Finding a Vision for Your Church, by Michael A. Milton
Michael A. Milton, Finding a Vision for Your Church: Assembly Required. P&R Publishing, 2012. 240 pages. $13.49
Last year, Michael Milton resigned as chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary due to a serious but treatable illness. Though I have not been directly impacted by his ministry prior to reading this book, I’ve rejoiced to see others’ accounts of his faithfulness in a variety of demanding roles. I am confident that all who work and write for 9Marks give thanks to God for how he uses individuals like Dr. Milton to advance gospel work in a variety of churches, institutions, and denominations. I pray that God would glorify himself as Dr. Milton suffers well, and ultimately grant him many more years of fruitful labor.
Milton writes in his letter explaining his resignation, “[T]he winter this year has killed off the busily growing weeds of distraction to reveal a grim woundedness in my body which is crying out in no uncertain terms: there will be a time of resting afresh before running again.” This is the sort of pastoral warmth and wisdom the reader will likewise find in his book Finding a Vision for Your Church: Assembly Required.
Though its topic is rather different from the anguish of a health-related resignation, you will find in it an unreserved and pervasive commitment to the glory and purposes of God, advanced through the means God has ordained—first and foremost, his Word. Milton wants his readers to grasp what are the vital priorities of pastoral ministry and to embrace them enthusiastically. He presses towards an ambitious “vision for personal, corporate, and global transformation” (17), and an expectation that our omnipotent God will exceed those ambitions.
Juan Sanchez, senior pastor of the church where I serve, loves to use the term “vision,” and then look at me and smirk. He knows what the curmudgeon in me is thinking: “Vision is just a worn-out buzzword that mediocre leaders use when they want to stir people to action without really knowing how to say something consequential.” What I’ve learned from Juan is that some leaders are actually able to articulate a robust vision when they use the term. Milton’s writing offers evidence that he is one of those leaders.
Given the audience of this review, a bit of contextualization may be helpful. The subject matter of Finding a Vision for Your Church overlaps extensively with Mark Dever’s Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. The order is different, and alert readers will catch a whiff of denominational distinctives, but the basic elements are largely the same: a theology of God’s glory and sovereignty, expositional preaching, the gospel, evangelism, discipleship, membership, and leadership cultivation. Discipline is less prominent; prayer more so. Milton also helpfully seasons these aims with attention to optimism in the pastor’s labors. As I reviewed my notes for this review, I lost count of the number of times I had jotted “encouraging!” in the margins. An example:
Hitch your wagon to what God is doing in his universe and be led by his Spirit. You will do yourself no favor, you will serve no eternal purpose, if you speak only of this world. You must begin with the end in mind. You must speak of heavenly things. (74)
Yet while Milton and Dever address similar issues, they do so in noticeably different ways. While both books emerged from sermon series, Nine Marks was a more traditionally topical series, defining the marks with data of a wide range of biblical texts. Finding a Vision was a hybrid: topical in the sense that Milton selected a series of related issues rather than preaching through a book, but expositional in the sense that he intended to unpack one or two primary texts in each sermon. The result is that Milton’s book feels like an exhortation to pastors to embrace these elements as foundational to a vision, rather than a systematic, comprehensive argument for them. That is a distinct but entirely worthy objective, and Milton largely succeeds in accomplishing it.
This is no nifty how-to book; it is a why-to and what-to book. Potential readers looking for tips to cast and implement vision will need to look elsewhere (though a few pages in the appendix should prove helpful). Still, I would encourage those readers not to turn to that sort of book until they’ve read a few of this sort.
Milton’s topical-expositional hybrid approach has its drawbacks. Obviously, there is no one text that says everything concerning a topic that could be said, and perhaps should be said, when a pastor perceives the need to lay before his congregation a vision for matters that are foundational to the life of the body. My only substantial critique of the book is that Milton seems to have recognized the limitations of his approach and attempted to compensate, with the result that he presses some texts beyond their contextual meaning.
The clearest example of these exegetical missteps is Milton’s argument that Paul’s standing up to preach and motioning with his hand in Acts 13:16 represents a preacher’s declaration of a call and sense of mission and enthusiasm (147-48). Perhaps Paul’s gesture indicated some sort of enthusiasm. Surely it is not a major emphasis of the passage. And clearly, Paul’s call to ministry had been previously established. His standing may reveal his boldness, but it cannot be analogous to a pastor’s “call.” Milton consistently writes truth, but that truth does not always emerge from the passages he cites.
Despite these reservations, I believe Finding a Vision for Your Church could be a useful tool, particularly in certain circumstances. I would enthusiastically recommend it for consideration to pastors who lead pastoral/elder teams that are still pursuing unity in mission and vision. It’s a bit warmer and less matter-of-fact than Nine Marks, and I suspect it may be less provocative in contexts where consensus in vocabulary and values is not yet established. Perceptive study questions at the end of each chapter should consistently spark constructive conversations within leadership teams. Accompanying devotional prayers may similarly foster unity, especially when elders pray them together.