All of us appreciate visionary leadership, and we have all been greatly affected by it. Whether our visionary leaders are historic figures, great authors, caring teachers, parents, or bosses; we appreciate someone who exposes us to a better, new way of living. In the classic example, they tell us, “You can’t stay here. There’s something better available. Here’s how things could be. This is who you can become.”
This seems obvious to me: if you are not calling people to something different, you aren’t leading. In a word, leadership is change. Strategy is important. It tells us how we are going to get there, but fundamentally, visionary leadership always includes change.
If leadership is change, the greatest most important leadership lesson, then, is to create an environment where change is expected and embraced as natural. Would any of us describe the average church this way? From updating decor to outdated programs, the last words we would use to describe church is expecting and embracing change.
It’s not just mainline churches and those that have been around for 50+ years that face this challenge. Even the most cutting edge churches, that began in the last 10 years, will have to face this reality within a decade. They may have a head start with a version of ministry that is more relevant to today’s culture, but they also need to be creating an environment where change is expected and embraced. Indeed, many churches that are facing decline were once very successful and relevant. The point is, it can happen to anybody. Let me rephrase that, it will happen to everybody—thus the need for leadership.
My intention is not to be relevant for the sake of relevancy, as if being trendy and cool is the goal. No, my desire is to live the great commission (Jesus’ command to take the Gospel to all the world and make disciples).
If the world is changing (and it is),
if there are people who have never heard the Gospel in their context (and there are),
if the local church (meaning us) is the way God tells His story to the world (and it is),
then we must adapt.
We should never settle into a comfortable coast on our way to eternity.
So what happens when we are trying our best and it’s still not working?
Our experience is in the way
Our experiences, especially past successes, get in the way of God’s plans. To demonstrate this point, I’ll use two examples: Jesus’ parable of the wineskins and David and Goliath.
He told them this parable: “No one tears a patch from a new garment and sews it on an old one. If he does, he will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, ‘The old is better.’ ”
The point is pretty clear here. Jesus is not going to do His new work using an old system. In both examples of the cloth and the wineskin, notice the fact that both are ruined if you do it wrong. It is the inexperience of the new wineskin that makes it useful for the new wine. It’s not as if the old wineskin is evil or bad. At one time, it also had new wine. But it served it’s purpose and cannot be reused.
The phrase that we often miss is the one at the end: “And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, “The old is better.” Some people will not let go of old structures. And it is understandable. It’s what they know. Not everyone wants new wine, even if it is the work of God. The new wine does not wait for them, it bypasses them. No one can stop what God wants to do, although they can choose to not be part of it.
Jesus could not bring the new Kingdom to pass using the old systems. The inexperience of something new was required for the change to be effective. God uses inexperience to bring change.
David and Goliath
“Master,” said David, “don’t give up hope. I’m ready to go and fight this Philistine.”
Saul answered David, “You can’t go and fight this Philistine. You’re too young and inexperienced—and he’s been at this fighting business since before you were born.”
David said, “I’ve been a shepherd, tending sheep for my father. Whenever a lion or bear came and took a lamb from the flock, I’d go after it, knock it down, and rescue the lamb. If it turned on me, I’d grab it by the throat, wring its neck, and kill it. Lion or bear, it made no difference—I killed it. And I’ll do the same to this Philistine pig who is taunting the troops of God-Alive. GOD, who delivered me from the teeth of the lion and the claws of the bear, will deliver me from this Philistine.”
Saul said, “Go. And GOD help you!”
1 Samuel 17:32-37 MSG [emphasis added, of course]
It was David’s inexperience, the fact that he was not looking at the battle as a warrior but a shepherd, that gave him the needed perspective to win. Any experienced soldier knew that the bigger, stronger, seasoned person would win in hand to hand combat. Saul confirmed this—not only was Goliath huge, his experience stretched back in time before David’s birth. Because we know the end of the story, it’s easy to forget how terrifying Goliath was. All of Israel’s training and every battle they had ever fought confirmed that Goliath was unbeatable. But David did not think like a soldier. His inexperience in combat was his strength. It enabled him to see the battle as a shepherd.
It was David’s inexperience coupled with his faith in God that allowed God to enter the situation and bring victory.
What does this mean?
Like most Kingdom principles, this one seems to be backwards. To the natural mind, experience is crucial to leadership. We want the tried and true method. We want to appoint people to authority who have proven themselves. But God doesn’t require experience; He requires faith.
This is why using the leadership principles of the business world has bankrupted the Western church. Our adoption of business criteria in promoting leadership has limited God’s work. Any criteria that is outside the Holy Spirit’s revelation—financial wisdom, work ethic, education—is adopted from the business world. Of course, God has worked. That’s obvious. But where we see ineffectiveness, powerlessness, irrelevancy; it is not because God’s ability has diminished, it is because we have replaced Him with our own expertise. Like the soldiers facing Goliath, we are stuck in our training and experience. This is very serious.
God wants to bring change to the local church, because He desires everyone to know Him, but He will not put new wine in old wineskins and ruin them both. He’s made that clear. I expect Him to continue to use the pattern He has consistently used to do His work: inexperience coupled with faith.
God is looking for a partner who allows His awesomeness to be on display.
Our experience gets in the way.
What about me?
So what about all of us who have experience? Are we not needed in the Kingdom?
I’ll use myself as an example. I just turned 47. I have been “in the ministry” for 23 years. Should I be put out to pasture to make way for the “new” (whatever that means)? This is where the rubber meets the road, right? We can talk philosophy all we want, but when it affects me, then it becomes real.
Like it or not, change is here. If we are honest, many of us cannot see the change that needs to be made because of our experience. The conclusion is really simple since leadership is change—we are not the leaders for this new season. Unfortunately, many holding titles do not have the guts, faith, or humility to admit this. If we can’t, we are old wineskins and God will protect us by moving on to new wineskins. And, don’t forget, He understands that those who tasted the old wine prefer it. There are no surprises here.
But that doesn’t have to be us. We can choose to listen to the voice of inexperience even if our experience says it will never work. Saul got this one right. We have a support position we can take, “Go. And GOD help you!”
I love the analogy of midwife that Alan Hirsch uses and it answers the question of the role of those of us with experience. With any appropriate apologies, I quote myself from my review of his book, The Forgotten Way:
Finally, I want to also contend for a different expression of Christian leadership that is less Maxwell and more midwife. The CEO leader directs and manages and administrates THE VISION. The midwife assists in bringing new life into the world. A life that even has a different DNA. I know there is a great temptation to seize the reins and ride our opportunity chariot like a Ben Hur, bat-out-of-hell screaming, “It’s my turn now!” That is wrong. Christian leadership is always about serving others, investing in others, and birthing God’s work in others. That is very different than the current leadership movement material focused on maximizing and effectively implementing the vision for maximized results. We need the leadership style Jesus modeled–laying down His life for others, and John the Baptist–paving the way for another.
The role God has for us is to act as midwives to the Emerging Missional Church that He is birthing. We won’t be “in charge”. We won’t be able to maximize the return.
We will have to serve, assist, comfort, care, nurture, and advise.
That is very different than lead, strategize, implement, quantify, and maximize.
Woe to you if your ministry isn’t surrounded by inexperience.
It means you’re not a new wineskin.
It means God cannot use your ministry to bring the change that is desperately needed.
On to part 5.