John 10:11-18 (NIV2011)
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life – only to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”
Leaders Know Their Sheep
Knowing those whom we lead is not just being in touch with them and their issues and needs; it is being in close enough touch that we really know them. When they believe that they are thus known and considered, they are willing followers and not disgruntled ones. Being a good shepherd begins with sacrifice. Jesus described it in the most graphic terms possible, as laying down our lives for those whom we lead. Here are some challenging words for all disciples, but they should apply most directly to leaders: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3-4). Valuing others above self on a 24/7 basis is quite the challenge, but it is at the heart of a Jesus’ style leadership.
Getting in Touch and Staying in Touch
You can effectively lead only those whom you know and know reasonably well. The larger the group being led, the bigger the challenge of really knowing them. While you may not be able to know them well enough to have a personal relationship with each person, you must find ways to know enough about them as a group to meet their needs. This calls for being aware of the various types of folks in the larger group and developing ways to get their consistent input. For example, the needs of single moms, divorced persons, senior citizens, persons who have lost their mates, young single persons, married persons of all ages in all stages of life, etc. are all quite different. Then add in the differences in racial and ethnic backgrounds, educational backgrounds, financial backgrounds, to name but a few, and the amount of diversity in a ministry is almost staggering to contemplate. Yet, in imitation of Jesus, leaders must know their sheep.
A good starting place is in the makeup of a leadership group. Enough variation should be a planned part of such a group to insure that much input comes organically. In addition to that hopeful composition, other groups should be selected for regular meetings with leaders at reasonably spaced intervals. Although many different groups could be suggested here, at our current time, two are absolutely essential: a racial diversity group and a younger generations group. If you are lacking either of these, I would advise you to develop such groups post haste. We are at a crisis point in most churches within these two categories of our membership, whether we realize it or not.
Recognizing the need for open dialogue on the racial front, I started writing a blog some years back (blacktaxandwhitebenefits.com). My home church was also taking steps to meet this need, a history of which can be found on my blogsite or my teaching website under the title, “DFW Church Cultural Connection History.” In our family of churches (the ICOC) in the United States, we have been blessed with an overall Diversity Group (of which I was a part for several years) designed to promote similar groups at the congregational level. We now call these groups by the term “SCUAD” (Social, Cultural, Unity and Diversity Team).
Early during the pandemic, we conducted a very well attended Zoom meeting for church leaders, explaining the need for such teams in each congregation and offering direction for establishing them. Michael Burns, a proficient writer and lecturer on racial issues, has a link to sources on his website (michaelburnsteachingministry.com) for starting such groups. His books and other materials are listed and linked on his website. Michael also has a podcast series entitled, “All Things to All People,” listed on the Resources page of Disciples Today (disciplestoday.org). His materials have been invaluable to me and to thousands of others.
Feeling that so many resources on racial issues were available and that those resources were provided by authors better equipped to address the issues than I, I resigned my position on the ICOC SCUAD last year (2020). I have also slowed down considerably in adding my own articles to my blogsite for the same reasons. As I heard of more and more congregations establishing their own SCUADs, I felt as though my earlier attempts had been helpful and now others were contributing more than I possibly could. I think all of that reasoning was sound and my diminishing involvement was likewise reasonable.
How Much Better Are We Doing?
However, I do need to add a footnote on this subject aimed at what is or is not taking place in some of our churches. I was talking recently to someone about the diversity group arrangement and explaining how encouraged I was that so many congregations had organized these groups. The person to whom I was talking said that their congregation was the only one who had established a SCUAD in their entire geographic family of churches. I was more than shocked; I was dismayed. The need has been publicized so much that it was almost hard to believe what he said. I’ve no way of checking up on the accuracy of his statement, but he is a well-informed brother and had to be pretty accurate in what he said.
Why would a church with a racially diverse membership not see the need to develop such a group? I just don’t get it. With all that is going on in our society at present, how could a leader not get on board quickly to help his church negotiate these troubled times spiritually, for both our members of color who are facing the challenges most directly and our White members who, as fellow members of their spiritual family, have the opportunity and responsibility to help bear their burdens. We cannot share the burdens of others until and unless we know what they actually are. We need to be helping one another in multiple ways in the racial realm.
One thing I have heard offered by White church leaders as an excuse for not addressing racial issues is that such issues are simply political and political issues have no place in the church. I do understand that all issues can be and are being politicized. Many can’t even discuss the issues surrounding the pandemic without devolving into political discussions, be they about the wearing of masks or getting vaccinations. I recently touched on that issue in a sermon, and somewhat humorously noted that I had seen a tee shirt with a universal inscription on it that anyone in the audience could wear right now. It went something like this: “Ignorance can be educated; Crazy can be medicated; but there is no cure for Stupid!” Anyone could wear it because whoever doesn’t agree with us on pandemic issues are the stupid ones, right? Good grief, Charlie Brown!
The racial issues are much more significant than the pandemic issues in the church, trust me. I will not discuss and argue about the latter. My wife and I have some differences in this realm. She can believe and practice what she believes and I can do the same. Our differences are not an issue to either of us. The racial issues are a big deal, however. We need to be able to discuss these and find solutions within the church. I know that attempts to converse about them can digress into politically loaded areas but they don’t have to. We can discuss real issues without getting hung up on the BLM organization or CRT (Critical Race Theory). We are in the world but we are not of the world and do not behave as the world. We are brothers and sisters in Christ and we must seriously attempt to meet the challenges faced by each other, together as a spiritual family.
Losing Our Youth in Droves?
I continue hearing this alarming phrase from older and younger people alike: “Our youth are leaving the church in droves.” Are we? I’m not sure how many constitutes a drove, but I know that we are losing a lot of young people. All churches are right now. Articles about losing the Millennial group started being written a long time ago, and we are way past just losing that age group now – way past. When anyone addresses the “Millennial problem” now, they date themselves. I have written some about this serious situation already and intend to write more.
The reason most give for this dilemma is a failure of churches to adapt and change to meet the needs of younger generations. That is a big part of the reason, for sure. But there is another side of that coin too. Many younger ones are so focused on what they need that they pay little attention to what the older ones may need. Plus, they are so influenced by their own generation and social media approaches that their way of seeking solutions is simply unspiritual, and thus ineffective. As I say, I will write more about the generation gap later.
What I do know is that unless church leaders find a way to connect in meaningful ways with the younger generations, we are going to be in dire straits soon and probably are already in most churches. In my home ministry region, we are just now developing an input group from our youth. Interestingly, just like our older folks, the younger ones have diverse views from their peers too. Many of them don’t yet realize how diverse in thinking they are because they tend, as all humans do, to congregate with others of like mind. Birds of a feather flock together. That’s why input has to come from all types of people, to take the wide variations of ideas and preferences into consideration. Just knowing that others don’t see things the way you do helps avoid divisions if handled spiritually.
