There are over 100,000 books in the “leadership” category on Amazon. If you’re a pastor, there’s an excellent Leadership Network, and a Willow Creek Network, Soma, church planting networks, and potentially a seminar to attend every weekend, not to mention the possibility of filling your twitter stream with inspiration and equipping for the job of leadership. I’ve been to enough of these events to know two things:
It has value because everyone could use a motivational shot in the arm, a reminder that God has created each of us, whether pastors, stay at home moms & dads, code writers, marketers, health care workers, teachers, artists – we’re all made by God with gifts to contribute to this broken world. We’re all made for influence.
These leadership tools are valuable too, because influence is never automatic in life. Influence is the fruit of actions, what leadership people might call tactics. There’s a change in the voting rights of African Americans because there was a march in Selma, and an uproar, and another march. Of course, before there are tactics, there needs to be strategy, and strategy is the fruit of vision. Leadership tools often inspire people to embrace vision, creating what some call BHAG’s (Big Hairy Audacious Goals). Gaining voting rights for Blacks was, without question, a BHAG. So was putting a man on the moon. So was ending slavery. We’re encouraged, usually, to think big, and we hear from people who do.
And it’s right here that I move into seeing the limited value of much that is our leadership equipping culture in North America. It’s limited, not because it’s wrong (it often isn’t), but because it’s incomplete. It’s as if we’re encouraged to think big, see some need, and then follow the blueprint for making it happen: vision – strategy – tactics – all leading to the promised land of fruit and influence. Done!
I want to stand up and shout, “Not Done!” It’s as if our leadership culture teaches framing, siding, electrical, plumbing, roofing, and finish carpentry, as if those things can build a house. They’ve vital, but unless there’s a solid foundation, these skills are meaningless, and even worse than meaningless. I say “worse than” because to the extent that we believe they’re the bulk of what we need, we’ll respond to our frustrations by reaching for a more powerful dose of strategy and tactics. “We need change management” “We need better metrics” “We need an alignment strategy” Yes! We do! But not yet….
First we need to know that we’re doing the thing God has wired us to do, in the place God has called us to do it. Things break down here more often than you’d think. People have de-facto assumptions that their vision’s the right one, that they’re called to create a certain kind of influence in a certain place. Maybe. But not so fast! When the Bible says “Without a vision the people are scattered” the word vision actually means “declared revelation from God” so we’d be wise to make certain that we’re in the habit of hearing from God on a regular basis. That word, by the way, isn’t just for pastors. It’s for all of us who believe that our Designer has made each of us for unique contributions to the world, and our role is to find what that contribution is by hearing from God.
“Yes, but how does one go about hearing from God?” We hear from God the same way we hear from anyone. It requires paying attention and listening, and two disciplines that are central to any relationship of intimacy. I know how my wife wants a box of kindling before I go to work in the city, how she likes wood to be in the house drying before it’s put into the wood stove. This is her “declared revelation” to me, as I’m in charge of the wood while home. I only know what she wants by listening. I only know what God wants, too, by listening.
I write about habits that will help develop intimacy with God here, but let’s dig deeper, because just telling someone to read their Bible and listen for God’s voice isn’t very motivating. What would inspire a person to open their Bible and read, to journal and pray, to pay attention to what they perceive God is saying to them through creation, and text, and community, and trials?
I’m only motivated to seek God to the extent that I have a good dose of humility coursing through my veins. We might be tempted to think of humility as a self-bashing exercise, telling ourselves and others just how worthless we are. In reality, the Bible teaches that humility is simply one’s capacity to have an honest assessment of oneself. That means you know your strengths, and as I’ll write soon, are learning to play to them. But it also means that you’re brutally honest about your weaknesses, not just your presenting weaknesses, but the stuff that’s lurking inside you as well, waiting to push you over the proverbial cliff. I know, for example, that I’m in over my head on the tactics and strategy side of running a giant church. Some parents know they’re in over their head too, as do some CEO’s. I also know that, apart from Christ, there are dark places in me that would rise up, leading me down destructive paths rather than life giving ones.
Humility, once embraced, is at risk of being “treated” in one of two ways:
Nope. Your inadequacy isn’t a problem to be solved. Rather, it’s a gift intended to lead you to a life of intimacy with your Guide. When I don’t know the mountain, I stick with the Guide. And here’s the reality folks: Whatever it is that’s staring you in the face in the moment – you don’t know the mountain. So you need the Guide!
“Thanks for that Richard, but I’m OK. My business is doing well. My kids are healthy, 4.0, starring on their soccer team, and 1st chair musicians. To quote the favorite phrase of culture these days, ‘I’ve got this’.
Fine. If you want to continue living in fantasyland for a little while longer, go ahead. The reality though, is that every one of us will eventually find ourselves in the land of brokenness, and that’s precisely where all the good stuff starts. Brokenness, the existential awareness of our failures and inadequacies, is exactly what leads to humility, which leads to intimacy, which leads to the revelation that takes you above ground, and eventually, to the land of influence.
My dad’s death. My terrible year one in an urban church. My melancholy. My fear of rejection born from adoption… these are all part of my brokenness, yes. But they’re also gifts – the bedrock out from which intimacy with God is born.
My complaint with American leadership culture is that it minimizes brokenness, or even vilifies it. In my view, it’s a gift. One author says it this way: “…so we must stumble and fall, I am sorry to say. And that does not mean reading about falling, as you are doing here. We must actually be out of the driver’s seat for a while, or we will never learn how to give up control to the Real Guide!” Yes indeed. So let’s start teaching and learning the foundational principles of Underground Leadership, in hopes that each of us will find the life for which God has created us.
Here’s a free chapter for all those folks you know in your lives who have walked the road of success for a bit of distance and are both gratified and weary, cherishing what’s happened so far, but unclear as to what should happen next. If you know such people, please share this chapter with them on your social media. For me, sharing this isn’t about promoting my new book of which this is a part – it’s about helping people navigate the waters of career, creativity, family, and spirituality for the long haul. Happy reading, and happy sharing.
Many of us learn to do our survival dance, but we never learn to do our actual ‘sacred dance’ Richard Rohr
Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose. Bill Gates
Woe unto you when all men speak well of you…. Jesus the Christ
“If success is a mountain, I’m an accidental climber”. – Richard Dahlstrom
Has it ever happened to you? You’ve been working hard for goals you believe in for a long time. You’ve sacrificed and said no to trinkets so that you could focus on the gold of your objectives, your future. It didn’t happen overnight, but it happened. You took initial steps into the unknown of a new job, or that visionary idea into a deeper realm of committing to it and the universe rewarded with you success. The business grew. You were promoted. The publisher said yes.
It feels good and so you stay on the path a little longer and you continue to get a few more responsibilities. All the while, there are other areas of life, and these too are growing. You’re a spouse now, maybe, or a parent, or you have a loan for a house and are slowly filling it with stuff. Your hard drive’s filling up with pictures of kids at Christmas, and Little League, Prom night, graduations. It’s not perfect. There are bumps along the way, but you’re getting more these days. Life’s filling up. The business is gaining new market share. Investments are doing their job. It’s all paying off.
