Will Our Boys Thrive or Starve with the Current Models of Christian Leadership?
Is it time to consider the Master Leader for next-generation leadership in the 21st century?
The engine of the predominant leadership model in the modern world needs more than a tune up, it needs an overhaul. The leadership ethos of power, control, efficiency, self-sufficiency, self-righteousness, and Law; is ineffective and left wanting.
Is it time to consider a new path and a way forward for the upcoming generation of boys soon to be men? Can we in good conscious say the current models of leadership in business, politics, media, entertainment, church, and home, are worthy of imitation?
Every day we hear of a new scandal in the White House, an abuse of power in the boardroom, a sexual predator in Hollywood, and inappropriate behavior of our clergy. Are these the role models of leadership we want to hand down to our kid’s? Can we do better?
I think we can, but it will take a kind of leadership that is so countercultural and against the grain of our modern sensibilities most will reject it. A leadership that embraces and embodies the Master Leader’s wisdom that critiqued our models of power and said (my paraphrase): don’t lord over others (like the world), don’t use your authority to control and manipulate and abuse, become a servant. That’s what I came to do, and it’s the best way to live and lead (Matt. 25:25–28).
I’m speaking to males (not because this doesn’t apply to females), rather, I am a man, and don’t like the hand we’ve been dealt for male Christian leadership in every sphere of life. Let’s say I have a particular soft spot for the next generation of men. Why?
We have a generation of boys pretending to be men. Men who aren’t ready to take a wife, to lead her, love her, serve her. Men who think playing nine hours of video games is a healthy way to live out our existence under the sun. And men who don’t think pornography is harming them or anyone else. Men who think the world owes them something because they are a special snowflake.
We have too many men who aren’t equipped and ready to lead a company or church or family or themselves because the models of leadership handed down in our modern world are built on sand. It’s time we rebuild the foundation with steel.
So what could countercultural Christian leadership look like in the 21st century? What beliefs, practices, and habits are essential for a new way of being and leading in the next generation?
Henri Nouwen in his book, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, examines the temptation of Jesus to navigate a way forward for Christian leadership. He suggests three shifts, and three disciplines, for empowering the next generation of leadership:
Shift #1: From Relevance to Prayer
When Jesus had fasted and prayed in the desert for forty days Satan tempted him. The first temptation was:
“If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread,” (Matt. 4:3).
The temptation of relevance is the air we breathe in our culture. Here’s Jesus being tempted by Satan two thousand years ago. Do a trick for us Jesus… turn those rocks into whole wheat. Show your relevancy and give us what the market demands. We’re hungry, fill our bellies, you’re a difference maker, and impacting the world. Don’t prove to be a square.
Relevance is tempting because at our core we want to make a difference. Seen as someone who has the answers, knows what’s going on, and appears to be in the loop.
But Jesus’ way of being and living and leading is not bent on relevance. He need not prove anything to anyone. He doesn’t have to be in the know and have all the answers (even though he has all the answers being the Son of God).
Jesus is secure in the Father’s love.
Notice how he responds to Satan:
“It is written… Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” (Matt. 4:4).
Bread is nice. Getting things done and making a difference is fine. But man can’t live on relevance alone. Man is built for more than our cultural moment. He needs something greater than accomplishments, success, money, and power. Men need something greater and better and more satisfying.
Man needs God.
Men need to hear a word from Someone that’s not temporal and the latest fad. They need to hear someone say: you’re loved regardless if anyone knows your name, business, or ministry. Your relevance doesn’t predict your acceptance, and your relevance doesn’t tip the scales of my love.
Discipline #1: Prayer
So how do we cultivate a leadership and a life that’s not bent and obsessed on relevance? We pray. Not just pray, but pray like a mystic. Hang on and don’t get weirded out.
Nouwen defines a mystic as someone who’s identity is rooted in God’s first love. Some have called it, God’s one-way love. Prayer is not just asking God to get you out of jams. Prayer is cultivating a relationship with a person. Prayer is the avenue to cultivate an identity rooted in God’s love, and not relevance.
The dirty little secret of Silicon Valley is the suicide rate is sky high. No one talks about it. In all the efforts to paint a picture of Apple, Facebook, and Google, being the company to work for, what you find under the hood isn’t pretty.
Yet, young men are being lured into these jobs because they are the relevant place to work. Who doesn’t want to be relevant, right?
