The Counsel of the Lord Stands Forever

Reflections on Corporate Planning

The Lord nullifies the counsel of the nations; He frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of His heart from generation to generation.

In recent weeks the elders of our church and the financial and property administrators have had some of the most penetrating and far-reaching discussions I can remember. On the surface they have dealt with crucial planning questions that we need to answer at this point in the life of our church, which I will mention at the end.

But at a deeper level the discussions have to do with God and the whole concept of corporate planning. And that has set me thinking a lot about being God-centered in rational, efficient, management-run, corporate America—which for millions today includes the church (large churches in particular). I want to talk about this bigger issue this morning, and try to bring a biblical word to bear on God and planning, especially corporate planning in the life of the church. Then I want to mention what this means for the process that the elders are initiating this summer.

The Counsel of the Lord Stands Forever

Let's put the two key verses from this psalm in front of us. Notice the words "counsel" and "plans."

The Plans of Men and the Plans of God

Psalm 33:10–11,

10 The Lord nullifies the counsel of the nations;
He frustrates the plans of the peoples.
11 The counsel of the Lord stands forever,
the plans of His heart from generation to generation.

The point of these verses is that both men and God take counsel and both plan. But in the end it is not the counsel and plans of men that are established, but of God's. It is all-important to realize that God plans the world and he plans churches and he plans lives—and his plans succeed. His plans take precedence over our plans. Our plans have significance and durability to the degree that God plans for our plans to be significant and durable. God is the all-important reality in planning from beginning to end. God's will is for that to be known, to be explicit, to be admired and enjoyed.

Implementation and Resources

Then add verses 16–18:

16 The king is not saved by a mighty army;
A warrior is not delivered by great strength.
17 A horse is a false hope for victory;
Nor does it deliver anyone by its great strength.
18 Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him,
On those who hope for His lovingkindness.

Here we move beyond planning to implementation and resources, but the point is the same. No matter how great our resources, victory belongs to the Lord. A king may have a mighty army and strong warriors; his horses may have great strength. But on the day of battle God alone decides who wins. And God can make the stronger or the weaker win—whichever his plan determines. He has a thousand ways of making the weaker triumph over the stronger, and getting glory for his own name.

Illustrated in Shakespeare's Henry the Fifth

For example, in the Shakespearean play Henry the Fifth (which was also a movie a few years ago), King Henry comes against incredible odds on the battlefield. In one scene of the movie you see hundreds of bowmen in the back lines sending a downpour of arrows arching over their own front lines and landing on the advancing enemy. What you realize is that these arrows are launched with no particular target in mind. They are sent with a string and a prayer. In that situation who decides if the arrow lands harmlessly in the ground or lands in the throat of an enemy soldier? The slightest wind will change the course of a thousand arrows. And one inch right or left may make the difference between no wound or lethal wound. The answer: God decides.

That's why in the movie King Henry's victorious little army sang, "Non nobis domine, gloria," as they walked through the bloody field. "Not to us, O Lord, be the glory"—a quote from Psalm 115:1.

The Main Point

That's the point of this psalm. We may plan, but God's plans hold sway. We may amass resources and strength, but the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him. He decides what plans and resources succeed. God is the central issue in corporate planning.

That's the main point this morning. And that's what our elders and FPAs (Financial and Property Administrators) have been wrestling with—what are the implications of God's centrality in Bethlehem's planning process as we try to answer key questions about our future.

Corporate Planning in the Church

Dangerous Trend or Learning from the Book of Providence?

Let me illustrate the way we posed the question. In a recent issue of Christianity Today a church management event was advertised that is typical of the kind of counsel that many church consultants and management specialists and growth experts would give. Here is the quote:

[They] will assist you and your leadership team in understanding the purpose of your church, identifying your core values, implementing a strategy to accomplish your vision, and measuring the effectiveness of your ministry. You will learn how to develop a shared vision embraced by your entire congregation and understand how to coordinate your resources to fulfill that vision for your church.

What you have in that paragraph are six steps of corporate planning that are almost universal, it seems, among consultants whose aim is to help institutions succeed. I mention them:

  1. Understand your purpose.
  2. Identify your values.
  3. Determine your strategy.
  4. Measure your effectiveness.
  5. Get the people to share the vision.
  6. Coordinate your resources to fulfill the vision.

The Questions Raised

The elders weren't dealing directly with this ad from CT, but with the concept of planning behind it. Some of the questions that the elders posed were these: Is it a harmless thing that this approach to planning may not mention God or Christ or the Bible? (The ad in CT did not.) Is it a harmless thing that this same prescription for success is used in secular corporations? Is it a harmless thing that this process of planning "works" whether your corporate entity is a clothing store or a financial services institution or a hospital or a Jehovah's Witnesses meeting hall or a Mormon congregation or a Baptist Church? Follow these six steps with aggressive leadership and you will succeed.

What does it say about the place of God among us if the key that unlocks our future is the same key that unlocks the future of institutions that don't share our God-centered values? Is there a connection between how inconsequentially the reality of God rests on so many churches (even "successful" ones) and the fact that they may have set the entire tone of their ministry by adopting a management process where God was totally unmentioned? In other words can you make a God-omitting management strategy your starting point and expect that you will end up with a radically God-pervading ministry?

