Navigating the Changing Waters of Leadership
Our culture has shifted so much that we are now in uncharted waters where we must recover a missional vision for being the people of God.
By Alan Roxburgh
Today’s church leaders face challenges that did not exist a generation ago. So much has changed so quickly. We are living in a world of posts. Once familiar maps of our world are being torn apart. There is little knowledge of the land that lies before us. What does this mean for the work and witness of churches? What do leaders need to do in this new location? This article provides some brief pointers and descriptions.
The Changed Realities
My wife and I have just spent 4 months and a great deal of money renovating our home in Vancouver, British Columbia. This project was something we could no longer avoid. Age and the urgent need for various repairs finally caught up with us after 14 years of living in this old, but wonderful, bungalow. I remember the day after Easter we spent boxing up books from our two libraries. As the boxes piled up, filling one room and spilling into the garage, Jane and I were aware that one of the great accumulations of 40 years of married and professional life as pastor (me) and educator (Jane) was a major library. These books represent the passions and projects of our lives. Four months and a massive renovation later, we are reassembling the libraries in new home offices.
As we were organizing books onto shelves, a folded, brochure-like piece of paper slid out. It was a church bulletin from 1980, our final year in the first church I pastored in Newmarket, Ontario. We were there 8 years — a time filled with wonderful memories of good people and God’s amazing grace, as well as profound pain that will never disappear.
As I opened the bulletin, I saw the well-worn format of a church service with its call to worship, invocations, Scripture readings, hymns, contemporary songs, sermon, and announcements. It was a strange sight after 27 years. I remembered some people who were participating or hospitalized. Many are now dead. On the back page were the programs offered by the church for that week — the women’s group, the committees and board, the events for youth. It was like a time warp, describing a way of life that, for me at least, no longer existed.
How could this have been my life for such a long time and now have no relevance whatsoever? In one form or another, that bulletin still symbolizes not only the shape of a Sunday morning worship service but also the imagination and habits of many churches and their leaders across America. There may not be as many hymns sung anymore. Today there would be a long opening with a worship band and some drama to frame the Scripture reading. The sermon would be in one form or another (now with a great deal more self-help regarding how the Bible can make your life work better), along with announcements, meetings, and the many ways people can serve the Lord by volunteering in a church program.
Forms of worship and church life may have changed but some of the most basic assumptions remain unchanged. Today, we would describe these assumptions as attractional models of church life. It is still an if-we-build-it-they-will-come conviction. In fact, some churches across America build big and gather in many people. Thousands of smaller churches then try to copy them and feel bad when they fail. Canadian sociologist Reginald W. Bibby coined a phrase to describe what lies behind most of these churches. He described attractional churches as building their futures on the circulation of the saints.
Most people coming to attractional churches today are Christians moving to a church that more adequately meets their needs. The result is a church culture built on meeting people’s needs. These churches focus on being seeker sensitive to grow their particular brand of churches.
Leaders focus on this model of growth and on how to take care of the bottomless needs of those who come. Here people can find happiness and get fed. They feel the children’s and youth programs will take care of their children and keep them safe from the incursions of a secular world.
The problems with this image are multiple. This attractional model is first, antithetical to God’s story and the gospel. Second, this model misses the fact the emerging generations in North America are increasingly outside the church and unaware of the Christian narrative. Last, according to George Barna’s book, Revolution, it misses the reality of a huge shift happening in North America in which a growing percentage of Christians of all ages have stopped attending church because it makes no sense in their understanding of the gospel and Christian life.
A huge crisis confronts the churches of America. This crisis exists on at least two levels. First, like the shape of a whale, the great bulge of its body is up toward the front and thins out dramatically toward the tail. People age 55 and older fill a majority of churches with fewer people from the younger generations attending.
Conrad Kanagy, a college sociology teacher, recently completed a major research project for the Mennonite Church USA. If any group has been successful at maintaining its youth and sustaining a faith community across the generations, it is the Mennonites. Kanagy’s findings are a wake-up call. Mennonite church membership for young couples or young parents has slipped below the capacity to replace members through birth. Before people write this fact off, they need to remember that all church groups in the 20th century grew through this means — not through evangelism.
Second, if the mission of God is for the sake of the world, for the stranger and outsider, the attractional model misses the point and purpose of the church. The church does not have a mission; the church is mission by its very nature. These attractional models have raised generations of Christians who do not know what God is doing in the world. These models turn God’s story into a gnostic myth of a god who meets personal needs and guarantees an escape from this world. But it is for this world that Jesus became incarnate and dwelt among us as a stranger. It is for the other that Jesus came and formed a church — a new community that exists for the stranger, outsider, and other.
