The Culture of Christian Leadership

Recently a number of friends have been telling me about how they found it unhelpful to be pressured into becoming a leader for certain ministries in their respective churches or other Christian organizations and circles. It was hearing about these attitudes being passed around by Christians which made me reflect on the nature of Christian leadership in our culture, and how at times it seems to be steadily deviating from the picture of the leadership that the Bible paints. Note that I am in particular talking about my experiences in my home city; and they may not necessarily reflect the Christian culture in other parts of the world.

Over the last number of years as I served in various ministries in different ways, sometimes as an upfront leader and other times a more back-end role, I noticed many unhelpful things which is changing the way Christians typically view “leadership” and in particular “ministry”. My purpose is to discuss what sorts of behaviours I have seen that I think do not promote godly living and also have negative impacts on the people around them.

 

1. Some Christian Leaders are Unqualified

I have a very clear and sad memory of helping organise a large Christian youth event one time and learned that the leader who was responsible over the evangelism/counselling team was not only someone who very recently became a Christian at the time, but also confessed that they did not know what the gospel was. Hopefully most Christians should understand the necessity of knowing the gospel in order to effectively evangelise to non-Christians; and the dangers that arise from trying to preach about Jesus without understanding what His saving message is about. Thankfully, the team of volunteers helping out with counselling youth kids about the gospel were older and more mature Christians (who knew what the gospel was) and that aspect of the organizing team wasn’t in much danger.

The point of my recount is that though we can be grateful that there are many young Christians willing to serve Jesus in various ways, there are many who are probably not ready for this task. As a short note regarding “age” (and whether people who are you g should be leaders) we have Titus 1 which paints a picture of a leader who is old enough to take on the responsibility of starting their own family, and also 1 Timothy 4:12 saying that age should not be a primary factor by which we judge another person. From these two passages I think there is some room for young (in age) Christians to serve in positions of leadership. But whether young Christians should serve as leaders is based on the individual circumstances of where they are in.

Nevertheless we should learn to exercise some judgement into deciding what the bare minimum a Christian should display before asking them to take on a leadership role (and I say “judgement” rather than a “hard rule” to apply in all situations since those sorts of “rules/laws” tend to cause more harm than good). As a point for consideration, Christians should probably have a fair understanding of what the Bible says (eg: the gospel) and are steadily applying the Bible to their lives before they should serve in a more upfront role.

 

2. Some Christian Leaders do not Prioritise Growing

When I started off serving as a youth group leader at the start of university, it was particularly important for me that I was taught the Bible more and more in order to live up to the leadership role I was asked to be in. The danger of not equipping myself properly would’ve not only been a detriment to my faith (from not growing) but also a detriment to those I was serving as I would not really be teaching them anything (truthful). The Bible teaches that all Christians are called to be followers of Jesus (disciples), and as such our discipleship is an ongoing growth in understanding and obeying the Bible and building on the relationship we have with our Lord and Saviour. It is therefore essential that Christians who desire to be leaders adopt a “disciple” attitude of wanting to learn and grow in their knowledge of Jesus and their godliness.

Give the fact that as Christians we should always be growing and understanding the Bible more and more throughout our lives, there really isn’t a clear cut measure as to “how much Bible” a Christian should know before they can “qualify” as a leader/teacher. As such, it is not crucial to claim that a young Christian is not fit to lead because he/she is not mature enough or does now know enough – of course there are circumstances where a young or new Christian would not be suitable to lead. I think the bigger picture for Christian leaders is that they display a humble attitude of following Jesus and desire to learn more and more from His Word, rather than feeling like they already know a lot and don’t need to focus on growing. Christian leaders must never forget that as they serve others, they also need to ensure that they themselves are growing as disciples of Jesus; you’d be a hypocrite in encouraging younger Christians to grow if you yourself are not growing at the same time.

I went through a year once where I was given too many ministry responsibilities that it made it exceedingly difficult to find time to properly grow myself. It was an overall horrible year for me where I felt overburdened all the time from my over-commitment and it took its toll on my spiritual well being as well as how effective I was in serving. That year was truly a humbling experience from God which reminded me of the basic idea that in order to be able to help someone else, we need to be able to help ourselves first. And by extension if we desire to lead and help other Christians grow in their spirituality, we need to know how to grow ourselves first (and to constantly practice it). It’s not a call for us to selfish in only looking after ourselves, but a reminder of how we prioritise our lives in order to serve others and bring glory to God.

 

3. Some Christian Leaders Use Their Position as an Ego Boost

I know, this is a more sensitive and judgemental topic, and one which is better suited for everyone to judge themselves. In my context, there are strong signs that some of the younger Christian leaders (particularly those who haven’t been Christian for very long) tend to see their position of “authority” as a way to boost their “status”, as if they would have some higher level of acknowledgement amongst the Christian community.

