March 2009


Third, young leaders live in the world of story. They are less concerned with numbers and statistics than in the emotional pull of a good story. They want to pick out the individual from the masses and put a face on the issues at hand. Statistics don’t motivate them; testimonials and parables speak their language.

Taking this further, these young leaders are wary of statistics. Maybe it’s that deep-seated skepticism. After all, you can find statistics to support any point you want to make. So if young leaders see phenomenal numbers coming out of a program, but a lack of good stories, they see red flags. They are far more willing — than most Boomers are comfortable with — to intuit from a handful of stories a trend and quicker to jump on that trend and ride it as early adopters. Sure, it’s risky. But it suits their style to value feeling, imagination and gut instinct.

While I’m on this point, let me get on my soapbox for a minute. I grate my teeth a little every time I hear someone say, “But that’s just anecdotal evidence!” “Anecdotal evidence”? That feels like an attempt by modernists to fit stories into a numeric, quantitative orientation. Let me suggest another name for it: “true stories.” We should be acknowledging the stories we hear as opportunities to see God moving. We need to find a way to make stories a key quality measurement. How? It’s difficult to make generalizations, but Lencioni makes the point in Three Signs of a Miserable Job that you can find ways to measure quality, such as a drivethrough guy measuring smiles and outright laughs as an indicator of a qualitative improvement. Surely there’s a way to count God sightings, or perhaps the absence of them.

What are your thoughts about using stories as a measure of success?

I appreciate Russ’s comment that there are established leaders who feel the same way. So this is a good time to clarify what I mean by “young.” I need to come up with a term, as Bob Webber did with “younger evangelical,” to use every time I’m referring to a certain kind of leader.

My definition of young comes from Douglas MacArthur:

You are as young as your optimism and as old as your fears.

Speaking as one who is more “ger” than “young,” I admit that many of my observations are of people younger than me, but I aspire to be a “young leader.”

Any of you have a better term for me to use? I’m open to suggestions.

I’m sure you’ve heard it before: a leader talking about what once was and lamenting change. I’m not sure you can fully take advantage of the situation you’re in if you start from that vantage point. Young leaders don’t have a lot of patience for that sentimentality. They aren’t concerned with the way things used to be or how much easier it was in the past. Instead, they’re willing to take what they get and work toward solutions.

Is it lack of experience? Granted, their institutional history is much less than an established leader, but some of them have been around long enough to see some of the downward trends. Is it that they don’t value history? Many are well versed in history, especially the period predating the Enlightenment. It’s basically realism. They don’t find it constructive to worry about where we’ve come from when there are so many opportunities in front of them. Each period in time demands a different set of tools and resources. They want to use fresh eyes to figure out what works today, and then get moving. Let me give you a few examples.

1. Post-Christian. Whether or not America was founded on Christian principles as a “Christian nation” is irrelevant. Our purpose as the Church and non-profit parachurch ministries is to engage the culture as it is now. We work with young people  that don’t generally attend church, don’t read the Bible and don’t have much personal exposure to either. On the other hand, the people around us are open to spiritual discussions, interested in our personal stories and keen observers of our lives. They respond well when they see believers open about their failings and active about their faith, especially to the point that they care about the world we live in and its inequality and injustice.

While we can’t assume context or cultural support for the Bible and Jesus Christ, we shouldn’t necessarily assume bias against either, other than the negative associations young people have made between hypocritical Christians they know. As at least one has said, “I’d be a Christian if it weren’t for all the Christians.” There’s opportunity there to put Jesus Christ front and center. Redemption is always relevant — just ask Hollywood.

2. Postmodernity. This is certainly a controversial issue, but frankly, while you may argue whether postmodernity is bad or good, my response is that it is. Postmodernity is not going to cease to exist just because someone doesn’t like it. And while I try not to make predictions about the future, I wouldn’t advise trying to hold your breath until postmodernity passes like a fad. It looks to be multi-generational. Instead, young leaders prefer to jump in and work with what we’ve got. The Bible says the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church. The Church will be relevant to postmodernity; it will translate itself into the new context sooner or later. And in Wycliffe’s case, that last Bible translation project that we long to see started by the year 2025 will be started by postmoderns.

There’s so much more I could write about postmodernity, but that’s another topic for another day.

3. Biblical literacy. No doubt, this is a big concern: a Church separated from the Bible is prone to drifting.  The young leader responds in two ways. First, how do we operate in a post-literate world? Our culture doesn’t value reading, especially dusty old things like books, so how do we engage people through story, through podcasts and through web 2.0? How do we make the gospel active and alive and relevant?

