CHANGE & Why it won’t happen unless you understand the important difference between “mission” & “vision.”

by Bob Whitesel D.Min., Ph.D., excerpted from an address delivered to the Great Commission Research Network (GCRN), Asbury Theological Seminary, Oct. 19, 2017.

“How Changing Generations … Change: Harnessing the Differences Between Generations and Their Approaches to Change.”


This article will compare and contrast two leadership change strategies as observed in older generations (influenced by modernity) and younger generations (influenced by postmodernity). It will be suggested that modernist leadership strategies may focus more on command-and-control and vision. It will be further suggested that postmodern leaders may employ a more collaborative and mission-centric approach to change leadership. This latter approach will be shown to have been described in postmodern circles by organic metaphors and four conditions as set forth by organizational theorist Mary Jo Hatch. Subsequently, it will be suggested that the style of leadership embraced should depend upon the cultural context of the generational actors and the environment.

… Motivating by vision vs. motivating by mission

There is some confusion among practitioners regarding the difference between vision and mission. Kent Hunter and I, in an earlier book, sought to compare and contrast various ecclesial definitions of vision and mission and suggest an abridgment.[21]

George Barna[22] Elmer L. Towns[23]


Whitesel / Hunter[24]
Mission: A philosophic statement that under-girds the heart of your ministry. Your ministry emphasis and your church gifting. “What do we do” (and why do we do it, 2017)
Vision: A clear mental image of a preferable future imparted by God, and based on an accurate understanding of God, self and circumstances. Same as Barna. “Where do we believe God is calling our church to go in the future?”

My experience has been that older generations, influenced by modernity, typically emphasize the vision. By this, I mean they have a clear mental picture of the future and try to muster all of their forces to attain it. This can, and often does, result in a parade of different programs being promoted to the congregation which often – by their sheer frequency – overwhelms and wears out the congregants. Burnout is often the result.

I have noticed that younger generations are more likely to emphasize the mission that undergirds these various visions. This is perhaps because they have witnessed this in their parents’ congregations. According to Barna, a mission is “a philosophic statement that undergirds the heart of your ministry.”[25] This leads postmodern-influenced leaders to emphasize less the different programs that are being implemented and instead to motivate by stressing the mission behind them.

An interview with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s in USA Today yields a useful example.[26] In the article, Nadella criticizes founding CEO Bill Gates for mixing up the difference between a mission and a vision. Nadella states, “It always bothered me that we confused an enduring mission with a temporal goal… When I joined the company in 1992, we used to talk about our mission as putting a PC in every home, and by the end of the decade we have done that, at least in the developed world.”

“…we used to talk about our mission as putting a PC in every home, and by the end of the decade we have done that, at least in the developed world.” – Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s in USA Today

Nadella was right because “putting a PC in every home” is not a mission – it is a vision. It is something that can be reached, can be pictured in your mind and is temporally bound. You can see a vision in your mind. You can envision every house having a PC computer. That is why every house today doesn’t have an IBM PC. Instead, many have Apple Macs.

A mission, however, drives the company and its values, therefore shaping its decisions. It is much bigger and grander than a vision.

When Steve Jobs was luring John Scully from PepsiCo to become CEO of Apple, Jobs shared a mission, not a vision, saying: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want a chance to change the world?”[27]

A mission is just like that. It is exciting, world-changing … but somewhat imprecise so it could manifest in many different outcomes (i.e. visions). It is also not temporally bound, like “putting a PC in every home.” A mission drives your values and decisions through many different projects.

Apple’s mission reminds me of the trend I see in my youthful seminary students to emphasize mission over vision. They correctly understand that mission can be realized in many different visions. Apple’s mission would be realized in varied visions including: the vision to revolutionize the way music is purchased via iTunes, the vision to miniaturize the computer into a handheld device, etc. The result is that Apple devotees have a passion that IBM followers don’t. Apple has an ongoing mission that continues to be realized in various visions. As a result, the clarity of Apple’s mission, best exemplified in Apple’s 1984 Super Bowl ad, unleashes a passion in its followers.[28]

Best practices for the church: When leading younger leaders, it may be helpful to emphasize the mission while letting many subcategories of vision come and go as opportunity rises and wanes. The younger generations appear to want to be reminded of the mission but allowed to create multiple visions of how it may be carried out. They don’t want to stick to one idea or tactic, but rather one mission. Therefore, the mission becomes more important than a time and measurement constrained vision which often influenced their parents’ church.

The tip of an iceberg

These approaches to change are just the tip of an iceberg of divergences between the leadership modality of the modernist and postmodernist. I’ve compared and contrasted more areas in my Abingdon Press book ORGANIX: Signs of Leadership in a Changing Church. The reader may be interested in how I delve into the striking difference regarding how younger generations offset the disadvantages of homogeneity. For a thorough investigation of the distinctions between modern and postmodern leadership, I would encourage the reader to consult this volume.

[1] The Atlantic magazine, March 25, 2014.

[2] Generation Z has been suggested as the descriptor for this generation by the New York Times, see Sabrina Tavernise, “A Younger Generation is Being Born in Which Minorities are the Majority,” New York Times, May 17, 2012.

