By Seth Lovell, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.
The church is Christ’s. This is made clear in scripture (1 Cor. 12:27), and in the polity of the Presbyterian Church (USA) (G-1.0301). The church is also the means God uses to carry out God’s purposes in the world. The church is both a human institution and also an instrument of the one true God. This paradoxical reality of the nature of the church means that in this age of ecclesial decline, we must counter fear of deterioration and irrelevance with hope and certainty of God’s ultimate plan for the church. When considering what spiritual leadership looks like in this new reality of a post-Christendom world one attribute stands out above the rest: confidence in God’s future.
In his leadership book Tribes, Seth Godin discusses what leadership looks like in our new digital age. Godin’s lessons apply to leaders in varied fields, including Christian churches. His message is simple: never before have the tools been available for so many to assume positions of leadership. This happens when people are willing to challenge the status-quo, and to work towards something that they believe in. Godin writes about the importance of faith (not necessarily spiritual faith) in one’s work, stating, “Faith leads to hope, and it overcomes fear” (Godin 79). If you are passionate about what you are doing, and believe in the goals you are working to achieve, then chances are you will succeed.
While our post-Christendom environment means fewer churches, it doesn’t have to mean fewer congregations. Ten people gathering regularly at a coffee house to pray for one another, learn about discipleship, and encouraging one another in their faith journeys is a “congregation” more in line with the early church model than a contemporary large steeple church. With the amazing increases in communication technology that Godin discusses, congregations can, and should, begin to come in diverse and numerous shapes and sizes. What is needed, if you accept Godin’s thesis, is leaders willing to look for new and innovative ways of being “church.”
For these new spiritual leaders to be successful they need to not only know how to utilize the numerous tools and resources available in today’s digital world, they have to believe in the mission of uniting people in Christian fellowship and community, and they need to have confidence that God is ultimately the one in control. To borrow a metaphor of Godin’s, successful church leaders in this challenging era will be more like thermostats than thermometers. “Thermometers” merely react to the circumstances around them, telling the temperature, reporting when something is broken. Thermostats don’t report on the environment, they change the environment (Godin 101-102). The church does not need leaders who merely react to the challenges that are ever present, but leaders who view these challenges as opportunities to engage in something new.
What is unique for the church is that while the model and the messaging need to change dramatically, the core goal and mission should remain the same. Those in the church believe that what we preach is timeless—however, how we preach it isn’t. Our belief in Jesus as the Christ has not changed—however, our response to this belief has changed continually over the centuries. While the church has no doubt gone through varied and dramatic shifts over its history, it is also a human institution prone to being stagnant. Change isn’t easy, and it doesn’t come quickly. Leaders in our new post-Christendom context will recognize the opportunities our new realities bring, see the need for change, and seek to make it. Godin makes it clear, “stability is an illusion” (Godin 16).
While the key element of successful leadership in church is confidence and hope in God’s future, Godin details a number of components of successful leadership that can help the church forge a path forward. Godin talks about the importance of focusing on “tightening the tribe.” By tightening, Godin is detailing the reality that bigger isn’t always better. Godin writes, “A tribe that communicates more quickly, with alacrity and emotion, is a tribe that thrives” (Godin 52). A tighter tribe hears its leader better, communicates more efficiently, and works together more effectively. Communicating with your congregation is the best way to “tighten” your tribe. Godin also discusses the importance of creating “microleaders.” A church needs lots of leaders in order to thrive, and be successful.
In order to be an effective and impactful leader in today’s world one must be willing to be innovative, to challenge deeply held norms, and to push back against the status-quo. This isn’t easy in an institution like the church that has a deep and abiding devotion to tradition. However, in order to remain viable and vibrant, churches must be willing to adapt to the changing culture. This change will require leaders who have confidence in their abilities, who can tap into the numerous tools available, and who ultimately place their faith and trust in God, believing that God has a plan for the church. Faith in God, and confidence in God’s future, will enable church leaders to be successful, even in the midst of challenging circumstances.