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.
I like your ideas on leadership. They’re very practical.
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Roy…agreed. History is just that–history. Hanging onto it like a comfort food will not get us where we need to go. There are established leaders who also reckon today is today and desire to grasp today’s challenges as the opportunities for the future. One of the conundrums is how do leaders bring along with them those who enjoy their historic comfort foods?
Russ, I like your metaphor of comfort foods. I’m tempted to let your question be rhetorical, but it’s a serious issue. While leaders need to be forward-looking visionaries, if they don’t bring along the comfort food crowd, they’re only going to have a group of early adopters with them. The bulk of the crowd is almost always going to be in the middle adopters crowd.
So how do you bring them along? I think the starting point is a proper position toward the past. Wycliffe USA’s president Bob Creson does this with a quote he picked up from Bob Webber: The future runs through the past.