Let me illustrate that point. We once moved into a congregation who was experiencing a firestorm, one burning nearly out of control. Knowing human nature regarding diversity of thought, my beginning point was gathering the members in small groups of six to ten at a time for discussions. I put a signup sheet on the wall with specific time slots noted and asked everyone to sign up for a convenient time that would fit their schedule. As we started meeting, to say tension was in the air would be a big understatement. I asked people to begin by expressing their viewpoints of why they thought the church was in a bad place and so disunified.
As they listened to one another, some of the listeners literally had their mouths drop open. They assumed that everyone felt just as they did, which was far from the truth. Why did they think that? They were birds of a feather who had been flocking together with those who shared their viewpoints. That’s what humans do, regardless of age. We need to hear from our youth and they from us, to be sure, but they need to hear from one another too. It will provide a balance that they won’t otherwise get and the same is true of us older ones who must hear more divergent opinions about how to “do” church.
But don’t miss the bottom line: wisely select a group of representative youth and start meeting with them immediately if not sooner. And you need to do the same with a racially diverse group, and from there, move into well planned diversity training discussions of your broader membership. Read the articles and take advantage of the resources I have mentioned already about that particular need.
Deeper Issues: Team Leadership and Beyond
In Part 1 of this article, I mentioned the book, “Golden Rule Leadership.” Probably the most novel idea in that book was regarding team leadership in the church rather than the one-man-at-the-top leadership style as most had practiced it (some still do). In my later book, “Dynamic Leadership,” I spent some time trying to help us distinguish between the concept of team leadership and that of simply having a leadership team. The former is a much broader principle out of which the latter comes, but just having a leadership team doesn’t fully satisfy what team leadership involves. That said, Wyndham and I were trying to move us leaders off the idea of one man at the top of a military modeled leadership dynamic. We were at that point (nearly two decades ago) just trying to help leaders replace a faulty concept with a better one.
I was somewhat amazed at how deeply attached some were (still are?) to the one-man-at-the-top idea, in whose hands most leadership decisions were made, or for sure, finalized. On a related topic, I am currently amazed at how many male leaders (and males in general) believe that family leadership should function basically the same way, with the husband making or finalizing all family decisions. That is illogical and wrong on so many levels that I won’t go further into it now. Later, Gator, on that one. I will say that the one-man, top-down church leadership concept may well grow out of a faulty family leadership concept. I do believe that the physical family leadership dynamics and the spiritual family leadership dynamics are very closely related in multiple ways. If you accept the wrong view of individual family leadership teamwork and decision making, it is not difficult to see why some insist on the same model for church leadership.
Here’s an important question. Have you ever carefully thought about how the one-man leader and decision maker idea could possibly have become so entrenched in our thinking at one time? Aside from the likely connection to how family leadership and decision making is erroneously viewed, something much deeper had to be involved. The only logical way it could have happened is in thinking that a designated leader (appointed in some way) had a direct pipeline through the Holy Spirit to access God’s will. That viewpoint was not absent, I can promise you. It was a terribly faulty viewpoint, but it was the only one which ultimately could logically account for the idea that the thinking of one man was better than the combination of more minds thinking together. I cannot escape the logical necessity of that being the foundation of the view. Can you? And many applied it all the way down to the discipler/disciple relationship. In retrospect, it was idiocy.
Broader Issues: Unity in Diversity?
Much of what I have written in my last several articles could fall under this heading. Within all congregations we have diversity of so many different types. Yet, we are family. Every physical family has diversity within it and usually, as a result, some dysfunction. But we are still family and we figure out how to get along most of the time and love each other all of the time. The church is God’s spiritual family, and he says much more about how to live together in his family than in our individual families. Why is that? I would hazard a guess it is because of the much broader diversity within the larger group. But yes, unity in diversity is possible if we are intent on pleasing God in our congregations.
One of my bigger concerns is unity on a broader scale, where the diversity is also broader. I refer, of course, to our entire family of churches worldwide, and on a smaller scale, to our geographic families of churches. Our being categorized as families of churches is aimed at promoting unity, effectiveness and progress. I am sure that these goals are being aided through being grouped together in geographic families of churches. But I do have concerns about how much diversity we can handle on the broader scale and still maintain unity.
For example, I have friends who lead churches and yet feel as though they are on the outside looking in. They have actually been told something to that effect by other leaders. I’m not sure of all the issues involved, but I am aware of some of them. I have spoken by Zoom in these churches and/or to their leaders. I will continue to do so. I can handle their diversities of opinion. I share much in common with those diversities of thinking, actually, regarding the specifics involved. I would perhaps have approached those differently than my friends did (or not), but in the end of the day, I am not willing to make the approaches themselves or the specifics matters of division. I do not believe that the ones of which I am aware are salvation issues. They are issues that may well raise the blood pressures of other leaders, but then I do some of that myself – sometimes unknowingly and sometimes on purpose. I can handle the disagreements because they fall into the realm of opinion matters (Romans 14). My wife and I don’t agree about everything. No two humans do, nor do groups.
I will probably write more about unity in diversity between congregations in the future. I don’t see it as a widespread problem yet, but I did spend my youth and early adulthood in a family of churches that divided over more issues than you can imagine. Thus I know where this can end up and we don’t want to go there, rest assured. An old Restoration adage was a good one, but history showed it was an exceedingly hard one to apply. It goes, “In matters of faith, unity; in matter of opinion, liberty; and in all things, charity (love).” The problem is in differentiating between what belongs in category one and what belongs in category two.
Given that the Restoration Movement of churches, out of which our group came, used a patternistic method of biblical interpretation, the problem was compounded. Matters of interpreting Scripture is another topic for another day, but it is at the heart of some of our current differences just mentioned. We need help with this one because it is a problem that we definitely have and yet most don’t realize that we have it. More later on that one too. In the meantime, let’s just work on the topics I addressed in my last three articles. You might want to reread the other two as well to get the backdrop that prompted all three. Thanks for reading (and thanks for your patience with an old guy who rambles a bit too much these days)! I love you!
Last week I published an article on my teaching website entitled, “Is Your Religion Focused on Christ or the Church?” My bottom-line point was that if it is focused primarily on the church, becoming disillusioned, discouraged and critical is difficult to avoid. If it is focused on Christ and imitating him, you will have grace toward the church and its leaders and can serve as a constructive critic rather than a negative one. I didn’t advise saying nothing, to simply grin-and-bear wrong practices, although some took it that way. My main emphasis evidently left that impression with them.
On this past Sunday, I preached a sermon with the same title, although the content was not exactly the same. You can watch and/or listen to it on the DFW Northeast Facebook page or on You Tube if you want. I received some critiques on both the article and the sermon which were very beneficial to me. They were basically of two types: concerns about what was included and concerns about what wasn’t included. Regarding the former, I did revise a paragraph in the article. What I said and the tone it carried were not good and it needed changing. Some of the rest of it was edgy, but I still think it was appropriate for the intended purpose.
