Pentecost: When Peter’s world changed

In my last post, I discussed how COVID has shifted our world fundamentally in the economy, the nature of government, the charitable sector and international relations. Into that volatile mix—and since I published that blog post—a new force for change is sweeping the U.S. and is spilling over to Canada and Europe: the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd have exposed faultlines around systemic, long-term issues of race and equality. The early indications are that long-silent voices have taken this moment to say, “Enough!” We don’t know yet how these protests will shift the direction already being set in motion by COVID. I think my thoughts here are still relevant.

My previous example of a change of eras might seem extreme; the tectonic shifts we’re facing may be big, but they’re existential and therefore much more difficult to define than a global flood. So let’s look at an example centered around the day of Pentecost we just celebrated: Peter in the first few chapters of Acts.

As a student of leadership, I’m fascinated by the transformation in Peter between his betrayal of Jesus and his emergence as bold leader in Acts 2. He’s just been restored by Jesus in John 21 and given a new commission to feed His sheep, but if he’s to take up the mantle of leadership, he feels lacking. So what does he do? 

First, he compresses a few years’ worth of Bible school into one month. Consider the following. 

  • We know Jesus has just spent 40 days opening his followers’ minds to the Scriptures and interpreting what the Old Testament passages said about himself (Luke 24:27,45). I suspect Peter was a sponge, soaking up everything Jesus could offer him.
  • After Jesus leaves the disciples, we know they spend their days in the temple, worshiping (Luke 24:52). And we know a group of them return to the upper room in Jerusalem, devoting themselves to prayer together (Acts 1:13-14). 
  • When Peter finally speaks up in Acts 1 and 2, the frequency with which he tosses out references to Psalm 69, Psalm 109, Joel 2, Psalm 16 and Psalm 110 reflect the way he’s used his time. He couldn’t just flip to the various pages in his Bible; he has likely memorized these passages after hours devouring the scrolls at a synagogue or the temple library.

Then in Acts 2, the day of Pentecost, it’s showtime. The Holy Spirit falls and gives the believers everything Jesus promised: power, gifting, a message and supernatural linguistic ability. With 3,000 new followers, Peter has to figure out what exactly Jesus meant when he charged him to “Feed my sheep.” What was their religious practice going to look like? There are no models for the Church. I’d be very surprised if Jesus spelled out to Peter what church governance and structure he should use. It’s up to Peter and his colleagues to contextualize. As they do this, the sand is shifting under their feet. Peter will have to draw on all of his preparation to meet the needs, challenges and opportunities that are on his doorstep. 

That’s what makes Peter’s era so relevant to leadership today. Let’s look at a few points of application we can draw out of these early days of the Church, as we consider our own place, on the threshold of the post-COVID world, and the frustrations spilling out on the streets. Maybe this is our day of Pentecost.

1. Establish patterns of discernment and attentiveness

There’s a sense of anticipation about Acts 1. Jesus said to remain in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit comes. Jesus made it clear that Peter’s education would continue after Jesus’ departure, as the Holy Spirit would remind him of all that Jesus said and teach him all things (John 14:26). So the disciples position themselves in the familiar confines of the upper room. These first believers establish an early pattern of devoting themselves to prayer and fellowship (Acts 2:42), and the apostles will later commit themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4). 

The combination of prayer and the ministry of the Word isn’t just about preaching; it includes searching the Old Testament Scriptures and finding application to their situations. That’s what Peter does in Acts 1 when he quotes two Scriptures to support his decision that they should replace Judas among the Twelve. He does it again in the next chapter when he interprets the Spirit’s work at Pentecost as the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. 

In a conversation recently about these ideas with leadership consultant Jonathan Wilson  (read more at Lead by Soul), he told me:

one prepares for the future by understanding (or more accurately, discerning) the present. And that’s where Christians have resources that others don’t have, because not only can we do the necessary work of observing and interpreting the various socio-cultural and political dynamics unfolding before us, we have both the Spirit’s enlightening presence as well as theological tools of, e.g. thinking about worldviews and assumptions, about understanding needs, fears and desires, the way societies operate “in the flesh”, etc., that others don’t or can’t readily access. 

Rhythms of discernment and attentiveness are best established before crisis—when intentions are easily discarded and habits remain firmly in place.

