A Culture of Cowardice (part nine)
In this series, we’re examining a culture of cowardice that, in my view, seems to saturate much of the American Church—contributing to our diminishing influence in society.
Consider how often we cover up truth when a Christian leader falls.
For several decades now, we in the Church routinely sweep these humiliations under the rug: the priest is relocated to a new parish, the pastor takes a seminary position, the missionary goes on furlough, and the youth leader enrolls in graduate school.
Those close enough to the transgression to have been among the collateral damage just leave…the church…the faith…and our stand for liberating truth. [John 8:32]
Paul counsels Timothy against favoritism in leading the church and administering discipline.
And yet, isn’t that exactly what we’re doing?
Years ago, I learned about an egregious ethical compromise by a nationally visible leader with whom I worked. My attempts to influence a correction were thwarted, so I resigned. The public explanation the leader provided was typical of the positive-sounding pablum of most such announcements. It said … nothing.
And, saying nothing, it succeeded in communicating one clear message: “You are not getting the truth.”
So, when people close to the situation asked why I’d resigned, I told them. I shared my errors in judgment, my failure to act years before when prompted by God: the ways my cowardice contributed to the leader’s collapse. And, I shared, honestly as I know, what this respected leader had done.
No cover up.
When we claim to be “children of light” and switch off the light when what it reveals is unpleasant or uncomely or uncomfortable… are we not hypocrites?
In a way, aren’t we strengthening the darkness? Doesn’t the darkness thicken when the Church fails to stand as light in life?
Paul, to the church in Ephesus wrote: “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them… But everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for it is light that makes everything visible.” [Eph 5:8-14]
Living in a Culture of Cowardice, we find it awkward to expose darkness the way Paul instructs. Orienting ourselves around the least mature, our response to moral failure is to go easy on the fallen leader. We tell ourselves that the “restoration” of the fallen leader is most important. So we keep the indiscretion secret. We keep it in the dark.
Paul didn’t see it that way.
In the business of making mature disciples, courageous leaders will mourn with those who fall and warn everyone else, lest we disavow the truth we profess by the way we lead…and undermine Christ’s message to the world.
A Culture of Cowardice (part eight)
How come when a prominent Christian leader falls, it is so often shrouded in darkness? The secrecy so often persists until the police, the media, or the victim of the leadership abuse brings it into the light. How often are those illuminations met with skillfully-articulately denials or a minimizing reinterpretation of the offense?
Is it just me, or do you see it, too?
We who are Christian, are fond of reciting John 8:32 “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”, particularly when the topic is evangelism. Trouble is, our behavior – at very important times and in very important ways – covers up truth.
The Greek word translated “truth” is alethia.
It means “reality”.
Is it any wonder that those outside our faith community scratch their heads?
What are they to think when we froth at the mouth about the “truth” of our Gospel and then behave in ways that endeavor to keep truth hidden away?
Were the roles reversed, what would you think? How likely would you be to consider their faith claims?
Andy Stanley in The Next Generation Leader identifies courage as central to leadership. One way leadership courage expresses itself, he says, is in recognizing and declaring current reality—regardless of how embarrassing or discouraging it may be. When a prominent pastor falls, the courageous around him or her will honestly and forthrightly communicate the truth of what happened.
In the people-development business, rather than the keep-the-people-comfortable business, they recognize this as a critical character-development opportunity.
A leadership failure is “ground zero” to anchor the values that are central to how we, as Christ-followers, are committed live.
When Paul instructed Timothy: “Those [elders] who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning.” [2 Tim 5:20], he placed the benefit to “the others” above whatever difficulty the leaders who have to mop up the mess, or the fallen elder, would encounter. And, “the others” are not just Christians, but those outside who are intently watching how we live.
A Culture of Cowardice (part seven)
Recently, I’ve invited you to consider to what degree a Culture of Cowardice has taken hold in the Church. My purpose is to invite you, Christian leader, pastor, denominational executive to a place of uneasiness, even painful discomfort.
Pain is necessary for change.