Regarding the latter, the critiques were about not saying more about faulty leadership, the church atmosphere created by it and the individuals hurt by it. Those giving the critiques agreed that no matter what happens, we still need to go the way of the cross in how we respond to being mistreated or encountering practices which we believe violate biblical principles. On the other hand, facing such treatment or atmospheres without becoming sinfully critical is understandably very challenging. I understand. I’m in that boat with you. Hence this article (and at least one more) in dealing with some of the specific concerns about faulty church leadership and what it creates. I use the term “faulty” because it can apply to ineffective leadership as well as sinful leadership and everything in-between.
Being able to identify worldly leadership can be a challenging task. We are introduced to leaders from birth – our parents. As we grow up, we see leaders of all types in roles of all types, and we develop views of leadership based on what we have seen and experienced. Thus, our view of leaders can produce very positive feelings or very negative ones. But whatever our views of leadership are when we come into the kingdom of God, those views are so deeply embedded that we can read what Jesus said about spiritual leadership and totally miss his meaning. Our worldly views are a part of our DNA and will remain so unless we get a lot of help to see what the New Testament is teaching about the topic.
When Wyndham Shaw and I wrote “Golden Rule Leadership” back in the early part of this century, we were trying to provide that help. Simply put, if we lead like we want to be led, that alone will enhance our leadership greatly. When we wrote the book, some leaders had children who were reaching high school or college ages and they now had ministry leaders with significant influence in their lives. Hence, I worded the Golden Rule of leadership in a slightly different way, namely, to lead others like you want your own children to be led. Trust me, some leaders who themselves had led campus students very forcefully at one time were now much more sensitized to how their own children were being led.
One thing Wyndham and I learned was that some leaders don’t do well with being critiqued. In our earlier days, many of the leaders with the most influence had pretty obvious pride problems. Tom Jones has said that the book he co-authored about pride and humility, “The Prideful Soul’s Guide to Humility,” was not read by a good number of leaders because buying the book would be an admission that they had the problem! He wished he had chosen a different title. I think he was right – about them and the resultant book readership.
I wrote the Introduction to Golden Rule, and the final part of it carried this heading: Warning! I went on to say this: “The greatest danger in reading this book is to assume that you really already understand the principles being discussed and are currently putting them into practice. This is especially true for our most experienced leaders. We do not see ourselves as we are; we do not see ourselves as others see us. Our strong tendency is to think more highly of ourselves as leaders than we ought to think (Romans 12:3). Wow! That definitely set off some leaders, at which point I just smiled and said “Bingo!” Keeping pride in check is an ongoing challenge for all those who lead.
The Roots of the Problem
One root is what I have already said about our experiences in the world and the definition of leadership thus produced in our minds. It takes a lot of work (and time) to eradicate the worldly thinking in this and other areas with which we enter the kingdom. Another root of the problem in our movement was the military mindset in our singular leader in our early days as a family of churches and the military style he used and trained other leaders to use. In my later (and longer) book on church leadership, “Dynamic Leadership,” I address this part of our root system in detail. It led to a trail of woe, although in the short term, this leadership style can produce some pretty amazing results. They just cannot be sustained. Plus, people get hurt.
The prevailing leadership style of our early days hurt almost everyone in some way at some time. It was hard to avoid harshness with the military model as a foundation. I am hearing currently that some leaders are returning to these roots and again leading with a controlling style that includes harshness. This unspiritual quality sometimes shows itself in significant displays of anger, in spite of biblical warnings against “fits of rage” in the catalogue of sins in Galatians 5, as well as in other biblical passages. This is not just faulty leadership; it is sinful leadership.
I think all of us, leaders and non-leaders alike, are tempted with anger now more than ever, simply because of the pandemic atmosphere tensions under which we are living. The old illustration about a man having a really bad day at the office coming home to kick his dog and yell at his family finds many applications in our current hurting world. I have had my challenges with that, although it is usually not directed toward fellow disciples. But then I am not in a leadership role now at my age, so the temptation is lessened – not removed. Whatever our circumstances, failure to maintain self-control is not an option.
An Important Disclaimer
If I could put my finger on the biggest mistake we made in our early days regarding leadership style, it would probably be how we defined and employed what we call “discipling.” Let me begin with this disclaimer. I believe in discipling in the ways the New Testament describes it, as the exercise of our “one another,” “each other” responsibilities toward one another. Believing that my former fellowship of churches didn’t come close to obeying the teachings about our relationships with fellow disciples, this concept was the most influential in bringing me into my current family of churches back in 1985. I wrote a long book entitled, “Discipling,” back in the 1990’s, which was condensed into “The Power of Discipling” later. I believe that our movement is suffering greatly because of the virtual disappearance of discipling among most of our membership. The prevailing idea seems to be, “If you need discipling help, just go ask someone for it.”
That is not discipling; it is counseling, which also has its place. But discipling carries the idea of having at least one purposeful spiritual friend with whom you meet regularly with the specific aim of helping one another become more like Jesus – in character and in mission. Having the heart of Jesus will lead to having the actions of Jesus, including his goal of seeking and saving the lost. My early favorite definition of discipling came from an idea stated in one book, that discipling was God’s plan to help us deal with sin at the temptation level before it came in to damage our lives, sometimes terribly. Our early problems with discipling came from adopting a worldly approach to it just like we did with leadership in general. The devil was in the details of application, not in the biblical concept itself.
The Fork in the Road
When I first met this movement, it was in the campus ministry stage. That ministry was the engine, and it was wildly effective in converting campus kids in the first couple of decades, and in some places, much longer. Every new convert received spiritual help and training from having a “Prayer Partner.” That term suggested a mutuality of helping each other and praying together. When I first inquired what a meeting of prayer partners was like, the answer I received was that they talked about how they were doing spiritually, good and bad, and made plans to improve. Then they wrapped it up by praying about those things. That sounded great to me. I was all in. I knew I needed all the help I could get to be spiritual and to grow spiritually to be more like Christ. I’ve not outgrown that need, nor has anyone else.
But then came the fork in the road – of soldiering up! The term “prayer partner” was replaced with “discipling partner” or “discipleship partner.” More significantly, the approach was changed as well. While the terminology change wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, the change in approach was. Enter the requirement of “one over another,” indicating that in every case, one of the partners was now in a position of authority over the other in all things spiritual. This led to more abuses than I can address here, but the biggest was the authority model brought into the arrangement. It was now a full-blown military model, applied to every leader and every member. You had a discipler who discipled you, which meant in far too many cases they were the boss of the relationship. The list of abuses under this heading is a painfully long one.
Human beings are in general obsessed with power, position, authority and control. That is why wars are fought. That is why politics has invaded almost every aspect of American society right now. Who has the power and control? How can we get it and how can we keep it? Need I say that this approach is just about 180 degrees opposite what Jesus said in his most famous comments about true leadership? The context was when his twelve disciples, the apostles, were arguing about which of them would be the greatest. It was obvious that their view of leadership was totally worldly. Even pretty much living with Jesus hadn’t eradicated it, for false concepts in this area are so hard to dig out and discard. Here’s what Jesus said to them.