Days become decades, quickly. Now there’s money in the bank, and when the car breaks you don’t worry about whether you can afford to get it fixed. You eat out a bit more, maybe a lot more. Others, looking in on your life from the outside, are a little envious, or maybe resentful. That’s because you’ve become what our culture tells us is most important; you’ve become, in some measure at least, “successful”. You just kept walking, step by step, and it happened that you eventually found yourself high up on the slope with your own measure of fame, or influence, or upward mobility, looking down on the lights below. You wonder how you got there, pausing to look around for a moment.
You look around, once you have a little time to catch your breath, but nothing looks familiar. You’re not sure where you are anymore. You thought this was the right path because back down there along the way, everyone applauded and affirmed every step you took – college degree, corporate job, promotion, partner, consultant, marriage, kids, cross fit, commute. The world’s filled with cheerleaders ready to affirm or punish every step of the way so that the well trodden mountain becomes your mountain too. You went, almost without questioning, and now that you’re up here, somewhere near the top, you’re not sure this is where you belong.
That’s because you like it here on the one hand, but on the other hand, it’s taken a toll. You’re tired, and the pace of life has become more like a video game, with obligations coming at you faster and faster, so that you’re reacting more than living. Things have gotten complicated too, with some debts and a new lifestyle to which you’ve become accustomed. High up here on the mountain a fall would be costly. There’s your influence to consider, and reputation. You need a little time to get your bearings before proceeding but odds are you won’t push for the needed time off unless something huge shakes you awake, forcing you to ask questions you maybe should have asked years earlier, but were to busy succeeding to actually consider.
Just such a moment came my way last summer. I’d come home from two packed months of speaking at conferences on both coasts and in Europe, ending this season with a cross country flight on a Friday night. At eight the next morning I joined with other staff members of the church I lead for a four hour morning of round-robin interviews with several candidates for a single staff position. These were finished and I was having lunch with one of the candidates when my phone rang. “Germany?” I said to myself, seeing the +49 country code. Because I have a daughter there, I picked up.
“Kristi! Good to hear from you…”
Silence. And then, “Richard it’s Peter.”
“Peter. I thought you were Kristi. Listen, I’ll call you back, I’m right in the middle of…”
“Nope. I need to chat now, for a just a minute or two.” I walk away from the outdoor table just as the waiter brings our food. I’m sitting in rare Seattle sunshine by the front door of the restaurant when he says, “Hans Peter died today in the Alps. Paragliding. They found his body early this evening. I’ll let you know more when I know the time of the funeral.” After a silent moment Peter says, “I know. I’m sick too.” We chat a moment before I hang up the phone and finish the perfunctory interview, wondering why the world hasn’t stopped for everyone else on this outdoor patio, because God knows its collapsed for me. I can’t eat, can’t throw up, though I want to. Then I go home and sit in the sun that set hours ago in Austria, sinking behind the Alps and leaving a family I love mourning in darkness.
Hans Peter was the director of a school in the Alps where I teach regularly, and a kindred spirit. We’d skied his mountains together there, snowshoed in mine east of Seattle, and ridden bikes amongst the monuments of Washington DC. We’d rejoiced and agonized over our kids; argued theology and commiserated about leadership. We’d walked life together enough that even though we were separated by 6,000 miles or so, he was one of my best friends. And now he’s gone. The next day I broke down while telling my congregation, but on Monday there was an important retreat to lead for my marvelous staff. It would be filled with laughter and adventures, and I just kept pushing, because there was always another thing to do just around the corner. The retreat ended and I sat in a stream and talked at a camera for a video that needed making. Then home, then studying for Sunday, then preaching three times.
After that I collapsed. There was a day or two when the thought of getting out of bed to make a little coffee was overwhelming, let alone actually doing my job. The convergence of weariness and loss created a crisis of introspection that would change my life.
Walking alone in the mountains, I thought about how I’d succeeded at the things I’d gone after these past two decades – teaching, preaching, leading, investing in others, writing. It was all good stuff; not some pyramid scam, or trying to make a quick killing in the market so I could hit the beach – we’re talking about meaningful work that I enjoyed, and that had in some sense “prospered”. But somehow the convergence of my weariness and my friend’s death opened to door to an intense looking inward, and I began to wonder if I was doing the right thing, if the hamster wheel of activity was meaningful after all. Was it weariness I was feeling, or was it the work itself that was broken? Big churches, defined by everyone around them as inherently successful were suddenly up for a thorough evaluation, something I’d not done because I’d never cared about growth or success, or so I told myself. Was I telling myself the truth all those years, or was it a cover for ambition? What’s next? Can I keep doing this, and for how long? I had questions, but when I looked around, all I saw was the fog of weariness. I wondered if I was on the right mountain.
Later that fall I went to some sort of seminar for pastors of big churches and though I participated outwardly, I felt like a stranger at the table. Everyone was excited about their plans, goals, mission statements, “strategies for staff alignment”; even their challenges were energizing to them. I felt disembodied some of the time, like more of an observer than a participant. What was wrong with me? As the day wore on and I considered the dissonance between their excitement and my relative apathy I began to think that I was suffering from the fruit of my own success.
I’d climbed the mountain of ambition, so to speak, and though I’d enjoyed most steps along the way, it was tiring. Like any peak, it came at a cost. Now, at 58, just when I was beginning to think the mountain would level out towards a plateaued summit, I was getting busier than ever, because the work I was leading was still growing. New locations. New leaders. New responsibilities. New team chemistry because continually adding people to the team was changing people’s roles and relationships. The whole thing was my vision; it was working; it was exciting. But it had sort of taken on a life of its own and I was on empty, having used up all the creative fuel in the pursuit as growth, opportunities, and challenges piled on top of each other, year after year. Success! And emptiness at the same time. Should I continue climbing this mountain or might there be another?
When you’re young, nobody tells you about the dangers of success. Success is like a disco ball, high up there on the ceiling in the center of the room, and all the lights of everyone’s ambitions are shining on it, so that its beauty is magnified as it reflects the collective pursuits of greatness back to everyone in room with sparkle, as if to say, “this is what it’s all about”. You want it to shine on you too. We call it lots of things, depending on our profession. We want to build great teams, provide service second to none, create a product everyone needs, cure cancer, end human trafficking, write the song, get the corner office, get into Sundance, make the NY Times Bestseller List, raise amazing kids, find true love. Let’s face it, there’s a gold medal in every area of life. Maybe this isn’t a bad thing. After all, we all need a reason to get up in the morning. We want our lights to shine. We want significance. I get it.