Second, what are the challenges and opportunities related to using the Bible? How do we teach the principles of the Bible through other means? How do we make relevant a book that’s lost its power through years of abuses: verses used to support pet causes or scientific theories; “biblical principles” reinterpreted to build a moralistic society; and extreme views of the Bible, such as “guidebook for life” or “textbook” or even “love letter” (it’s all of those and none of those). How do we give an ancient book hands and feet so it becomes alive?

The only real thing that matters to young leaders today is today. They want to understand the times and develop strategies that address today’s issues and opportunities. Last week’s strategies might not even be relevant today.

That last post brings me back to the core of my blog: what does a leader look like in a postmodern context?

As I’ve observed my generation’s forays into leadership — including our new president, who was born on the cusp of Generation X in 1963 — I suspect a number of things will prove true about Gen X leaders as a whole. Granted, these are stereotypes and the characteristics may well prove to have positive and negative ramifications. I want to dig into what a leader looks like over the next month, but I’m going to be sporatic until I take my new position in April. Hang in there with me, and set your RSS feed.

I think Gen X leaders are not always immediately identifiable. They may not be the most vocal or the one up front. When you walk into a room of young people, you’re likely to note a few extroverts who stand out for being the most vocal. A few seem to command the ears of the rest though they’re not as outspoken. Others might carry the right technology or always seem to wear the right clothes. But the one in charge – the one who called the group together and did the behind the scenes work to get them there and subtly shift the conversation – may not be any of these.

Leadership is influence, after all. You can have a huge amount of influence without being the one in front. I gave an example of this kind of “back row leadership” in my very first post. Here’s another: do you remember in Amazing Grace how William Wilberforce was the vocal one in the House of Commons, but prime minister William Pitt was secretly pulling strings without offering any emotion from the floor? There was no question that Pitt was the power broker, though Wilberforce got the headlines.

So, why not lead from the front? There could be a lot of reasons, but let me suggest a few:

1. We have an iconic view of leaders. To be a leader, you have to have the complete package: a face for magazine covers, great speaking ability, amazing organizational aptitude and abundant confidence, empathy and wisdom. Who can measure up to the image? Either leaders are larger than life or they’re failing gloriously. Or both.

2. I think there is a strong preference for avoiding risk. It’s easier to sit in the back row and take potshots at the person at the front. The one at the front is putting his neck out, and that takes courage and confidence — two traits that seem to be lacking among many young people. Perhaps we’ve been too sheltered. Anyway, it’s easier to influence someone else to get out front and take the risk instead.

3. Younger leaders prefer facilitation. It’s a philosophical difference. We like to do accomplish things together, and sorting out the roles to recognize success gets messy when it was done as a team. Maybe it doesn’t matter who gets the credit, after all.

4. I think many in my generation see power as a trap. They’re not interested in all the perks that go along with position. No amount of power or money can make up for the long hours, the cost to family, the stress or the inability to wear jeans to work. Better to keep your freedom and your balance.

Dave Baldwin posted a comment on my last entry that got me thinking: “Why is it our followers we always seem to be trying to please?”

It reminds me of a story my pastor tells of how one of his daughters told him a kid at school made her so mad. His response was to ask why she made that person her boss. “She’s not my boss!” she countered indignantly. “Sure, she is. If she’s driving your behavior or getting under your skin, you’ve made her your boss.”

If a leader exists to please his followers, is he a leader?

“Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” — Matthew 10:28

What a crazy verse. It stuck in my mind since the first time I noticed it. Funny how you can read the Bible many times and not see something. Anyway, there’s a lot I can say about this verse, but let me put it in a leadership context, starting with a look in the mirror.

Like many leaders, I’m a people-pleaser. Frankly, approval is my idol. I’m far too concerned with what other people think of me most of the time. I therefore make decisions out of fear — maybe not fear of bodily harm, but certainly fear of falling out of favor or losing face.

So when Jesus asks, “What’s the worst that could happen?” it convicts me of my idolatry. I recall Lincoln’s reminder that you can only please some of the people all of the time. But maybe he missed the point. I shouldn’t be concerned with pleasing anyone ever. I resonate with Sara Groves’ song about an Audience of One. There’s only One who I need to please. And only One I need to be afraid of. After all, what’s the worst that anyone else can do to me? Hurt me? Kill me? Where I come from, neither of those is even likely.

It takes courage to lead. Courage to make a decision and stick with it even if no one else thinks it’s the right thing to do. If my fear of anyone else’s opinion guides my decision-making, then I’m taking a great risk, especially if I’m not honest about my priorities.

I guess that’s why they call it bowing to public opinion.