Matthew 20:25-28 (NIV2011)
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Okay, So What’s the Intended Application?
Good question, right? As I’ve already said, some leaders appear to be returning to their roots and going heavy on the authority and control issues, complete with harshness and sometimes anger. But I think they are in the minority. My bigger issue with a majority of older leaders within their congregational leadership role is that they are not leading the charge to change the world. They are too comfortable to really lead a radical charge in carrying out the Great Commission and evangelizing the world. But this type can also be harsh if someone tries to pry them out of their comfort zones. Some are describing one form of harshness as “boomerang discipling,” meaning that instead of humbly hearing critiques, even well delivered ones, they turn it back on the person delivering it (or trying to). Leader, just how approachable are you? Don’t trust your own answer – ask around.
The one ministry that still uses more of an old leadership style is campus ministry, in my opinion. The situations I hear about give me that opinion. And by the way, when I am offering critiques, I am not saying that every leader is guilty of the sins I describe. That has never been the case. When Wyndham and I wrote our early book, we didn’t believe that all of our leaders had the problems we described. I don’t believe that everyone has the problems I addressed most recently in writing and in a sermon. But enough problems exist among us to motivate me to address them.
Campus Ministry Challenges on Both Sides
Those leading campus ministry are trained, at least partially, by older leaders who themselves led campus ministries in their younger years. It was often during those years that the military model was most popular and during those years, the model was often amazingly effective. But to repeat an important point, this model has a short shelf life. In time, if not changed it will implode or at the least become much less effective. When the young campus trainees hear about the results their trainer had in his or her youth, they want to see the same results in their ministry (who wouldn’t) and assume that using the same approaches will get the same result. When it doesn’t, they can feel like failures. Michael Burns addressed this well in one of his books.
The shocker is that they don’t seem to realize that it has been decades since those leaders had those results and their present ministry results are not nearly the same. Times have changed; society has changed; results have changed. Approaches need to change too, but often don’t. Traditions are hard to abandon, especially if they worked well at one time. We are slow to adapt and figure out new ways to be effective. We are in a post-Christian culture, especially in the thinking of our younger generations. The churches they have seen are not just out of step with society in ways they shouldn’t be. Their version of Christianity is a polluted one. American Christianity is in general a far cry from what I read about in the Bible, politicized almost beyond recognition. No wonder younger generations are turned off by it. I am too.
Back to the Story
Yes, old style leadership is found in our campus ministries probably more than in any other ministry. Some of the reason is the training received which promotes it. But it is a double-edged challenge that has to be understood by youth and leaders alike. Leaders have to understand that every individual they work with is different and in need of having those differences taken into account in leading them. They also have to understand the differences in those raised in a strong church culture by their parents and those who didn’t experience the same blessings (and sometimes curses). When youth from church families are treated exactly the same as those coming into the church without the same spiritual training and values, it is challenging for the church kids. I have often spoke of age-appropriate leadership. If you treat fifteen year old kids like you treated them when they were five, rebellion is likely coming. But background appropriate leadership is a related need.
The ones with different backgrounds often need more by way of guidelines to protect them against themselves. This is nothing new. I remember one of our well-known leaders describing how the dating guidelines back in his campus ministry days came about in the first place. We are talking about the 1970s here, when the sexual revolution was breaking out everywhere. He said that after conversion, without guidelines for relating to the opposite sex, he ended up having sex with a sister in the church. He took responsibility for the origin of what came to be accepted guidelines, and too often, rules.
It is essential that we have guidelines in relational areas for young people (and sometimes, older ones as well). But when they become rules, we have problems. What’s the difference? Guidelines are explained well and often and applied with individuals in mind. All don’t need exactly the same guidelines. Many times the young people with strong spiritual backgrounds don’t have the same challenges that others do. But, I would say this to you if you think you are in this category. It is really hard to have varying guidelines in campus ministry, because less mature kids have a difficult time understanding why they are treated differently when the guidelines are not applied uniformly.
I have been in a number of situations in the church where I was expected to do the same things as new Christians. Understanding the challenges just described, I just went along gladly with the expectations. I didn’t want to be seen as an exception to what others were being taught to do and not do. I may not have needed the same teaching, but they needed my example of submitting to what was requested of us. As a somewhat older guy when I came into this movement, I understood the importance of my example in this regard.
I would appeal to our younger church background folks to try hard to appreciate this principle and not allow yourself to be too critical of group guidelines, even when many in the group have different backgrounds, needs and challenges than you. I understand your feelings, but I also understand the challenges of leaders trying to work with young folks who are still trying to figure out life. And please don’t think you have figured it all out yet either. Life is a lot more complex than you imagine right now. Being open minded and flexible in the process of continuing to mature will protect you from yourself too. (smile…)
One Request of Older Leaders and One for All Leaders
One of my biggest concerns for the leadership of our movement is that a disproportionate number of leaders with the most influence in developing directions for the future are old (okay, older if that helps you). I’ve nothing against old people, since I am about to turn 79. I understand how our movement leadership developed as it did during this century. We lost a generation when we had a serious challenge in the early 2000s. Financial contributions decreased considerably, and understandably, the younger ones were laid off first. Changing careers was much easier for them and we needed our more experienced leaders to help us maneuver through the crises.
When we did reach more stable ground, we were able to start hiring young people again, but their opportunities in supported ministry were mostly limited to working with youth. I describe this situation in an article entitled, “My Hope is in Our Youth.” You can read it on my website. Bottom line, we didn’t made opportunities for the younger set of leaders to have much of a voice in determining directions for our movement’s future. We still haven’t. The same older set are leading in the same older ways, and innovation isn’t highly visible, to put it more gently than I did in the article just mentioned. Please read it. This issue needs serious attention immediately, if not sooner! Our youth have voices that must be heard.
Speaking of reading, I would strongly suggest that all leaders (and many others) read “Dynamic Leadership,” even if you have read it before. The very first chapter about the difference between offices and titles, and roles and relationships – through the lens of Jesus’ statements in Matthew 23 is so fundamental. We need truly spiritual leadership and this calls for spiritual leaders. One of my dearest and most respected elder friends, now deceased, gave my book the highest compliment I ever received on it. He said that he would never recommend a second book on church leadership until my Dynamic Leadership had been read first. I’ve never taken the words of that elder, Ron Brumley, lightly. I hope you won’t in this case.
Thanks for reading this article. Another to follow soon addressing additional leadership concerns. The Lord bless you and keep you!
NOTE: This article was originally written as Chapter 18 in my book, “The Power of Spiritual Relationships.”
