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Becoming the Kind of Leader Others Want To Follow

By Bruce McNichol

“Why is George Barna upset?” My friend’s question should not have stunned me, but it did. “Why should George Barna be upset that the Christian culture statistically mirrors the pagan culture? Christians have always reflected their culture.”

This businessman — as an astute observer — continued, “When I trek through Africa, the African-Christians carry the same colonial-bonded worldview and money issues as their non-Christian counterparts. When I journey to Russia, Christians have about the same rate of depression and corruption as Russian unbelievers. A century ago the marriages of North American Christians lasted longer, just as all marriages were enjoying longevity. So, why should it surprise us that North American data demonstrates that Christians divorce at the same rate as non-Christians; or, that at conventions youth leaders view adult films in their hotel rooms with the same regularity as their non-Christian counterparts? No one glows in the dark.”

Are you the kind of leader those on your staff want to follow? Being successful in ministry is a driving passion for all of us. But too often during our ascent, we compromise our character to reach a performance goal, forgetting that lasting, positive influence depends on the kind of person we become, not simply on the titles, power, or wealth we’ve achieved. While many pastors work hard to develop performance-based skills, relatively few are intentional about developing character. In fact, many simply do not know how.

What Would You Say To My Friend?

Nothing is so powerful as the right answer to my friend’s question. Churches have invested billions in trying to influence North American culture. In fact, they continue to do so. News flash: It isn’t working.

What is going on? Our responses to this troubling issue of why Christians tend to live like those who do not know Jesus will determine much about our Kingdom endeavors in the marketplace and in the church — whether we are healthy, growing, maturing, reaching, and leading the culture — or sadly only reflecting it. Our answer to this culture question will also tell a great deal about how pastors develop staff and lead congregations.

No One Glows in the Dark

As with Barna, we need to be distressed concerning the statistics listed above. But my friend’s last statement is the real news bulletin: No one glows in the dark.

The church’s standard of godliness coerces people to hide their behaviors. When people are driven into hiding, they stop glowing. They stop experiencing the power of God’s light, grace, and truth. They become a self-referencing, closed system. Gradually darkness takes over. They no longer fellowship in the light. They begin to think differently. Their shame motivates a disastrous progression of behaviors.

The church is forcing its own to behave like those with no light, except it is far worse. Christians are compelling each other to pretend they are living up to the standard. This process of appearing pious has turned believers into poorly behaving liars. As Christians, we have the Holy Spirit, Scripture, and a new heart of Christ; but striving to be godly while hiding produces Christians who behave much like those who do not know Jesus.

Why? Because God has so designed the relational essence of Christianity that when a person chooses not to live in the light of community he will gradually lose his spiritual health. It does not matter who he is — how educated, how wealthy, how committed, how honored or decorated, or how many years he has been a Christian — he will not glow in the dark. Barna, Gallup, and other pollsters support this reality.

Preaching Another Gospel

Have you noticed that the tragic cultural data always involves relationships? This is all the more heartbreaking because Christianity is a faith that is based on relationships. Christianity is rooted in the relationship of the Trinity who lives, loves, and leads in a realm of grace.

The truths of grace ground the core relational reality of God’s universe. Missing this relational reality produces a fatal flaw in one’s Christianity — a virus that corrupts one’s worldview. This crisis derails the core of our Christian experience. On a large scale, this defect negates the Christian community’s impact on culture.

There is a way of living a Christian life that many believers have apparently missed; a basic grasp of the gospel has escaped their notice. When something this foundational concerning our faith goes awry, it requires sweeping change — a conversion in how we understand the Christian life, a revolution of grace. Grace revises the way we see our world. Revolution means rotation, upheaval, turn, conversion. Grace propels believers onto a different orbit and into a new world.

Join me on a tour into this new world of grace. Grace is a relational life process that gives Christians and spiritual leaders, like yourself, a way out of hiding and pretending and a way into the people they dreamed they might one day become. We will make five stops on this tour.