Today, people no longer find most churches sufficient to meet their needs or to provide the spiritual consumer goods they are eager to buy. They can have their needs met by therapists, Oprah, Dr. Phil, or by taking a class. If a church service is piped in from a central hub so a great leader is the focus of being the church, why not wait for the DVD and watch from the comfort of one’s own home?
The understanding of the gospel as God’s love for the world, which creates a people who enter and love the world in the name of Jesus, has been largely lost through years of effort to create attractional churches that increase membership. Meanwhile our culture(s) has shifted so much that we are now in uncharted waters where we must recover a missional vision for being the people of God.
Some months ago I was leading a workshop on the missional church for a group of 20 pastors in mid-America. On the second day a young pastor who had been quiet up to that point said, “The church I have been pastoring for the last 8 years is right across the road from a large high school. For several years we have been running programs to attract teens and their parents to our church. We cater for the football games; we have breakfasts, lunches, and suppers for special events at the school. Sometimes we video feed events the students want to see. These events are well-attended — people come. But I have just had an epiphany. We can keep doing these activities, we can expend energy expecting these people to join the church, but I realize now that they are not going to join. It will not happen. And, I do not know what to do about that.”
It was an epiphany — a moment of insight into the fact the attractional church model had lost its power to engage people. It was a huge revelation. If people did not join the church, this pastor did not know what else to do. The epiphany was the confession of a crisis. Heads in the room nodded silently.
The Missional Situation
We need to reconceive our situation in North America as a mission field. In the 19th and 20th centuries, North America and Europe sent missionaries to other nations. Today, North America is a mission field. In the famous words of Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, the question is: “Can the West be converted?”
Returning to England after more than 30 years as a missionary in India, Newbigin tried to envision the challenge of a fresh encounter of the gospel with late-modern Western culture. The challenge he addressed is expressed in his book, Foolishness to the Greeks, in the form of a question, “What would be involved in a missionary encounter between the gospel and this whole way of perceiving, thinking, and living that we call ‘modern Western culture’?”1
In a missionary context, we need to re-enter our culture(s), dwell among people in our neighborhoods, sit at their tables, and inhabit their lives and worlds. This is the implication of Luke 10:1–12 in the sending of the Seventy. They go without baggage to enter every town and place. The other welcomes and receives them as strangers in need. They enter homes, join an economic community, sit at the table as guest and coworker, and listen to the stories of the people. God’s Word instructs them not to move about from place to place, but to announce the Isaiah vision of God’s shalom (Kingdom) and heal the sick.
Here a radically different vision for being the church and for leadership challenges us. This missional vision is not about attractional churches, personality leaders, or getting one’s needs met. It is about ordinary, nameless men and women who are willing to go out on risky journeys, not as some evangelism-raiding posse but to enter, dwell, stay, eat, talk, live, and be the Kingdom. Notice the location — in towns, villages, and neighborhoods.
This missional vision is a reversal of almost every assumption about church life in the major denominations developed in North America over the past 50 years. It is not a strategic plan, method, or program, but a way of life; a living in, with, beside, for, alongside, and sometimes against the other who will likely never be attracted to our churches as they are currently shaped. This missional way of life will transform not only how we think about church but also how we practice being God’s people in community.
What can and should leaders, churches, and the systems that serve them do in this situation?
Reframe theological perspectives
A theology of missions is about God and God’s story for the world, not about me, the church, or our needs. Neither the church nor the individual is the subject or focus; instead, it is what God is doing in the world. This missional conversation calls for a massive shift in vision not only for church members but also for leaders who are too often captive to narratives of power, control, and success that have little to do with the gospel.
A missional theology is rooted in a deep, unshakeable eschatological hope. This is God’s world and God’s future. Therefore, we do not lose hope or give up — we live toward a new future.
God’s future emerges in the most unexpected, unspectacular places. In those places and among those people whom we tend to discount and see as hopeless, God’s amazing future breaks forth. Missional church concerns what the Spirit wants to do among ordinary men and women. God’s future is in and among the ordinary, the unexpected. This is where God’s new future breaks out. The New Testament is about an extraordinary future coming forth from barren women, old men, blind priests, a young girl, unknown sheep keepers, and a baby born into utter obscurity. Therefore, the ordinary local church is the locus of amazing vision that we need to call forth.
Develop Missional Leadership
Leadership is cultivating environments that call forth the missional vision of the ordinary people of God, not about CEO models, strategic planning, or vision statements. Missional church does not depend on command and control leaders, charismatic personalities, or leaders aligning church members with a big program, seven-step program, or best practices.
Missional leadership calls for the formation of a vision that is often alien to what is taught in seminaries or is modeled by the personality cult of church life. What are the skills, capacities, and leadership abilities we need to develop?
