Leadership Lies: Build The Church You Want To Be Part Of

woman carrying baby at beach during sunset

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Assuming you’re not the sort of church leader who only spends a short amount of time at any one church, on the face of it there seems to be much that’s understandable about this. After all, it would be a hard experience to be part of a church for, say, 10 years, and for it not to be the sort of church that you would want for yourself and for any family that you may have. A disconnect in spirituality or theology between the leadership and the church can be a jarring experience that can lead to painful conflict, and to more than a few people (leaders included) leaving a church jaded, cynical, wounded and finding their faith ebbing away. It’s potentially even harder for church members if that disconnect exists in a church located in an area where there are few (if any) others to choose from: if you want to be part of a church community and don’t have a practical choice as to which church that is but find yourself alienated by how the leader is shaping the church, then it can be the sort of experience that asphyxiates faith like a slowly building carbon monoxide leak.

As someone who’s been in full-time paid church leadership for 17 years, I’ve been to several seminars and read more than a few books that tell me that as a leader I need to build a church that is the sort of church I would join if I was living in the area and looking for a church to go to. In addition to the reasons just mentioned, the argument goes that if I’m to encourage members to commit to a church community and invite others to join it, then it would be hypocritical for me to do so if I wouldn’t commit to the church myself in their position. It’s hard to argue with, and to a certain extent I don’t want to. If I had a fundamental disconnect with the dominant theology or practice of a church I was invited to lead, then I would have a choice: put up with it (which would be very difficult to square with my conscience), try to change it, or not do the job. If a church is on a path to death, then clearly something is going to have to change unless all present are in agreement that what’s required is a good death (and there’s no shame in that  – we believe in resurrection, so allowing a church to die so something new can emerge is a noble calling). However the truism that the leader must build the church the leader wants to go to is rarely aimed at theological fundamentals or practices that are at the heart of the church’s life. They’re more stylistic, fringe issues that make the leader feel safe, comfortable and at home. I’ve seen more than a few churches being broken apart as the leader seeks to bend the church he’s (and it’s almost always him) leading to the shape of his will. The result is a church that he and people like him like; and very few others.

At the risk of death by a thousand qualifications, it’s clear that after a few years of one person’s leadership, a church will inevitably reflect aspects of that person’s character, theology, practice and preference. To a certain extent that’s unavoidable and natural. More often, however, this maxim is preached by an alpha male sort of leader; the sort who I once saw spontaneously (I do wonder if that should have been in quotation marks) play wrestling with his leader mate (yes, really) on the stage of a leadership conference attended by thousands as part of an in-joke only about 20 were privy to. Oh how I laughed. I found myself thinking; you wouldn’t have seen women leaders doing that.

There’s the rub. For around 2,000 years church leadership has been mainly male. Inevitably, therefore, material on church leadership has been delivered by (usually white) men; the images and metaphors have been male-centric, appealing to the idea of the alpha male leader, courageously leading a church into an unknown future only he can see. Men telling men in leadership to be the sort of male leader men like to think they should be. Clearly God has done some good through all this – as God always will – but much harm has been done also; it’s way past time for a change. As more women (slowly) are oh so graciously permitted to step into a church leadership, we need paradigms of leadership that redress the balance. It’s also hard to square what we know of Jesus with the image of the courageous alpha male leading towards the future that has been revealed to him; after all, the real Jesus begs to be released from suffering and doesn’t know when He’s returning.

What paradigms are we left with? Well, we should let women develop them. This mustn’t be the leadership manifestation of mansplaining. One metaphor I’ve found illuminating, however, is that of the midwife. I’ve never given birth, nor been present at a birth; but it seems clear to me that the midwife’s role is to assist and create an environment into which the emerging new life can be safely born. In this metaphor the mother giving birth is the Holy Spirit, the church leader is the midwife working with the natural processes of the Spirit, the church is the baby being born. The leader with her knowledge, experience and training must listen carefully, patiently and attentively to the signs from the Spirit and the church emerging, blinking and wailing into life; and of course there are times when she must act decisively and even urgently. There’ll be blood, sweat, tears and screaming in the process of delivery; but it’s not as a result of shaping a church to a leader’s will, but rather a by-product of a new life emerging from the natural rhythms and work of the Spirit. The leader works; oh how she works. But it’s not for her; it’s for the mother.

Like all metaphors, it will break down at some point so mustn’t be pressed or stretched too far. It’s a visual aid, nothing more and nothing less. But we need more of them that are less alpha male, coming from an altogether different place. Those with more knowledge or experience of the process of human birth must correct or add to what I have started here; and we who are men in leadership must allow women in leadership to develop more, newer paradigms of leading a church that allow a new way of being. And we men must be willing to work with those new paradigms ourselves, as for so long we have expected women to work within almost exclusively male paradigms for 2,000 years.

After all, not for nothing does the Bible present the church as the bride of Christ; of course, an exclusively feminine image. It’s almost as if the Spirit planted that in the pages of the Bible, and was waiting for men in leadership to catch-up.

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Leadership Lies: Just Preach The Gospel And The Church Will Grow

man planting plant

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This seems to make some kind of sense, right? After all, there’s that parable about seeds and God making the plants grow isn’t there? And if the Gospel’s attractive and true, and if God’s grace is irresistable, then people will respond to it and the church will grow, won’t they? Didn’t Peter preach the Gospel on the first Pentecost and see 3,000 people decide to follow Jesus? Didn’t the early church see people converted ‘daily’? We just have to get back to the pure truth of the Gospel, preach that, and all will be well.

