I had the pleasure of being invited to hold a session at the Praxis 2018 gathering in Philadelphia, put on by the growing church planting movement V3. The theme of the entire conference centered around a much needed conversation on re-imagining leadership. Little did they know in preparation of the talks that so much of evangelicalism would be put to the test, particularly the state of contemporary leadership models.
My session explored the question of a, “Leadership that Thrives on the Margins of post-Christian America.”
Here is transcript edited for the blog.
When it comes to religious affiliation we can roughly say that as a whole, Canada sits about 10 to 15 years behind Europe. In the same way, Canada is about 10-15 years ahead of America in religious affiliation trends. Metropolitan areas in America are further “ahead” and are closer to the Canadian religious landscape. As such, Canada in many ways is a glimpse into the future for America when it comes to the relationship between church and culture.
With this in mind, I ask what does Leadership that Thrives on the Margins of post-Christian America look like? To unpack this statement let’s clarify two words first: margins and Christendom.
By margins I don’t mean marginalized. The contemporary church is not marginalized, rather it is being pushed to the margins largely as a result of its own incompetence and failure to embody mission in a new revitalized way. Marginalization implies the church has been unfairly targeted and has lost its place at the top as a result. I would contend the church is the victim of its own undoing, operating in a posture that was unconcerned about much of the world beyond the safe confines of the four church walls. Wit the church “asleep at the wheel”, culture has casually meandered forward. (I’ve depicted this shift below with culture as the circle and the church not moving.)
The other word is Christendom. By post-Christian (post-Christendom), I’m referring to the current culture that has de-centered (to use Drew Hart’s phrase) the church from the center of prominence. I call this period of time, “Grandma’s Church”. My grandma went to one of the two parish churches in her neighborhood. Reflecting back, nobody really knew why grandma went other than she had grown up in a time when that’s just what everyone did. The 1950s was the high watermark for church attendance where around 62% of Americans claimed to attend a religious service weekly. Fast forward to today, and that number is under 20% (depending on region of course) who would claim to attend a religious service monthly. The times have changed.
Grandma’s church also inherited a certain culture, one where it benefited from privilege, power, and say in the day-to-day lives of Americans. Here the church developed a posture that settled in place and waited for the world to come to it. This was made possible because it was assumed most people at least had a religious memory–they knew the stories, language, symbols of the church. Ultimately, when people were searching for the answers to life’s questions, they would seek out the church.
Today that’s not the case.
The demographics in America surrounding religious affiliation have permanently shifted. I want to stress PERMANENT. We won’t see a time again in our lifetimes (maybe ever again?) where the majority church (white Protestant churches) will regain a place of power and privilege at the centre of society. Grandma’s church is no more, and it’s never coming back. Instead, the majority of Americans today are the “nones” and “dones”.
The “nones” are those who when given a choice would check the box, “no religious affiliation”.
The nones are about 25% of the total population and are growing by 1% point a year. To put it plainly, within ONE generation HALF of all Americans will claim no religious affiliation. The question I’m trying to pose and later solve: is your church ready to connect with this new demographic that’s quickly becoming the majority in America?
Note, the “nones” aren’t atheists, as so many evangelicals try to label non-churchgoers. They are the “spiritual but not religious” crowd who are relatively neutral apart from what mainstream media portrays as evangelical (white, Republican, Trump-supporters, gun enthusiasts, who hate gays and brown people). Whether or not that’s an accurate portrayal or not isn’t the focus of this talk.
Together with the “dones”, who may be up to 50% of the population (those that grew up in church but have left), we’re looking at 3/4 of the population who are no longer the practicing faithful.
This wraps up the exploration of the two terms of “margins” and “post-Christian”. Now that we have an explanation of the question, I want to pose the profound challenge. But before I do that, another question.
Did you grow up in the church?
Usually in a room full of church leaders 95% have grown up in the church. This is a problem.
Most leaders have been formed IN the church, an age and culture incompatible within post-Christendom. We have been developed with paradigms from a legacy of church that is slipping out of existence. It’s no wonder most churches struggle to connect and grow through evangelism. Most leaders don’t have the skills to thrive in a new cultural reality.
This challenge forces us to re-imagine (among other aspects) leadership and mission. What we have isn’t working to connect with the growing minority (who will quickly become a majority) who know little about the church or its story. I can demonstrate the need for re-imagination by asking a couple of questions.
The first question is, “does your church grow?”
Generally, if someone (usually another pastor) asks this question we immediately default to metrics. Church growth in the contemporary evangelical world is measured in the ABC’s (attendance, building, cash). The pursuit of all three, with each bearing “fruit” metrics, is the marker of success. The fact we all default to these kinds of metrics is a result of a legacy of leadership development predicated on just that–leadership development. Most pastors have been to a Leadership Summit, but none of us have ever heard of a Discipleship Summit (there isn’t one). We celebrate ways of leading derived from profit maximizing corporations over the humble servant.
