Back in 2013 the Barna Group released the results of a study that found professional athletes were carrying more influence than faith leaders. It shouldn't be surprising, especially among Millennials (or Mosaics, or Gen-Y), that the role of institutional religion is waning. It's a generation, and a culture -at-large, that is inherently distrustful of organized institutions. For many, it's warranted - with the growing sex abuse scandal in not only Catholic but Protestant churches, the reports of extravagant spending of televangelists, and the seemingly weekly cycle of fallen leaders. It should be no surprise that when faith leaders drop the ball, someone else will pick it up.
So the question becomes, how do we reclaim the influence? How do we lead and shape the next generation? I want to use some buzzwords to drive the conversation.
Authentic - If we want to influence, we can't put on the plastic veneer anymore. We need to be ourselves, not the caricature of what we want to be. When we speak, we speak as ourselves. We don't speak in pithy sound bites of trivia. We are who we are, regardless of where we are. One of the ironies is that in spite of being over 90, many hold Billy Graham in high regard, even those outside the Church. Why? Because there's never been a doubt who he was, in the pulpit or outside.
Relationship - We cannot lead those we do not know. And even though Millennials (and our culture as a whole) are more connected than ever before, we find ourselves starved for relationship. We have Facebook friends by the hundreds, but few we can call in desperation. We can connect online on message boards and forums with people around the world. But we struggle to know our neighbors. We must seek out to have relationships with those we seek to lead.
Community - This is the handmaiden to Relationship, the longing for and the unmet need of community. Are our churches places where people find true fellowship, true community? Or are they places where people superficially interact with one another? Are our prayer times simply a sick list or do they yearn for true koinonia, true fellowship with one another.
Purpose - One of my convictions lately has been that far too many churches, ministry leaders, and Christians are simply content to exist. They don't accomplish anything. They just exist, until they die. How can we expect to engage and influence when there's nothing we're aiming for, no reason for our existence other than to simply exist?
Truth - Our culture asks the same question that has been asked since Pilate stood with Jesus, "What is truth?" I believe our influence has waned over the years because of our reluctance to let the doubters push and dig about what we truly believe. We've settled for cliches or dismissive answers to the real issues of life: the problem of evil, the universal guilt of people, the emerging views of gender/marriage/sexuality. And rather than taking time to explore truth, we've embraced tribalism. The difference? Exploring truth seeks answers, tribalism stifles the journey.
I'm optimistic about the role of the Church and of ministry leaders. It won't look the same as it has in the past. We won't have the automatic credibility and influence of a generation or two ago. But when Jesus said "The fields are ripe for the harvest," He wasn't just talking about a cookie-cutter culture. Let's influence well, for the sake of the Kingdom.
The slogan of Coach Taylor on Friday Night Lights was "Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose." This was something often repeated through the show to emphasize what it took to win. If we were to take the same concept and apply it to ministry leadership, it'd be "Thick Skin, Soft Heart, Can't Give Up."
Thick Skin - Leaders who accomplish anything will find themselves taking barbs. It's inevitable. In fact, if you want to avoid any criticism, the answer is simple: Do nothing. Nothing never leads to conflict. Nothing just leads to more nothing. As a leader, you can't allow those criticisms to get to you. You need thick skin to absorb and not allow critics math (see below) to take over. Leaders with thin skin take everything personally, obsess over each critical comment, or feel the need to respond or lash back.
Remember: the person who made the sharp comment to you more than likely moved on from it on their way to the parking lot.
Soft Heart - In ministry you're going to deal with the muddy mess. You'll have families falling apart, funerals, medical emergencies, spiritual crises, and requests for financial assistance. And in those moments we can't allow our hearts to become hard. It's the corollary to having thick skin. A soft heart is able to lead graciously, to shepherd well, and to respond with empathy to problems (even when they're self-inflicted).
Can't Give Up - Guys, don't give up. God called you. God sustains you. God will be with you. God has promised that He'll faithfully finish what He started in you. Don't give up. Don't look for greener grass somewhere else. Don't take the church as a mistress at the expense of your family. And don't give up. Keep a soft heart, you need it to love people through the mess. Keep thick skin, you need it to lead courageously. And you can't give up.
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.