“When we empower those we disciple to forge their own paths, rather than trying to keep them moving in our preferred (or prescribed) direction, we open ourselves to the chaotic leading of the Holy Spirit and protect ourselves from the temptation of preservationism.”
Or, in slightly less academic language…
“When you allow a new, lesser experienced driver to take the wheel, you may just be surprised with the shortcuts and new routes they discover.”
Let’s start with a story, because it’s important to understand the context in which ideas are rooted. When we begin unpacking what it looks like for a person/group to start something fresh, understanding their context is part of this. This prevents us from seeing every new “successful” idea as a saviour ministry; because there aren’t any one-size-fits-all solutions. Until we try ideas out in the real world, we have no idea what’s going to happen. Context is everything.
What I hope you learn from this story is that: drawing from a limited, or often non-existent, pool of resources (which I imagine many of us find ourselves confronted with regularly) requires an out-of-the box approach. We can’t expect to use conventional tools in unconventional situations. Through this experience, I also learned that listening for opportunities and saying yes, before considering all of the consequences, allows for more of Holy Spirit and less of me.
Where Are The People?
Several years ago, I was hired as a young leader in a church plant in Ontario. The church had hired me on to plant several of their ministries; one of which was music. The ask seemed simple enough: start a contemporary, evangelical style worship team to cover the musical needs of the community. The problem was, it was an Anglican Church… and we (Anglicans) don’t generally do that sort of thing; let alone attract the kind of musicians that perhaps a more charismatic denomination would. So there I was, ready to go, with no idea where to begin.
So I began praying, a lot. I prayed that God would send me great and talented musicians that would serve their church and bring MYvision for this ministry to life. I prayed this prayer for months. And I got nothing. What do you do when you need people, but don’t have people? I wasn’t trained for this. There we supposed to be people… An unconventional problem, requires an unconventional solution.
I was out for coffee with one of the students I was pastoring and telling them about the vision I had for this particular ministry. And I was sharing my frustration of not having the people I needed to make it happen… And you know what they said to me? “I could learn an instrument, if you would think that would help.”
Let’s press pause for a moment: I had spent months looking for people to build this thing with and I didn’t even notice the people right in front of me, because they didn’t meet the criteria I thought I needed to make it happen. So now this student has put an offer out to me and everything inside of me was kicking and screaming to respond “No they’re not good enough” or “I don’t have the energy to do this.” But, for some reason the only word I was able to get out in that moment was: “OK”
That ignorant and admittedly reluctant “OK” began a long process of mentorship with this particular student and many others to come. I would spend weeks doing music lessons with them, helping them with the fundamentals of the instrument they were learning. We’d talk about what it meant to serve in a team and lead in a congregation. And within a few weeks I’d usually have them on stage leading with me, sometimes with knowledge of just one drum beat or four guitar chords. So, we’d build the entire set around that one beat or those few chords. Was it the high caliber musicianship I felt I deserved as a professional? No. But, it was a valuable learning experience on multiple levels.
- For me: It was a humbling experience. I had my head so high in the clouds of MY own ideals and I was missing the opportunities God had placed right in front of me. I needed to learn that it is rare that things go according to MY plans and that if I’m not careful to pay attention to how the Holy Spirit is working, I may completely miss the mark.
- For the new team member: This was a moment where a leader called out potential in them. Sometimes, without even knowing if the talent was there. They were invested in from ground zero; this included hours of practice, relationship building, being told that they could do it, and that their contribution was important.
- For the rest of the community: Having an underdeveloped leader up front, leading from a place of vulnerability (often making mistakes) communicated what the church valued; hearts over hands.
Everyone Discipling Everyone
“I will always favour a lesser experienced leader with a sincere heart to serve over an over talented person seeking a platform.”
Having a homeless person in the choir singing most of their notes flat will communicate more of what your church is about than having a killer band perfectly nailing the chorus of “How Great Is Our God” every Sunday. Which is a story for another time….
But, this attitude is infectious. I started to take the opportunity to tell stories of how different members of the music team came to be on stage; to point out what may not be so obvious. “Did you know that person hadn’t touched a guitar a few weeks ago?” “Isn’t amazing how they saw a need and rose to the occasion, without having any prior experience?” And the more the rest of the community knew what was going on, the more they too began to feel that they could offer to do things or even pitch brand new ideas, despite their experience levels.
“Which of God’s chosen leaders had the appropriate qualifications before being asked to lead? None.”
Our scriptures are full of stories of God calling the weak, the under-qualified and vulnerable to be at the forefront of kingdom building opportunities. And it’s our role as leaders, to be attentive to the undiscovered potential sitting in our church pews… This is the ICNU principal. Jesus didn’t ask for the disciples CV’s before recruiting. He simply said “Come, I see in you the potential for something great.”
The experience I had building this ministry was a three-fold discipleship opportunity. I was able to disciple the team member, they were able to disciple me and we both were able to disciple the congregation. Everyone was discipling everyone. And the catalyst was using an out-of-the-box solution to solve an out-of-the-box problem.