I constantly struggle with the nagging voice in the back of my head that demands I count how many people are at services. Even though we cater predominately to the dones and nones, I still catch myself counting how many “attend”. I don’t know what less or more people at an event is supposed to mean in our post-Christian context, but I can’t escape the urge to measure.
The other question reveals the impact old church paradigms have. (By the way, I’m not suggesting old is bad. Old wine has vintage, it has value. I’m merely suggesting everyone can’t be running a race to protect dad’s religion.) The question is “who do you baptize?” Churches struggle to baptize, and of those we do baptize, most are already Christians (our kids usually). I suggest that the testimonies of those we baptize is revelation of the kinds of people your church is reaching. It’s mostly other Christians. We struggle to connect with the “nones” and those who are culturally unaware of what the church even offers.
Re-Imagining Leadership & Mission in post-Christian America
It’s one thing to note the emperor has no clothes. It’s quite another to offer some solutions. Since we’ve been formed in church paradigms that function best under the assumption surrounding culture is Christianized, we need a different approach for a different culture.
When it comes to leadership we have to take a step away from a foundation rooted in corporate America. I know this will be difficult for larger churches since the bigger you are the more pragmatic you have to be in organizational function. (Big churches have to be strategic to merely operate, so we can’t throw that away.) But I want to challenge the default leadership tendencies. Namely, what we call the “visionary leader”.
You know how it works. The lead pastor once every 2-5 years goes up the mountaintop (the Summer retreat), comes back with the tablets (new vision for the church), and then takes the Fall season to launch the new “vision”. This is normal for most churches, but it does something profound to the congregation. The mission of the congregation (the church) is stripped away. Instead of building the gifts and abilities of the priesthood, we treat the congregants and mere volunteers who are cogs in a system built to realize the eventual vision.
This leadership model works best in a business context (but take note, even corporations are trying to figure out what it means to lead well in a new era.) It also works if your church looks like business. In my first transplant I embodied this kind of thinking. For good reason too. I was well trained in business as an entrepreneur. I had plans man–the best plans. It’s one of my skills in fact that I use for business and non-profit development. The value these skills had in church planting? For me not much. Not that I didn’t try.
My assumption in my first church plant was with a good plan all I needed to win was good execution of that plan. The missing ingredient to success was leadership development. My prayers early surrounded the provision of leaders for the church plant. “Lord, I’ll take just 8 leaders and this vision will be possible! Just 6 leaders Lord, and this thing stands a chance. God, I pray for 4 leaders, heck, just 2 really good leaders and the vision can be realized.” It didn’t happen. In fact, of all the time spent planning, once those plans encountered people on the ground, they fell apart.
This isn’t to say that building church planters should never centre around the visionary leader. We just have to be aware that the church plants succeeding with this kind of approach come in one shape. The single church planter sent with a critical mass of people to have a Sunday service. It’s the traditional way of doing church plants, formed in Christendom, and it need to be re-imagined. We require are many MORE models and attempts to help bridge the gap between church and culture in a post-Christian era.
For that to happen we need to replace the visionary leader with something I call a culture making leader. Rather than building people to “plug-in” to the system, the culture maker leader invites church into kingdom living. This culture is rooted in the unfolding kingdom, which co-creates alongside mainstream culture to point to an entirely new way of living. The church in this model are invited to live out the fulness of their humanity and their gifts even if it doesn’t have a direct relationship with the Sunday service or programs. It’s distinctly rooted by relationship in place and presence within community and broader neighborhood. More could be said here but I’m still working out this approach myself.
When it comes to re-imagining mission we need to fundamentally re-orient our paradigm of mission as church. No longer church as some thing we do in a far away land, or support in a “missions week”. Rather, it’s something we filter the very function of the church through. If God is a missionary God, we should embody the character of mission in all that we do, not let the “professionals” ‘do’ mission. I talk about this in my book and in this post.
Ultimately, along with the building of the body through the building of the gifts within, mission at work in the local church seeks the venture of you and a friend towards the fullness of life found in the Father. Too often the extent of our mission is to bring a friend to the Sunday service (to church). That could be an eventual connection point, or it may never be. When we seek life-on-life formation with a few friends, in search of deeper rooted in the kingdom, we have generated a paradigm that allows us to work within post-Christendom. This is in contrast to ways of living out our faith that would force outside culture to do the translation to belong within the closed doors of church community. One is struggling to survive culture shifts, the other is poised to thrive, albeit smaller, in post-Christendom.
Re-imagination in post-Christendom expands beyond the 2 elements of Mission and Leadership. I’ve written about a few more here. I would also add elements of justice (church as reconciler in such places as race), and vocation (leaders need to think about becoming bi-vocational).