Stage 1: Awakening To Pain

Sooner or later a person awakens to the pain of not being able to control his life the way he thought he could or the way he used to. The truth is people have never been in control of their lives. People wake up to this pain because they experience a crisis, pressure, failure, or trigger point. If you have ever bumped a bruise you did not realize you had, you know what it is like to awaken late to an existing problem.

When people become aware of their pain they often try to solve the symptoms without help from others. In their isolation they make assumptions about themselves — who they are, how they are doing, how they are affecting others. But without grace and personal truth, what a person thinks is right is often distorted.

Standard procedure: awaken to pain, put on mask

Over time, most people notice that their struggle with painful sin issues is not going away. But as Christians, they believe it is important that others think they are succeeding, managing, and enjoying victory. Thus, believers hide behind a mask. To maintain appearances, believers paste more and more layers on the mask just to hold it together. Their real thoughts, emotions, and behaviors — that are threatening and inappropriate — scare them. They make statements they do not believe and pretend to like things they dislike. Some Christians have become human time bombs — resentful, guarded, and ready to blow. They need a great deal of downtime to be alone and free from the pressure of pretending.

Family and friends know something is wrong in these believers’ lives, but they have stopped trying to work through the problems or concerns they have with these believers. They have learned not to bring up issues that push their hot buttons.

“Don’t try to talk to him about. … ” “Don’t ever bring up. … ” They tiptoe around these believers. “He’s too thorny, too erratic.” “She’s too defensive, too unpredictable.”

Many Christians admit to wearing masks but they have no idea how to take them off. They are clueless about how they became like this.They blame their actions on circumstances or the pressure they are under.

How a Christian handles awakening to pain determines whether he tries to glow in the dark or in the light. Foolishly handling one’s unresolved life issues is the root of the acute culture deficit in the church. Believers need an encounter. Since encounter is the least understood stage, I will invest the most space discussing it.

Stage 2: Encountering a Protector

When a Christian is in pain or stuck in his life issues, he needs an encounter with a protector, not a controller. Many leaders attempt to control emerging leaders so they do not make mistakes that will tarnish or embarrass the leader.

Controllers try to fix people. This is why people often try to solve their own problems. People do not need the aggravation of a fixer in their lives. Have you noticed that when people try to fix others, they do not stay fixed?

This encounter marker is anchored in the Old Testament truth of God’s jealous love. God said to Israel, “If you will trust Me, I will protect you from various kinds of evil to which you are susceptible. If you do not trust Me, I cannot protect you. You will fall into various kinds of evil.” Many times Israel proved God right in both instances. Notice, even God did not control; He offered protection.

What does a protector understand that a controller does not? Study this two-line diagram.

Working on My Sin Issues

Trusting Who God Says I Am

Those who have trusted Christ will continue to have sin issues, and they will continue to have the identity God gave them. These are constants, unchanging realities.

It is important to ask ourselves: Which of these two constants defines my life? Which offers me the hope of experiencing the other?

A person who opts for the top line will never experience the bottom line. A protector, however, understands that if a person focuses on the bottom line he will experience unparalleled transformation regarding his sin issues in the top line.

Counterintuitive living

In the 1980s, popular pictures were created that, at first glance, appeared to be nothing more than colorful patterns. Yet, if you relaxed your eyes and looked deeply into the pattern, you eventually saw a beautiful three-dimensional picture.

The first time you were able to see the hidden images was a remarkable moment. This is similar to our seeing all the way through the patterns of our sin and into the beautiful and astounding reality of who God says we are. Suddenly life is in three dimensions — alive, rich, and full of hope.

When a person is in pain he needs a friend who knows which direction is up; a leader who will take him from the bottom line to the top line. Few Christian leaders understand this truth; because, like many biblical truths, it is counterintuitive. It appears that if a Christian were really serious about his sin issues he would start at the top and work downward with all the commitment possible so he would become godly. The opposite is true. Starting with the top line and working down is taking sin lightly. Starting on the bottom line by trusting who God says you are is the only way to take sin seriously.

