There is a massive conversation that needs to happen within Christianity in America right now. More specifically, within the evangelical movement.
It will be a messy conversation with too many topics to cover. Nationalism and racism are priorities. But I don’t think these top the list. What does?
Right now, we have a leadership crisis in our churches and organizations.
Just today, I began reading Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership by Ruth Haley Barton. In the introduction, she writes:
Jesus indicates that it is possible to gain the whole world but lose your own soul. If he were talking to us as Christian leaders today, he might point out that it is possible to gain the world of ministry success and lose your own soul in the midst of it all. He might remind us that it is possible to find your soul, after so much seeking, only to lose it again.
We have seen leaders reach the summit of Christian ministry (whatever that means). And yet they have lost their soul in the process. What can a person give in exchange for their soul? Jesus tells us nothing.
The timing of starting this book is providential. A friend recommended it this week and I can’t help but connect it with recent news (initially reported in November) about Carl Lentz, the now ex-pastor of Hillsong New York City, who was fired by Hillsong for a number of reasons.
This comes after a number of other evangelicals in the last ten years have fallen from leadership–or their faith altogether. There are almost too many to name, and it saddens me deeply.
I’m not here to blame fallen pastors or shame them for “losing their soul.” Of course, they bear responsibility for their actions. But while I am not a megachurch pastor, I have been a pastor and I understand the temptation to seek the praise of people or receive special treatment a minister might benefit from. Every time the news breaks about another pastor, I ask myself, “Why did God have mercy on me?”
This all goes way beyond individual pastors. This is a “capital-C” Church crisis. We are all culpable. We have created and perpetuated a culture that allows and enables pastors–and even other ministry leaders–to lose their souls while gaining the world.
In a nutshell, we’ve rejected servanthood for celebrity.
And just to be clear, the incredibly significant problems of nationalism and racism fall under this problem of leadership. We are allowing “biblically qualified” leaders to abuse their authority and undermine the Scriptures to suit their political and ideological preferences at the expense of love, mercy, and justice.
The simple point I want to make is that our North American church system is broken and something needs to change. The system we have is hierarchical, rigid, and institutional. You won’t find this in the New Testament–where leadership was shared among many, service-oriented, and community-based.
It’s easy to think this is a megachurch problem. We only hear about “failed pastors” because they are, well, famous inside and outside of the church.
But as Rich Villodas, a pastor of a large church in Queens, tweeted yesterday, “This is not a big church problem alone. I’ve seen small and medium sized church leaders act like they’re the royal family.”
How do we solve this problem? It’s not simple or easy or quick. And I hope to provide some suggestions over the coming months as I take more time to process Barton’s book and my own spiritual leadership journey.
I can briefly say that it will take an innovative, unique, and more robust approach to recruitment, training, and preparation for church leadership. It will require a concerted effort to focus on the way and life of Jesus rather than simply the truth of Jesus. It will require a fundamental restructuring of our communities and what it means to be accountable as a leader. It will require a radical reorientation of what it means to lead when you are not the Leader (that’s Jesus’ role, not yours or mine).
In the end, it will take the marvelous, matchless grace of God in and through each of us so that collectively we live out our calling as the body of Christ. So long as we fail to live out this calling, leaders will continue to lose their souls, churches will be destroyed, and a watching world will not impressed at what they see.