At the Telos Collective, we focus our energy around missional leadership that seeks to bring the church into alignment with the Kingdom of God and the movements of the Holy Spirit. Missional leadership is a participation in Christ’s leadership. When we look at how Jesus embodied the Missio Dei in the Gospels, we witness, in part, a prophetic ministry, where Jesus consistently named and disrupted patterns of life where Israel was habitually unfaithful and hard-hearted. In this sense, leadership that is missional is also leadership that is, at its core, prophetic in character.
In our current cultural climate, where public discourse is deeply entrenched in antagonisms and hostility, embodying this kind of prophetic, missional leadership is both more of a challenge and more needed than ever. What does it mean to be faithfully prophetic in leading amidst our current engagements with injustice in the world without being co-opted by the antagonisms surrounding these issues? This is the central question of this journal issue. To explore this question, we want to invite four leaders to help guide our conversation over the next month, to help us see prophetic ministry as the task of nurturing, nourishing, and evoking “a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us,” as Walter Brueggemann describes it. (Prophetic Imagination, 3)
We invite you to join us as we dig into this conversation in our 4th issue of the Intersection Journal: “The Prophetic Character of Missional Leadership.”
The Rev. Ryan Boettcher
Associate Director of the Telos Collective
A Different Kind of Leadership for the Church’s Future
Dr. David Fitch
Betty R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology, Northern Seminary
August 24th, 2021
As evangelicalism and other movements proximate to it continue to fray and the dark underbelly is revealed, what comes next? Many are (justifiably) walking away from churches, deconstructing the christianity they received, on account of the oppressive and anti-Christic forces like racism, christian nationalism, patriarchy, and abuse being unveiled, not as side-issues, but as central to the animating life of what they knew as “church.”
For those who serve and lead in the wake of this mess, what could moving forward possibly mean or require? Should we walk away and let it burn?
I believe that a faithful Christian witness is possible in the midst of (and perhaps because of) what is coming unraveled, but faithful witness requires a different kind of leadership.
It requires a kind of leadership different from that which serves as a chaplain to the status quo, which (often unwittingly) doubles down on strategies that seek to maintain institutional control and power. It requires leadership that can call into question the legitimacy of the prevailing structures and discourses that extend oppression and anti-Christic power, both outside and inside the church, while also shaping a vision for the journey into wholeness and newness with God’s Spirit.
We need a different kind of leadership that has the wherewithal to disrupt evil powers, dislodge ideologies, and shape fresh imagination for the community the Spirit of God already has and is making new. This is the leadership testified about in Acts 17 – it is participation in how Christ is “turning the world upside down.”
The different kind of leadership I am naming is prophetic in character. Faithful witness to Jesus has always been irreducibly prophetic, but the current state of affairs betrays a forgetfulness or refusal to embody a prophetic witness, so it is good to be specific about the unique shape this character takes in these particular times.
I offer five specific ways prophetic leadership is different from the status quo.
1 – A Different Kind of “Woke”
Many people in our congregations have been caught up in echo chambers these past several years, sheltered in places of safety and seclusion such as the suburbs, sequestered from the racialized oppression, the gendered antagonisms, and the broken and coercive sexuality systems of our culture.
In response, some leaders have made an effort to raise consciousness about the layers of social injustice around us, and in so doing, have been pejoratively labeled as “woke.” To be clear, bringing the church into engagement with the social sins of our times by speaking on social media platforms, writing blog posts and books, and calling out societal sins are all necessary parts of the work. But prophetic leadership requires more – a different kind of woke (to turn that phrase around).
Prophetic leadership requires cultivating an awareness that does not “other” or infantilize people as “stupid” because they do not yet see. Awareness of social injustice must be concretely connected to real relationships and networks in our lives where the actual grassroots work of justice is already taking shape among us.
If our work for awareness becomes detached from real life and relationships, if our language becomes detached from actual discipleship on the ground, then ‘wokeness’ can foment antagonism and create more “others.” When this happens, the unjust frames we want to disrupt are inadvertently reinforced (this is a sociological observation well known in the studies of pre-World War II Germany).
Prophetic leadership requires the skills to lead people beyond awareness to on-the-ground relational engagement, bringing together concrete conversations in actual time and space, that make possible the lamenting of sin, reconciliation, restoration, and healing in Jesus Christ amidst and within the social systems where we live.
