Saturday, 11 June 2011

Leading people up the garden path

A discussion came up in a class I teach the other day, about the nature of discipleship and how we determine the growth in someone's Christian life of faith. What arose in the discussion is how, within certain paradigms of church expression, we can be tempted to define personal spiritual growth primarily in terms of narrow definitions of 'leadership' and 'capacity'.

In 'contemporary' Pentecostalism, leadership is certainly the flavour of the decade in terms of priority. This recent emphasis is an entirely understandable response for a church movement historically focused on experience and Spirit-led revival. It is perceived that the problem of the past was a lack of leadership and therefore a resultant lack of focus and implementation of long-term significance etc.

While I understand this emphasis and why it has arisen, I do have some concerns about making certain definitions (e.g. John Maxwell-type versions) of leadership the central focus of church and spirituality on an ongoing basis. The challenge for us, is that the more we talk about leadership as central to what we are doing, it can be the less we actually end up talking about Jesus or our own personal faith etc. In fact, we can end up judging somebody's progress of faith, by how well they express their leadership in certain contexts. If somebody is growing in certain areas of their life e.g. they are punctual, enthusiastic, passionate, practical, directive, a great team player, visionary, inspiring etc - we can therefore assume that they are growing in their faith.

I am quite fond of punctuality myself (despite my somewhat laid-back creative personality)... however, I don't find it listed amongst many of the top biblical concepts for how to know if someone is growing in their faith in Christ. In fact, Paul lists a few such attributes in Galatians, and they include things like gentleness and kindness. In contemporary church how often do we find Christians discussing the way in which they (or others) are growing in gentleness and kindness towards one another? In fact, at times these things can be seen as limiting to one's ability to lead and therefore need to be avoided.

I am not against leadership training or input, but I do think we need to be careful. In the 1st century, many associated wealth as a sign of spirituality and God's blessing - and I think today we need to ensure we don't do the same with leadership or capacity. You can not determine your own (or others) spiritual growth by how many teams or meetings you are committed to. You can not determine it by the percentage of growth in your small groups or various teams etc. If we create churches that equate organisational leadership skills with spirituality and spiritual status, we run the risk of modeling a Christianity that may leave people empty. If we tell people that doing certain things are what matter, and they do those things only to discover they are not where the life of the gospel is actually found, we may breed disillusionment instead of the long-term significance we desire.

We need to ensure that we remember to centre our lives around Christ and his teaching. At times the right Christian response will actually need to override what might seem to be the right 'leadership' response (depending on our definition of leadership) - and we need to be encouraged to make the right choices. Ultimately, Jesus showed his definition of leadership by washing his disciples feet and by going to the cross. And its a path that I would rather avoid.... yet He compels me to follow.


  1. yes indeed mj. The things that we judge as “growth" in leadership context are things that serve the institution. The things that are probably spiritual tend to confront the institution, and that is precisely why they are ignored in a hierarchical context.

  2. Joseph McAuley11 June 2011 at 21:28

    Great thoughts Michael! And a great challenge for me as a pastor leading a church.
    Shane, I needed that comment of yours for my last assignment. In paper I was arguing that God renews Christian spirituality most often from the fringes of church culture. One of the reasons being that established leadership is often (and understandably) focused on the maintaining of the church institutionally and on reputation and position that it is difficult to be open to ideas that may challenge the institution, even if they are Spirit led ideas. Reformation began in the margins and confronted the establishment. Pentecostalism began also began in the margins with a one-eyed black preacher, the son of slaves, leading the way, along with women (would you believe it!!!).

  3. No Joseph, I simply refuse to believe it, I simply cannot let my experience shape my theology =)

  4. Great thoughts in this post and it has got me thinking. If the church esteems and promotes a certain kind of leader then presumably it is because they have the capacity to get us to our desired destination. If we are promoting organizational leaders who are low in kindness or servanthood, then what does that say about our destination?

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  6. I think 'destination' in leadership is far more important than we have given credit for. We have focused a lot on 'how' we lead, but not much on exploring a theological/biblical vision of 'where' we are leading people to.

    This means we have people who can be good at getting people up and organised and moving in a certain direction - but who haven't really thought through where they should be leading them...

  7. Great post and I am loving the discussion. The questions of why and where should be able to be articulated by those who are 'leading' (or who have been taught to lead). Sometimes when we stop and try to say things out loud, it can all of a sudden not make so much sense anymore; which makes it an important and hopefully frequent reflection for us - in the context of church and in the context of our personal lives.