We’d prefer to believe that an appropriately reasonable explanation, cloaked in kindness, is all that’s needed for humans to embrace the adventure and uncertainty of the unknown. Since the Enlightenment, I suppose, societies have assumed that knowledge of what’s better will result in people making the reasoned choice to change.
But, do they?
More to the point, do you?
One condition that’s welcomed the stagnation common to the church experience of most is that we who are in ministry have forgotten what business we’re in. Now, I’m no historian, but my understanding is that the Protestant Reformation occurred in the sweep of the Enlightenment—the Age of Reason.
And we’ve been reasoning with our congregations ever since.
The problem is, education is not an end. And, a religiously educated person is not an end either. No more than an elevator is an end. An elevator is a means to the 4th floor. Teaching the Bible is a means to an end.
The Church is supposed to be in the life-change business.
When someone approaches you with “nice message, Pastor”, what’s your reply? “Thank you”?
More often than not, when someone approaches me with a similar encouragement, my response is not “Thank you”, but “Why?”
I listen for how the person’s been impacted. Then I want to know: “So what?”
“How will you live differently?”
If you’re not changing lives in identifiable, maturity-inducing ways aren’t you wasting your time and the time of those hear you?
Multiply this waste of time by the 90 or 390 people in your church, then multiply that by the months and years and decades that you’ve been educating people whose lives are not radically changing and what do you have??
The Church in North America.
A Culture of Cowardice (part six)
I’m a leadership coach to pastors. In a series on Leadership Courage, we’re laying out the context. I assert that a Culture of Cowardice dominates much of the North American Church.
Allow me to use a personal example to illustrate what it can look like to replace cowardice with courage.
Jean Marie is a powerfully incisive woman who had trained four of my teens. She’d heard first-hand what they experienced with me as their dad: distant, demanding, disconnected, self-consumed, rigid, judgmental, severe, angry, cold.
Then, she facilitated a workshop my wife attended. She learned of the frustration, disappointment, loneliness, and anguish to be married to a guy like me.
For the next five years, Jean Marie served as a character coach and trainer for me.
I’d never known anyone like her.
Her love for my family and for me was palpable, remarkable, undeniable, and unrelenting.
And, so was her full-court press to challenge my self-importance, to provoke me to consider my true impact on those I love, to undermine my commitment to remain clueless, and to interrupt my practice of excusing myself and the beliefs I fabricated to support it. She opposed my hiding from life when I didn’t know what to do, and offended the arrogance of my belief that my view was “right”.
She unsettled decades of confidence I’d placed in my innocence and virtue.
Up to that time, there were people who loved me and overlooked my childishness, selfishness, and playing small. Others, recoiling from the stench of my self-righteousness had nothing to do with it—or me.
Oh, that I would love so well!
Over the ensuing years, she and others like her, were used by God to transform me. Many times since then I’ve risked friendships to stand as an immovable interruption to some way of thinking that was undermining a friend. So has Annie.
To love our friends this way has sometimes cost us those friendships.
To lose a friend but save a soul, or a marriage, or a family—is what courage does.
Over my career in business and ministry, I’ve resigned five times.
To stay required that I compromise my ethics or my understanding of God’s call on my life. To go meant that I’d be unemployed. No small challenge for the primary breadwinner of a family of eight.
But, I’d learned from Jean Marie what courageous love does.
A Culture of Cowardice (part five)
I’m a leadership coach for pastors. This is our tenth segment on Leadership Courage, and our fifth exposing a Culture of Cowardice that’s dominated much of the North American Church.
In the Gospels read just the words in red—and see how often Jesus challenged people. He did it all the time. Jesus stood as an interruption to whatever came between his hearers and the Kingdom of God.
Jesus constantly provoked, unsettled, undermined, and challenged those he was with—especially those closest to him.
Jesus loved them enough to offend and oppose what would harm them—even when they cherished it as good, or nice, or comfortable. He loved the rich young ruler enough to spell out exactly what it’d take to inherit eternal life. [Mk 10:21] Love motivated Jesus’ challenge. Love—not for himself, his comfort or reputation—but love for others moved Christ to risk offending them.