2. Hold assumptions loosely

At first, the early Church seems to believe Jesus is coming back right away, perhaps based on Jesus’ ambiguous statements about his return (e.g. John 21:22). To me, that assumption best explains the earliest practices of the Church. They are continually at the temple, praising God (Luke 24:53, Acts 2:46). No need to work, but they do need to eat, so they start selling possessions (Acts 2:45). Their communal living and having everything in common sounds idyllic, but would not be a sustainable model for the future church. 

As each day passes without Christ’s return, the Church leaders have to deal with increasingly complex problems. They need to begin equipping believers for working and living in an increasingly-hostile environment. They shock the community by deploying church discipline (Acts 5). They are forced to find a structure that allows the movement to scale appropriately (Acts 6). They have to start establishing rules and order to these church services. This requires constant re-evaluation of assumptions. 

It’s the same for us today. Strategy and plans that were developed before the pandemic need a critical look to see if they’re relevant anymore. Activities need to be weighed against criteria, such as whether they’re essential to accomplishing the mission and whether they’re the best way to approach something in light of the new realities. All of these assessments start by holding our assumptions loosely, or even deliberately questioning them. 

Wilson says that this is the moment for organizations to use a

combination of strategy and agile methodologies to engage in adaptation and, even, eventually, self-reinvention. It’s actually too early to truly reinvent, as we don’t know what we’re reinventing for, but it isn’t too early to build the capacity and capabilities for quick adaptation that, coupled with the kind of “discerning the times” I mentioned above, equip an organization to reinvent over time.

3. Reframe setbacks as opportunities

The idyllic model for Church of the first few chapters of Acts is built around the favour of the people and the government (Acts 2:47). Persecution, on the other hand, is an external disrupter, scattering the believers. A Church that risked becoming insular and territorial is suddenly thrust into fulfilling Jesus’ mission in Acts 1:8—witnessing throughout Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1-4). The movement continues to grow in the face of adversity. 

But these shifts bring new grey areas. Now the leaders of the Church need to either establish central control, managing the dispersed Church from Jerusalem, or embrace polycentric ministry, with multiple centres of influence. A combination of factors, such as a coming famine (Acts 11:27-30) and the killing and imprisonment of leaders in Jerusalem (Acts 12:1-5) invert power and allow the dispersed church to minister back up to the mother church.

What new things is God doing right now through COVID? What new doors is he opening that you never dreamed could happen? How do you reframe for your followers the setbacks we’ve faced? Shifting the narrative, and the thought processes behind the stories we tell, is critical to the path your organization will take: either merely trying to revert to normal or keeping the good things that have emerged while remaining open to new ways of structuring and operating for the future.

4. Never stand in God’s way

Then the Holy Spirit leads the Church to expand to include the Gentiles (Acts 10-11). Between a new satellite location in Antioch and Paul’s missionary journeys, a mixed church arises, based on a new identity in Christ rather than race, culture or caste (Gal 3:28). The church council meeting in Acts 15 is a pivotal moment in the Church as they decide whether they will truly become global or remain an offshoot of Judaism.

How does the Church respond? Look at the phrases I highlighted in the following statements and actions:

  • In Acts 10, when the Jewish-background believers are “astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles,” Peter asks, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” (Acts 10:45,47)
  • When he faces criticism, he then asks: “So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:17)
  • After Paul explains to the Council of Jerusalem that Gentiles are hearing and believing, James concludes they would not make it difficult for the Gentiles who turn to God (Acts 15:19).

All of these phrases are about control. When the Holy Spirit is moving, and your assumptions are challenged, it’s a great principle to not get on the wrong side of an issue if God is on the other side. Rather than standing on principles and trying to fit God into your dogma, rewrite your principles around the movement of God.

So here we are, just after Pentecost, facing an unknown future. What can you do today to prepare yourself for the ambiguity ahead, and the movement of God that seems to accelerate when we stand between eras? Through the help of the Holy Spirit, Peter and his fellow leaders got a lot of decisions right. I pray He helps you do the same.

 

A void of leadership

This has been quite the year for leadership. Near the end of July, in the middle of violence between black men and police, Stephen Collinson nailed my thoughts in this CNN headline:

Who can make it stop? Is there a leader who can stop the chaos and heal America?

For a student of leadership like me, it was a summer chock full of case studies from all of Canada’s neighbours. I realize I’m a little late to the game, but I want to weigh in with the back row leader’s perspective in a three-part series.