It all sounds very attractive. We church leaders are always looking for a programme, a method, a technique, a sermon series which will guarantee church growth and great stories of changed lives. This sounds admirably simple and free of guile – we can all ‘just preach the Gospel’, can’t we?

The problem is this view ignores reality and the Biblical witness, and is dangerously close to a very particular kind of heresy. You don’t have to read much of the Bible to find that the people who are really being obedient to God and preaching what God wants them to preach don’t always end up with a crowd following them – prophets lying on their side for days a time, people cooking food over excrement; Moses had a crowd following him, but they were wandering around in the desert for 40 years, doomed to die before they got to where they were meant to be going. Jesus had crowds though, didn’t he? Well, yes. Crowds who tried to kill him, and eventually left him more or less alone as he died. Many of the original apostles paid for their missionary and church planting exploits with their lives. The Bible – which the people who so often spout this particular lie are so keen to claim fidelity to – does precious little to guarantee the success of true ‘Gospel’ ministry.

I know many faithful ministers of God, plugging away week by week in difficult situations. They ‘just preach’ the Gospel (and do much else besides); there’s little in the way of growth. Why? All sorts of reasons; we’re in post-Christendom culture now, where the Gospel is not assumed a preference, or they may be in a rural setting where there’s few people who haven’t experienced the ministry to reach and what’s really required is loving presence as much as any words you might come up with. Maybe the soil into which the minister is sowing is not healthy soil – maybe it’s rocky ground, and the parable is quite clear about what happens to the seeds there. That’s not the minister’s fault; it’s got nothing to do with her fidelity to the Gospel or otherwise. Maybe she’s been called to plough hard ground.

Ahh, comes the reply, You’re not preaching the Gospel if you’re not seeing growth. That’s a very circular kind of argument that’s hard to disprove. Until you consider reality, and the teaching of the church. A few years ago at an international evangelical congress, it was agreed that prosperity theology is heretical. Briefly, the prosperity ‘gospel’ says that if you give to God he will make you happy, healthy and rich. This doesn’t stand up to the Biblical witness of taking up your cross, and how much Christians suffer just like everyone else. It piles guilt on the poor, offers false hope and is a perversion of the Gospel. Hence, it’s heresy.

The statement ‘Just preach the Gospel and your church will grow’ is a particular kind of prosperity theology. It says, in essence, if your church isn’t growing, there’s something wrong with either your theology or your presentation of the Gospel. The problem there is that it fails to take account of the fact of how attractive a lie is – the prosperity gospel is dangerous because it’s so attractive. Churches which preach it are very full – and very rich. Can you see how close this is to ‘preach the gospel and the church will grow’? Just get the formula, the presentation, the content right and bingo! Your church will grow. You’re not growing? Well, there must be something wrong with you. It’s a kind of prosperity gospel related to doctrinal purity – God will reward your doctrinal correctness with growth.

You see, nowhere does God reward success or doctrinal purity with growth. When we are given a picture of God welcoming His servants into eternity with him, what are the words He uses? ‘Well done my good and doctrinally correct servant?’. No. It’s ‘my good and faithful servant, enter into the rest I have prepared for you’. Faithfulness speaks of marriage vows – for richer, for poorer, for church growth or shrinkage, in good soil and rocky soil. Faithfully plugging away.

What about fruitfulness though? Doesn’t Jesus promise – and require – that? Well, yes. But He produces it. In all honesty, I can only point to a handful of people who have truly been converted through my 18 years or so of ordained ministry. But I still hear stories – of how people I ministered to have remembered something I preached and that launched them on a lifetime of missionary service; disturbingly, one person in the church I served my curacy in still listens to my sermons from then, all those years later. I remember one young man came to me for advice about getting ordained. I doscouraged him; I told him I thought God was calling him to be an evaneglist and foreign missionary. He took that on board – he’s been serving for years now, in a foreign land, with great effectiveness and fruitfulness.

I haven’t seen significant growth; but it seems there’s been the slow fruit of encouraging the saints and being an instrument of God calling others to ministry through my ministry. Who knows how many will hear the Gospel – and respond  – through them? That seems to me to be the faithfulness and fruitfulness God calls us to.

I’ve seen churches grow for many reasons – to be honest, in Westernised contexts, very few of those are about conversions and ‘Gospel responses’; they’re sociological. People of the same nationality being attracted to a community where there are others like them; a church school being used to crowbar unwilling parents through the church doors; the newish church in the area being more attractive, comfortable, having better music or coffee than the churches these people used to go to. The list goes on – it’s not that God can’t use these things to woo people into His kingdom, of course; I would just prefer a little more honesty about it. Much of what passes for church growth is about something rather different to what we pretend it is. If it was what it is often claimed to be then our nations would be in the midst of revival, so many ‘vibrant and growing’ churches there are. And it doesn’t take much to see that we aren’t in revival.

So let’s abandon this lie that if we ‘just preach the Gospel’ our church will grow. Attractive as it may seem, it’s self-aggrandizing to those with big churches, and piles guilt and self-doubt on the rest of us. Out job as leaders is to be faithful. The rest is up to the one who calls, the one saves and the one who rewards us.