I assert that love motivates you to withdraw from challenging and opposing the nonsense and mediocrity your parishioners hold as true. Trouble is, it’s 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, pastor.
You don’t want to put up with the resistance. Why poke a hornet’s nest? You’re already on thin ice with several stakeholders in the church. Don’t rock the boat. You’re tired enough. Besides, they make you pay whenever your preaching gets too personal.
Thank God that Jesus didn’t fear offending the woman at the well—maybe 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.
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!
A Culture of Cowardice (part four)
I’m a leadership coach to pastors. We’re nine segments into a series on Leadership Courage. This is our fourth pass exposing a Culture of Cowardice that I believe has dominated much of the Church in North America.
These observations are confined 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.
In A Failure of Nerve Edwin Friedman identifies characteristics of chronically anxious families, communities, and societies. While I see ample evidence of these features in American society it’s stunning to consider how these traits apply to Christian churches today.
Recently, 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. Two segments ago, 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?
I work with pastors in dozens of denominations—each with their peculiar polity and priorities. Some systems locate leadership responsibility and authority with the pastor. Others load the pastor with responsibility and deny her or him the authority to lead. Still others withhold both leadership responsibility and authority from their ministers. Regardless of denominational polity, 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 them.
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 cars and restaurants and kitchens of those who hear. You don’t 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?
Do your sermons unsettle them?
Do your messages undermine the mediocrity of most of your members’ lives?
Do you challenge your congregation to change?
If not, why not?
A Culture of Cowardice (part three)
I’m a leadership coach to pastors. Last time, I introduced a pervasive cultural condition that’s true of so many churches it’s become characteristic of the Church in America.
A Culture of Cowardice.
While there are many exceptions, compared to the whole, these exceptions are so exceptional that the description deserves our attention—particularly when the topic is leadership courage.
Edwin Friedman, in A Failure of Nerve diagnoses American society as chronically anxious. As he describes systems experiencing chronic anxiety—the Church in North America fits the description even more than American society as a whole.
Chronically anxious systems, Friedman notes, are toxic to courageous, well-differentiated leadership. So acute is the culture’s abhorrence of discomfort that it “knee-jerks” its way from one perceived threat to another, clamoring for instantaneous relief from ministers, who are pulled in all directions at once.
A pastor may have begun with a clear sense of mission. But, in short order that mission is overwhelmed by the demand that the “crisis du jour” be averted with haste. Ministers, instead of challenging the congregation to mature and leading them to take important new ground, become consumed with smoothing out the never-ending ruffled feathers of the flock.
Caretaking is not leadership.
And, to do this, they need only to answer the phone!
Ministry, for many, resembles the role of a caregiver in an overcrowded orphanage, wearily scurrying to soothe the baby screaming most loudly before she can comfort the next infant to bellow.
For many, the priorities of ministry are based more on responding to the immediate needs of church members than in steadfast obedience to the Audience of One.
A leader who remains resolute in pursuit of a cause greater than the good feelings of the congregation (for example, the maturation of the disciples and the mobilization of members for ministry outside the church) is seen as heartless, unresponsive, deaf to the cries of the downtrodden, and out-of-touch with “real people” within. Emotionally and spiritually emaciated church members have no stomach for a real leader…like Christ.
What if Jesus belonged to a typical American church today?
To a member of a beleaguered minority he declared: “You have no idea what you’re worshipping!” [Jn 4:22] Embarrassed by Jesus’ insensitivity, the Church might howl: “How cruel, abusive, and bigoted! All-loving heavenly Father is nothing like him!”
After freeing the Gadarene [Mt 8:32], imagine the uproar from the typical church at the brutality shown the pigs. Animal rights activists throughout the Church would demand that Jesus be locked up. “How could anyone representing God mistreat innocent wildlife so maliciously?”
Jesus says: “Let the dead bury their dead” when a potential new member asks to attend his father’s funeral. [Lk 9:60] To this, the church would smugly declare: “How unfeeling, cold, and heartless! A merciful God would never say that!”