Conventional Wisdom, or disguises dressed as the same, capitalize on these longings for success. That’s what seminars are for, and books about losing 100 pounds, or running marathons, or creating a marketing strategy. There is an entire “pursuit of success” industry precisely because we believe that going after it is the right thing to do, and maybe it is.
I’d always thought I wasn’t in that camp. In a world of big, I’d made my living running a church in my living room, and teaching at tiny Bible schools around the world several weeks a year. In a world of urban, I was living with my wife and three children in a place where the phone book was a single sheet of paper. We were rural, small, subsistence. There were resource challenges at times, but even though we lived below the poverty line, we slept under the stars on clear nights, camped in old fire lookouts where Jack Kerouac spent his summers, and enjoyed tiny staff meetings, laughing around the kitchen table. It was hard work, and frugal, lacking notoriety, but life giving.
Then, when opportunity came knocking, I answered, and we moved to the city where I would lead what, to my mind, was an enormous church of 300 people. “Teaching is teaching” I said naively, believing that the practice of my craft would be the same whether the place was large or small. I was wrong of course. Bigger stuff is more complex than small stuff, and though that is self evident to many, likely most people, it wasn’t clear to me. I needed to learn it first hand, as our big church started to grow even bigger. Growth wasn’t the goal but health was, and the reality is that if people are healthy of spirit, their joy, generosity, hearts of service, capacity to survive trials, and willingness to cross social divides will attract more people like moths drawn to flame. In this terribly needy world, I believe that people are hungry for community, meaning, and for living in a better story than the pursuit of self fulfillment. When people are looking for this kind of life and find others seeking it too, even living it in some measure, they’ll be drawn in.
That’s what started happening and it happened for nearly two decades, slowly and steadily. This meant adding staff, adding buildings, saying good bye to staff for whom the change and growth wasn’t right, dealing with changing team dynamics, altering org charts, creating new positions, reorganizing structures and systems to accommodate “bigger”, adding new locations so that we could offer the same kind of healthy community in other neighborhoods, raising funds, dealing with complexities that happen when competing visions and ideologies sneak in under this larger umbrella, facing the rejection of those who don’t like change and the adulation of those who do (both are equally dangerous) and o so much more. HR task forces. Policy Manuals. Bigger and bigger budgets. Adapt. Grow. Celebrate. Adapt. Grow. Mourn a little bit. Come to discover how much I don’t know about leadership. Grow more. Repeat.
People began writing to me wondering “how we did it”, and the truth is that I didn’t know, because I wasn’t trying to do it at all. I was simply trying to create a healthy community, and build systems that could help others join while still remaining healthy. After we built our new building, I received a magazine in the mail congratulating me that our church had made the list of the “100 Fastest Growing Churches in America”. I didn’t even know that anyone was keeping score, but here we were, on the coveted “list”. Year after year, it was the same, whether we were adding buildings, or locations, or leaders: Growth. The growth, of course, represents much more than added people; it represented changed people. Healed. Empowered. Transformed. Not everyone, that’s for certain, but many.
I knew I should be happy about this, but after about my 16th year of continual growth I began to ask the question: “Where does this story end?” and the honest answer was that I didn’t know. This is because sometimes the only picture of success we can see is the single disco ball in the room. The commonly held metrics of achievement are, in truth, surprisingly few, and predictable. “Growth” whether of sales, souls, or influence is the low hanging fruit, the easy way to convince ourselves we’re significant.
Lots of people go after this low hanging fruit, some with gusto and unapologetic clarity. Others stumble into it by simply doing their jobs well. But whatever our on-ramp, its all the same; we’re heading towards the disco ball in hopes that our light will be magnified. And now, here I was staring into the multi-faceted light of success and I realized I couldn’t see a thing. I didn’t know where I was, or where I was heading. What I did know was that this kind of success had created an environment where the complexity of the machinery seemed to be consuming too much of my creative energy, leaving me running on empty. When that happens, we can’t see far enough ahead to lead well; can’t parse our motives with any sort of clarity; can’t contribute that which is life giving to others and ourselves. Like thin air in the high mountains, this is not a place to stay for long. I knew I needed to move.
I asked my board for three months off, so that I could get off the treadmill, get my bearings, and return, with not only a sense of refreshment, but with a recalibrated soul, better able to serve, lead, and discern the signs. Little did I know that I was on the cusp of an important journey I thought I’d never take.
Richard Rohr reminds us that in Homer’s Odyssey the oft forgotten part of the story is the final two chapters. The major story has to do with Odysseus coming home from war, and all that’s encountered along the way, overcoming trials and temptations in order to be united with his wife, son, and old dear father. Here’s what Rohr says about what happens next:
Accustomed as we are to our normal story line, we rightly expect a ‘happily ever after’ ending to Odyusseus’s tale. And for most readers, that is all, in fact, they need, want, or remember from the story….(But) in the final two chapters, after what seems like a glorious and appropriate ending, Homer announces and calls Odysseus to a new and second journey that is barely talked about, yet somehow Homer deemed it absolutely necessary to his character’s life.
We get high up on the mountain of success, looking for a plateau where we can settle and bask in the glories of our achievements. We think that the goal is “up there” somewhere, in the land of more. Instead, I found an invitation to take a path down, out of speed and into slow, out of complexity and into simplicity, out of comfort and into suffering, out of certainty and into dependency. I found an invitation to walk down a path that would shake me awake, challenging me literally every step of the way. I found an invitation to hit the pause button on the dangerous, if not toxic, treadmill of spiritual success in search of something that I had once, but which had slipped away. The convergence of my weariness born from success, and the death of my friend pointed me towards the path of getting out from behind my books, and desk, and out of my car, alone, away from the crowds, and putting one foot in front of the other for hundreds of miles, from Canada to California on the Pacific Crest trail. In the course of doing so, my hope was to recalibrate, discovering once again the freshness and joy that was my life of faith in earlier days
And so it was, that my wife and I began planning a hike together through the Alps.
You can find the rest of “The Map is Not the Journey” at this link and fine booksellers. My prayer is that those looking to interpret the path they’ve been on in order to walk wisely into their future will find encouragement in these pages.
“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in a such a way that you may win…”
You are God’s uniquely handcrafted beautiful creation. You have gifts to bring to our darkening and weary world, and that means you weren’t just put here to survive, or have a few grand adventures of your own. You were put here to bless; to pour your life out onto the canvass of this world in the colors of hope, in an artistry that’s yours alone.
So get on with it.
Run to win.
Get over the mentalities of scarcity which define survival and a hefty stash of cash as the win because God knows that the world is full of people who have more than enough food, money, water, and activities, but who are utterly missing the life for which they’re created.
You’re not made to survive and consume, though you’ll do both, throughout your days. You’re made to thrive and bless and serve. Abundant Life is what Jesus called it. Don’t settle for anything less.
Run to win.
Flush your fears of thermonuclear war, political insanity down the toilet, and quit arguing, or worrying, about who stands or sits during the national anthem of a football game . You have no control of any of this.