- I will add a footnote here to say that there were some risks involved in this. For example: I once had a church elder approach me after a service, in which I had given a couple, lesser experienced students the opportunity to lead the entire worship service. And you know what they said? “I get what you’re going for. But, we have a certain expectation of how music happens and what it sounds like. And these students were sometimes difficult to follow and they made mistakes…”
Inclusion. Not Perfection.
“The goal of our gatherings isn’t perfection. It’s inclusion.”
We are not putting on a production, we’re inviting people to a family dinner where we celebrate those with obvious talents, like dad who slaved away in the kitchen all day preparing a feast. And, we celebrate the other folks, like our niece who baked a cake for everyone but mixed up the sugar with the salt.
Maybe your community is just waiting for permission; for someone to take a risk and say “OK”.
Don’t ask: What? Ask: Why?
The primary difference between a missional leader when compared to a more traditional leader is not a question of “What?” it’s a question of “Why?”
“It’s not about the praxis, it’s about the perspective.”
The temptation is to look at the newest and flashiest ministry in your area and covet it. “How can I get what they have?” The easy answer is to copy the things we see at the surface, rather than studying their context; which is a much more labour intensive process. This is not a question of what successful ministries are doing. It’s a question of why they chose to do those particular things instead of something else. Perspective.
The most successful ministry plants I have seen all began with a common question: “What does this community need?” And by community, it wasn’t just the immediate church congregation. It was the entire neighbourhood, town or city.
Pioneers begin with a needs assessment; looking at things like demographics surveys for the neighbourhood, talking to local politicians and law enforcement about their concerns and hopes for the community, and most importantly getting out and talking to the people you are trying to reach.
Some of the most foundational questions about the needs of a particular community can be answered on the street corner or in a coffee shop… “Excuse me, I’m part of a [church/community group] and I’m spending some time getting to know the neighbourhood and asking people: What are some of the greatest needs in this area?” You will be surprised, encouraged, and challenged with the responses you receive. And they will be valuable learnings for your current and future ministry projects.
The sobering truth is that we have put the majority of our eggs into a one-size-fits-all basket. Maybe your community doesn’t need another church. Maybe they need a homeless shelter, or a community centre, or a bible study on the soccer pitch. And if your community truly and honestly does need a church, then be a church so deeply rooted in that community, meeting the needs of the immediate congregation and the community beyond.
Laity Up Front
Another important characteristic of a missional leader is lateral and transparent structure. One of the most difficult things, for a highly educated expert in charge of an organization, to do is to surrender control. WE have ideas and visions that WE want to make happen. This has generally been the approach of church leadership for as far back as we can remember; top-down. The one with the most seniority, education, privilege, etc… directs those around them.
In many cases, this kind of leadership is effective. But, when we look closely at new expressions of church that are effectively rooted in their contexts, we see another dimension to their leadership:
- Involvement and ownership of the ministry by the participants. The people that are most visibly directing and running things are the same people who are participating. Lay persons are at the forefront and “professionals” are supporting from behind.
Accessibility, at it’s core, is less about welcoming people and providing them the road map to what you’re doing; and, more about giving the newest, the youngest, the most marginalized, and the underprivileged the same amount of influence as veteran members.
What if we gave the person who comes to church for the first time this Sunday a say in shaping what next week’s service looks like? What would change? What would stay the same? How would it impact the community? And what message would it communicate to this new person about who Jesus is and who His church is?
These are not easy questions. Our church structures are often designed in stark contrast with these ideas. And if we choose to move in this direction, there is a lot of unlearning and reorienting that needs to happen. The outcomes often don’t favour the traditional leadership styles of the organizations and structures we find ourselves part of. Instead, they benefit the people. People first.
The Marks of a Missional Leader
These are the key identifiers of a missional leader: their perspective is vast and they continually prioritize people over ideas, preferences, and traditions. They lead from behind; empowering those participating to drive and direct.
The call of a Missional Leader is to:
- Listen to the people they wish to reach and disciple
- Identify their needs and the needs of the wider community
- Empower and Support them to address those needs for one another in the name of Christ
This process of (un)learning and (re)orienting is disruptive to any community culture that’s used to a top-down leadership model. But, the results of shifting the model is the exponential growth of this community of God; we begin seeing people meeting one another’s needs and discipling one another with an infectious attitude of love. We see this in Jesus’ ministry: He calls the disciples; he empowers and supports them to care for one another and the wider community; and, then He leaves them to continue the work. A missional leader is a catalyst for discipleship. They seek to make themselves redundant within the organizations they serve; empowering those whom they have discipled to continue the discipling.
May you be bold in cultivating the attitudes of a Missional Leader. May you take risks and make mistakes for the sake of the people you wish to reach. And in so doing may we encounter that which is infinitely more than we could ever ask for or imagine.
Originally presented at the Ecclesiastical Province of Canada‘s synod gathering in June of 2018 on behalf of Fresh Expressions Canada. It has been edited and adapted for online reading.