Shifting Leadership

The Methodist Church is being called a ‘discipleship movement shaped for mission’. This is, of course, more of an aspiration than an actuality. Much of what we do is really aimed at maintaining church rather than making disciples, and this is clearly reflected in our understanding of church leadership. On the one hand, the need to preserve our denominational structures has made managerial competence an indispensable quality. Simply fulfilling all the demands of institutional bureaucracy, at both the local and national levels, can be an exhaustive task. On the other hand, the desire to preserve our flagging membership has often turned pastoral ministry into a mixture of personal therapy and palliative care. We tend to settle for cheap grace and conceal the radical demands of the gospel on daily life. And we tend to settle for spiritually impoverished lives, with an anaemic sense of God’s presence, and little expectations of his providence. Even where our churches have tried to be more missional, they can end up repeating the same mistakes in new ways. We manage outreach projects, relevant worship and fresh expressions without addressing the underlying nominalism and practical atheism that plagues ordinary Christian life. Or we run membership courses and discipleship programmes as quick fixes for renewing the church and increasing our confidence in the gospel.

Unfortunately, the spirit of a movement cannot be produced by denominational slogans or institutional strategies. It only comes as a gift of the Spirit to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; who seek God’s grace in the midst of daily life; who know that they cannot be real disciples without deep spiritual friendships; and who long to see God use them to transform the lives of others. This way of life is more caught than taught. It starts on the ground with ordinary people, desperate for God, who will do whatever it takes to become truly Jesus-shaped and Spirit-filled Christians. It grows when such people gather together in small groups, to help one another pursue God with all their heart, mind, soul and strength. And it spreads, as God proves himself faithful, from heart to heart, home to home, church to church.

If we are going to recover the spirit of a movement, we will need to do much more than introduce new denominationally-authorized resources, teaching courses and training sessions on discipleship. We will need to face the need for an entire culture shift in how we think about our life together as the church, and how we think about church leadership. First, the local church will need to be re-imagined as a ‘community of disciples’, whose most important questions are, ‘How do we become fully devoted followers of Jesus, here and now?’ And, ‘how do we invite those around us to share in our journey, and find Jesus for themselves?’ Second, the church is going to need leaders who have a greater passion for making disciples than managing programmes and offering therapy. We are going to need godly leaders who are disciples themselves, who set an example to others and who delight in opportunities to mentor them as followers of Jesus. We are going to need spiritual leaders who long for more of God, whose lives bear witness to their longings, and who long to help others seek and serve God as whole-life disciples.

If you would be a leader in a spiritual movement, you need to consider how to deepen your own discipleship, so that you may share it with others. Do you long for more of God? Then share it. Do you seek growth in the means of grace? Then equip others for the journey. Do you have the company of spiritual friends? Then invest in a few more. Do you surrender to God’s leading in daily life? Then help others live more faithfully. The truth is, we are all on this journey together. What matters is that we become more intentional about pursuing it and helping one another to walk worthy of our calling (Ephesians 4:1).

In my ministry with the Inspire Network, I have been exploring four ‘leadership shifts’ that many are finding helpful as they seek to shape a culture of discipleship in the local church. These shifts are based on the Inspire way of life and challenge leaders to be disciples who make disciples.

Leadership Shift #1

Don’t just feed the flock, make them hungry!

One dominant image of church leadership has been the idea of ‘feeding the flock’, or giving others the spiritual food, so that they might feel satisfied and happy. And so, we invest our resources in creating worship experiences to lift the spirit, or leading study groups to inspire the mind, or giving pastoral care to comfort the soul. When the church becomes satisfied with these activities as ends in themselves, however, they can actually inoculate people from sensing the need for deep and lasting spiritual growth. This is why we must remember that Jesus also said, ‘blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled’ (Matt 5:6). Real whole-life discipleship is motivated by a Spirit-given ‘dissatisfaction’, or longing for holiness of heart and life.

Making disciples who desire to grow means encouraging them to hunger for more of God, as Jesus did. We were made for an intimate and daily sense of God’s presence; for a deep experience of God’s acceptance and his power to change our hearts and lives; for greater faith and surrender to his will. It also means longing for God’s kingdom to come in the blessing of our home life, in the healing of our neighbours and in the prospering of our communities. The spirit of a movement calls for leaders who long for the fulness of spiritual life in themselves, and know how to share these desires with others. We need leaders who can encourage others to dream out loud, inspiring the church with real-life testimonies of personal transformation and the way it overflows in missional effectiveness.

Leadership Shift #2

Don’t just do ministry, equip people for life!