Focus instead on what you’re going to be doing with your “one wild and precious life” because if you waste your days in fear and worry, you’re not just cheating yourself out of joy, peace, and meaning – you’re cheating the rest of us too. The world needs what you have to offer.
Find your gift (is it teaching, healing, serving, walking with those who are suffering, empowering, creating…?) and spend your life developing your precious gifts so that you can be a blessing to others.
If you already know your gift then for God’s sake (literally – for God’s sake) turn off the TV, set aside the video games, let go of the petty tie suckers, and get on with using it.
Run to win.
Paul the Apostle said that he disciplines his body, so that at the end of his life he’ll be confirmed to have been a participant in the abundant life Jesus offers, not just a spectator, or worse, an armchair quarterback who knows Jesus, justice, hospitality, confession, risk, love, service…but only as theory.
Run to win.
I woke up one morning recently, having had a moment in a dream where my own moments of self-pity, petty indulgences, cynical judgement, time wasted in social media political grenade lobbing, and the paralysis of an absurd self-pity (in spite of all the blessings I enjoy) marched past my bed like characters in a parade. Each one filled me with regret and I woke with a start, in the middle of the night – praying to God that I’d create no more of these subtle, yet despicable characters the rest of my days. “Rather” I prayed, “may I run to win – continually receiving your revelation from creation, friendships, text, and trials” and “may I pour my life out, using my gifts to love, serve, and bless”
Are you running to participate?
Are you running when it’s convenient?
Are you running at all?
Run to win.
I was about to enter 4th grade when our family moved about two miles in Fresno, out of what would today be called a ‘tiny house’ and into a ‘real house’ complete with a bedroom for both my sister and me. The move put me in a new elementary school and I was terrified that I’d make no friends. It was my cinnamon roll baking grandmother who, just a few weeks before the school year began in September, told me about a favorite Bible verse of hers. “This” she said as she slipped a piece of paper into my hand, “should help you” and she hugged me as I stuffed the little note card into my pocket. After she left the room I read it. She’d written a Bible reference: James 1:19. It read: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…”
I wrote it out on an index card and put it in my pocket. It served me well during those tumultuous days, when I was feeling socially awkward and at times, tempted to respond to unkind words with angry verbal retribution. Instead, I’d walk away, usually saying nothing at all, amazed at the power of silence as a means of killing the momentum of escalation that so often happens in so many places:
peer groups in school
Work place gossip
Social media rants
Political parties with all their posturing
Christian leaders who shoot each other over doctrinal differences of opinion
The White House and Oval Office are the newest members of “club mud”, though none should be surprised by it. Accuse one of your political competitor’s family members of conspiring to kill President Kennedy; attach childishly insulting adjectives in front of their names, (“Lyin’ Ted. Crooked Hillary. Little Marco.”) Insult debate moderators by talking about their “blood coming out of wherever”; When exposed for shallow and deceptive egotism, respond by ranting that the political commentator was “bleeding badly from a facelift”; Respond to charges from multiple women that you were guilty of sexual misconduct by declaring that they aren’t “pretty enough” to be worthy of your advances.”
Of course you’ll be elected president.
Of course boatloads of Evangelical Christians will be at the front of the demographic pack cheering you to victory, getting out the vote, and praising God for your win, turning a blind eye, not to character flaws, which we all have, but to your utter blindness to your character flaws, and your comfort level with that blindness.
Of course you’ll continue your childish rants, rooted in ego, deception, and insecurity, three qualities wholly unbecoming of any leader of anything, let alone the leader of the free world.
What’s wrong with this picture?
My answer has nothing to do with the politics of health care, global warming, or the fact that I’m both pro-life and pro-environment (and thus a person without a political homeland). My answer also has nothing to do with the purely speculative conjecture of whether Hillary would have been less scandalous, or more, or less effective. We need at least two parties, and robust differences and dialogue if this democracy is going to work.
I’m writing to say that I’m grieved over the cavalier nature with which we Americans have grown to accept this man’s childish rants as normative for leaders. Yes, perhaps lips service has been given (finally) to the inappropriate nature of our president’s stream of consciousness calloused and degrading rhetoric. Tragically though, our collective failure to hold this man, and others, responsible for the countless lies and (with apologies to sophomores everywhere) sophomoric ‘trash talking’ has led to a loss of civility in dialogue, and a dramatic increase in polarization and division in both our churches and our culture at large.
In an attempt to raise our awareness on why we should work hard to not become hardened to this crass and demeaning repartee, I offer the following three observations:
1. Words Matter. One author writes: “Our words have the power to destroy and the power to build up (Proverbs 12:6). The writer of Proverb tells us, “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (Proverbs 18:21). Are we using words to build up people or destroy them? Are they filled with hate or love, bitterness or blessing, complaining or compliments, lust or love, victory or defeat? Like tools they can be used to help us reach our goals or to send us spiraling into a deep depression. Furthermore, our words not only have the power to bring us death or life in this world, but in the next as well. Jesus said, “But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36–37). Words are so important, that we are going to give an account of what we say when we stand before the Lord Jesus Christ.”
That same book of James, which contained the verse given my by grandma when I was nine years old also says: “…if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well…Look at ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, they are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! And the tongue is fire…” (James 3:2-6)
I could go on and on, sharing about Jesus’ teaching that angry words are tantamount to murder, and how the qualities of leader are ultimately confirmed or denied by the way they use their words. There’s not time for the many teachings from the Bible on the importance of words.
2. A leader’s character matters. Though many see the Old Testament as boring and, at times, eliciting more questions than answers, one principle is certain when reading through the books of Kings and Chronicles: As goes the king, so go the people. I teach this to my staff as well, telling them over and over again that the main principle of leadership is that the people we lead will, at least in some measure, “become who we are”. Two concerns are cogent at this point.
I’m concerned that people like this stuff. If you disagreed with the previous administration, fine. Our country is built on vast philosophical differences and our capacity to work together to find some common ground. The current level of discourse, however, doesn’t lead us toward that kind of bilateral end. People seem to relish the name calling, to cheer the demeaning sarcasm, to celebrate sound bytes and ignore lies. The result is an escalation in hateful rhetoric and violence.
I’m concerned when people say that policy trumps character. No. No. No. Ask the Bible. Ask anyone building a business from the ground up. Ask coaches. They’ll both tell you the same thing. Yes. Policies matter. Yes, other candidates might have been, who knows, just as bad. But make no mistake: Character matters just as much as policy or skill, maybe more.
By our passive silence, we’re telling each other that words don’t matter, that character doesn’t matter. As a result, Christians send hate mail or make hate calls to a Christian ministry because of disagreements over a policy decision. A man opens fire on a group of republicans playing baseball. And people no longer trust each other’s words. No surprise really – all of it is the fruit of our passively accepting insults and lies as normative. We can’t control our president or other politicians. We can be disgusted by his words and purpose to swim in a different ocean. Please join me in living by James 1:19,20 and by calling our churches, our children, and our Facebook feeds to do the same.
