Many words have been written about leadership. There is a large market for new methods, strategies, paradigms, and philosophies to help leaders succeed. Most of the words spent on leadership discuss the skills, the popularity, or the authority of leaders. Simply put, books on leadership exalt the leader or the leader’s role. This should not be surprising. After all, leaders purchase and read books on leadership. And leaders want to lead people better. This is not a bad thing. We need good leaders, especially in the church.
For many years the world has produced and sold a steady stream of both secular and Christian leadership paradigms and programs, and yet what should be clear by now is that this steady stream of leadership training has not given the church better leaders. The church has been plagued by scandal after scandal. Both high profile and low profile leaders of the faith have been leaving the ministry or even Christian faith all-together, due to burn-out, discouragement, accusation, and worse.
A similar assertion could be made about the mountains of discipleship material written and sold by publishing houses across the spectrum of Christian theology and practice. The church has not produced better disciples despite the abundance of written material. The Bible itself is more available and accessible than ever before, holy scripture literally at one’s fingertips whenever and wherever and in almost any form one could possibly want it. It’s hard to imagine how the Bible could be more accessible!
We have traveled through the golden age of Christian publishing and a renaissance of leadership in the English speaking world. One would expect this abundance of discipleship material would result in another great awakening for Christianity and a tremendous cultural turn toward the Christian faith. The reality is quite the opposite. We have become less like Jesus and the church in North America, as a whole, is in decline. Where is the disconnect between the publication of written material and the authentic and transformational spiritual growth we both expect and desire?
Caught Not Taught
We have produced volumes of teaching material believing that the writing would produce disciples. However, the Christian faith is not taught. It is caught. Christian belief is passed on from one believer to another relationally through the growth and development of trusting and mutually beneficial relationships. The best teachers teach through relationship. They lead relationally not propositionally. The teacher’s presence is the essential component, not the written material.
Essential apostolic beliefs are important and necessary for an orthodox and authentic Christian faith. But for almost everyone who becomes a devoted follower of Jesus, those foundational beliefs are not primarily passed along propositionally nor are they maintained apologetically. We must change our approach to ministry for Christianity to thrive once again. We must move away from the informational and experiential approach to ministry and become more relational and formational. This will not only mean a change in approach. It will also mean changing the way we view leadership itself.
Information Does Not Equal Truth
Information does not equal truth. We live in a world where information on any topic including Christianity is only a search bar away but truth is so very illusive. How does one know what to believe these days? Reason fails even the smartest among us when our sources of information are not trustworthy. Increasingly, people are deciding what is true by leaning heavily on trusting mutually beneficial relationships that they have developed over time. And despite this, we still depend upon pulpit ministry, a removed and anti-relational method of delivering truth, as our primary form of discipleship. This has left the message of the gospel vulnerable as following generations of not-yet Christians look for something relationally true. Our society has become increasingly skeptical of pastors and church leaders. As a result, people are not looking for the testimony of a far off stranger as much as they are looking for the testimony of proven friends.
The truths of Christianity are proven true by people who are devoted to Jesus Christ and live authentically and vulnerably alongside others. Biblical revelation was entrusted to living, breathing, fallible, human beings. It did not come with an exegetical method. It did not come bound together with commentary. It did not come with lights and smoke and an advanced sound system. It came to human beings relationally, from God to man, in dwelling and intimate just as the breath that was breathed into dust formed Adam in the beginning. And then it was shared much in the same way that it was delivered. Believers, sharing life with other believers, sharing life with not-yet believers and crossing the divide of culture and language and worldview with the lived-out gospel of grace proven true by visible authentic fruit and the martyrdom of many.
The miracle of a changed life through the power of the gospel occurs when those who do not yet believe in Jesus see that those who already believe are succeeding in life despite having the same difficult problems, challenging obstacles, and insurmountable struggles as everyone else. The more difficult the circumstances, the more proven the gospel message. Leaders who maintain a professional distance have a credibility issue. No amount of exegetical soundness and writing proficiency or preaching giftedness can cover the distance between the message of the Gospel and the hypocritical or relationally guarded life of the messenger.
We need leaders who live alongside those whom they lead and prove the gospel true by the authenticity and transparency of their walk with Jesus. We need mothers and fathers of the faith who are willing to open up their homes and their lives to those who want to know about Jesus. We need leaders who risk relationship.
For decades we have focussed on being culturally relevant in order to deliver biblical truth to not yet believers. We have constructed ministries with a facade of excellence that offer spectacular experiences and draw crowds. We have become salesmen and sales-women of the gospel. Our ministries shine and sparkle, but are they authentic? Do our services make authentic disciples of Jesus Christ? Are our relationships within the body of Christ authentic or do they just shine and sparkle like the ministries and events we create? Is our community authentic, loving, vital, and true?
Where will we find leaders who can create authentic community? How are vibrant communities developed?