But what if the reason these six steps of planning work for all kinds of institutions is that the sharp management observers in the world have simply read them out of the book of God's providence—out of human behavior? That is, what if they work because they reflect the way God has wired the human family to work by natural laws? If that's the case, can't we just take them over and fill them up with our specific God-centered content and get on with growth? Those are the kinds of things we've been wrestling with.

Pulling Up the Reins

Let me give my reasons why I think we should not do that, and then suggest constructively what I think we can do in order to be true to the centrality of God in all our corporate planning and then invite you into the process.

First of all, I think it is true that most of what works in the world in science and industry is because sharp (God-given) minds see the handiwork of God in the world, and read the book of providence well enough to make efficient inventions and devices and machines and procedures and processes and strategies. But Christians desperately need to realize that for the most part this is a secularized reading of God's providence, which has blindness to God at its core. We need to awaken to the remarkable fact that even Christians today are so soaked with secularism that we scarcely hesitate to endorse the way the world reads the book of providence, provided that it works—does it kill the virus? Does it increase speed and efficiency? Does it make the corporation grow?

Precious few, it seems, pull up the reins of this galloping horse of efficient secular technology and say, "But could it be that those who are blind to God in reading the book of his providence might get something fatally wrong, even as they produce 'success'? Could it be that the stripping away of God from his works distorts the true meaning of the works themselves?" I think the answer to these questions is yes.

Corporate Planning and Bethlehem

And so here are the steps I would like us to take as we consider ideas for corporate planning that come to us disconnected from God.


First, I think we should be humbled, perhaps even humiliated, that we the church, "the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:15), may have to be directed by the world toward an aspect of God's truth which belongs to God and is readable not only from the book of providence, but also, much more fully and purely, out of his Word and the history of redemption. The fact that we have the Bible is no guarantee that we see in it what we ought to see. The fact that some things are written more clearly in the Bible than in human nature is no guarantee that we Christians may not have blind spots to them while shrewd observers in the world make use of the unclear fragment of the truth written in the book of providence. So the first step we take may be humiliation and repentance for our dullness or blind spots.

Test Ideas for Biblical Soundness

But secondly, we will then test the ideas that the world commends on the basis of God's special revelation, the Bible. We will bring them into relation to God and see how distorted they may have become in the process of being stripped of their direct tie to God. We will not simply say, "All truth is God's truth," and let secular managers become our guides to success. We will say also, "All truth without God is not the truth God meant it to be." A truth stripped of God is not a whole truth and will not guide the church well. If we make God-neglecting truth our starting point, we will probably produce a God-neglecting ministry.

Make God Explicit

Finally, if the ideas we are testing prove to be rooted in God, then we will recast them in ways that make God explicit and that reveal their roots in the character and plan and work of God.

In this way we will make God the starting point of our corporate planning and the one from whom, through whom, and for whom the entire process exists (Romans 11:36). He will not be taken for granted or become a silent assumption.

So let me close now by telling you specifically some steps that the elders have taken to put in place a process of master planning that we hope will help us capture this defining moment in the life of our church.

Four Questions

At least four questions press for answers in this moment of our church life. And I hope that to the degree that they are relevant for you, you will join us in the process of planning.

  1. Whom are we trying to help meet God in worship, and what forms of worship and music will help us do this? This question probably needs to be asked more widely about our whole ministry.
  2. What staffing configuration will help us best fulfill our biblical purposes? For example, should there be a full or part time music minister; and, of what kind?
  3. What, if any, site development will be necessary in this decade in order to accomplish our biblical purposes? For example, how will we minister to the very large bulge of young children on their way to being teenagers? Or: will we have sufficient parking to grow to the levels anticipated in 2000 by 2000, and provide a base for the sending anticipated?
  4. How quickly can we pay off our present mortgage on this building and free up that money for other things? We raised half the money up front, but now there remains $1.4 million to pay. And what fundraising process would best reflect our biblical values? What, if any, new fund raising will be necessary?

Five Initiatives

To answer these questions the elders (with the support of the FPAs) have decided upon several initiatives:

  1. We will enter on an intensive period (perhaps 12 months) of Master Planning that we pray will have the fingerprints of God all over it.
  2. We will engage Doug Anderson and Nehemiah Ministries to assist us in this effort. Doug's ministry has helped us repeatedly in past planning efforts. We are excited about his commitment to see Bethlehem thrive in the power of the Holy Spirit.
  3. We would like to call Russ Gregg to relinquish his duties as district elder for 12 months and instead to become Coordinator for Master Planning. We will ask the church to approve this action at the July quarterly strategy meeting since the extraordinary nature of the position seems to warrant a small stipend (which can be covered within the present budget).
  4. We will assemble a Commission on Master Planning of perhaps 20 members of Bethlehem whom God is preparing for an extraordinary investment of time and creative energy from September 1994 through May 1995. This group will give itself to prayer and study and listening and reflection in order to assist the elders in making recommendations to the church.
  5. We will establish various listening posts and other means of information gathering from the members of the church so that our grasp of God's guidance will benefit from the gifts and insight and wisdom of the wider of body.

You will have opportunity to ask questions and make suggestions about this process at the July 20 meeting or sooner with any elder. I am personally excited with this chance to hear God speak to the church afresh about our mission for the rest of the decade. It is a great comfort and joy to me to say over all our efforts:

10 The Lord nullifies the counsel of the nations;
He frustrates the plans of the peoples.
11 The counsel of the Lord stands forever,
the plans of His heart from generation to generation.