The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:
for gaining wisdom and instruction;
for understanding words of insight;
for receiving instruction in prudent behavior,
doing what is right and just and fair;
for giving prudence to those who are simple,
knowledge and discretion to the young—
let the wise listen and add to their learning,
and let the discerning get guidance. (Proverbs 1:1–5)
I am very thankful for the youth of our churches. My hope for the future of our churches is in them. While I appreciate all that God has been able to use me and others of the older generations to accomplish, my hope for what lies ahead is not in us. We have done our thing, and now the future is up to our younger generations. Many in my generation have a difficult time recognizing this and thus have a difficult time letting go of the reins. But God and time will see to it that we do, you can trust that! My own rapidly increasing attendance at memorial services makes the point, loudly! It would be far better if we were to recognize the need and have a planned generational transition much sooner than later. That is my prayer and my plea in this chapter.
A Lost Generation
Our family of churches, the ICOC, has been seriously affected in negative ways by losing a generation of leaders. In the early years of this millennium, we suffered as a movement a serious upheaval and a series of reactions. While we needed something to jar us into a realization of ineffective and wrongful spiritual building in our serious attempts to carry out the Great Commission, we experienced more damage than we realized at the time. A grave part of the damage was the loss of a generation of leaders (and members). As our overall membership declined, our available funds to support ministry staff declined. Young ministry staff leaders in their twenties were laid off because of these dwindling contributions and the decision to direct available funds toward ministry staff who were older and dependent on those funds for supporting themselves and their families in their career choice.
It took some years to start recovering and raising up younger leaders again in significant numbers, but by then we had another problem. Leadership roles were limited, and although we were adding young people to our ministry staffs, their opportunities for advancement into more influential roles were already filled by older staff members. The young ones could lead campus ministries or youth programs or in some cases, small churches. But the opportunities to lead in roles that carried with them a voice that was heard on a broader scale simply weren’t there. When we were growing fast in the 1980s and 1990s, leadership advancement was a natural part of our growth. When growth stopped, suddenly the whole picture was different, and natural progressions in leadership were stymied.
The result has been that older, established leaders have guided most of the directions we have taken as a whole. The same older crowd is leading in the same older ways, and those ways have ceased to produce the results they once did. Without younger leaders with younger thinking whose voices are not just heard, but allowed to shape our future directions, we will continue down the path of diminishing growth and relevance with the upcoming generations. As I put it bluntly from time to time, many (not all) of those who were once new wine breaking old wineskins have themselves become old wineskins—and don’t realize it. It pains me to say such things, but facts are facts, and I think these are indisputable and need to be recognized, admitted and acted upon.
Since our growth rate is diminishing, the natural progression of having more and more younger leaders entering the fray is not going to happen organically. We older leaders are going to have to find alternative roles for ourselves, like shepherding and teaching (teaching was my choice over a decade ago), and put younger leaders in roles that allow them to help us figure out how to turn the growth rate around. That might sound radical, but I hope it also sounds rational, because I believe it is the only rational choice available. The lost generation syndrome can be reversed, but only if we are willing to make radical choices that seem unnatural to us.
Youth and Radical Change
Christianity had its beginning with youth, for they are the ones open to entertaining new ideas and approaches. The apostles were likely quite young. If John the apostle wrote his five documents (his Gospel, his three letters and Revelation) when tradition says he did, he must have been a teenager when called to be an apostle. I suspect most of the other apostles were also young. History shows that radical things done in the spiritual realm are almost always initiated by youth. Youth and radical go together, not old and radical. It is the nature of aging to become tradition bound, and the recognition and rejection of traditions becomes more and more an elusive task. I wish it weren’t so, but it is, and that is why my hope is in the youth among us.
As that exciting first century church aged, it moved further and further away from the truth and replaced it with traditions. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit predicted this departure through Paul in no uncertain terms. Passages like 1 Timothy 4:1–3 and 2 Timothy 4:2–4 demonstrate that God didn’t want this turning aside to take later generations by surprise. They also serve as a warning about how easy it is to move from truth to traditions, an ever-present danger in every age. Further, the danger is not just limited to traditions that directly violate Scripture; the ones that are not unbiblical but become ineffective are in some ways more damaging, since they block the effective spreading of the gospel. That type represents our current challenge, for said simply, we as a movement are stuck.
As history unfolded, it was only a matter of time before some youthful radicals had enough of the Establishment’s traditions and drew a line in the sand. Well, in this case, it was actually a document nailed to a door. Martin Luther nailed his “Ninety-Five Theses” against Catholic teachings to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. He was in his early thirties when this momentous event took place, but he was much younger when his radicalness was taking shape. Another very important figure in the Protestant Reformation was John Calvin, who began his extensive writings when yet in his twenties. Once again, history connects the terms “youth,” “radical” and “change.”
Then we come to the Age of Reason, when the American Restoration Movement was born. Much about the Reformation was commendable; much about its effectiveness was not so commendable. By 1700, there were 150 divisions within Protestantism. In the early 1800s, leaders from various denominations started questioning the concept of reformation. Trying to reform something with so many divergences from the Bible was proving to be impossible in the quest for religious unity. Thus the idea of just going back to the New Testament as the pattern for Christianity and restoring it gained ground quickly. The two most influential leaders started their quest for restoration of the NT church when they were still young. Alexander Campbell was in his twenties and Barton W. Stone was just about thirty.
Fast forward to the origins of my current church association, now known as the International Churches of Christ. This group began as a spiritual renewal group within what I now call the Mainline Churches of Christ. It was at the outset a campus ministry movement in the 1970s. Its epicenter was in Gainesville, Florida at the Crossroads Church of Christ, and it was spearheaded by Chuck Lucas when he was about thirty and later pushed forward by Kip McKean when he was about twenty-five. That Crossroads Movement became the Discipling Movement and the Boston Movement and ultimately the ICOC as we now know it.
The Future – Scary and Exciting!
Is not the pattern of radical spiritual change fairly obvious? Doesn’t it always start with radical youth who burn with a desire to change the world? That is why I am so thankful for the youth among us. They must pick up the baton and do what we are currently failing to do—affect the whole world significantly with the rapid spread of the gospel. Christianity has never been about having a nice, comfortable church to make us feel warm inside once or twice a week. It was designed by its Designer to radically affect the world.
Our society is changing so fast that keeping up with how people think is almost impossible for us older folks. We don’t understand youth and they don’t understand us too well either. We use similar words but often are speaking a different language. But that is nothing new. It has always been that way. Generation gaps are real, and really important to at least recognize (not just decry). I highly recommend reading Chapter 21 in Michael Burns’ book All Things to All People. The title of that chapter is “World War Z,” and I can promise you that it is one of the most eye-opening, disturbing pieces we of the older generation could read. It is for those of all generations among us a must-read—so please read it!