We must learn to dwell in Scripture and invite others to discover ways that invite Scripture to read and challenge us. These words sound strange to a modern mindset. What does it mean for Scripture to read us rather than we reading it?
This concerns issues of power and control, and predictable management at the core of modernity. Too often seminaries have trained pastors to master the text, to be in control of its content to preach or teach preconceived concepts and principles with clear, unambiguous outcomes (code language for power and control). But Scripture contains many metaphors and images that are nearly impossible to synthesize into bulletin-point definitions. The God who encounters us in Scripture will not be controlled or become a function of our plans.
A culture of commodification translates and uses Scripture as a useful handbook (tool) for meeting people’s needs or for explaining how Scripture so obviously supports the latest seeker-sensitive turns. Scripture is controlled and turned into a weekly how-Jesus-makes-your-life-work pep rally where the pastor preaches like a religious Dr. Phil or Oprah, dispensing Christian self-help or steps to a better life. How predictable and boring. Why does anyone need the Bible and church when they can get the same advice from afternoon television without all the religious awkward stuff?
All this abuses the biblical narrative because it creates a sense that we have the Bible under control; we already know what it is about. The Bible is commodified and made captive to our own needs; it is silenced as a radical message that reads us and decenters our worlds for the sake of the Kingdom.
Ours is a time when we must recover some of the practices of the Church through the ages. We need to learn to dwell in the Scripture and let Scripture read us so we create a community in which we turn management and control upside down. A scary prospect for modernity and North America.
Another significant practice is that of listening to the narratives beneath the narratives in the lives of ordinary men and women in our congregations. We do this because the Spirit of God is among the people of God. The clues and ways of discerning the shape of mission and witness are also among the people, not solely in the board or pastor. This requires a radical rereading of some Pauline passages on leadership and the appointment of leaders. It might call for a profound reordering of polities.
We need to practice cultivating some ancient disciplines and practices of Christian life — the Daily Office, welcoming the stranger, hospitality to the other (with no strings attached), fasting, prayer, silent retreat, and communal discernment. This includes how we form ourselves as a people, how we resocialize ourselves into the practices of God’s kingdom life.
We need to begin innovating a community of experiment and risk. The ways we must not form missional communities include: changing constitutions, writing mission statements, or developing strategic plans based on demographic profiles. We birth missional communities as we invite God’s people to risk testing their vision and intuition by entering the neighborhood and dwelling among the other (Luke 10:1–12). This is a huge adaptive task.
Most evangelical churches are risk averse. We live in a culture in which following Jesus means we become more Christlike and more sanctified, in which notions of perfectionism are lurking as a subtext, and whose failure is perceived as negative.
We have developed multiple methods and means (of grace) for dealing with, getting past, or eradicating failure. We often present these as forms of spiritual disciplines. In such contexts, failure is hardly an option much less seen as a way of working out what it means to be God’s people. We intended to address, not support, moral failure. But as a result, the church has created an environment in which failure of any kind is unspeakable.
Consider how difficult it is in many churches to own the fact a family is having problems raising their children, managing their marriage, or making ends meet. The church is profoundly silent around these issues.
Without an environment that provides a healthy context to admit failure, there can be little risk. Without risk, there will be little experimentation. Without experimentation, there will be no new learning and little adaptation.
The Children of Israel had to fail and experiment and fail repeatedly as they wandered through the desert to develop a new vision for being God’s people in the Promised Land. Without risk, failure, starting again, and learning from their failed risks, they would have left Egypt but remained a group of slaves on entering the land of promise. It took years of risk, experiment, failure, and learning to get Egypt out of Israel.
Leaders form missional communities when they invite their people into a journey in which there is no promise at the beginning of what it will look like 5, 10, or 40 years down the road. But this is the adventure in which this strange, boundary-breaking Holy Spirit continually invites the Church to discover. This is the only way to make sense of what Luke was saying to us when he wrote the Book of Acts — the acts of the Spirit of God.
There is much more to say about leadership in this context where we find ourselves. So much needs to come out of our wrestling with this strange, unmanageable God who has encountered us in Jesus Christ, and is forming us into a community whose mandate is to live for the sake of the world. We live in amazing times; God’s time.
The eschatological people of God are those who do not mourn in nostalgia for a time when church was just the way they wanted it. They experience the turmoil, the displacement, and the confusion of Spirit-given boundary breaking. Rather than lament loss, they break out in rejoicing because God’s great narrative in Scripture and the history of the Church tell them that God is doing something. This move of God will break out in the most unexpected places, among the most inauspicious people — that is missional church.
1. Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1986), 1.