2 – A Different Way of Being Angry
With new awareness comes anger. The revealing of racialized violence against black persons, oppression and racism against BIPOC and AAPI peoples, the uncovering of abuse by male leaders against women and more brings anger. Anger is to be both expected and received amidst the conflicts and pains of our present day. Prophetic leadership requires the ability to receive the anger, refuse to dismiss the anger, and make space for the anger.
In addition, prophetic leadership helps process the anger, allowing space for the anger to unwind, so that the anger takes us somewhere. If the anger is righteous, processing it will lead to engaging the injustices that have caused the anger.
The apostle Paul’s admonitions (and Jesus as well) to “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger…” (Eph 4:26) points towards the importance of processing anger. This will take patience and listening.
The prophetic leader is, in a way, a different kind of angry leader. This means telling the truth about and lamenting the oppression, trauma, and pain. It also looks like leading through anger with patience, making space to process, and moving toward spaces for lament, communion, repentance and transformation.
3 – A Different Frame for Questions
After the last few years of COVID, living in some form of isolation, many people have forged positions on cultural issues as isolated individuals. Doing debate and discussion on social media will do that to the best of us. Even more, as the leadership failure of some of Christendom’s biggest personalities (predominantly white men) are being made more public, critical questions and analysis have largely targeted individuals and the words/beliefs explicitly advocated or intended by those individuals.
As we seek to re-engage with others in community, we will find the terms of the debate for many people have already been (pre)determined. Many have their very identity wrapped up in taking a certain position. Many churches will be deadlocked into a paralyzing divisiveness. There is little imagination for what God might be working in an actual situation of injustice before our very eyes or in our neighborhoods. There is little imagination for how destructive and dehumanizing ideologies live beyond an individual leader’s ideas/intentions and continue shaping movements even when individuals are gone.
Prophetic leadership requires more than being educated on an issue, taking a side, and arguing people into that position. This tactic runs the risk of gathering a church of sycophants, ‘enforcing’ their position on other people or the neighborhood. Prophetic leadership requires more than critiquing a bad leader’s theology and exposing ill intent (though it may include that, too). This tactic can make us feel righteous but leave the social substructure of an oppressive system or culture completely untouched.
Prophetic leadership requires competency in patiently posing incisive questions, in ways that are perhaps jarring, revealing contradictions, yet are filled with grace. Prophetic leadership doesn’t stop with critiquing bad individual leaders but also questions the social and religious structures that produced those leaders, examining not only ideas and intentions, but seeking to understand the (de)formative work those ideas do to shape an entire culture.
These kinds of questions open space for the Spirit to process and create a new imagination for what God would do in and among us.
4 – A Different Mode of Cultural Engagement
Prophetic leadership also requires a different mode of cultural engagement from culture wars or cultural assimilation. We can no longer assume that there is one Culture and that we can coolly analyze it from a distance or view from “on high.”
We live among many cultures centered on multiple driving concerns, speaking different languages. A multiplicity of forces is shaping how people understand their identity, and we are an inextricable part of this shaping, also subjects in a complicated symbiotic exchange with our context.
Prophetic leadership requires listening, not presuming, and being patient enough to discern what words mean, and what drives persons in multiple cultures. But it goes beyond this. Prophetic leadership must be grounded in self-reflection (i.e. repentance) and communion. We cannot operate top-down, but seek to understand and cultivate newness from the bottom, up.
We must shift from a posture “above” that enforces a monolithic, predetermined way of being together, worshipping, discipling and mission. This is a common move in white, mono-cultural contexts: people of other ethnicities are included, but then absorbed into the dominant, white culture. This serves to extend oppressive structures rather than genuinely nurture ethnic diversity.
The re-gathered church must be based in core practices that facilitate people of various ethnicities and cultures coming together to shape worship, discipleship and mission that is new and connects with the various peoples involved.
Prophetic leadership cultivates communal practices (e.g. discipleship, eating together, Bible study, being with the least of these) on the ground, as a coalescence, not a top down orchestration. This requires not merely a good host, bringing “outsiders” into existing spaces and arrangements of power. It also requires leading a community into receiving and being hosted by neighbors that are unlike the existing community, especially those on the margins of social power in a context.
