Everyone knows the narrative. Seen and unseen forces in the world are pulling us apart. Red versus blue. Conservative versus progressive. White versus black or brown. Rich versus poor. Education versus no education. Pick your faction or fraction. So how does one lead a church in this kind of culture?
If church growth is your main objective, the most productive thing is to pick a team and go all in, riding the tribal wave. Either become a rainbow-flag-waving-social-justice advocate or a Bible-toting/quoting evangelist speaking out against the moral decay that is bringing down our nation. Keep talking about your mission in terms that resonate with what most of your people already think, bolstered by the onslaught in their constant social media feed. You will make the rest of your people mad — those who don’t agree — but tear off the Band-Aid quickly and those troublemakers will leave and the turbulence will abate.
Of course, those in both camps claim and authentically believe they are “both and” folks, part of a passionate middle, holding the two missional mandates together. When push comes to shove, however, the churches that really want to grow will pick a team in the culture war around us. The forces pulling us apart are too strong, and homogeneity is conducive to the growth of any movement. Most pastors know that people naturally look for “their people” when they are choosing a church. The pastors who lead these churches know how to do it well.
These growing ideologically homogeneous churches understand themselves as counter-cultural, and most claim they are a prophetic voice against the prevailing culture. The pastors can rally their people by taking stands against the forces they are resisting. Those in both camps will shout against the secularization of America. Their leaders will challenge followers to resist the cultural influences of the other side, and their people will join in, glad to know that their ideological bent is truly Christian. In the years ahead, these will be the faith communities that are celebrated as successful, and some will believe they have broken the code to solve the demise of the institutional church. Sadly, it also means that the church can become co-opted by the dominant ideology of the tribe.
The problem is that most United Methodist pastors and leaders do not fit the profile above. We cut our teeth in the convergent culture of yesteryear (see the current writings of Gil Rendle and Charles Handy) when folks sought to have relationships and agree with those who lived and worked around them. But now we live in a divergent culture, when folks can choose instead to be in relationship only with those with whom they agree and pull away from those with whom they disagree. We are at a loss to know how to make our churches grow. We view ourselves as pastors more than prophets, seeking with all our hearts to lead and care for all the people in our parish, not just those of one ideology. We seek to help people discover the joy of authentic community, the grace of a loving God, a lifestyle of love, and the meaningful pursuit of working side by side with others to make a difference in the lives of people we encounter. We are not as proficient at making a point, using our bully pulpit to gather like-minded people together. And we grieve and suffer when we watch those folks who disagree with us slip out the door, even if it is quietly and respectfully.
So what if there is an alternative? What if the point is to be faithful, even if it means lower numbers and smaller budgets? What if being an old-fashioned church loving of all sorts of people is what it really means be a counter-cultural community in a polarized culture? This goes against the grain in the mission fields to which we have been sent, so it may be that fewer folks will jump aboard, and many will say we are failing as our institutional footprint shrinks. But those who do join with us will experience something quite different from the racing heart they feel when they are watching their favorite cable television news or social media feed. They will experience a community of love that includes both conservative and progressive, old and young, rich and poor, gay and straight, white and black and brown, zealot and tax collector. And it could just be that this community will provide a welcome relief to the crowds “who are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”(Matt 9:36). Yes, it is far easier to write about it than to do it, but to figure out how to build such a community will really be breaking the code.
What are the skills and attributes needed for leadership in this counter-cultural church? I hear often that the competencies of yesterday’s church leader will not get us where we want to go. I suspect that this is, in many ways, true. Change management isn’t easy, and most of us just aren’t all that good at it.
However, and perhaps it is just my perspective at age sixty-one, the essential core competencies in the counter-cultural church of tomorrow are the same competencies that were needed in the Christendom church of the generation before me, and of the generation before that. Yes, things have changed, but the change just means that these essential skills must be honed and refined, and the final objective redefined. It isn’t that the proficiencies are different; it is just that we must become much better at them than we were before. And we must realize that the “success” we cultivate is not revealed in butts in seats, but rather the fruit listed in Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Characteristics of an old-fashioned-now-counter-cultural leader
Relational: CEO pastors who focus on mission and organizational leadership are wonderful, but those pastors must demonstrate a counter-cultural presence by caring for all their folks. I often ask our church leaders and staff to name the most important thing we can do to make people believe we care about them. Is it to know they names? To make eye contact? To send a personal note? To listen to their concerns? No, the most important think we can do to make people believe we care about them is to actually care about them. If we do, they will know. If we don’t, no class on how to memorize a name will help.
Secure: There are fancy words that have been developed for this. “Self-differentiated” is one I often hear. My mentor, Ben Oliphint, told me I needed to be “thick-skinned,” which isn’t a bad term either. Maybe “authentic” is part of it. The Pastoral Letters speak about the character of leaders far more than about either spiritual gifts or skills. It seems that self-management always precedes management of others. Pastors aren’t going to make everybody happy, so we at least need to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and not cringe.
Local and specific: I have long loved the message of St. Térèse of Lisieux, that we are to “love those God has put closest to us. Do not go looking for more fascinating people to love.” Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, says, “It is hard to hate up close. Move in.” I have always found it easier to get people together to do something for someone together than it is to get people to jump aboard a cause. Most folks are glad to help the immigrant or refugee standing in front of them, family in tow, regardless of their political perspective on immigration. Folks are glad to work together for something specific, even if they disagree with the person on their left or right.
Relevant: Yes, this seems counter-intuitive, but I don’t mean the right worship music and jeans, or even being savvy with social media. I mean knowing how to relate the Bible to life. The Scripture points us to the living Word of God. To say that the Bible is God-breathed is to say that it is alive, not static, and applicable in new ways to every culture and time. If we do nothing else, let us do that. Some leadership books I read say that preaching a good sermon is not enough anymore. True. But preaching a bad one sure doesn’t help. In a world where there are a thousand voices telling folks what is real and how to behave, a leader must be able to connect God’s story directly to each of the sheep in the flock.
Incarnational: Many years ago, a lay leader in my church said with excitement, “Hey, let’s do some stuff.” I have tried to make that a mission statement. We talk too much and do too little. Effective pastors in previous generations were those who showed up in the lives of their people, inviting them to join them in the work of the kingdom. How many old-school pastors have quoted Edward Guest, “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day.” It has always been true that we need to live out our faith, but in a culture where words are no longer tied to reality, it is all the more important.
Trustworthy: One of my colleagues once told me that the hard thing about doing ministry now is that when he started, he would say to his congregation, “Let’s do X,” and they would say “OK” or “No thank you.” Now, when he says “Let’s do X,” his congregation says “What are you really trying to do?” In a culture where distrust is so high, we have to bend over backwards to be trustworthy and transparent in our motives. This has been the case since Watergate, but like all of these attributes, now it is just more so. We must demonstrate our trustworthiness with transparency.
I am sure there are more attributes that are important in the new world in which I awake daily: praise God for opened eyes each morning. I know, too, that my perspective is colored by being the “old guy.” But I also believe that the Christian community is called to faithfulness, and that the faithfulness to which we are called will be difficult to put on a church sign. The world is different, but the witness is the same. God loves you, and me too, no matter your ideology or identity. And together, we will show the world what it looks like to love, which is what Jesus did on the cross.
Thomas J. Pace is Senior Pastor of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas.
Content originally published on "Emerging: God Is Doing a New Thing in United Methodism," April 1, 2020.