Youth—Christ’s mission now depends on you! Grab hold of it and GO! People like me who have done their best want to see our work as only a foundation of what you can do as you build to the sky with the help of Almighty God. I am praying for you and already thanking God for what you are going to do. I am also praying for us older ones, that we will help you begin doing it—now. Let’s all please do our part, and may God lead us to do it soon!
Jerry Jones departed this life on Wednesday, May 13, 2020. He and I were appointed as elders together in Phoenix, Arizona in September of 2004. We became co-laborers together in the church and close friends in all settings. In a short time, I think both of us would have said that we were the best of friends. We had many things in common, including a love for nature sports like fishing, and also golf, although neither of us were great golfers. We shared many happy times having fun together. We shared many happy times serving together in God’s kingdom. We also shared some of the most challenging times in the church that I have ever faced. In going through those times, I have stated repeatedly that I wouldn’t have made it through them without Jerry. I do believe that to be absolutely true.
When Jerry’s dearly loved wife of 57 years called to tell me that Jerry was approaching death, my heart became very heavy, but my mind became very active. I thought about our times together and how I would describe him to those who didn’t know him or know him well. I thought back to a book I read about Jesus decades ago entitled, “Man of Steel and Velvet.” I don’t remember much about the book, but the title encapsulates the nature of Jesus perfectly.
I think of his confrontations of the Pharisees and other religious leaders who were leading people astray from God’s will. Jesus was clearly a man of steel on those occasions. I think of him as a man of velvet in his dealings with women and children. His relationship encounters those of that day displayed both of these extremes and showed every needed response in between. He was the most beautiful demonstration of both strength and sensitivity possible.
Jerry reminded me of Jesus as a person of both steel and velvet. During our church challenges, he had a steely, unwavering character. He was an old navy career man, and it showed. Yet, that part of his nature had been sanctified by his conversion to Christ. He wasn’t at all harsh, but he was unyielding when it came to doing what was right and needed. In the middle of the storms, he was simply unflappable. I’ve known few like him. In spite of his deep love for people, he never caved in to sentimentality. He was just determined to do what was righteous in spite of possible responses and reactions.
He and Karen were retired when he was appointed an elder, and they chose to come to the ministry staff meetings as if they were on staff. What a blessing that was! Jerry could read people like a book. His level of emotional intelligence had perhaps begun as “street smarts,” but was molded by his Christian perspective. The spiritual battles we faced in the early part of this century were extremely challenging, but Jerry was always up to the challenge. He was my rock on many occasions and my greatest supporter in the leadership roles in which I served. I had no one else quite like him.
Jerry and Karen became Christians later in life in somewhat of a unique way. Their daughter was the first in their family to be converted and she then reached out to her brother. Jerry and Karen attended the baptism of their son and were deeply moved by all that they saw and heard. They had not been particularly religious prior to that, but the impact of what they were observing in their children and their friends was huge. Jerry and Karen studied the Bible and were baptized, full of their newfound faith and zeal. This led them to fast growth spiritually. They were all in with church activities and Bible study. In the latter area, Jerry made up for lost time and dug deeply into learning the Bible. He became an avid reader of spiritual books and I think read every one I have written.
When we moved to Phoenix at the end of 2003, the church didn’t have an eldership, but the members were very urgent about the need to appoint some elders. The staff and non-staff opinion leaders had formed a group to act as an advisory council during this challenging time. They were a part of the elder appointment process by discussing and recommending possible candidates. Jerry’s name came up, but his relatively short experience as a Christian was seen as a possible deterrent to being appointed in a short timeframe. In a context dealing with the qualification of elders, 1 Timothy 3:6 warns against appointing new converts, because pride might be a problem for them. However, as those of us on staff discussed it, Jerry’s obvious humility ruled out our concerns in this area. As a result, Jerry was appointed with four others of us as the first eldership in Phoenix was established. Thank God that he was!
Jerry’s velvet side was seen in a number of ways. Like Jesus, he was very sensitive to women and children, and to men who needed that sensitivity. He and Karen made two trips to the Philippines with us, serving in many ways. Both of them facilitated groups for a very large Dynamic Marriage training session that I was leading. The rigorous schedule just about did us all in, but the Jones did a great job and endeared themselves to the churches in the Philippines.
On one occasion, we visited a HOPE Worldwide complex that housed a large group of children who had been abused in every way possible. When we arrived at the site, we were carefully informed that due to the abuse the children had suffered, they would probably be hesitant to relate to us in a normal, relaxed manner. Of course, the explanation made all the sense in the world. However, Jerry’s spirit was perceived immediately by the children, and the young ones were crawling all over him from the beginning, just like he was Santa Claus. I have some heart-warming photos from that special day. But that was Jerry for you.
Jerry and Karen were the coordinators for regular trips to an orphanage in Agua Prieta, Mexico just over the border of Arizona. This was a labor of love for them for many years and watching how the kids there responded to Jerry was about the same as the kids in the Philippines. Jerry was the man of steel and velvet, a man among men, full of the Spirit of Jesus. This unique blend of strength and sensitivity made Jerry one of the most unique elders I have ever worked with and it made him one of my trusted allies and closest friends. His spirit was infectious and his heart for God and people was large. He was dearly loved by his devoted wife, his children and grandchildren, and by his spiritual family. Thank you, God, for blessing us all with such a man! Go with God, my brother!
This will be the last in my three-part series about passing the torch to the next generation of leaders. I have been tremendously encouraged by the feedback I’ve received from the two previous articles and have come to realize we find ourselves in a spot where we have to be intentional about the future of our brotherhood. Each church leader, each regional family, and each continental group needs to ask ourselves: Do we have a plan? I’d like to humbly suggest some things that might just help all of us be more intentional.
Look Into the Future
I get it. There’s so much to do! I lead a church here in Seattle of nearly 600 members. We have a young staff, some very effective programs, a pretty good-sized budget, and layers of influence. My weeks, just like yours, are very busy. It’s far too easy to put your head down and fail to look up. Before I was in the ministry, I was a young man trying to be an architect, which meant I spent a lot of time (sometimes all day) staring at very small, detailed blueprints. If I wasn’t looking closely at those, I was trying to learn this new thing called CAD on the computer. After a couple of years of this, I realized I was having problems with my eyes, it was hard to focus. I immediately went to the eye doctor, and after taking a couple of tests and learning what I did all day, he said, “you are becoming myopic, which is a fancy word for near-sighted.” I was staring so intently at the small details right in front of me, I was losing focus on things farther away.
The solution? He advised me to stop every 15 minutes during the day and focus on something way down the hall from my office! In other words, take the time to focus farther away. Honestly, it was a valuable lesson then, and has been something I’ve come back to now. For us called with building God’s church: regularly take the time to look up from the details of today and focus on something much farther away. Are you having discussions in your church about things like: Where are we headed? How are we investing now for the future? What do we want to see in 5/10 years? Everyone has to engage these questions somehow, or we will build our ministries in a very short-sighted way.