5 – A Different Way of Speaking Truth
The gross injustices among our neighborhoods beg for someone to speak truth. But we need truth-speaking of a different kind. There is the temptation to speak truth from a posture of moral superiority, a posture above a community, a flaming tweet detached from any real life engagement. There is no question we need truth spoken boldly into situations, but truth is communicated most prophetically when it is spoken out of our character and location.
The word parrhesia (as used in Acts 4:31 or Eph 6:19,20) describes how the apostles preached truth in all situations. It was often spoken after prayer. Prayer locates a person in a specific place, for a specific person/people, in the very presence of God. The place was shaking, and they spoke out of the presence of the Spirit enlivening them to what was going on.
The word parrhesia is often translated ‘speak truth boldly.’ But this does not mean ‘in your face.’ Rather it’s a unique kind of speech that speaks sincerely, embodying the truth in one’s life and character, risking one’s whole self. There is a presence to this truth. This is no act of manipulation here for a pragmatic motive. This is speaking the truth by putting one’s very life on display.
In 1983, Foucault gave seven lectures on parrhesia. He described this rhetorical way of speaking where the speaker had nothing to gain personally, no virtue signaling, no branding, no power tactics. Indeed, if in speaking this truth soberly you had a lot to lose, including your very life, this truth was made so credible that it shook people and disrupted societies. Parrhesia was a source of socio-political change.
Prophetic leadership looks like the willingness to put our very life on the line to speak truth in a way that costs something. It’s a different kind of truth telling that disrupts the ungodly powers that animate the discourses and structures of a context, bringing in Christ’s kingdom.
As we engage our churches and communities in this season ahead joining the mission of God, may we embody the very prophetic posture of Jesus, who is already turning the world upside down by the Holy Spirit.
The following article has been adapted and reworked from its original appearance over at Missio Alliance.
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The Rev. Dr. Jin H. Cho
Anglican Priest; Missional Church Planter in Irvine, California; Leader of C4SO’s Rev. 7:9 Task Force for Racial Diversity and Inclusion.
August 26th, 2021
I don’t know if there is a more urgent challenge for the missional leader in our times than to press into our prophetic voice. And, I do not know of a more immediate outward exercise of prophetic leadership than the work that many of us do from the pulpit. Certainly, prophetic leadership is far greater than just preaching, but the sermon is undoubtedly one of the primary culture-shaping tools.
We may agree on all of these points. But to be told “You need to be more justice-oriented!” or “Your preaching needs to be more prophetic!” can be a bit like how my son felt when he stepped up to the plate at his recent baseball game. Well-meaning onlookers yelled, “Hit the ball hard!” We all agree this is what we want to do, but whether it’s hitting the ball hard or leaning into our prophetic voice, this sort of “coaching” can lead to frustration. The struggle, for many of us, isn’t whether, but rather how.
I want to share a few lessons I’ve learned on what it means to preach prophetically, focusing on the practicalities. That said, writing an article on preaching—whatever the modifier—to an audience of pastors and leaders feels a bit like lecturing about barbecue to a group of southerners: sure to be polite listeners, but even more certain to have differing opinions, strongly held! Think of what follows, then, as the beginning of an interesting conversation!
Preaching Prophetically Is a Mode of Making Sense of Our World.
Preaching prophetically is part of the foundational calling of all preachers to do careful, gospel-honoring social criticism, as we invite others to participate in God’s kingdom vision of a just society. As Walter Brueggemann suggests, it is preaching in a way that engages our “capacity to imagine the world as seen through the eyes of the Gospel God.” (You knew Brueggemann would come up sooner or later!) Like Amos’ vision of God walking through our cities with a plumb line (7:7), it is a mode of making sense of our world in both judgment and in hope.
As such, preaching prophetically is not an exceptional calling for certain enneagram types, a reaction to the news cycle, nor a topic set aside for certain Sundays. Rather, it is preaching with the understanding that justice is an essential pillar of spiritual formation for our congregations. We may not be able to respond to every crisis of the cultural moment from the pulpit, but such an understanding of preaching helps to form a prophetic community able to engage well with the larger culture.