When Jesus comes upon merchants in the temple, he goes nuts: vandalizing their property, abusing the animals (again!), and misappropriating their funds. [Jn 2:15] Most churches would get a restraining order against Jesus—after his 5150 expired. “God is a God of order—not chaos”.
Jesus is revealed in scripture as clear, decisive, and disruptive.
You might think Him a study in contrasts: compassionate to the adulteress and hair-triggered to critique the religious leaders of his day. He’d be branded a troublemaker (or worse) in most US churches today.
Jesus was resolute in His commitment to model, bring, and defend the Kingdom of His Father.
A Culture of Cowardice (part two)
- Courageous leadership is, by nature, decisive.
And, the Latin root of decisive means “to cut”. But, it is not nice to cut anything away, to cut anything off, to cut anything out—even a toxic presence – like a parasite – that survives by sucking the life out of those who are healthy.
To lead with heart is to stand for what’s best, simply because it is best—even when unpopular. Even when it provokes opposition from misguided stakeholders within the Church…draining its vitality.
- Courageous leadership, by nature, is clear.
Such a leader is unapologetically clear about who she is, the difference she is committed to make in the world, her values and priorities.
The clearer you are as a leader, the clearer people around you will become.
And, therein lies the problem. As pastors, we don’t always like what that clarity reveals. As you become more and more clear as a leader, more and more people will decide they’re not “up” for going where you’re going. Stay foggy and many will stick around, wandering in impotent ambiguity.
But, those who get behind a leader who is clear will be a powerful force for good—the good to which that leader’s been called.
- Courageous leadership, by nature, is disruptive.
Courageous leaders routinely disrupt dysfunction. They regularly challenge their own preference for comfort—and that of those they lead.
Many interpret their leadership as crisis-inducing.
Edwin Friedman notes that crises are normative in leaders’ lives. These crises come from two sources: those that just arise, imposed upon the leader from forces outside that leader’s control and crises that are initiated by the leader doing exactly what she should be doing. Jesus did this all the time. But, notice the reluctance of anyone in church leadership to lead in a way that invites a crisis for long-standing church members.
As a leadership coach and consultant to pastors, my life’s work is to champion Christian influencers to find their hearts and to fully re-engage them in this great, important struggle to stir the Church from its slumber.
There is no altogether “nice” way to do this.
Just five verses into his story, Jonah is asleep below decks, aboard a ship imperiled in a brutal storm. The terrified captain races below, stunned to find Jonah asleep — in so critical a moment. Waking Jonah, he demands: “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your God! Maybe he will take notice of us, and we will not perish.” [Jon1:6]
Get this, folks: it was not a follower of Yahweh who stirred Jonah from slumber—calling him to take action with God lest the “community” they were part of be plunged to ruin.
Look around you.
Is not the community around your church caught in a destructive storm?
A moral, ethical, and spiritual hurricane that wills to destroy the fabric of American society? Don’t you see the storm buffeting the Christian faith—driving it to the very edges of the culture?
To awaken the Church, her leaders must first rouse themselves.
Then, embracing the opportunity provided by this life, they can stand clearly, decisively, and disruptively to awaken their churches to enter the glorious and dangerous fight for the redemption of the community around them.
What else would a Christ-follower do?
A Culture of Cowardice (part one)
Who are the exemplars of courage in our culture? To whom does America look when seeking heroes to serve as role models? Sandra Fluke? Caitlyn Jenner? Donald Trump? Bowe Bergdahl?
Think about it.
Wikipedia defines an endangered species as a population “at risk of becoming extinct because it is either few in numbers, or threatened by changing environmental or predation parameters.” Can you see that all three conditions are true of the Church today?
We’re left with what I call a Culture of Cowardice.
In A Failure of Nerve he notes that America has become so chronically anxious that our society has gone into an emotional regression. A regression that is toxic to courageous, well-defined leadership.
One effect of societal anxiety is a reduced pain threshold. The result: comfort is valued over the rewards of facing challenge. A culture like this has no stamina in the face of difficulty and crisis.
How like the contemporary Church this is!