Working from the top line becomes a law-driven effort, while launching from the bottom line is a grace-driven experience. The top line depends on one’s power, which is futile; the bottom line depends on God’s power. The difference between the two is self-effort versus God’s effort.

Working from the top line, a person becomes his own savior; moving from the bottom line, he invites Jesus to be his Savior. (Remember, one becomes a Christian when he finally admits he can do nothing concerning his own sin.) If one starts with the top line, he becomes hopelessly tangled in trying to sin less — sin management. Welcome to failure. This is like someone rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic so he can get a better view as the ship goes down. One who launches from trusting who God says He is replaces sin management with atonement. He will love more and sin less. Working on top-line sin issues first leads to hiddenness. Trusting who God says you are produces authenticity.

How a protector handles sin

Imagine that a person is struggling with an overwhelming sin and he meets a controller instead of a protector. Picture this person struggling to forgive someone who has severely wronged him. The controller will ask him to work on his behavior. Controllers focus on symptoms, but these are not the real issue. A controller will ask him to reassess his commitment to Christ, because, “If you were really sold out to Christ, you would forgive the person who wronged you.”

How has this approach been working? Not well. This person’s commitment is not the problem. If it were, he would have forgiven the other person long ago.

A person hides his sin from a controller because leaders who start from the top line see others through this formula: More right behavior + Less wrong behavior = Godliness. This theology has two significant problems: First, it sets up people to fail and to live in hiddenness. Second, it disregards the godliness — the righteousness — that God has already placed in believers at infinite cost. The controller’s formula will sabotage one’s spiritual journey.

A protector, conversely, sees a person’s unforgiveness and gives him space to discuss the pain and wounding he experienced. Remember, this person has just had an awakening to pain — the pain of not being able to control his life issues.

A protector will then take this person to the bottom line and remind him that even on his worst day he is a saint who may still sin. The protector will ask him to consider who he would like to trust for his satisfaction and fulfillment in life — God or himself.

The protector does not focus on a person’s behavior as much as on his relationships with others because the protector wants access to his heart. His focus is on relationships, not behavior. The protector knows that working on a person’s sin first will never lead him to godliness; it will keep him trapped in his shame. The protector may not have the answers to this person’s problems. The protector is not his counselor, but a friend who loves him.

The church is good at evangelistic love — proclaiming and sharing the gospel. The church does well at serving love — caring for people when they get into crisis or trauma. The church is growing rapidly in social-justice love — caring for the poor or those caught in cycles of injustice. But the church knows little about the protective love of this second stage — encounter.

The encounter leaves a person with a critical life choice we call exchange. If one misses the exchange, he has wasted the encounter.

Stage 3: Exchange

Some believe Jesus said: “They will know you are my disciples by your strategic plans” (my rendering). Others thought He said “worship programs,” “evangelistic endeavors,” or “building projects.” You fill in the blank. Whatever our compulsions, we have undervalued the highest value of Jesus: love.

Some believers do not cherish love because they have never learned the power of receiving love into their own lives. Leaders are big on giving love. Leaders are focused on giving out, not taking in. Leaders find fulfillment in seeing others benefit from using their gifts.

In fact, most leaders, after reading Jesus’ command in John 13:34 to “love one another as I have loved you,” think it is a command to give love. They have never considered that if this command is to be fulfilled, there must be love-ees to go with the love-ers.

Protective love assumes there is a love-ee in the relationship and that an exchange will take place. Someone trusts another person to the point of giving him permission or access to his life — the handshake — the exchange. People cannot become healthy or mature in isolation. People can only glow in the light. Receiving love does that for them.

The catch is that receiving love requires trust. The two are inseparable. Remember this statement: The degree to which I trust you is the degree to which I can receive your love, no matter how much love you have for me.