But right now in cubicles, board rooms, and pastor’s offices, are men who hate themselves, feel irrelevant, and wonder why no one seems to notice them, or their work. They won’t voice it, but it’s real. I’ve been there.
Prayer is how we cultivate and experience the one-way love of God. Prayer is how we fight the temptation of relevance.
Shift #2: From Popularity to Ministry
Who doesn’t like crazy stunts on You Tube? When I was a kid, we used to ride bicycles off roofs into our friends pools. One of my favorite shows growing up was That’s Incredible, filled with crazy things people did and lived to tell about it.
Jesus tempted a second time is asked to become a stunt man. Satan says:
“Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down…” (Matt. 4:5–6).
Come on Jesus, you’re the Son of God, throw yourself off the Temple. The angels will come and save you, right? Pull off this stunt and you’ll be the most popular Rabbi in the land.
Every day we’re tempted to be popular. To prove we have what it takes to do the job, get the girl, and make stuff happen.
Jesus wouldn’t play that game. But instead he says:
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test,” (Matt. 4:7).
Jesus didn’t need popularity to live a full life. He didn’t have to prove himself as popular by jumping through the test of Satan.
In fact, every time Jesus did a miracle or something amazing, he’d deflect the act, and tell the recipient of divine grace to keep it under wraps.
When Jesus completed his ministry and resurrected from the dead, he only had 120 followers. By the worlds standards, Jesus was a failure. His popularity was abysmal. 120 followers on social is loser status.
But these 120 disciples changed the world.
Popularity is a fools errand because it’s an isolating act. Seeking popularity is about the Holy Trinity of: me, myself, and I. When you only care about being seen, known, and respected, we push others away. Instead of ministering to others, we’re consumed with perception, or if we’re living up to our standards.
Popularity breeds a belief we have all the gifts, knowledge, and ability to make stuff happen. We possess no weaknesses or faults.
Like Jesus, when we have our identity rooted in the Father’s love, we have no reason to prove ourselves worthy to others. We don’t have to become the mythical stuntman.
So what discipline do we need to fight off the temptation of popularity?
Discipline #2: Confession and Forgiveness
The next generation leader needs a healthy dose of confession, forgiveness, and repentance. No man, woman, or child sees everything, knows everything, has no weaknesses, and can accomplish everything. We all have a sin problem and live in a fallen world. We must acknowledge our sins, tell God, others, and keep short accounts with both.
Saying we’re sorry is one of the most countercultural moves in the universe.
When we can embrace the reality, we’re all pilgrims on the way, and we hurt God and others daily, and popularity is a dead end, we’ll confess our sins.
When we can be vulnerable and say we’re sorry: we no longer live in isolation of God and others. We enter our communities as equals, no longer needing to be top dog, and marveling at grace.
Shift #3: From Leading to Being Led
As men, this one is difficult. Men want to lead and be out in front. Whether it be at work, school, or home. Leading to being led, is a question of power.
Notice the third temptation of Jesus:
“Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me,” (Matt. 4:8–9).
Jesus knows power corrupts. Economic, political, and religious power are a threat to intimacy. If our life pursuit is power and control, it pushes aside anyone or anything that gets in our way. Most people on a power trip have a hard time developing intimate relationships with God or people.
Power always threatens intimacy.
Notice how Jesus responds to the temptation of power:
“‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve,’” (Matt. 4:10).
Jesus says, I’m good. You can keep your kingdoms, I will worship and serve God. Power makes for a poor God and threatens worship. Power blinds and makes us god-like. What good is it to have the whole world and forfeit your soul?
So how do we shift from seeking a leadership bent on power? How can we shift from always leading, to being led, and loved by God?
Discipline #3: Theological Reflection
Theological reflection is not about taking seminary classes. Theological reflection is a discipline rooted in shaping and forming a mind in Christ. The world will pummel every man with visions of true masculinity, success, and the good life.
Having minds sharpened and formed by the Scriptures, Christian teachers/pastors/family, and other good Christian literature, is a way to fight the temptations of a world allergic to grace.
Theological reflection is also about discerning where God is leading us, where he’s speaking, and how we can announce good news in a world falling apart.
When we take the discipline of theological reflection seriously we can live, act, pray, and work in Jesus’ name. For his glory, our joy and good, and for the joy of others.
What Nouwen has laid out for the future of Christian leadership is challenging. But a challenge the next generation of Jesus-loving men need to consider.