By Sara Sommers, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.
The day is gray, and the news equally as bleak. The modern, post-Christendom environment sees fewer congregations, shrinking memberships, and scarce clerical job opportunities. Maybe the news is why this seminary class is full. We, eager pastors-in-training, look to our fearless teacher who sits at the long table at the front of the room, his arms flanking an Ipad, books and papers on either side. He starts the class entitled Post-Congregational Evangelism by offering a lectio divina reading of Acts 2:42-47. A vision of the early church in its making where “day-by-day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved,” Acts 2 stands in stark contrast to the dwindling numbers of our “networked individualism” (see Networked) that has us flocking to yoga classes instead of Sunday School. But, there may be an antidote. In his compelling book, Tribes, Seth Godin, American author and entrepreneur, argues that tribes are the organizing element of change, and bold tribe leaders are the source of future movements. Godin’s observations offer a visage of spiritual leadership that might arrest the declining numbers and reinvent a concept of church that looks curiously akin to the one launched by those early believers of Acts—believers inspired by the most gripping tribal leader himself, Jesus.
“A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea” (1). With the advent of the Internet, Godin argues tribes are everywhere. “The explosion in tribes, groups, covens, and circles of interest means that anyone who wants to make a difference can” (8). Interestingly, like church, tribe participation is almost always voluntary. The chief (no pun intended) feature of an effectual tribe is its leader. Today’s leader is no longer the manager herding sheep to the same old, half-eaten pasture. This leader is a change agent, a “heretic,” and “rabble rouser.” Godin argues, “If leadership is the ability to create the change your tribe believes in, and the market demands change, then the market demands leaders” (22). There is no doubt that the declining numbers in American church attendance indicates a change is in order. Efforts to stimulate growth with new programs have not drawn the “unaffiliated” to church doors. Yet, statistics prove Americans to be a spiritual people, even as they look for connections along non-religious avenues. Could Godin’s tribe concept, led by radical thinkers, offer an alternative approach to summoning the spiritually curious to Christ?
Union Presbyterian Seminary’s professor of evangelism, John Vest, writes, “if people are no longer interested in going to church, the church must find ways of going to the people.” Combining Godin’s notion that anyone anywhere can be a leader with Vest’s argument that church is a movable entity of connection not a static building of institution, tribe formation runs counter to the “Field of Dreams” theory of If you build it, they will come. Now, the possibility is more post-Christendom missionary-like where bearing witness to Christ is transportable. Paul Adams in his book Grouped advocates that today’s business model is people-centric. The church, while supposedly people-focused, is more often than not building-centric, system-driven, mandating appearances at said times. If people’s social networks are driving their outlay of time and resources, how might provocative church leaders capitalize upon social communities to spread the gospel? Godin recommends leaders today must not be afraid to “turn an existing system on its head.” Curiously, doesn’t that challenge to the status quo sound a lot like Jesus’ challenge to us?
I think it is ironic that Godin’s book features a section entitled, “Sleepwalking.” He writes, “I define sheepwalking as the outcome of hiring people who have been raised to be obedient and giving them brain-dead jobs and enough fear to keep them in line” (96). I can’t help but overhear my own history of sleepy, sheepwalking church attendance in that definition and my own hesitancy (fear) to oppose the standard. Somewhere in our obligatory church-going, we pew holders have lost sight of the original passion of early believers and the leadership model of Christ himself.
Returning to Acts 2:44, “All who believed were together and had all things in common.” Is this not the making of a tribe? People joined together in house churches, binding around that which they held in common, circling behind the rabble rousing messages of Christ. Godin’s ideal leader is curious, generous, heretical, the underdog, resisted, and always a challenge to the status quo. Sound like anyone you know?
Maybe as we think of spiritual leadership in the age of post-congregationalism, Acts 2 isn’t a bad place to start and for all of Godin’s modern-day philosophy and verbiage on radical leadership, why not consider Jesus Christ as our role model. Sheepwalking takes on a whole new meaning when we read John 10:27 honestly. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me.
As I imagine a future leadership role in the post-congregational church, I wonder, am I brave enough to ask myself whose voice am I really following?