Comfortable with questions. Able to leap across boundaries and share the gospel in new ways. These qualities define leaders of the 21st-century church.
By Mindy Douglas
Many people today find Christian worship a waste of time. “Why should I go?” one young woman commented when asked about her absence in Sunday morning worship. “I feel closer to God when I am in nature. No one judges me there. No one is telling me what I have to do and believe. My faith feels stronger after a long bike ride than after a worship service.”
I would love to argue with her. But in truth, I have visited many churches where I have felt like an outsider—unwelcomed and excluded, where the music was without any life or conviction, and where I was not convinced that the pastor believed a word of the liturgy or sermon. It’s no wonder that young people who have grown up in the church start to shake their heads and say, “Why should I go?” It’s no wonder visitors don’t return. These men and women, like all of us, are searching for relevance and meaning, love and acceptance, and when they don’t find it in our churches, they won’t be coming back.
The 21st-century church needs new kinds of leaders who will embrace the opportunities around them to reach people hungry for the gospel’s transforming message. We can’t keep doing church the way we’ve done it for the past 50 years and expect our congregations to grow in faith and vitality. The world has changed, and we must change with it.
What kind of changes?
Over the past 50 years, the cities and towns of this nation have seen a significant increase in religious and cultural diversity. I grew up in the Bible belt, in a little town nestled in the foothills of South Carolina. The religious landscape around me consisted of two mainline Protestant churches, a Roman Catholic church, an AME Zion church and numerous Southern Baptist and Church of God congregations.
These days I look around my community and see Roman Catholics, Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Greek Orthodox, Orthodox and Reformed Jews, Muslims, Zen Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus, and Protestants of every persuasion, including a multitude of nondenominational churches. People worship in traditional sanctuaries, temples and mosques. They also worship in coffee shops, bars, houses, restaurants, storefronts and movie theaters. As David Lose, professor of biblical preaching at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, writes in “Thriving Seminaries Admit What They Don’t Know”: “The Christian story no longer holds the cultural center of gravity but is one of any number of larger stories … that seek to provide ultimate meaning” (Patheos.com, Nov. 10, 2011).
Today’s culture promotes independence and nonconformity and celebrates a world full of options. Every day, people make innumerable choices—from what to order at the corner coffee shop to which of their 263 cable TV channels to watch on the weekend. With so many choices, the guiding principle for decision making often becomes “what’s in it for me.” Lose continues, “In a 24/7 world of endless opportunities, obligations, and information, many adults exercise an exacting, if often unconscious, formula for time management based on immediate and tangible rewards and will no longer dedicate an hour on Sunday morning to something that doesn’t help them make sense of the other 167 hours of their week.”
As a result, many don’t go to church at all. They choose the New York Times and a cup of coffee. They choose their kids’ soccer game or swim meet. They choose the golf course, a bike ride or the farmers’ market. Church is no longer what everyone does on Sunday morning; it’s simply one option among many—an option that gets relegated to the bottom of the list of choices when it no longer speaks with relevance to daily life.
Men and women in today’s world have no time for irrelevance. If the Christian faith doesn’t make a difference in their lives, they are going to choose something that does.
What kind of leaders?
What kind of leaders can make the gospel relevant to those living in this kind of world?
People today want to know why they should believe in Jesus when there are so many other options available. They want to know why they should come to worship when yoga class brings them greater peace. Church leaders must be willing to explore these questions.
The church needs leaders who are comfortable with questions, leaders who welcome doubt and acknowledge in it evidence of faith. Today’s teenagers, young adults and even a number of older adults are not willing to accept without questioning information that is given to them. They want to know why they should believe in Jesus when there are so many other options available. They want to know why they should come to worship when yoga class brings them greater peace. Church leaders must be willing to explore these questions.
The church needs leaders who can cross cultural and linguistic boundaries. Cultural diversity can energize communities of faith. Leaders who can help congregations, presbyteries and communities welcome diversity will find the message of the gospel coming to life in new, faithful and life-giving ways.
The church needs leaders who are willing to partner with others across denominational and religious lines. These leaders will be willing to learn from people of other faith backgrounds and to work and grow together in service to God.
The church needs leaders who can communicate the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ in a variety of ways. They must be able to communicate the way the world communicates—through phone, email and letters, but also through Facebook, Twitter, blogs, podcasts, videos, conference calls, video conferencing and whatever new form of communication comes out tomorrow or next week.
The church needs visionary leaders who can bear the gospel message to the world in innovative ways. No longer can we assume that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is the sacred hour for worship or that people we encounter daily know anything at all about the Christian faith. This year’s General Assembly endorsed a vision to create 1,001 new worshiping communities in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in the next decade. Already, new faith communities are thriving across our nation, as leaders reach beyond the walls of church buildings and respond to the needs of the world around them. Achieving the 1,001 goal will require more of this kind of creative leadership.
In many ways, the church needs the same kinds of leaders it has always needed—leaders with deep faith who trust in the Triune God to lead and guide them; leaders who are servants of Christ, humble and willing to go where they are called; leaders who can articulate the gospel in meaningful ways and help women, men and children grow in faith and discipleship. But these leaders must also be able to help the church redefine itself to reach a rapidly changing world.
Mindy Douglas is pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Learn more about leadership
A variety of resources and leadership development opportunities are helping prepare leaders for a changing church. Here is a sampling of what’s available:
- 1001 new worshiping communities initiative.
- Presbyterian Centers for New Church Innovation: www.presbyinnovate.com
- New Beginnings, a resource to help congregations move into the future in ways that are relevant to the 21st century.
- Church-growth resources.
- Engage, a new approach to evangelism that helps congregations become relevant to those who live around them through faith-sharing and disciple-making and following Jesus together.
- Camping-ministry leadership opportunities for young adults.
- Educational opportunities at seminaries from the PC(USA)’s Committee on Theological Education.
- For Such a Time as This, a pastoral-residency program designed to renew small, underserved congregations by pairing them with gifted seminary graduates. New pastors grow into ministry with a network of support, including ministry education and coaching, mentoring and peer support, and eligibility for debt assistance. For more information visit the website, contact Cindy Cushman by email or at (800) 728-7228, x5381.
- The Spirit-Driven Leader: Seven Keys to Succeeding under Pressure, by Carnegie Samuel Calian (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), a book exploring leadership qualities that inspire hope and build strong communities