Full disclosure: I’m a dual citizen, and a former Republican who is planning to vote absentee in the U.S. election, not because I like the choices I’ve been dealt but because I don’t want to abdicate on my responsibilities as a naturalized American. I’m also a child of Europe, in possession of an uncompleted Irish passport application and with similar eligibility in Britain. I really don’t see a need for four passports, but I can’t hide the fact that I do feel loyalty to all four. That said, I’m an observer of much of what I’m commenting on, so I recognize I may have missed some nuances. Anyway, let’s jump in.

1. Populism is a form of leadership.
We’ve seen populist revolutions in the U.K. with Brexit, the U.S. with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, and in Colombia last week with the people’s rejection of a peace deal referendum. Populist movements have multiple influencers and an inertia of their own. It’s hard to pinpoint the leader of a movement, which has its weaknesses but also offers some protection from political pressures. In The Starfish and the Spider, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom use the metaphor of a starfish to discuss movements, pointing out that scientists still don’t know how starfish move in concert when they’re essentially an organism by committee. Without a head, the starfish is less vulnerable to damage and still manages to move and feed itself, but I suspect it sometimes surprises itself with where it ends up.

But isn’t Trump the leader of his movement? Attempting to read the trends and making adjustments to stay in front of the mob makes a good surfer but a poor leader. Trump has had a remarkable ability to see a wave building and to harness it without being knocked off his board; consider the strange bedfellows who resonate with “Make America Great Again,” and his flirtations with David Duke’s endorsement.

2. The most challenging part of leadership is to figure out how to get “there.”
It’s easy to be a critic, and even to lead a group away from “here.” But the wilderness beyond is full of regrets, uncertainty, and leadership pitfalls – where followers turn on a leader when their expectations aren’t met. Just ask Moses. Or Nigel Farage, who decided he “did his bit” in leading Britain out of Europe and wasn’t ready to take the mantle any further. As Bill Hybels is fond of stating, leaders move people from “here” to “there.” Leaving isn’t enough; it’s only the beginning of the need for good leadership.

It takes real courage to take on the wilderness ahead of Britain. You could argue that Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson had a lot of wisdom in backing away, but they lacked the courage — or perhaps the specifics — to back up their vision. Theresa May remained in the game even though she hadn’t supported the Brexit decision. It’s now up to her to help define the vision for what “there” is going to look like.

3. There’s a hunger for thought leadership.
Back on this side of the pond, there’s a failure of imagination. Dialogue is non-existing and creativity fails to get a hearing when well-defined camps hold long-established lines. Civility is lost, and the President skirts legislative approval while Republicans even resort to suing the President to prevent action. Too many Americans have believed the lie that the other candidate or party is wrong on 100% of the issues. And so there is no nuanced thought or open-minded discussion about tackling healthcare, immigration, gun violence, racism and terrorism.

When someone decides ahead of time that one party has the right position, it undermines their ability to think honestly. Even worse, it neutralizes their voice to speak into the issues.

4. The Church has lost its voice.
The issues America is facing have spiritual roots and spiritual implications. Only the Church can speak to heart issues like hatred; the State’s hands are tied. So the Christian must be able to work between the parties to challenge the extreme edges of gun freedom, to address roots of poverty, to seek equality and remove profiling in the application of law, while also seeking religious freedom for believers to operate in their sphere to address heart issues. No political party has a corner on solutions for these issues.

When the Church marries itself to a political party, as the black Church has largely done with the Democratic Party and the evangelical Church with the Republican party, they are taken for granted and their voice is silenced. When Donald Trump thinks he has evangelicalism firmly in his camp by offering them greater influence, power and friendly Supreme Court justices. Many no longer criticize his character or other policies, because they’ve heard what they need to hear.

5. Any void will be filled.
This is not an election as much as a referendum on the direction of the country. If the Republican party can’t fight off its hijacking, a void will certainly beckon for a new party to represent the conservative, immigrant-loving spectrum in a merger with the disenfranchised #nevertrump social and economic conservatives. If ever the United States could tolerate three parties, this seems the time.

However, I submit that the leadership void will not be filled by a politician. The Christian community must rise up to defy hatred, challenge racism, love the unloveable and defend the vulnerable. Spiritual leadership is needed, and it must come from voices that are not power-hungry and bowing the knee to any political party. To some, such meekness and humility will look like weakness. Some might call them losers. But the last will be first, and the first last. The meek will inherit the earth. The one who loses the world will gain his soul. That, more than anything else, is what America needs to find again.