The core influence of these ideas may probably stem from the secular hierarchical workplace – having a title makes you better than those without a title, or a lower title. I fear that many Christians, who aren’t mature enough to understand the cost and nature of Christian leadership, take on this secularised idea of position and authority, that being a leader makes you a “better” Christian than those who are not leaders. But just like the secular workplace, which has a way of measuring how “good” one employee is compared to another, the Bible sets a framework by which we understanding the cost and nature of Christian leadership:

4Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, 6but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. – Matthew 18:4-6

Whilst not directly related to leadership, Jesus calls all Christians (leaders included) to have the same humble attitude as a child; but also to be wary not to lead other Christians astray. Leaders need to be particularly wary that they set themselves as a godly example in a way that does not lead people away from Jesus. There are severe consequences for stumbling other Christians.

1The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task…6He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. – 1 Timothy 3:1,6

Paul’s letter to Timothy tells us that being a leader, or desiring some level of responsibility is no small duty; leadership should not be taken lightly. In particular, verse 6 highlights the dangers of having less mature Christians as leaders; that the ego boost they get from being a leader will potentially lead them towards the devil and away from Jesus.

42And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Mark 10:42-45

Christian leadership is servant-leadership, and is quite unlike the secular leadership we commonly see in the world. But as for the “greatness” that Jesus mentions in verse 43, that comes from God, not from man. If Christians desire to be leaders, they should remember that they are seeking to please God and be made great by him, rather than seeking to please other people and seeking greatness from them.

 

4. Some Christians View Leadership as Career Progression

As a side note, perhaps the pressure some Christians get given to become leaders that I mentioned at the start follows the secular idea of “career progression”; that the “progression” of a Christian as they mature is to become a leader. Part of the mentality (that I took on for a short while) was that after several years of being Christian, there would be a social expectation for that Christian to start “giving back” by serving and becoming a leader for available ministries. The “norm” for young Christians seems to steer towards the following “steps”:

  1. Go to youth group as a teenager and grow as a Christian
  2. Graduate from high school and choose a ministry to serve in (youth group or Sunday school)
  3. Go to relevant Christian leadership training camps
  4. Start serving in selected ministry

Whilst these are good steps for Christians who have the conviction to serve as a leader and grow, it is unhelpful to impose that expectation onto every Christian – the Bible never gives strict guidance around how/where/when someone should start serving in ministry, and we must certainly be wary not to let our culture override how the Bible views Christian leadership.

 

5. Some Christian Leaders See Their Position as Part of Their Identity

Expanding off my third point, there are some young Christian leaders who have not developed the maturity to understand that being a Christian is not dependent on being a leader. This misconception is probably most apparent in those who very early on in their Christian walk are appointed a role of leadership. Generally even if the circumstance demands that there be more leaders made available, asking someone who recently became a leader tends to be an unwise decision.

Consider this as part of upbringing and conditioning: young Christians that get raised up as leaders will tend to think that having a leadership position is the only way to live and grow as a Christian – because it’s the only “culture” of Christianity they know of. As such, leadership tends to be tied to their perception and identity as a leader, and it may be hard for that person to handle losing that title. On top of the ego boost I mentioned earlier, some Christians can get to the point where they rely on their leadership position to “be” a Christian. They will have a fear of losing that title, and as such lose the respect and ego boost that came with the title, and even face the threat of falling away because it was part of their identity as a Christian.

I have seen people who have fallen away from Jesus due to not having their position of leadership anymore; it’s not that shocking because the truth was that they had the misconception that being Christian entailed becoming a “leader”. I have also seen others who are slave to the fear of needing to maintain their position as a leader, the same sort of fear in needing to keep your job for the money or the title. Some of them would probably lapse back on their faith because they’ve misunderstood that being a leader doesn’t mean you always need take up a position of leadership. Those that mix leadership with their Christian identity are not only a danger to themselves, but also set a bad example of perspectives to those under them.

 

Conclusion

At the end of the day, Christians need to not lose the Biblical perspective on different aspects of life; and here in particular the understanding of Christian leadership. We mustn’t let our culture determine what the way of living as a Christian should be, but must continually come back to the Bible to learn how we should live in light of our salvation through Jesus.

If you are a leader, may I encourage you to look to Jesus for the prime example of what leadership is to be like; Paul’s epistles would also help. Here is an article from the Briefing by Matthias Media which gives a good rundown of the Biblical perspective of leadership: http://matthiasmedia.com/briefing/2014/02/paul-and-leadership/. I pray that if you have fallen into any of the traps above that you’ll turn back to Jesus and change to become more like Him. And if none of those points apply to you, may you continue to prayerfully consider how to continue living and growing in Jesus Christ.

If you are not a leader, may I encourage you that there is not hard rule to become one, so be wary not to step into leadership if you do not feel confident in leading. There are many other ways to serve which also bring glory to God, so do not see leadership as a requirement for living and serving as a Christian. To those who have been pressured into leadership and have turned it down, I want to encourage you to keep considering the reasons why you are turning it down. That is, though it may good for you to turn aside the opportunity now, do not close the door and decide to never lead in the future. Keep evaluating where you are in your Christian and whether or not God is calling you to serve Him in a different way in the future.

Ultimately let us all try to work together and not stumble one another as we seek to build His kingdom and await for Jesus to return.


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