Very practically, this means that when I study a text, I look not only for its personal and psychological implications, but also the communal, social, and sometimes even the political implications. A reading of the parable of the Good Samaritan that fails to consider Jesus’ boundary-challenging intent is vapid and unfaithful. Any individualistic study of Ephesians without acknowledging the social “dividing walls” that Christ destroys is nonsensical. By implicating the narrowness of the overly personalized exegesis of too much American Christianity, a prophetic reading brings out the justice implications inherent in our biblical texts. I simply don’t remember the last time I read a lectionary text without prophetic implications.
Preaching Prophetically Is Preaching the Gospel.
To do this well, many of us need to nurture a better understanding of the integration of justice and mercy in the gospel of Jesus Christ, for preaching prophetically is nothing more, and nothing less, than the preaching of the gospel.
In my observation, this is done better in certain traditions than in others. I was once leading a training for a small group of pastors on such an integration when a white pastor asked why black pastors in his town didn’t teach specifically on justice. My co-facilitator Joy, a black preacher in her 60s, very wisely pointed out the integration he was unable to see within his framework that placed “justice” outside of the gospel proper. But for Joy—as well as for others in historically black communities of faith—she preached every Sunday on justice, even as she preached no Sundays on the topic of justice.
This dis-integration also seems to be the underlying assumption of those who ask if they need to balance the harshness of a prophetic message with one centered on the mercy of God. The question assumes a conflict generally not attested in Scripture: Jesus declares the beginning of his redemptive ministry in Luke with a prophetic word about justice for the poor and the marginalized (4:18-19), and Micah in his famous summation of what the Lord requires of his people is an integration of justice, mercy, and humble walking (Micah 6:8). My bishop recently posted on social media about his admiration for Martin Luther King Jr., who understood “the weapon of love” as the chief means “to press on for justice.” In other words, our call to be for justice and our call to be for love are not in opposition.
A preaching that leads people to confession over injustice has not strayed from the gospel. I find it incredibly odd that calls to confession over our sin of racism are perceived as somehow judgmental, or unloving. The language of making amends and reparations is deeply Christian, and is fundamentally a language of grace—an opportunity to make right a wrong from our communal past! What glorious grace, that we are invited into this healing journey! May we not settle for a lesser gospel.
Preaching Prophetically Centers Marginalized Stories.
The work of the prophets has always been to bring to the center the plight of the marginalized, for this is the heart of God. Additionally, it is only when we begin to affirm the stories of those on the margins, that we can begin to see how much we have unjustly preferred certain stories over others.
Take something as seemingly straightforward as coming up with a sermon application point for “loving our neighbor.” When we fail to acknowledge the social reality that there are people who are de facto locked out of our neighborhoods, or that in many parts of our country there are historical and structural reasons for the composition of our communities, we’ve largely reduced the great commandment to overcoming interpersonal conflicts with Bob, and having patience with Sue’s gardening mismanagement. Only when we begin to listen and center marginalized stories can we recognize the folly of our self-centeredness.
Centering the margins is an ongoing work that looks at our assumptions and our cultural patterns. Who are the saints and the models of faith that we reference in our sermons? Which artists, poets, and music envelop our worship? In my denominational tribe, I often remind people that we can be Anglicans without being Anglophiles.
Moreover, centering the feelings and the experiences of the marginalized is the only way to create safe spaces for those whose stories are often threatened by the dominant voices. In the context of race, we cannot say we are committed to diversity if we do not acknowledge and care for the experiences and feelings of people of color, by incorporating their stories deep within our communal identity. Without such centering, our churches will simply not be hospitable spaces to those who are of a different ethnic or racial background. Concretely, I would suggest a practice by which you imagine conversations about various topics from the perspective of the marginalized—how would a message on perseverance sound to someone who experiences life as a racial minority? How might your exhortation for open and civil dialogues feel like to those who were at the receiving end of a power imbalance or manipulation? In doing this, I’ve grown in my capacity for prophetic empathy.
The practice of centering marginalized stories restrains us from our innate tendency toward cultural narcissism, while nurturing hospitable spaces for those on the margins.
Preaching Prophetically Counts the Cost.
Finally, I want to acknowledge the very real cost to preaching prophetically. I don’t know of a single person who has stepped into this work without experiencing significant pushback—whether it be angry emails, difficult conversations, outright leaving, or even firing. As a recovering non-feeler, I’ve learned to stop pretending that these rejections do not hurt, for they do. Sometimes they are downright painful.