Have a Financial Plan
This one gets tricky. Not everything we invest in costs us money, but without setting aside some money and resources, we will have a very hard time raising up the next generation of leaders. I’m not saying it’s easy, and has to be done with care, especially since so many of our full-time leaders are diligently thinking about their own livelihood and have good ambitions to retire in a healthy way someday. I could be wrong, but I think most church Board of Directors would welcome a conversation about creatively setting aside some money for the next generation, while still helping their current senior staff feel taken care of and achieve their goals. I’m not sure I would work for a church whose BOD cared passionately about one but not the other. Having said that, here are some courageous questions we should be asking:
- Are our senior staff members engaged in good financial planning? Do they have a clear way to replace themselves and their salaries someday? Are they currently putting things away for retirement? These are things their local church needs to be sensitively talking with them about. On the administrative side, let’s be sure to understand this is a sensitive topic for ministry staff. On the ministry staff side, let’s please not get into the ugly habit of hanging onto our jobs at all costs – especially if we have failed to maintain an inspiring vision. Let’s work together humbly and carefully.
- Would the congregation, if asked, be willing to give more for some young people? Have you asked? I know a lot of churches in need of young people, but I also know too many ministers who haven’t asked people to give more. It’s easy to get afraid and assume there are too many “asks” already. There may be, but you also may find a lot of people inspired to dig even deeper if they see a clear plan for the future. Ask.
- Are we who set the budgets including enough for young people in regard to training, internships, travel to conferences, etc.? Let’s be sure we’re prioritizing the next generation in our budget.
Create a Culture that Empowers and Gives Away Influence
One of the many things I love about the ministry strategy we embrace here in Seattle is that we try our best to help people feel like they own the church. Decisions have to be made, but where possible we try to collaborate (yes, it takes more time) together with each demographic beforehand. None of us here love meetings (gotta have them every now and then though!), but we do love surveys, polls, and vibrant discussions. It keeps us on our toes and helps us intentionally think about what the church looks like through each group’s eyes.
Amazon is one of the fastest growing companies in the world right now and is headquartered here in Seattle. Their founder, Jeff Bezos, recently told all employees and shareholders that Amazon is a “Day One” company, meaning each day is to be treated like a start up! He invites ideas from everywhere and is always looking for ways to avoid becoming stagnant. Is it any wonder why the next generation is flocking to companies like this? Truth is, good, decisive leadership in a church is biblical, and if we aim to please everyone, we will violate the scriptures at some point. On the other hand, in areas where influence and decisions can be “given away,” are we letting go and trusting others to step up. This stuff doesn’t necessarily matter to everyone, but BOY it matters to the younger generation. As it relates to creativity and vision, let’s be sure the church they worship in doesn’t lag too far behind the companies they work at.
Provide Ample Training
Recently I asked Lynne Green how old she and Scott were when they planted the Hong Kong church. She reminded me they were 27! I know they happened to be two of the most talented people we know, and I know it’s been done plenty of times, but that’s still pretty young to plant a church oversees. I began to think…. why don’t we see more of that? I’m not just talking about letting young people lead mission team plantings, but actually letting young people step out and lead even though they’re young. One of the reasons? Sometimes we’re not as intentional about training as we used to be. Lynne said they were given multiple venues for training the year before they left, with an eye toward them leading a church. We have to get creative about identifying the young people who can lead churches and feel good about putting them through some rigorous training, even letting them cut their teeth in our established churches. Also, let’s be careful not to needlessly “raise” the age of young people. I hate to break it to you, but 40 is not the new 27!
Develop and Maintain a Strong Biblical Ethic
Timothy was a young guy trying to do ministry in Ephesus without the presence of his trainer, Paul. But Paul sent him some instructions about persevering, and gave him some solid reminders:
“Command and teach these things. 12 Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. 13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:11-13).
“In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead,a and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: 2 Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction. 3 For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. 5 But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry” (2 Timothy 4:1-5).
Paul was very clear with Timothy: stay completely devoted to God and his word, no matter what’s going on around you! We have to dispel the modern myth that says young people don’t want clear, strong, biblical teaching. It’s just not true. Yes, they are demanding we talk about it in a way they understand, and they sure do have a lot more layers of nuance than I remember having at that age but make no mistake – most of them are drawn to the boundaries God lays out.
A few years ago, another brother in Seattle and I were curious as to how a local church here in Seattle was attracting and retaining hundreds of millennials. I got online and watched a lot of sermons by the main preacher. I’m not sure what I expected (dumbed-down sermons and light entertainment maybe?), but what I heard was clear, strong directives to use the scriptures as a guide, not the world around you! At the time, it seemed more hard-line than a lot of the stuff in our own church! The lesson? Talk about the Bible in language that speaks to young people and be sure to discuss the thing that matter to THEM (women’s roles versus the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example), but do not water down God’s truth for them. They simply aren’t demanding that. Let’s get creative but maintain a strong commitment to biblical truth in our churches.
Find Ways to Hear Their Voice
This last suggestion might be the most important: create and develop ways to find out what they are thinking about the church we are building. It’s not easy, and it won’t be accomplished just by telling them from the pulpit that you’re interested in what they think. They have to be convinced of your genuine interest and then pulled in. One thing we’ve recently started in Seattle is a “Next Generation Council.” It is an idea presented to me by a young professional brother in his 20’s, and it is based on a leadership program started at his job. Create a place where the young people (under 33) can talk about the culture in their church in a way that then interacts with church leadership. The goal here is to create a committee of invested, spiritual individuals (led by one of their own) and give them talking points that will help inform us of the culture we’re building in the church. My experience here so far is that they will be very responsible with this, and it will help me understand what they value as I help the church with current programs and future visions.
I hope these thoughts have blessed you in some way. They are just my ideas. I respect the work everyone is doing, and I trust we’re all thinking in some way about how to empower the next generation to step up and lead us into the future. The churches we are building are worth it, the people behind us care about it, and God’s mission demands it.
As a person who grew up in the evangelical world, I remember vividly one of the things that specifically inspired me about the ICOC. Men and women read the scriptures, internalized them, and allowed God’s truth to blossom into big dreams and goals! It was the commitment to bold spiritual dreams that inspired me almost 23 years ago to quit my lucrative job as an architect and become a ministry intern, which was anything at the time but lucrative!
Dreaming big is a beautiful part of our heritage together. We have planted churches all over the world and raised up leaders who have been able to make an impact very quickly. I know we have a lot of work yet to do, but I look at the cohesiveness of our missions societies, and the way we can work together for common goals, and it speaks loudly of that same collective desire to make sure we don’t waste our short time here, but stay devoted to not just having an impact, but having a BIG impact. I am proud of the men and women in our movement who have labored and sacrificed for the mission. Their big dreams and goals have allowed God to move in amazing ways.