While leaders expect others to trust them, they do not relish trusting others with themselves. The hardest thing I have done is learning to consistently trust others with me. I am self-sufficient by temperament, training, and track record. This style worked for me in the past, but going it alone did nothing to heal my wounds, to mature me spiritually, or to form me emotionally. I was a great deal of work for others. (Some would say I can still be a great deal of work.)

We are often aware of the love others have for us. They want to guide us out of our tunnels, protect us from self-destructive actions, use their strengths to protect our weaknesses, tell us ways that would help us grow, and comfort us. We are aware of their love, but we have yet to experience it. Perfect love will never cast out your fears unless you trust it.

A lack of trust keeps people in isolation even when others surround them. Refusing to trust others with yourself will leave you with unresolved life issues. If you do not have exchange, you will not have breakthrough.

Stage 4: Breakthrough

Shame drove me to various damaging actions until I became a Christian in seventh grade. Then I had victory over shame. But if you believe I never exhibit ungodly behavior, I have some ocean-front property in Phoenix, Arizona, to show you.

Thousands of Christians want to believe they will never have behavior issues after coming to Christ. They want the Christian life to work that way. They want to be fixed.

When I became a Christian my shame-driven dysfunctional behaviors did not cease. At salvation, I received a new heart, but I still had shame-driven self-stories to confront. Through multiple encounters and exchanges, I have learned through the decades to trust who God says I am.

The church today often fails to realize that apart from physiological issues, a person’s repetitive sinning is driven by shame. Shame began in the Garden with Adam and Eve and continues to this day. Jesus did not only die to save people from their sins; He died to give them a new identity, to replace the old shame-story with a saint-story, so they could begin to enjoy shame-free behavior. When they live out of a righteous new heart, the power of shame is broken.

Exchanging my trust when I encounter your protection brings hope to obtaining freedom from shame and a resolving of my life issues — issues that used to overwhelm me, no longer do. This is called breakthrough — a primary reason for authentic Christian community.

Having a breakthrough does not mean a person lives in sustained victory. This was my delusion during my early 20s. I thought I could reach Christian nirvana. A resolved sin — a breakthrough — is not a fixed sin, never to occur again, but an issue that has moved into the light. One could say, breakthrough represents victory from sin, not victory over sin.

Do you see why Jesus placed love at the top of the commands and as the top criteria for the watching world to assess Christianity? It is powerful. It brings people into the light. Jesus did not say, “They will know you are Christians if you sin less.” He said, “All men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).

Stage 5: Legacy

Breakthrough naturally leads to an entirely different level of legacy than we would otherwise experience in our relationships — whether it is our personal legacy or the church’s legacy in the culture.

Millions of people are longing for authenticity and love. You and those you influence were meant to carry the answer to these very longings. As you think of the people you lead, those on your staff, remember, you do not create a culture through strategic planning. Over time the culture becomes who you are. The culture is merely the shadow cast by the leader.

Understanding these five relational markers of God’s grace will change you. Protective love will determine the authenticity of your key relationships — marriage, family, staff, congregations, community, and beyond. In a cultural sea awash in darkness, your island of light will glow. You will leave a profound legacy.

Bruce McNichol, president, Leadership Catalyst, Phoenix, Arizona, addresses audiences around the world on leadership development, character formation, and building high-trust organizations. Bruce coauthored The Ascent of a Leader, Beyond Your Best, Behind the Mask, and TrueFaced.

For more information on this five-stage journey, see TrueFaced Experience book and guide, designed for leaders and small groups. Also, visit our Web site:


1. Some of the biblical references used for this article are: Genesis 3; Exodus 34:1–28; Hosea 11:1–4; Matthew 5:16f; John 3:13–17,19; Romans 5–8; 2 Corinthians 2:5–7; Galatians 3:5; Hebrews 4:14–16; 1 Peter 5:5,6; 1 John 1:5–11; 4:18–20.

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