[3] Bob Whitesel, “Toward a Holistic in Postmodernal Theory of Change: The Four-forces Model of Change as Reflected in Church Growth Movement Literature,” The Journal of the American Society for Church Growth, Fall 2008.

[4] Bob Whitesel, Preparing for Change Reaction: How to Introduce Change in Your Church (Indianapolis: The Wesleyan Publishing House, 2007, pp. 53-56.

[5] Eddie Gibbs in Church Next (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2000, p. 23) explains that though Frederico de Onis created the term “postmodern” in the 1930s it was not until the 1960s that it gained popularity due to its use by art critics.

[6] Emil Bruner, trans. Harold Knight, The Misunderstanding of the Church (London: Lutterworth Press, 1952), pp. 15-18.

[7] Mary Joe Hatch, Organizational Theory: Modern, Symbolic, and Postmodern Perspectives (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 53-54.

[8] While Hatch utilizes the term requisite harmony, I have substituted the helpful term dissonant harmony as employed by Bruno Dyck and Frederick A. Starke, The Formation of Breakaway Organizations: Observations and a Process Model. Administrative Science Quarterly (1999), 44:792-822. I have applied the Dyke-Starke model to the church in Bob Whitesel, Staying Power: Why People Leave the Church Over Change and What You Can Do About It(Abingdon Press, 2003).

[9] Charles H. Kraft, Christianity in Culture, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1979), pp. 113.

[10] Eddie Gibbs, I Believe in Church Growth, op. cit., p. 120.

[11] Eddie Gibbs, I Believe in Church Growth, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981), p. 92.

[12] See for the example the hedgehog versus Fox’s comparison in Abraham Zalesnik’s book, hedgehogs and foxes: character, leadership, and commanding organizations parentheses New York: Palm grave McMillan, 2008). Zalesnik use this is a metaphor of hedgehogs who live by unwavering rules with the more long-lived foxes who adapt to their environment..

[13] Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (1776; reprint, Chicago: University of Chicago press, 1976), books 1 and 4.

[14] Quoted by Daniel Boorstin, The Americans: The Democratic Experience (New York: Vintage, 1974), pp. 368-369

[15] Harrison Monarth, Executive Presence: The Art of Commanding Respect Like a CEO (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009), p. 55.

[16] Bruno Dyck and Frederick A. Starke, The Formation of Breakaway Organizations: Observations and a Process Model. Administrative Science Quarterly (1999), 44:792-822.

[17] For more on this seek Bob Whitesel, Staying Power: Why People Leave the Church Over Change, And What You Can Do About It (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002) and the chapter titled “Go Slowly, Build Consensus and Succeed” in Preparing for Change Reaction: How to Introduce Change in Your Church (Indianapolis: The Wesleyan Publishing House, 2007, pp. 151-169.

[18] Harvard Business Review (Boston: Harvard Business Press, January 2007).

[19] Bruno Dyck and Frederick A. Starke, ibid., 44:812-813.

[20] ibid., 44:813-819.

[21] Bob Whitesel and Kent R. Hunter, A House Divided: Bridging the Generation Gaps in Your Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), p. 107.

[22]George Barna, The Power of Vision: How You Can Capture and Apply God’s Vision for Your Ministry (Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 1992), pp. 28, 38–39.

[23] Elmer L. Towns, Vision Day: Capturing the Power of Vision, (Lynchburg, Virginia; Church Growth Institute, 1994), pp. 24-25.

[24] Whitesel and Hunter, op. cit., p. 107.

[25] Barna, op. cit., p. 28.

[26] Marco della Cava, “Microsoft’s Satya Nadella is Counting on Culture Shock to Drive Growth,” USA Today, Feb. 20, 2017.

[27]John Sculley and John A. Byrne, Odyssey: Pepsi to Apple: A Journey of Adventure, Ideas, and the Future(New York: HarperCollins, 1987), p. 90.

[28] The 1984 Apple commercial is available on YouTube and is best described by MacWorld writer Adelia Cellini in the following: “Apple wanted the Mac to symbolize the idea of empowerment, with the ad showcasing the Mac as a tool for combating conformity and asserting originality. What better way to do that than have a striking blonde athlete take a sledgehammer to the face of that ultimate symbol of conformity, Big Brother?” “The Story Behind Apple’s “1984” TV commercial: Big Brother at 20,”MacWorld, 21 (1), p. 18.

Download the article here… ARTICLE Whitesel 2017 Changing Generations Change GCRJ GCRN 17.10.17


Bob Whitesel D.Min. Ph.D. holds two doctorates from Fuller Seminary and is the former founding professor of Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University. A speaker/consultant on church health, organic outreach and multiethnic ministry, he is the award-winning author of 13 books published by national publishers. National magazines have stated: “Bob Whitesel is the change agent” (Ministry Today) and “Bob Whitesel is the key spokesperson on change in the church today” (Outreach Magazine). The faculty of Fuller Theological Seminary awarded him The Donald McGavran Award for outstanding scholarship in church growth and The Great Commission Research Network awarded him The Donald A. McGavran Award for outstanding leadership in church growth.

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