But we know that speaking truth has that effect. Jesus warned his disciples to count the cost, and then promptly demonstrated the principle by being rejected himself. That our prophetic voice is so often rejected should not be that surprising, since many of us leaders have a long history of rejecting such truths ourselves! At the very least, this ought to create a certain amount of patience and understanding for people–a prophetic empathy, if you will. So we rightly ought to struggle to make sure we are speaking even harsh truths from a place of love. And yet, we must remember that we will never be able to articulate injustices—especially our (unintentional) complicity in them—in a tone that satisfies everyone. The right sort of rejection must be expected; there will be a cost.
Thus, prophetic preaching requires us to develop traits of persistence and humility. Our persistence is built on being able to see the larger mission, and our humility is based on us not taking ourselves too seriously (with proper caveat!). David Swanson talks about the need to re-disciple our churches, and over the course of the past few years, I think most of us have witnessed enough of the harm that the Church can do when it is poorly discipled. We dare not put off this task any further out of fear of the cost.
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The Role of Imagination in Prophetic Mission
The Rev. Sandy Richter
Church Planter, Christ Our Peace Anglican Church, Oak Park, IL
September 3rd, 2021
An imagination for the adventure of the kingdom, and the part we might play in it, is what drew many of us to missional leadership. Unfortunately, it is easy to lose this childlike imagination—the vision that first captured our hearts. For some, it gets lost amidst the blur of caring for other people’s pain. For others, it gets choked out by the complexities of navigating pastoral leadership during a pandemic. For many these days, we’re just too exhausted to dream.
As leaders learning to lean into our prophetic call, we need imagination more than ever to remind us of whose we are, to redirect us in where we’re going, and to refresh us for the journey.
The Imagination of the Beloved
At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, before he was tempted in the desert, performed any miracles or cast out any demons, God blessed him with a gift at his baptism. Luke recorded it this way:
At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:9-11)
Surely Jesus knew that God loved him, that the Spirit was with him, but in a dramatic, imaginative way, God reminded Jesus of his identity as the Beloved, and then sent him into the fray. I wonder what it felt like to see the heavens open up. I wonder what God’s voice booming from heaven sounded like. I wonder how often Jesus replayed this moment in the years to come.
The life of a prophetic leader is hard. We’re called to say the things no one else wants to hear, to go into situations where no one else wants to go, to bear the weight of being misunderstood and at times even reviled for what we represent. The temptation is strong to give up, fight back, or at least defend ourselves. But when we remember the love of God, we’re invited to replay the moment of our calling. We’re enabled to respond with Jesus—creatively, compassionately, humbly, and with grace.
What if before replying to a frustrating Twitter thread, we stopped to remember our baptism? What if before entering a difficult conversation, we paused to kneel or cross ourselves in prayer? What prophetic posture might we embody in the power of God’s love?
Renewed Imagination for Mission
Many biblical prophets received imaginative visions at some point in their ministry. Daniel was shown the four great beasts, so fantastical that his descriptions defy all human categories. Isaiah was transported to the heavenly throne room, filled with smoke and six-winged seraphim. John the beloved disciple was shown multiple visions of the end of time and the restoration of all things.
Prophetic visions provide a glimpse into what is otherwise unseen, or a picture of what’s to come, that inspires us to take up the challenging call of leading God’s people.
What vision of God’s kingdom inspired you to say yes to your call? Take a moment now to bring those memories to mind and let them play out in your imagination.
John’s Revelation has captivated my imagination for years and continues to fuel my purpose in ministry. Starting in chapter 21, John described his glimpse of what God has in store for us:
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. … And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Rev. 21:1-5)
By the Spirit, John is invited to see a vision of the new heavens and earth that exceeds our wildest imaginations: no more death or mourning or crying or pain. Rev. 22 goes on to say there will be no night, no curse, and the faithful will see God face to face. And who will these faithful be? Rev. 7 tells us: “…a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language…. they who have come out of the great tribulation; [who] have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Rev. 7:9, 14)
This beautiful reality enjoyed by the united and redeemed people of God is the telos of gospel mission. While it reminds us where we’re headed, it informs how we’re to live in the meantime.
When I see that God’s mission is to destroy death and pain, my passion to alleviate suffering is ignited. When I see people from every nation gathered to worship, enjoying union with God and each other, I press harder into the work of racial justice, recommit to welcoming refugees, reconsider the plight of the marginalized. This glimpse of glory serves as an invitation to taste its goodness now.
