But we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word. Acts 6:4
As I was learning how to navigate the professional Christian life, I remember that the older generation, the very conservative branch on the Christian family tree, kept harping about how the world has gotten into the church. They didn’t like playing taped music in church, women wearing pants, or songs not found in the church hymnal. High tech special effects were brightly colored figures on the flannel graph.
They were right and they were wrong. The church has gone worldly, but not because of fashion or fog machines. It has gone worldly because we have adopted the values of the world as our own.
When I was a young and virile pastor, there was something that I pined for more than almost anything:
1. Singular top-down leadership (validation of self)
2. Unbridled competition (method of attainment)
3. Numerical success (proof of validation)
My obsession to become a more effective leader led to a competitive spirit that drove me to obsess about success. What mattered most was that I was successful, which was always measured in terms of numerical growth, financial gain, and organizational efficiency. If any of those were weak, I simply gained more leadership skills and tools so that the line on the success graph always tracked up and to the right.
How did I know if my numbers weren’t sufficient? I compared my numbers to last year and if they were down, I worked harder, drove harder, and pushed harder until they were up at least 10% over the previous year’s numbers.
When numbers are tracked, analyzed, and celebrated, that seems to me not very far from reducing people to symbols and when I do that, I objectify a soul. What can be worse than that? How big does a church or business have to get before it starts objectifying people? Rick Warren has famously said, “Since the church is a living organism, it’s natural for it to grow if it’s healthy.” That would be true if the church was a garden or a disease; however, the Bible refers to a church as a family more than any other metaphor. Do we want our families to grow at an unchecked pace? Why not look at the church as the ‘body of Christ”? If a body grows and grows we might say it is obese. Is that healthy? Someone said recently, “Baptists count everything except calories.” I only have to look at my own waistline to see the veracity of that snark.
Singular top-down leadership feeds all the wrong things inside me. It strokes my ego and sense of self-importance. I am only a frog’s hair away from using people as pawns on my board to accomplish more ego-gratifying success. Competition arouses my flesh and makes me want to win. It makes me want to beat—someone or something—and it inflames my need to control my world.
If leadership is influence and I know that I have influence over someone’s life, it creates an itch in me that is hard to resist. That tickle is “power” and when I have power, I tend to use it for my purposes. I am quite adept at camouflaging it all in altruistic and spiritual language. I say all the right things:
“This is for the glory of God.”
“We count people because people count.”
“God was also interested in numbers; He even named a book in the Bible after it.”
“Ever number represents a soul that matters to God.”
“Leadership is my spiritual gift.”
“I want to multiply the impact of our ministry.”
Of course all of those have elements of truth in them. That is why I can say them with a straight face and kid myself into thinking that what I am doing is ordained of God. No one dare challenge me or I will pull out the big guns and say something like, “Touch not my anointed, and do my prophets no harm.” (1 Chron. 16:22)
Singular top-down leadership easily lends itself to power plays; and power plays use people and damage them. Every time I damage someone, I do damage to myself. I can’t harm you without harming myself.
Let me use a crass illustration. (I do not drink whiskey.) Top-down leadership is like whiskey. A little sip may be harmless, but too much whiskey can cause great damage to the person who drank it and the people in his world.
The effect of the alcohol is inebriation, that is, success. The more success I enjoy, the more whiskey I drink and the more alcohol is activated, the more inebriated I become.
Some people drink whiskey for the taste; they sip it from time to time. Others drink whiskey because they want to get high. Still others drink whiskey because they are addicted to the drug of alcohol.
To extend this metaphor let me point out that not everyone who sips whiskey becomes an alcoholic, but some do. No one knows who is susceptible or at what point enjoying the taste turns into enjoying the high. Where is the turn from needing a drink to get through the day to driving drunk and killing a family in a minivan?
Singular top-down leadership is toxic to my soul. I can’t handle it. I hurt people with it and I hurt myself with it. I wonder if it is time to reexamine the leadership model of the western church.
Several years ago the concept of ‘servant leadership’ became a buzz idea. In the Baptist circle of pastors/leaders I ran with, it was looked down upon as a weak and anemic model. Who would want to be collegian and egalitarian in their approach to leading the church? You can’t control that. So, we turned our backs on the idea of serving as a model for leading.
In the 1985 film Pale Rider, the Clint Eastwood character known as “The Preacher” is tempted to leave his small flock at a mining site to move into town and have a building and town folk to come to church. He is basically given a blank check if he would stop shepherding (protecting) his little flock from the greedy owner of a larger mining operation that wanted the rich but smaller claims. After the temptation to shift his ministry to the town, Preacher says, “You can’t serve God and mammon, mammon being money.”
For the health of the souls I’ve been entrusted with, I have to choose. I can’t do both and keep the world out of the church. And, for crying out loud, we need to stop looking through the lens of the Corporate America leadership model when we read the Bible. I want to suggest we look afresh at what leadership is in the New Testament. Perhaps we stop looking at Moses and David as models and look at Jesus as the model.
Jesus was a leader of a different kind. He taught, modeled, prayed and served. He didn’t organize or systematize anything. He focused more on being than doing.
Will today’s Christian leaders be content with that? I don’t know. It’s not very ego swelling. Will the organizations (church included) allow a leader to lead like Jesus? I don’t know. It’s not very efficient and the growth is slow and often ponderous. They may not have the patience for that.
The church is not the corporation of God. We are not an NGO of God. We are not the institution of God. We are not the government of God. We are not God’s team. We are the family of God and a family needs presence, teaching, modeling, and prayer. It is often slow and ponderous work to raise a family. It can’t be done quickly and success is NEVER measured by numbers, but always by generational character and integrity.
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. Matthew 20:25-26
That is the Jesus way, and I like it.