I remember sitting in a seminary class about leadership. The teacher was a pastor on staff at a mega-church in southern California; smart, articulate, a bit aggressive and ambitious, well dressed, well connected. He said something to the affect that being all those things (including well dressed) should matter a great deal to us if we hope to make an impact on the world. “Any one of us on staff at our church could be a senior leader in a Fortune 500 company” he said, confidently.
It was a low point for me in my seminary career. “If he’s right, I’m finished” I remember thinking to myself. I’d later, in a psychological profile exit interview from seminary, be labeled, “spectacularly unambitious”. I wear clothes I like, clothes that make me feel comfortable, because when I’m comfortable I’m creative, and when I’m creative, I feel better able to contribute my gifts to the world. Well connected? I grew up in Fresno; knew no authors, no CEO’s, no political figures. I was terribly insecure, on top of it all, about my appearance – body too thin, arms too pencil shaped, nose too big, etc. etc.
I left class that day wanting to quit. I’m glad I didn’t though, because over the next 30 years I’d learn that this teacher, wise in so many ways, was at least a little bit wrong on this point. My own experiences would prove that out, but experiences don’t, in the end, determine the truth of the gospel – that’s Jesus’ job. When I look at Jesus, I discover that he in many ways, embodies the opposite of conventional wisdom when it comes to what qualities make for a good leader:
Well connected? He grew up in obscurity, in Nazareth, a small village populated largely by peasants, the son of a teenage woman who self identifies as being “of humble estate”, and a carpenter.
Good looking? “He grew up like a young plant before us, like a root from dry ground. He possessed no splendid form for us to see, no desirable appearance.” Isaiah 53:2
Agressive and ambitious? There were times when Jesus left whole towns full of people at the doorstep of the house where he was staying because he’d been praying and received directions from his Father that it was time to move on. In John 6, when people try to make him king, he “withdraws”, wanting none of it, because for him there was a single question on the table that governed his moment by moment life: “What is the will of the Father?” When that led to crowds, he embraced crowds. When it lead to solitude, he spent time alone. When it led to the cross, he went there.
Wealthy? “The son of man”, he famously said, “has nowhere to lay his head”, let alone a strong stock portfolio.
There’s nothing wrong with a good portfolio, or good looks, or being well connected. It’s just that they’re not only “not the point”, it’s that they’re completely unnecessary when it comes to the criteria for who God uses for God’s purposes.
This has proven freeing for me because, vis a vis the criteria our world has given us regarding what makes people successful, I’m so insecure I don’t even have a veneer of confidence.
The gift of Christ’s humble circumstances, though, has brought me to a place where this no longer matters. I can be happy in my Yaris – really happy, that I have a car and the luxury of winter tires to put on. My two favorites sweaters consist of a Goodwill purchase and a hand-me-down (which I’m wearing as I write).
Some of the richest and wisest people I know have penthouse offices in downtown Seattle. Others are living on a rural teacher’s salary. Some shop at Nordstrom, others don’t. Some could be models, they’re so striking. Then there are the rest of us. Jesus opened the way, through his humility, simplicity, and relentless devotion to the pursuit of God’s will, to redefine what’s needed for greatness.
Paul would later interpret the pursuit of significance, ‘Jesus style’, when he wrote “Look at your situation when you were called, brothers and sisters! By ordinary human standards not many were wise, not many were powerful, not many were from the upper class.” I Corinthians 1:26
For those of us who could never become senior level Fortune 500 leaders, that redefinition is a great gift.
The first few minutes of this video (or the print version of the article) reveals a trend in the United States whereby a larger and larger percentage of the populace move toward the “religiously unaffiliated” category. The trend is happening across every age demographic, but is particularly pointed among millennials.
In the wake of the survey results, there’s been no shortage of diagnostics offered, and further dicing of the data. Words have spent explaining why: Homosexuality. Science. The creeping effects of secularism. Theological compromise. Bad music. Justice. Bad coffee.
It’s the same song, different verse, that we’ve been hearing now for forty years. It’s mostly finger pointing, and “speck in your brother’s eye” stuff that we’re talking about. Emergent types are looking for a bigger tent as they read Richard Rohr and drink Scotch. The new religious right quote folks fighting for the all important doctrines of election and inerrancy as they gather for coffee and sound their battle cry.
Blah blah blah. About three years ago I grew weary of taking part in these conversations, fearing that I was just another voice in the midst of the myriad of sound and fury. It became clear by talking with close friends who’d quit the church that only those on the inside care about these arguments anyway, that our internal arguments just reinforce the outsider’s view of our irrelevance.
I still feel that way now, only now it’s hard to even listen. The whole thing appears, on the surface anyway, to be an exercise in rearranging the chairs after the boat’s hit the iceberg. “How shall we set the chairs so people will come? Circle? Rows? Small groups of four? Three? Stacked in the corner?” Nobody cares. The dramatic shift toward unaffiliated is because people are moving on. Any plan that claims to offer a ‘way back’ is, in my opinion, misguided.
What is needed though, is for we church leaders to do some serious introspecting about our own hearts. The truth is that it is we leaders of the past two generations, with our priorities and world view, that allowed the ship to hit the iceberg. We should ask about our own health, not in hopes of getting people back into their fold, but in hopes of fixing the leak in the hull, for the good news is that the church isn’t the Titanic—by virtue of Christ’s life, the ship can be healed!
I’m slowly coming to see that a big reason there’s a hole in the hull is because we’ve failed, often catastrophically, to let Jesus be Jesus. Instead we’ve used some sort of fabricated replica of Jesus, some plastic mass-produced thing, that highlights some elements of Jesus that we think will play well in our time and place.
The real Jesus can’t be fabricated by religious efforts. The real Jesus can only grow in us and express life through us to the extent that we are yielded to his rule and reign in our lives. What grows out of that yieldedness won’t be easily brand-able, marketable, or reducible to sound bytes and Twitter posts. But this requires the hard slow work of spiritual formation, and trusting God with results; hardly the stuff of our upwardly mobile, market share, and metrics driven world.
The way of recovery is to realize that, ironically, the pure Jesus is a mixed drink almost every time, usually of two seemingly incompatible ingredients. The cup that is Christ’s life is filled with apparent contradictions, and the only way the real Jesus shows up is if both sides of the contradiction are present. Here are two examples of what I mean:
Leadership as a Servant – The testosterone saturated view of leadership that’s prevailed for the past many decades has not only marginalized and disempowered half the church; it’s created a situation where, behind the veil, domestic violence and spouse abuse occur unchecked. This is because we have a hard time seeing “servant” and “leader” in the same sentence. And yet the reality is that this is the mixture that is the real Jesus. He led by taking a towel and wrapping himself about, serving his followers the way a slave serves. Though he’s a bridegroom and longed for intimacy with his people, and yet refused to force himself on them in the name of headship, so wept at the gates of Jerusalem because they wouldn’t let him in. Every element of his leadership was saturated with submission and servanthood. Wow!