In our commitment to “being nice” we prioritized togetherness over actually making a difference. In our desire to feel good we bury our heads in the proverbial sand while the culture around us sprints toward its own destruction.
According to Friedman, dissent is discouraged, feelings take precedence over ideas, peace over progress, comfort over anything new, and cloistered virtues over adventure.
The press for togetherness in the Church smothers bold, daring, world-changing action – like we see in the Book of Acts – and those who are courageous enough to engage it.
What emerges is a culture that is so “nice”, so fixated on empathy that it organizes itself around the most immature, most dependent, most dysfunctional members.
On average, churches in America have fewer than 80 in attendance, and are declining, fewer than 5% of their members tithe, and most fail to see a single convert to the Christian faith a year.
Who has hijacked the agenda in most of America’s churches?
The least courageous, least responsible, and least emotionally and spiritually mature have taken most churches captive.
Or, haven’t you noticed?
The Responsibility Riddle
QUESTION: Pastor, who is responsible for your spiritual maturity and vitality?
ANSWER: I am, of course!
Ok, fine. Now answer this…
QUESTION: Pastor, who is responsible for the spiritual maturity and vitality of your congregation?
ANSWER: Again, I am!
Really? Are you sure?
If you are responsible for your congregation’s spiritual maturity, what are they responsible for?
Ask me that again??
There’s a troubling trend in the Church these days. We, in ministry, see the evidence of this all the time.
It can be found in a complaint that, more often than not, sounds like this:
“I’m just not getting fed, here…”
“I don’t experience the presence of God here…”
“The worship no longer ministers to me…”.
And then off they go, out the door, on to another church, … or maybe to no church at all.
The thinking, both of the pastor and the complaining congregants flows from the same fallacy: that the pastor, the church, the elders are somehow responsible for the spiritual condition of those they serve.
Thinking like this, it’s no wonder the Church is diapered in perpetual spiritual infancy.
So, who is responsible for your spiritual maturity and vitality?
The responsibility riddle can be solved in this important, seldom recognized distinction: Your pastor is responsible to you, but is never responsible for you.
Think about it. A pastor is responsible to the congregation to model mature faith in action, to proclaim God’s Word faithfully, to represent Christ ethically.
Each believer is responsible for what they do with the Word of God: both the preached Word and the Word that sits in their lap, on the bookshelf, or on the coffee table gathering dust.
Are you responsible for your spouse’s happiness?
Of course not!
How could you be?
When you notice that someone has tried to make you responsible for whatever it is that God has made them responsible for – their attitudes, their behavior, their “stress”, their decisions, their depression, their optimism – invite them to embrace this reality: you bear responsibility to them, but are never responsible for them.
Do I have a responsibility to my wife? Absolutely!
I am responsible to keep my promises to her. I’ve promised to value her above every breathing human being. I’ve promised to honor her whether she deserves it or not. I’ve promised to pray for her. I’ve promised to champion her toward all God’s called her to be. I’ve promised to be faithful sexually and emotionally. I’ve promised to walk with God and to submit my life to Jesus and his Word. And, I promised to treat her better than she deserves.
And, she is responsible for herself.
When our kids were small and unable to take responsibility for themselves, as parents we bore the responsibility for them. When our pre-teen had a friend over, and they snuck out at night and lit a porta-potty on fire, we were legally responsible—because they were minors and under our supervision.
Now in his twenties, it would be foolish for us to take responsibility for his decisions.
In fact, it would be irresponsible for us to do so.
To take responsibility for another adult is a violation of his or her autonomy.
An invasion of their sovereignty.
It represents a kind of abuse.
When you are with an otherwise capable adult as if they were incapable of adult choices and incapable of bearing the adult consequences for those choices, what is your impact – really – on that person?
What is the “fruit” that is produced when you persuade another to live irresponsibly?
The distinction of being ‘responsible to’ vs. ‘responsible for’ is central for everyone in leadership.
There’s great freedom when you’re clear about this distinction, and lead in such a way that those you influence are clear about it too.
To stand in life responsible to others and responsible for your own emotional being and destiny may require courage you’ve not been willing to summon, until now.
Time to call it up!