I have been a leader in the church for almost eighteen years. When I was growing up in the church, the environment in most churches was one of considerable, and fairly extreme, legalism. It is so refreshing to see that beginning to change. I believe one of the main reasons it is changing is because people who grew up in the church in the 60’s-80’s sensed that something was wrong and decided that as soon as it was up to us, we were going to make some changes. That is exactly what we have done. The emerging church movement has come largely, I believe, from frustrated X-gen leaders (with a few baby boomers around the fringes helping to light the fire!), and now bridger-generation leaders, who are for the most part reacting to anti-intellectualism, unnecessary restrictions, judgmentalism, self-absorption, and huddle mentalities with which we grew up.
All this is great. As a middle schooler I was always attracted to the kind of speakers who were so passionate that when you listened to them you felt like your face was melted off. The passion and conviction were so motivating, and I could hear in those voices the prophesying power of John the Baptist, of Jesus, of early disciples in the faith. These were the Tony Campolo‘s, the Mike Yaconelli‘s on the national stage and, more locally for me, Ron Kopicko and Jon Kulaga. These were people of insight, honesty, power, and conviction, people who weren’t afraid to tell it like it was. Of course today Tony is as fiery as ever, Mike is too-long gone, but there are so many more! In fact it seems the vast majority of Christian teachers on the national stage today are calling the church to service, to openness and authenticity, and to what it means to walk in humility and quietness with God.
The Problem — The Frustrated Leader
I am so grateful that things are changing. It was way too long in coming. But I am also concerned. I am concerned because as I read blogs, books and articles, and listen to sermons, frequently what comes across to me is a sense of frustration. I identify it because I know I have too often come across to my congregation that way. Leaders, if we are not careful, we can easily come across like our primary message, underlying all the good things we say, is, “What’s the matter with you people? Why are you so selfish? Why aren’t you more committed? Why aren’t you more on board with your church? Why don’t you give more, serve more, follow better, think harder, and pray more often for your pastor?”
There is an answer to that question.
The church is a direct reflection of its leadership. Anytime we as leaders point out what’s wrong with the church, we must begin with ourselves. It’s easy for us to be self-satisfied. “I knew there was something wrong long ago, that’s why I became a pastor/teacher, so I could FIX IT!” But that’s not good enough. The medium is the message.
How we come across says more than what we’re saying. If we constantly project frustration and disappointment with our people, they will grow discouraged and quit trying. When this happens, they will often not know any better than to flock to more books, more speakers, more sermons that will flog them even harder, because they will believe they are the problem. They will certainly have no problem finding those resources that will target them as the source. We crank those out like crazy.
The people are not the source of the problem. We leaders are. We must deal with our frustration first. We must not excuse our bad attitudes, because bad attitudes for God are still bad attitudes. When the offering is low, we must deal with ourselves and our own anxieties so we do not communicate anger and frustration to our people. When our programs don’t go as we planned, we must deal with our disappointments and not put our feelings on the people. When we observe that people aren’t giving and serving enough, we must think not about how we’re going to preach to them about it, but how we will love them into being better. To paraphrase Richard Rohr, we don’t love people for changing, we love people first, so that they can change.
Church leader, I love you too. You have a hard job and most people don’t remotely understand it, much less appreciate it. I don’t want you to feel beat up either. But the buck stops with us. You and I are the ones responsible for the state of the church, and it’s up to us to figure out how to move it forward. Decades of legalism (as well-intended as much of it was) didn’t produce more faithful followers. It produced us — a generation of leaders determined to make change (that’s good), but often frustrated, incapable of seeing what was good about our past, and quite willing to lay much of the blame at the feet of the very people who look to us for leadership (that’s not good).
Questions and Conclusion:
How would our books change if we started with this? What hugely successful books of the past five years couldn’t even have been written if we routinely started here? How would our sermons change? Most important, how would we as leaders be less frustrated, more centered on the provision and abundance of God, and more focused on the flaws in ourselves instead of those in others? How can we grow more sensitive to what we feel like and sound like/read like when we are beating our followers up and blaming them for the problems we are here to help fix?
Remember, it’s often very subtle blame we put on people. After all, most of us are professional communicators! We know how to lead people to feel certain ways, how to piece our points together just so. Do we know how to detect when we have become manipulative? Do we know how to hear the subtext many of our people may be hearing? Do we know how to live in the peace and abundance of God, regardless of whether or not people are getting on board with what we think they should do and how we think they should live?
The medium is the message. If we don’t know how to live in the peace and abundance of God, we will communicate anxiety and scarcity to our people, even as we preach to them about the exact opposite.