Church leaders tend to spend much of their energy striving to help people encounter God on particular occasions and at certain times of the week. And so, we invest our resources in arranging prayer meetings, leading bible studies and conducting pastoral visits. The problem comes when this perpetuates the idea of an ‘omnicompetent’ leader, whose ministry ends up insulating us from the challenges of whole-life discipleship. Jesus did not merely pray for his disciples, he taught them how to find God for themselves in the flow of everyday life: ‘This, then, is how you should pray: “Our Father... Give us this day...”’ (Matt 6:9).

Making disciples who connect with God means teaching people how to pray and practise the presence of God, as Jesus did. We were made to hear God’s still small voice of guidance in the messy details of life; to taste God’s goodness in the ups and downs; to see God in a neighbour and share his heart for the least and the lost. The spirit of a movement calls for leaders who long for God’s transforming presence and know how to help others stay connected with God’s grace in all the spiritual disciplines. We need leaders who help the church explore the amazing diversity of ways that God meets with us, speaks to us, and empowers us day by day: through works of piety (prayer, searching the scriptures, fasting or abstinence) and works of mercy (serving the needy and sharing our faith).

Leadership Shift #3

Don’t just attract crowds, invest in a few!

As church leaders, we tend to think that making a difference means attracting a crowd and seeking to influence as many people as possible through our meetings. Ministry by mass appeal has not only influenced our worship gatherings and outreach activities, but our discipleship strategies as well. And so, we try to make disciples by delivering conferences, training events, courses and workshops. When leaders are turned into experts rather than spiritual guides, however, they are absolved of the need to be ‘real’ examples and mentors. Although Jesus did attract crowds, his main strategy for changing the world was to mentor a few: ‘He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out’ (Mark 3:14). He invested in deep spiritual relationships with this small group of disciples and an even smaller ‘band’ of three (Peter, James and John). He shared ministry with this ‘band’, as they watched him raise Jairus’ daughter from the dead. He shared moments of glory with them, as they watched him radiant, in the presence of God, on the mount of transfiguration. And he shared moments of utter anguish, as they watched him wrestle with God in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Making disciples who share the journey means going beyond mass meetings, and even house groups, by encouraging very small ‘bands’ of disciples to share life deeply with God and one another, as Jesus did. We were made to be hearers and doers of the Word; who learn how to talk about God in natural ways with each other; who seek God’s leading and respond more faithfully in daily life. The spirit of a movement calls for leaders who long for God’s guidance themselves, and know how to help others find it through deep spiritual conversation among close friends. We need leaders who are vulnerable enough to engage in mutual accountability and spiritual direction with a few key people, to mentor those who can mentor others.

Leadership Shift #4

Don’t just develop strategies, open people’s eyes!

Very often, church leaders think of engaging in mission in terms of ambitious, high risk, and creative activities to gather people into the church or go to meet them where they are. And so, we engage in evangelistic events, door-to-door visitation, Alpha-style courses, seeker services and fresh expressions. Care must be taken, however, that commitment to this kind of activity does not blind us to the opportunities we have for sharing faith in the ordinary encounters of daily life. Jesus did not appear to have any discernible mission strategy other than touching and transforming the lives of all he met. He saw the people around him as those to whom God was reaching out with his love: ‘The Son... can do only what he sees his Father doing’ (John 5:19).

Making disciples who seize the opportunities means opening people’s eyes to see God’s providence at work among those who come into our path, as Jesus did. We are made with the ability to see the presence of God in those around us; to sense the impulses of the Spirit and abandon ourselves to his guidance; and to seize daily openings for serving others in acts of kindness and words of witness. The spirit of a movement calls for leaders who long to see God at work through their lives, and know how to help others surrender to the call of God, moment by moment. We need leaders who can help others develop a taste for adventure, and to live in such a way that we have stories to tell of God’s extraordinary providence at work in the lives of very ordinary people.

My aim here is not to set up oppositions, but a ‘both-and’ kind of leadership. We do need to feed the flock, do our ministry, attract crowds and develop strategies. But these things alone will not fuel a spiritual movement. Any church that is genuinely concerned to move with the Spirit needs to remember that ‘the human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps’ (Proverbs 16:9). Keeping in step with the Spirit is motivated by longing for more of God, staying connected to grace through the spiritual disciplines, seeking guidance through spiritual friends and surrendering to divine providence in the flow of daily life. From this perspective, the aspiration of Methodism to become a discipleship movement shaped for mission will only be fulfilled if local Methodist churches become communities of mission-shaped disciples.

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