How often do you think about the new heaven and new earth? Are there ways in which the vision of the new heaven and new earth might further inform your daily life and ministry?
A Fractured Imagination
In the final book of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, Peter, Lucy, and Edmund, along with the faithful Narnians, fight the last battle in Narnia and finally enter Aslan’s Country—plush, beautiful, abundant, peaceful. The dwarfs of Narnia are there too, on the boundary line of the great country, but are unable to enjoy its beauty. Lucy, noting their lot, leads the others to draw them out:
“…soon they could all see the Dwarfs. They had a very odd look. They weren’t strolling about or enjoying themselves (although the cords with which they had been tied seemed to have vanished) nor were they lying down and having a rest. They were sitting very close together in a little circle facing one another. They never looked round or took any notice of any of the humans….” (Lewis, The Last Battle, 143-145)
During the battle, the dwarfs had been tricked by an impostor and sold into slavery. Even though the king of Narnia saved them, they had grown battle weary and bitter in their enslavement, so much so that even now in the midst of pure goodness, they remained enslaved. “‘You see,’ said Aslan. ‘They will not let us help them. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison….’” (Lewis, 148)
Likewise, when we become fatigued by the pressures of life and leadership, the good news begins to seem too good to be true. In these moments, we need our imaginations to be reborn.
Have you ever experienced this loss of imaginative vision? Maybe you’re experiencing it now. Take some time to talk with God about this.
Prophets Who Dream
Thanks be to God, there is hope:
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.” (Joel 2:28-29)
God promises that in these last days his Spirit will reawaken our imaginations with visions and dreams of something beyond the mire of this present age. Visions and dreams that ground and enable us to live according to the Spirit in the way of Jesus for the sake of others.
As leaders, our dreams can inspire those in our churches and communities. Andre Henry is a Christian singer-songwriter, activist, and author whose dreams inspire many to join in the work of nonviolent social action. The motto that drives his work, it doesn’t have to be this way, is refreshingly prophetic as it calls out the ennui and despair so prevalent in our society, while evoking the hope of the gospel. Andre is open about the burden of living into this hope. A few months ago he shared on social media an especially low moment when he was overwhelmed by the immensity of the work and intense pushback and was tempted to give up. But in the end, this dream of a better way keeps him going.
In these weary days when everything else feels urgent, we must intentionally take time to cultivate our imaginations. We will find it is the lifeblood that sustains prophetic missional leadership for the long haul, and a tether to reality we can’t afford to sever.
Download our “Resources to Cultivate an Imagination for Prophetic Mission” here.
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Breaking Into a Prophetic, Multiethnic Future
The Rev. Taylor Ishii
Director of the Antioch Leadership Network, ACNA Next Generation Leadership Initiative and Director of the Anglican Multiethnic Network (AMEN)
September 16th, 2021
When trying to step into a more multiethnic space, church leaders often feel stuck. They may experience what Edward Friedman describes in his seminal leadership work, A Failure of Nerve, as being “imaginatively gridlocked.”
As leaders, it’s dangerous to have our imaginations gridlocked. Our imaginations shape how we perceive ourselves and others, as well as informing how we should live in the world. To lack imagination is to take things as they currently are as ultimate.
Think about the prophetic power of this line from the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” When we pray this weekly in church and daily in our devotions, we are being formed to expect that the way things are on earth is not how they will be in heaven. And precisely because of that, we ask God to work to bring the reality of the kingdom closer, perhaps through us.
When our imaginations are gridlocked, we are not letting God’s kingdom influence how we see our temporal reality. Much of church growth practice has been built around the Homogenous Unit Principle: churches grow fastest when they are full of similar people. And though it proved effective, it missed the fullness of the communities around the churches.
Scripture is clear that the future of the Church will be a multiethnic one. On the last day, God will be surrounded by “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9). Thus, God’s future must inform our way of imagining reality right now.
When you close your eyes and imagine the Church, what does it look like? Is it full of people that look like you, or does it represent all the peoples of the earth? If we struggle to see this when we imagine the Church, then we don’t have a full picture of the kingdom of God. We are gridlocked.