What if marriages worked that way? What if pastors led that way? What if we prayed and confessed that we don’t really understand how to lead and serve at the same time because the hierarchy embedded in our culture is so strong that we can’t see how to do this, apart from divine revelation?
I’d suggest that we leaders start there, and then take next steps by finding some ways to serve our spouses meaningfully, if we’re married, and our team at work too. Do you think this would make marriages in the church healthier? Might churches becomes more joy filled, less fearful? This has been a profound revelation for me lately, both at work and home. I’ll have more to say, perhaps, when I’ve walked the road a bit further. For now, it’s enough to say that I’m tired of the plastic Jesus I’ve fabricated who leads like a tank. We need to find ways to lead by serving.
Grace and Truth – There are churches that take holiness and transformation seriously, so much so that people are afraid to present their real selves to the community for fear of being viewed as immature, weak, ‘fleshly’, or whatever other derogatory adjective you’d like to choose as the descriptor. The disconnect in these places is between what people present themselves to be, and who they actually are, and it’s this way because there’s no grace.
There are grace churches that essentially have jettisoned truth by saying, “Come as you are. Stay as you are. You’re forgiven; heaven bound. It’s enough.” These places too, are conspicuous in their lack of transformation; still drinking too, or too greedy, or too self-absorbed, after 30 years of participation.
What happens though, when grace and truth are brought together, filling the cup that is our life? For starters, we’ll be free to be authentic with each other and God, knowing that our depths of failure can never diminish the God’s infinite love and acceptance of us. However, we’ll not feel free to stay where we are. We’ll embrace the reality that because God loves us infinitely, he is infinitely committed to our transformation.
These mixtures don’t happen with humans at the helm of the ship. When we’re in control we always drift. Leadership at the cost of servanthood, truth at the cost of grace. You get the picture. And then, boom! There’s a hole in the hull.
It won’t be fixed by fair trade coffee in the foyer, or better lighting. For the church to be the church requires letting the real Jesus show up in all his mysterious contradictions. I can only pray we’ll have courage to move in that direction.
Leadership, which is code for parenting, teaching, working with anyone as a catalyst to get things accomplished, requires the development and nurture of several key qualities which I hope to look at in the coming few weeks. This, the first in a series, is about developing “reserve capacity”, because without it, our leadership will crash in a crisis every time! The exhausted parent will lash at the kids, or totally withdraw. The “at wits end” boss will throw a tantrum creating a loss of trust that might take months to recover. The overwhelmed teacher, will turn to something unhealthy to keep going, over caffeinating, over drinking, over eating, over something. Then, in two years, they’re gone, having lost sight of their calling because of a failure to have reserve capacity.
What is reserve capacity and how is it developed? Read on:
“If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses? If you stumble in safe country, how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?” (Jeremiah 12:5) The imagery is obvious. Here’s a guy running with other men, which represents you and I living our lives on normal days, when there’s no significant or memorable challenges. These days, like good officiating in football, are memorable for their forgetfulness. A round of meetings, or taxi service for the kids. Cooking, cleaning, jogging, maybe some ethnic food at home. All in all though, nothing special. We all have these days, but don’t all pull these days off with the same amount of peace and grace.
Jeremiah’s saying that when the normal days wear you out, that’s a sign of trouble; a way of saying that if you don’t change the way you think, or live, or cope, there’ll be trouble further down the road. If you’re exhausted by normal, says Jeremiah, “What are you going to do when all hell breaks loose?” It’s a good question but rhetorical, because Jeremiah doesn’t want you to stroke your chin and think for a moment before saying, “Who knows? We’ll just have to wait and see won’t we!” No. Jeremiah’s saying that if “normal” is hard, hard will mean meltdown.
So now, while things are normal, you need to live differently. You need to develop “reserve capacity”. The term comes from a health guy I like who posits that it’s loss of ‘organ reserve’ that inevitably leads to death, even for the healthiest of us. When we’re young we have reserves. We can eat 2 large pizzas, climb a mountain on Saturday night, and preach Sunday, not thinking a thing of it. Aging though, diminishes lung, liver, muscle, joint, heart, capacity and with less reserve—less capacity to absorb the stresses means less reserve. With less reserve, the extra challenges lead to breakdown.
In other words, when it’s time to race the horses, how do you think you’ll do, if the everyday “normal” of your life is exhausting? You need to develop reserve capacity. How do you do that?
1. Kill the energy suckers. We live inside our heads a lot, and when things are going smoothly, the brain is prone to welcome some toxic ghosts who’ll settle in and ruin your day, not with what is, but with what might be and what was. Your worry and fear about tomorrow is sucking you dry. All those ‘what ifs’ can steal your reserve at every level; body, soul, spirit. You’ll feel it in your pulse, blood pressure, sleep habits, sense of well being and joy; all of these will be compromised when you let the ghosts settle in and poison your mind with worries.
I find that breathing deeply and praying while doing so, receiving the peace of Christ in faithful gratitude, is terribly effective in evicting the ghosts. Try it sometime!
2. Manage the adrenaline – Question: “What’s Jesus doing sleeping in the boat when there’s a big storm happening?” Answer: “He’s showing us how to not panic” and this is good because adrenaline is a hormone in your body that’s there to give you extra strength in short bursts. It’s for that time when there’s an automobile accident, but not for all the time spent in traffic. It’s for the moment in rock climbing when you’re making a crux move, but not for the whole approach hike. It is, in other words, for David when he meets Goliath, but not for your next staff meeting.
We’d do well to de-escalate the stakes in most of our daily experiences so that we don’t send a bunch of adrenaline into our bodies, because the truth is we’ll need that kind of strength, focus, awareness later—best to save it for then.
When I feel the surge of adrenaline coming on, my best response is to breathe deep, look around, practice a little gratitude as I see a tree in bloom, or remember that I even own a car and that’s why I’m stuck in traffic. The little change of perspective sends adrenaline back to it’s cave, reserved for another more appropriate time.
3. Remember the end. The intent of terror is to fill you with fear because fear will paralyze you, draining you of your reserves, and preventing you from fulfilling your calling. A little perspective, though, can help. Ecclesiastes 7:10 says, “do not say, ‘why is it that the former days were better than these?’ for it is not from wisdom that you ask about this.” Don’t fret, in other words, about how bad things have become. It changes nothing with respect to your calling to be light, and salt, and joy, and hope. Get on with it.
What’s more, it helps me immensely to have a strong faith and belief regarding the trajectory of history. I believe that the end of the story has all disease healed, all wars ended, all evil vanquished, and everything in the universe saturated with the beauty of Christ. That’s how our good friend could say: “All’s well. All shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well.”
People who actually believe that live well, serve well, sleep well. And when the horses show up they’ll say: “Bring it on! I’m ready.”