Times change, culture shifts and paradigms evolve – but there is one thing inside all of us, no matter the generation, that is timeless and transcendent: we are spiritual dreamers (Psalm 126). As people made in the image of our Creator, it’s embedded in our DNA. God still holds the record for having the largest, craziest dream of all: enact a grand plan (that the majority of the world still scoffs at), rooted in selflessness, suffering, and ultimately the sacrifice of his Son, all with a goal of reconciling people back to an eternal relationship with Him. Wow!
When dreams subside, we’re not being true to who we are created to be. I’m sure you feel the same way I do – when I stop dreaming and pushing myself out of my comfort zone, I struggle, and inspiration wanes. However, I find that my dreams may not be the ones to pave the way for another 30-40 years of big impact in the ICOC. Don’t get me wrong, I can still think big, but in some ways I’m a less important stakeholder in the future than I was 20 years ago. For our church to not only endure, but to thrive, the dreams have to belong to the generation behind us. They have to own them as theirs, and we have to let them have ownership.
A Necessary Part of the Process – Mistakes!
This idea brings up a tension I can feel as someone in senior leadership. The big goals and dreams that allowed us to be who we are today also came with some mistakes. It’s okay though, for it’s a part of growing and maturing. For instance, even though there were mistakes made, I will never lament the commitment to being a church that practices discipleship. Even though we may have planted some churches in haste, I will never regret acting on the desire to aggressively reach a lost world. The work for the next generation is to make sure they follow in our footsteps as spiritual dreamers and be willing to sacrifice all their worldly pursuits and potential for the sake of God’s dreams – yet too many of them are not. However, the work for me, and many of those in my generation, is to allow their dreams to exceed what I am currently comfortable with. For sure, I don’t want them to have to make some of the same mistakes we did, but I need to not be overly concerned about that, or too cautious in allowing them to lead boldly. It’s a tricky thing to navigate.
This hit home for me recently in Seattle, as I was sitting in on a class taught by two zealous, visionary young leaders. The first one talked about having big dreams and pushing yourself to think bigger and bigger about what God can do. I was inspired, but at the same time, I thought quietly to myself things like: “Just be sure to get your degree first young man, you need a backup plan; make sure that zeal is accompanied by balance and careful thought; just be sure to get a lot of advice before running off and doing something rash!” The next young man got up and spoke about imitation – picking someone in the fellowship who inspires you, then learning all you can from them, soaking it in and doing what they do! Again I was REALLY inspired, but also thought (quietly): “Be careful with that imitation thing, you can get hurt by being naïve; imitation seems cut and dry, but it’s loaded with nuance and layers; and again – just be careful with that.”
Look, all of these are good, necessary nuggets of wisdom, and I hope the next generation does avoid some of the mistakes we made. But what if they don’t? What if they repeat a lot of them? Is that really the worst thing that could happen? If we’re not careful, we can overly advise them, based on our own experiences, which can block them from having the faith God inherently put inside of them. Besides, you can make a good case that making dumb mistakes is a natural part of the maturation process anyway. I have two boys, and as much as I’ve advised them about not doing stupid things that might break a lot of bones, I also realize it’s a rite of passage that I can’t insist they skip.
Another Necessary Part – Scary Risks!
On a recent trip to the Grand Canyon, I begged my 18-year old son to stop standing so close to the edge of the 3,000+ foot drop-off! He scoffed and kept telling me to relax. I was terrified, but also remembered that I took the same risks at his age! I wouldn’t take that risk now, but I did when I was 18. Asking our kids to “skip” the stage where mistakes are made won’t allow them to mature in a natural way, and asking them to avoid, at all costs, the mistakes we made when we were full of ridiculous spiritual dreams is not only unfair but can get us in trouble with God.
There is a famous Old Testament example of this in Numbers 13-14: Caleb, Joshua and the 10 spies. Don’t worry, I’m not going to make the application that young people are faithful, while older people are lame. But there are some things to consider from this passage that will help us here. In it, God has his chosen people situated in the wilderness, and he’s ready for them to take the next step, into the promised land.
We know the context. God miraculously rescued his people from bondage and displayed his power and glory in ways designed to make them say, “Wow, God can literally do anything!” So Moses is instructed to send 12 leaders, one from each ancestral tribe, into the land of Canaan to scout it out. What is there? Who lives there? What is the land like? And by the way, do your best to bring back some of the fruit of the land. They obey the Lord and diligently scout out the land. They return together full of information, with two of them carrying a big cluster of grapes, a pomegranate and some figs on a pole.
Their report? Yes, the land is fruitful and fertile, but the people are big, powerful and scary, and they live in powerful fortified towns. Let’s stay here and not mess with them, because we’ll lose! Just then, Caleb stepped forward and “silenced” them. He saw the same thing they did, but believed that through God victory could happen. Of the 12 spies, only Caleb and Joshua highlighted the potential, not the problems. They saw fruit; the other men saw difficulty.
Potential Problems – Not the Focus!
This is a natural human phenomenon. My guess is the other 10 spies had some good reason for being a bit hesitant about boldly crossing over. The problem is, instead of being a part of the conversation, they let it be the main message. Their lack of faith infected the whole group of Israelites, causing panic and fear to set in. People talked about it, wept over it, and basically freaked out so badly that they contemplated overthrowing Moses and finding a new leader to take them back into Egypt, the place God had just delivered them from! Here’s the thing, I don’t want to judge those people. They reacted the way a lot of us would, especially after having gone through so much. These were the chosen people of God, they just had trouble seeing God’s power as being bigger than the fears associated with following His bold plans.
Not all of these fears were founded, but I’m guessing some were based on experience. No matter where they came from, we have to be careful not to miss the main message – why was God ticked off enough at them to decide they wouldn’t enter the promised land? They didn’t believe God could continue to do the miraculous things he’d done before (14:11). That’s it. In fact, a failure to continue to see God’s power through any difficulty, or despite any of our experiences, is seen by God as treating him with “contempt” (14:23). Not good. The only two allowed to cross over were the ones that simply saw the fruit and trusted the power of God, Caleb and Joshua. Young and naïve? Yes, but boldly faithful.
Here is what I’m hoping we think about. Our movement is wonderful and was advanced by some young dreamers with crazy ideas. Really, some of those ideas worked, but they were crazy! As much as we’ve seen God accomplish, there is still so much more work he wants to do through us. My hope is that the younger generations use us for our wisdom, wealth of experiences, guidance, and lessons learned. I also hope and pray that senior leaders like myself can work through our own disappointments or process any negative fruit of “bold dreams” in a healthy way, working hard to not let them overly influence the faith and idealism of those dreaming behind us.
I’ll be attending a meeting of Northwest leaders next weekend, and one of the topics to discuss is a new church planting in a Central Washington college town. We’ve scouted it out, talked about it, and need to come up with a plan. I see so much potential, along with some really good things I’d consider potential “risks” for planting a church there next year. However, I think what I’ll do is get the young dreamers in the room, and start with asking the question: “What do YOU think can happen?” And then listen, and let them dream!