A Prophetic Vision That Breaks Gridlock
In the midst of gridlock, we can become fixated on aspects of our church or society and tirelessly toil toward perceived solutions. We need the prophetic to shape our imaginations, allowing us to envision God’s kingdom despite what we see happening in the world around us.
The prophetic is always tied to the character and action of God. Put another way, we must be able to imagine ourselves as living and flourishing in the world that God created, rules over, and entrusts us to help steward. Prophetic imagination always calls us back to who God is and then how we are to reflect God as those created in his image.
We need to imagine a different way, the Kingdom way, to break out of habits, sins or a general sense of malaise. We need a kingdom imagination to move toward the future that God wants to bring. As a leader, to engage in change without touching the imagination is simply behavior modification or sin management.
At the same time, to set out a vision that is not grounded in a concrete community might be the sort of wish-dream that Bonhoeffer warned us of in Life Together. Rightly understood, a prophetic leader must always offer up a different way of seeing things, one that can translate into action.
Envisioning and Embodying a Multi-ethnic Future
We have cultivated a prophetic imagination when we can not only see the kingdom of God in Jesus’ teachings, but begin to wonder and envision how that kingdom might transform our current reality. For example, the pandemic has created challenges that we can re-envision as opportunities to lead our churches to better reflect the multiethnic kingdom of God. As your church regathers, will it just be business as usual? Or will it be a chance to step into a bigger vision of the kingdom of God?
Accompanied by prayer and discernment, you can take three steps toward an intentional, Spirit-led, multi-ethnic future.
Before engaging with those around us who might be different, we must see them. One aspect to seeing others is practicing humility, especially for those who are part of a majority culture. It’s important to check any sense of superiority we might have at the door so we can fully see the other person(s). We also practice humility by telling the truth about ourselves and our world, even when those truths reveal our failures. Perhaps we have trivialized or tried to explain away someone’s racial pain. Perhaps we have implicit biases or blindspots about what is “normal.”
“Seeing” happens when we make it a point to know our whole community, not just the parts of it we are likely to frequent. Do you know who lives in your neighborhood, goes to your schools, shops at your grocery stores? Do these people have stories that you have yet to hear?
We also see one another by celebrating and honoring our ethnic backgrounds. The world’s diversity was part of God’s design, and we miss an opportunity to thank him when we try to homogenize. A “color blind” approach tries to emphasize what we have in common, but it does so by neglecting the beautiful, distinctive features and places of pain for many people of color. It makes them feel invisible, rather than seen.
Moving in a multiethnic kingdom direction is not a matter of simply trying harder or adding a person of color onto church staff or leadership. If the future of the Church is multiethnic, we must start by asking God to show us how we can begin to live into that reality in our communities.
Listening also means amplifying the voices of people of color and inviting them to speak into our communities. To listen well, we must be willing to ask different types of questions, for our questions often steer us toward particular answers. We should gear our questions toward respect and learning, not problem solving or easy answers. And when disagreement or challenge comes, we must be willing to practice patience and love with one another.
Listening might entail a sobering evaluation of your church culture. You might begin by asking “If I wasn’t a member of the majority culture at my church, how would I experience it? Would I feel welcome or just tolerated?” Perhaps you could ask for honest feedback from a person of color in your community. I grew up in a predominantly white church, and I was in 6th grade before I ever saw a church leader who looked like me.
Friedman notes that the reason many leaders experience gridlock is often an emotional barrier rather than an intellectual one. To this end, listening means being aware of leadership decisions that push my anxiety buttons, as well as how I respond.
We’re not just after a church that is growing in multiethnic attendance. We want to see the fullness of the nations at work in and through the Church. I’m talking about the recognition that each and every person, regardless of what they look like on the outside, has been empowered by the Holy Spirit to serve God in the world. Seeking intentional diversity in your leadership team will deeply enrich you, even if it might prove difficult. This kind of empowerment happens in the context of genuine relationships, where someone feels seen and heard as a multifaceted person, not just a token of a diversity push.
An empowered multiethnic church also speaks a prophetic word to the surrounding community. When you embody this prophetic word, you will be well equipped to fulfill the great commandment and commission. Your church will proclaim to the world that whatever your race or ethnic background, you are loved by God and belong to his family.
May our churches unlock this prophetic, multiethnic kingdom vision in the power of the Spirit.
Download the resource: Resources to Help Guide Your Church in a Multiethnic Direction
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