In the morning on Sunday, I preached about paying attention by quoting Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Jesus in Matthew 13 where he says, “Are you listening? Really listening?” Jesus says that because stuff doesn’t “just happen”. Stuff happens, and it elicits a response in our hearts, some mighty Yes, or No!, or tears of rage, or shouts of joy. 9/11 did that. Sunrises do that, and coffee, and funerals. Making love? News of terror attacks? Conversations with those whose beliefs are different than yours? Yes. Lots of events elicit response. But a football game? Absolutely…
The touchdown pass in overtime yesterday shook the city. Literally. The stadium was equipped with earthquake censors for some tests, and when the Wilson to Kearse pass was completed it was game over, but the shaking had just begun. Hugs and irrational joy in the basement of my friend’s house where we were watching were matched by fireworks outside and the commencement of a celebration that would last well into the night throughout the city. Clichés about it not being over ’til its over ricocheted off the walls of skyscrapers downtown, intermingled with the tears of those who left early, or tweeted too soon about boycotting cheese and other nonsense.
I had the privilege of driving all the way home, an hour east of Seattle, late at night when I’d caught my breath, and I did something I never do. I listened to sports radio. It was there I learned that the last pass of the game was really a story of redemption. Kearse, you see, wasn’t always a starter. He worked his way onto the practice squad, before making his way to first string in 2013, a local success story coming from the University of Washington.
But yesterday’s performance was anything but successful. In the first half, QB Wilson threw his way three times with the results: three interceptions. The ball didn’t come his way again until 5:06 left in the game, at which point the pass once again bounced out of his hands, resulting in an interception.
By any definition, his was a terrible day. The kind of day that makes you wonder why you’re even bothering to show up. He said after the game: “There’s some plays I felt like I could have made. I could have stopped some plays from happening on interceptions. I could have just turned the defender and tried to knock the ball down.” Yes, and he could have caught two passes too, which instead became interceptions.
Summary: Not just 0-4. Each pass was intercepted!
So of course, it makes sense that, after a miracle comeback which led to overtime, QB Wilson would tell his coach during the break: “I’m going to hit Kearse for a touchdown.” To quote our local Seahawks radio voice, Steve Raible, “Are you kidding me?”
No. He’s not kidding at all. He’s a believer in the reality that every play is like a new day, that by God, we’re not going to be defined by our failures; that fall we will, but though we fall we’ll get up.
Sound familiar? Maybe not, if you live in the world of business, the world which says, “past performance is the best indicator of future reality,” the world which drops you when you drop the ball, the world of performance-based approval.
This, as you may know, is much of our world. We’re defined, as often as not, by our singular failures, which in a world of conditional love serve to sideline us rather than transform us. QB’s get exasperated and determine to throw to someone else. Managers fire us, or move us to a basement office.
And then there’s Jesus with Peter. No, it wasn’t four missed catches. It was three outright denials of any affiliation with Jesus the Christ. It was fear, hubris, lying, shame, defeat. In the end he’s even worthless as a fisherman.
So what does Jesus do after three denials and a failed night of fishing? He meets Peter and puts him in charge of the church during its infancy. “Feed my sheep,” Jesus says, along with some other charges and a prediction that the job will cost him his life as a martyr. Peter will go on to preach the first sermon with a boldness and fire that was utterly other than the man standing by the fire who didn’t have the guts to even let the servant girl know that he knew Christ. Cowardice to Courage—Failure to Faith. It’s nearly as good as the football story, maybe better—and equally true.
“But God… being rich in mercy” is how Paul interprets this somewhere. What he’s saying is that God delights in making unlikely heroes, in writing unlikely stories. That’s why the game yesterday was more than just a game—at least for those who know how to pay attention.
It was my birthday yesterday too, and as I received kind notes of encouragement for folks in many parts of the world, I felt a profound sense of gratitude to Christ for continuing to throw to me after what seems like a nearly infinite number of dropped passes.
The gospel is a story of redemption, of God intervening in a performance world and writing an unlikely script with unlikely players. A punter from Canada throws a touchdown pass to a lineman. A third-round draft pick deemed “too short” by every talking head in the sports world tosses a pass to a guy who barely made the practice squad at one point, and had been, to say the least, “unhelpful” all day today. And the results?
Are you kidding me?
Such stories aren’t just for football. They’re the gospel. Illustrated. If we pay attention.
‘O Lord Christ
Thanks be to you for inviting us into your story, for keeping us on the field when we want to quit, for teaching us through failure, for believing in our capacity to live into your calling in our lives even when we don’t believe in ourselves. Give us the grace to say yes, and open our arms, and receive. When we respond with delight and say, ‘Are you kidding me?’ You’ll say, ‘Not at all – this is the gospel.’ And we’ll rejoice. Amen.
“What is that in your hand?” God
“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might…” The Preacher in Ecclesiastes
I’m sure you’ve been there. You want something to be different in your life. Maybe it’s a vocational success you’re after, or a new house, a remodel, a spouse, (a remodel of a spouse? nope), a successful and meaningful retirement. Or you want things to be different in the world because the racism, injustice, human trafficking, environmental destruction, or whatever it is for you, just incenses you so much that you’re “mad as hell and you’re not going to take it anymore.”
It seems that all of us, at times, are on the hunt for the “next big thing” in our lives. I have a friend in his twenties about to move overseas; a friend in his thirties about to make a major job change; and a friend in his seventies who’s trying to figure out what to do with the time he has left. All of them are looking for the next big thing.
This last guy, the older one, taught me a great lesson when we met recently. I’d seen him a few days earlier and he said, “we need to catch a coffee” and, with a grin on his face, “I’ve found the answer to the question of what to do with the rest of my time!!”
We met in my office recently, late in the afternoon, and he walked in with a gleam in his eye. He’s always been upbeat, as long as I’ve known him, but this was different. This was a gleam of settledness, contentment, purpose, calling. “Well,” I asked, “what’d you find?” He pulls a sheet of lined paper out of his pocket and holds it up in front of me. It’s filled, or nearly so, with names.
“See this?” he says. “These are the ‘kids’ I’m meeting with. All of them are in their twenties and thirties. I’m meeting them for coffee, walking the lake with them, having them over to my house. Whatever it takes. I’m investing in young kids!” He’s giddy with joy as he tells me about the newest name on the list; how they met, what they’re doing together.
I’m happy for him, of course, and curious. He has a contentment and enthusiasm that’s a refreshing contrast to the common “striving” mindset and posture that so many of us have so much of the time. I ask him how he came to the discovery of this calling.
