#7: A Culture of Cowardice (part three)

We’re seven segments into a series on Leadership Courage.  This is our third pass exposing a Culture of Cowardice that I believe has dominated much of the Church in North America.  I’ve confined my comments to North America because I have very little exposure to non-Western churches and leaders.  Since the US has been exporting what we call “the Gospel” in earnest since WWII, no doubt we’ve packaged and shipped our cultural preferences along with it.

Regrettably, we may have exported a Culture of Cowardice to the foreign field.  You who minister cross-culturally can offer your observations from around the globe, by commenting below.

Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve has been eye-opening.  He identifies characteristics of chronically anxious families, communities, and societies.  While I see ample evidence of these features in American society (just look at our national response to the “Crisis in the Gulf”) it has been stunning to consider how applicable these traits are to Christian churches in our day.

Two articles ago, I suggested that the insipid capacity of the typical congregation to tolerate discomfort has accelerated our orientation away from bold, courageous leadership and centered it on the most needy and emotionally-regressed among us.  Last week, I opined that religious political-correctness has become so toxic to courageous leadership that Jesus – not the “Flannelgraph Jesus”, but the historical Jesus of the New Testament – would embarrass many in church today.

Do you find this stunning?

It is my privilege to work with pastors in dozens of denominations—each with their own peculiar polity and priorities. Some systems locate leadership responsibility and authority with the pastor.  Others load the pastor with leadership responsibility yet deny her or him the authority to lead.  Still others withhold both leadership responsibility and authority from their ministers. Regardless of denominational polity, it has been my observation that no one has as great an opportunity to influence the culture and values of a local church than the Senior Minister. That is why I’ve dedicated my life to standing with and strengthening you.

You who stand in pulpits determine – more than anyone else – what your congregants talk about. To the degree that you choose your title or topic or text when you preach, you inject that into the “congregational conversation”that takes place in the cars and restaurants and kitchens of those who hear.  Now, you don’t get to determine what they say about your topic, but you do get to decide what that topic is.

Think about it.

Does your preaching provoke people to think?  Do your sermons unsettle the status quo?  Do your messages undermine the meaningless mediocrity of most of your members’ lives?  Do you challenge your congregation to change?

If not, why not?

Read the Gospels—just the words in red—and notice how often Jesus did exactly that. Jesus stood as an interruption to whatever came between his hearers and the Kingdom of his Father. Jesus constantly provoked, unsettled, undermined, and challenged those he was with.

Didn’t he?

Jesus loved them enough to offend and oppose that which would do them harm—even when they cherished it as good, or nice, or comfortable.  He loved the rich young ruler enough to spell out exactly what it would take for him to inherit eternal life. [Mk 10:21]  Love motivated Jesus to challenge the rich guy. Love– not for himself, his own comfort, or reputation– but love for the other moved Christ to risk offending him.

I assert that it, too, is love that motivates you to pull back from challenging and offending and opposing the nonsense and mediocrity your parishoners hold as true.  Trouble is, it is not love for them that keeps you from goring their sacred cows of compromise. No. It is self-love that fuels your commitment to censor your voice.

Isn’t it?

You don’t want to put up with the push back.  There’s no point in stirring up a hornet’s nest.  You’re already on thin ice with several stakeholders in the church.  No need to rock the boat.  You’re already tired enough.  Besides, they’ve made you pay big time when your preaching got too personal a while back.

Thank God that Jesus didn’t fear offending the woman at the well—maybe she and her whole village would’ve perished–had he played it safe.  What if Jesus chose to quench his zeal [Ps 69:9, Jn 2:17] rather than go after the powerful and popular merchants in the temple?

Courageous leadership is leadership with heart.  With your heart fully exposed, fully engaged, fully at-stake.  There is no virtue in being a jerk.  I’m not advocating that you be oppositional just because you can. Nor am I suggesting that you blast away at whomever and whatever bothers you, just to get something off your chest.  No, that would be selfish.

To risk your own security, your comfort, the way others regard you for another’s benefit—that is love! To stand powerfully resolute, because of love for someone else, in the face of ridicule and rejection—is exactly what Jesus did!

Didn’t he?

A decade ago, I attended a series of character development trainings.  Each was designed to serve both as a crucible and a spotlight—to allow me to see aspects of my character and my impact on others that I was blind to.

Jean Marie is a powerfully incisive woman who had trained four of my children.  She’d heard first-hand what it was like for them to have me as their dad: distant, demanding, disconnected, self-consumed, rigid, judgmental, severe, angry, cold.  Then, she facilitated a workshop that Annie attended.  She learned of Annie’s frustration, disappointment, loneliness, and anguish with a spouse like me.

For the next five years, Jean Marie served as a coach and trainer for me.  I had never met anyone like her. Her love for my family and me was palpable, remarkable, undeniable, and unrelenting.  And, so was her full-court press to challenge my self-consumption, to provoke me to consider my true impact on those I love, to undermine my commitment to remain clueless, to interrupt my many excuses and the beliefs that supported them, to oppose my hiding from life when I didn’t know what to do, to offend the arrogance of my belief that the way I viewed life was, in fact, “right”, and to unsettle the confidence I’d placed in my supposed innocence and virtue.

Up to that time, there were people who loved me and overlooked my childishness, selfishness, and playing small.  Others, recoiling at the putrid odor of my self-righteousness would have nothing to do with it—or me.  Jean Marie was different. She was sickened by the offensiveness of my hypocrisy, and yet she loved me steadfastly.  It was her love that held me in the cleansing fire she brought.

Oh, that I would love so well!

What about you?