Followers of Jesus Christ grow in vibrant community because the Christian faith is primarily about relationships. For vibrant community to be established relationships must be vital. The Christian faith is first and foremost about a believer’s vital relationship with God and how that vital relationship, in the midst of a broken and fallen world, can form and shape the believer into a Christ-like world changing man or woman. People need to see God at work in the lives of their leaders and leaders need to be vulnerable enough to let others see that work. Vibrant community is established first and foremost through a leader’s vital relationship with God that is then shared in community.
Good biblical apostolic preaching and teaching is important, but the foundational component of good leadership is relational, not informational. We need leaders who devote both their minds and their hearts to the gospel of Jesus Christ, who are primarily focused on the making of disciples over the making of a ministry or a church. And we need a lot of leaders, not just a few figure heads to whom everyone looks to for leadership. We need a priesthood of all believers to develop that is not just semantically true, but practically and substantially true.
Teaching fills the head with information where as relationships fill a life with meaning and purpose. People want their lives to be filled with meaning and purpose and they want to learn what is true and right and good alongside others. They are becoming tired of spectacular and desiring something more substantial. An authentic, relationally rich discipleship is needed in North America now more than ever.
Could it be that North American Christianity has become so head heavy and relationally deficient that it is toppling over? Or maybe the opposite is true. Emotionally uplifting and sensually pleasant experiences are an easy sell. Could it be that American Christianity has become so event oriented, milquetoast, and relationally deficient that it is evaporating for lack of depth?
Either way, sound doctrine falls to the wayside because it is held up by a weak, relationally hollow body. We need to develop leaders who are not only theologically sound and biblically literate but also relationally strong, willing to sacrifice personal accomplishment for the benefit of others. We need leaders who are willing to make disciples by building mutually beneficial relationships based upon trust. This will require humility.
We need leaders in the body of Christ who are willing to take the same relational risks that Jesus took when he called his disciples. It is a much more difficult calling and a much more difficult task than preparing and preaching a sermon for Sunday morning. It is a task that will consume the life of a believer, empty his or her closet while filling the soul. It is a calling that will starve the ego, hiding the leader behind the people he or she humbly serves alongside.
What About All The Good We Are Doing Together?
A leader’s teaching may equip the body to do good work which in turn builds a ministry, but through-out history God’s people have discovered that something very valuable is lost when we focus on good works rather than right relationships. I question the common assumption that the primary goal of a ministry leader is to equip people to grow a ministry. Sometimes the greatest enemy of God doing a great work in us is our desire to do a great work for Him.
Good leaders equip people to grow good relationships and those relationships are eternal, stronger, and more persevering than any organization or building. The kingdom of God is relational before it is organizational. The organization should always serve to deepen and enrich the vital relationships that make it necessary. Unfortunately, this gets upside down sometimes. Good works are tools to help build vibrant community and not the other way around.
The church is not a building, an organization, or a business. The church is the gathered people of God, His adopted children, followers of Jesus Christ. Jesus died for people, not organizations or their good works. Good leaders help other followers to know and follow Jesus. The growth of a ministry is not even secondary. It is tertiary at best. Healthy friendships, healthy marriages, and healthy families are prerequisites to healthy ministries. Sometimes ministries ask followers to sacrifice their vital relationships for the good of the ministry. I believe that this is demonic and ultimately detrimental to the gospel.
Can one really judge a congregation to be healthy if the essential relationships of their primary constituents are not? How many growing ministries have fallen due to the discovery of abuse or perversity, or even a well hidden extra-marital affair or pervasive addiction? Can a ministry be healthy when its leaders and volunteers have become less like Jesus as a result of their work? No. Good works are not a substitute for healthy relationships and not a reliable indicator of spiritual maturity or growth.
Making Disciples Is Not Controversial
The premise that discipleship is the purpose of ministry is not controversial. Most, if not all, Christian leaders would agree that the primary goal of Christian leadership should be the making of disciples and not the making of ministry.
If this premise is so widely believed then why is the problem of burned-out pastors and ministry volunteers so common? Why do we routinely hear stories about pastors and worship leaders, many who have served the church for years, becoming disenchanted by Christianity and abandoning their faith in Jesus Christ? Some of our most notable and successful leaders have fallen due to scandal. How can the making of disciples be the primary goal of ministry leadership when so many prominent leaders aren’t really following Jesus?
How did we get to the place where so many ministries and their leaders look great on the outside and yet are found to be hollow?
I think that we have lost the concept of disciple-making as Jesus would have understood it. My purpose in this blog is to rediscover and share the art of disciple-making. I believe that it is possible to reintegrate the vital relational foundations of our calling as leaders to make disciples of Jesus Christ without jettisoning exegetically sound apostolic teaching, sound doctrine, and meaningful practices of our faith.
As I humbly move forward, seeking to develop relationships and share these ideas so that others will do the same, I suggest that you read broadly and engage authentically with believers in your sphere of influence. Talk about these themes and ideas, and be vulnerable and open with others. I am stumbling forward. I invite you to join me, not just by reading this blog, but in conversation. I give free pastoral guidance and consultation to Christian leaders through my website pursuechristianliving.org. If these ideas have provoked you and you wish to connect for further discussion, fill out the contact form on our site and we can set up a time to connect.
Dr. Joshua Fletcher