He smiles and says, “I was already doing it! That’s what’s so funny!” He goes on to tell me that this new chapter isn’t as much new, as it is going deeper into what he’s already doing, what’s already been bringing joy to him and life to the young adults with whom he meets. “It was there all the time,” he said, and this got me thinking about calling, contentment, and ambition. Here’s what his story can teach us all:
1. If we don’t start where we are, we’ll never move successfully. You know the story from Chevy Chase’s Christmas Vacation about the weird unemployed uncle who’s living in a trailer? Fat, unshaven, and with all the emotional intelligence of some “real housewife” on TV, he’s “holding out for a management position.” He’s waiting for something better is another way of saying it, but whether you’re waiting for something better, or going after something better, the message is the same:
Don’t neglect “what’s in your hand” because according to this story, it’s what’s in your hand today that God will use to direct you to God’s preferred future for your tomorrow. One of the greatest forms of temptation many of us face, is the mirage like opportunity that’s “out there” somewhere. Its existence entices and, like the new wool sweater, we’re sure we’ll be more fulfilled if we can get there. So we go after it, with gusto, and sometimes with the side effect of neglecting what’s in our hand.
I’m presently working on two books and leading a large church in Seattle, along with needing to prepare for speaking at some upcoming things. At the time I met with my friend though, I was determined to get a magazine article published. I’d started writing it, and was researching the query letter when we met and the meeting was like a bucket of ice water, snapping me back to reality:
“Get a grip man! You already have a life. Do what’s in your hand now, with a whole heart, and joy. Quit looking over the fence, because where you go tomorrow is my responsibility, not yours.”
2. There’s a time for tossing projects in the trash.
Thank God. It’s a good word, and I suspect, not just for me. Discontent, at its worst, is a paralyzing mindset that strips our joy, inviting us to believe the lie that what God’s given us to do today isn’t worth doing, so instead we’d better spend our time creating a different tomorrow. Goals have value, surely, but they’re dangerous too, and just for this reason: they can make us neglect today in our pursuit of tomorrow.
I’ve literally thrown the query letter and article in my little virtual trash can on my computer, and taken out the trash. It was liberating! I’m back in the groove, focusing on what’s already on my plate: the church I lead, the writing on which I’m already working, the teaching for which I’m preparing, and the fantastic family with whom I’ll spend a glorious Christmas.
Sometimes we need to toss what we think are ambitions in the trash because they’re not ambitions; they’re temptations and distractions from the present. What have you let go of lately, or need to let go of, so that you can focus on what God’s already given you?
Last night’s American election has birthed both elation and despondency, respectively, among those who care deeply about such things. I care too, and if I were a political pundit I’d have much to say about hopes and fears for our country in the wake of what happened last night, but I’m not. I’m a pastor who is increasingly concerned with the consumerist mindset prevailing in American Christianity, and write in hopes that we who lead churches might learn how NOT to lead by considering how politics is done in America.
The sad truth is that, even by their own admission, politicians and the machinery that work so hard to get them elected, had no interest in changing minds during this last election cycle. Both parties messaged to their core constituency in hopes that their vilification of the ‘other’ would motivate people to get out and vote.
Everyone was, in other words, ‘preaching to the choir’. This is the way everything’s done these days. If you have a blog, I’m told the only way you’ll increase readership is to target an audience: minimalists, leftists, pro-lifers, moms, gun owners, environmentalists, whatever. It works of course, or else people wouldn’t do it. The same strategy works for politicians and TV news stations: Fox and MSNBC live and breathe (remember, they’re not just corporations, they’re people), not by inviting civil discourse but by pouring gas on already existing fires. They’re great at reinforcing what people already believe, and adding more “like-minded” to their folds. How does this strategy work, though, when it comes to changing minds? It doesn’t.
What makes my blood boil is when churches adopt this same mindset. “Who are we going after?” is the question, and then everything is customized exclusively for that demographic: music, lights, teaching content, teaching style, program—it’s all designed to reach a demographic. The tragedy is that if you’re good at it, it works, and if it works, I think you’ve done more harm than good.
Fine, you’ve built an organization of like-minded people. But let’s not point to such success as evidence of God’s blessing, because it’s the same strategy used by the pig lady in Iowa and The Huffington Post. Gathering a group of people who think just like you, reinforcing their beliefs, and encouraging them to invite others into their ideological ghetto might work if success is defined by building an organization. But that’s not the same thing as leading a church.
A core value of the church is that “the dividing wall has been broken down”—between Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, males and females. This community, in other words, will be bound together by shared life in Christ and nothing else—including one’s politics, music style. I’m convinced that none of us have yet understood the depths of Christ’s radical inclusiveness, and while there are many reasons for this, one of the most common reason is that “leading like politicians” is easier than “leading like Jesus”. Easier… just not better, and in the end, not real church leadership at all.
The Better Way –
Rather than tailoring our music, message, and ethos to a pre-selected demographic, and going after them, Christ offers a better and more challenging way:
1. Cross social divides rather than reinforce them. As a preacher and teacher, I want to share truth in a way that moves people. This requires both a willingness to let the unpersuaded leave, and a commitment to declaring truth in winsome way that’s uniquely contextualized, as Paul did (changing his message depending on his audience so that he might move every single audience toward Christ—see I Corinthians 9:20ff for more of this).
In other words, and this is huge, we don’t exist to reinforce beliefs as much as to challenge them. That’s utterly different than “building a platform”, though a platform might well be built in the process. But the size of said ‘platform’ is God’s prerogative not mine, and is never cause for boasting.
2. Communicate the breadth of the gospel’s implications, recognizing that doing so will both invite, bless, challenge, and offend, every demographic—rich, poor, left, right, young, old—everyone. This is because the trajectory of history points in the direction of creating something wholly new, rather than something which reinforces our pre-existing conditions and convictions. We’re not in a bunker protecting what we already believe, we’re gathering and sharing life together in an ongoing pursuit of transformation. That’s, at least, the way it ought to be.
When we do this, some people will leave, because we’ll speak about the environment and it will anger the right. We’ll speak about protecting life in the womb, and it will anger the left. We’ll speak about how important the family is as a central source of justice and hope in this world and it will anger the left again. We’ll speak about the dangers of “shopping as patriotism” and the evils that arise in unfettered capitalism and the right will be mad again. Whatever. The gospel isn’t bound by our “pre-existing conditions” and we need to be willing to be challenged, and to challenge our communities. Otherwise, just go into politics. You’ll find a group of like-minded people who will elect you.
3. Recognize how damning the “us/them” language and mindset is. Yes, the very language that works so successfully in getting people elected, is the same language that is polarizing our nation, and creating subcultures within the broader culture who hate each other. When the church does this, it just creates more ghettos of fear-based, like-minded people, alone together in their bunkers, afraid of, and mad at, those on the outside. Such leadership happens all the time in the church, and I suppose all of us are guilty of it to varying degrees. But at the least, we need a vision that begins with admitting how wrong this is.
Dear Pastors and Churches: Don’t play the games that prevail among the talking heads and strategists seeking power and market share. You’ll miss your calling. Instead, determine to know nothing and proclaim nothing, other than Christ, and recognize that the true Christ will challenge entrenched views, deconstruct false idols and move everyone towards transformation—even you, dear leader—and I hope, especially you.