Everyone loves a 9 (and counting) part blog series, right?? You are very welcome. We’re calling this series The Future of Christian Leadership. This whole series is based on a message I gave at the Acts29 National Conference in October of 2022. I am expanding those same ideas in this blog space because I only had 18 minutes at the conference and I have all the time and entries in the world here.
The basis of the message was 1 Corinthians 16:13–14 which says, “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.” My argument in that message and in this blog space is that these two verses do a great job of outlining the task of Christian leadership in the coming years of increased secularization and social upheaval. There are five verbs in these two verses and they are paired together in a way that creates helpful tension between their ideas. And the two pairs orbit around a central idea that animates it all.
The first pair was the call to “be watchful” and “stand firm in the faith.” The first verb calls us to keep our eyes on the culture so that we know the nature of the battles we are fighting and can respond appropriately. The second verb cautions us to never leave the faith while we venture out into culture. The gospel acts as an anchor or a pivot foot in basketball that can never move, even as we move our other foot to get a better view of passing lanes or cultural shifts.
The next section compares two ideas that also live in some tension with one another - or at least they seem to these days. Paul challenges the Corinthians to “be strong” and to be sure that they “let all that (they) do be done in love.” These two ideas should not be in tension with one another, there is no intrinsic reason why they would be. But, in our day, it seems as if those who want to be strong have forgotten the call to love, and those who deeply want to love the world around them, forget that they will have to be strong if they intend to hold firm to the gospel.
If the first set of pairs didn’t split the room, this one will. Half of you are thinking “Yes, I hope these guys hear that they need to be strong” and the other half is thinking, “Yes, I hope these guys hear that they have to do everything in love.” Such is the nature of our online dialogue these days. Everyone has an enemy and is trying to win points against them. Hopefully, by the end of this series, you will all be equally chastened and turn to each other in friendship against me.
Contrary to what some of you may fear, the combination of these two doesn’t create a third way. One is about action and the other, motivation. Be Strong is about action, and how we relate to the world and the people we lead. “Do everything in love” is about motivation; about why we act in strength. As I mentioned in the previous blog, strength without love is just a will to power, and love without strength is a desperate attempt to be accepted.
Paul’s call here is clear. Be Strong. The future of Christian leadership is no place for weakness.
It will require us to make tough calls and last stands, to take painful losses, and lean on conviction above all else. The future of Christian leadership will require you to publicly take sides, there will be no hedging, no place for ambiguity.
We will have to preach unpopular ideas and do so without equivocation. We will have to be clear about what is right and what is wrong, even when those people are looking at us with tears in their eyes. We will lose friends, we will lose givers, we will lose buildings. It will take great strength. There will be moments to draw lines in the sand and call things what they are.
AND it must be motivated exclusively by love.
When I was planting a church in Seattle, we were renting a building from a very liberal Lutheran Church. My first meeting with the pastor went well but it was tense from the start. Her first question was, “are you affirming?” Thankfully, I was prepared for this question. I said that we were not but that all people were welcome at the church. I told her that openly, unrepentant gay or trans people wouldn’t be allowed to be members or leaders but that they would be loved by our community as well as we could.
I assumed that would be the end of the conversation but to her credit, she shrugged and told me that she figured that was the case and that her board would want to know our position. About six months later she was fired for reasons that weren’t entirely clear to me. Shortly thereafter I was asked by one of the elders of the church to go out for a lemonade and talk about our relationship with the church going forward. We sat down and he was visibly upset. It didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to our position on gay and trans people. Without even asking me to describe our position, he assumed it and uttered a phrase I will not soon forget. He asked me, loudly and emphatically, “where the *&% does that leave trans people!”
I’ve been a pastor for 20 years and I have never once been F-bombed by a gay elder about my theological position on trans people. It was one for the record books. But more importantly, it was a moment for me to be both strong and loving. These moments are only going to become more commonplace.
I am tempted to say that one of these two ideas comes more easily for you than the other. Some of you are naturally gentle and gracious with people. Please don’t mistake this for being motivated by love. Strength and gentleness are not opposites, they are in fact a necessary pair. We’ll talk about this more next week so let me leave you with this. Prepare to be strong. Prepare to stand up for the faith. Long gone are the days when we were tolerated by nonChristians, or even lauded for our good deeds. The future is fraught with peril, so buckle up. Next week, we’ll get motivated by love.