On July 7, when Micah Xavier Johnson ambushed police officers in Dallas in the middle of a public firestorm focused on police brutality toward black men, it was not a politician who stepped up to lead with fresh vision. The world noticed when Dallas’s black police chief found a platform to address the craziness. David Brown had just the right combination of empathy with black minorities, identity with the uniform and Christian compassion, and his leadership drew praise from all parties.

That’s the kind of leadership we need.

Part 1: A void of leadership
Part 2: A time for repentance
Part 3: An opportunity for Millennials

Wartime leadership: tactics and schemes

Let’s start our study of wartime leadership by examining our defenses. In 2 Corinthians 2:10-11, Paul gives instructions to the Corinthian church for dealing with a specific case, then adds these critical words: “…so that Satan will not outsmart us. For we are familiar with his evil schemes.”

Are we familiar? What do we know about Satan’s attacking style? The Bible offers us a few helpful metaphors.

  • A prowling lion: Satan is seeking whom he may devour (1 Pet 5:8).
  • Thief: Like thieves, Satan doesn’t come in through the front door. He sneaks in to steal, kill and destroy (John 10:1-10).
  • Masquerade: Satan disguises himself in an attempt to resemble an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14), and he sows weeds to blend in among the wheat (Matt 13:24-30).
  • Footholds: Satan uses slow erosion and any opportunities offered him (Eph 4:27).

What do we know from the Scriptures about Satan’s specific tactics? His primary tools are:

  • Division: He sows discord and goes after the unity of fellow believers (Rom 16:17). The Corinthian church is a great example (1 Cor 1:10, 3:3, 11:18)
  • Distraction: He attempts to entangle us in “civilian pursuits” (2 Tim 2:4) and get us busy doing good things, rather than remain alert and sober-minded (1 Pet 5:8).
  • Lies: Satan is identified as the “father of lies.” Lies are his mother tongue (John 8:44). He twists truth and speaks half truths to deceive those who don’t know the truth well (Gen 3:1-4, Rom 16:18).
  • Deception: Jesus referred to false prophets as “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matt 7:15). Even Peter became a false prophet and attempted to subvert the plans of God. Jesus quickly exposed Satan hiding in his words (Matt 16:23). The tricky part is that Peter thought he was carrying truth.
  • Betrayal: I think of this as weaponizing people. Those who are close to us know our weak points. When Satan can turn one of us against the organization or the community, he or she knows how to hit where it hurts. For instance: Judas with a kiss, knowing Jesus’ hangout (John 18:2); Peter’s denial (Luke 22:61); Demas’ desertion because he loved this world (2 Tim 4:10).
  • Accusation: Satan is identified as the “accuser of the brethren” (Rev 12:10).
  • Picking off the unprotected: While lions may have the power for a frontal attack, they seldom come straight on. They hunt for the weak, the young, the old or the outliers rather than a full-out attack on the strong or the main group itself. Therefore Peter is saying that Satan pokes around the edges of the Church, looking for weak points. He targets the proud, who don’t believe they could fall (1 Cor 10:12). He pursues the exhausted and burned out. He picks off the isolated, including those who are traveling and alone.

I could go on and list doubt, discouragement, fear, the desires of our eyes and the pride of life (1 John 2:16). Instead of trying for comprehensiveness, let’s bring it right down to ground level and make it applicable. Take a step back and review the last couple of years.
1. How does Satan usually attack you? What is your weak point?
2. Where have you seen Satan’s tactics at work within your organization?
3. Where have you seen them in your church?
4. Where have we seen them in the broader Canadian and U.S. Church?

Now, consider the future.
5. What can we expect that we haven’t seen yet?
If there’s a specific form of attack you haven’t seen as much as you might expect, it’s likely an indication of what might be just around the corner. How can you prepare for it?

We know more than we think about how Satan operates. We need to be vigilant for ourselves and our brothers and sisters so that we don’t fall and so we don’t unwittingly help the opposition by causing another to fall. Denial only plays into our enemy’s hands.

In my next post, we’ll consider what we can do to protect ourselves.

Wartime leadership

A different kind of leadership is going to be needed in North America in the next decade.

The Church in Canada is moving into a different phase, with less overt impact on the government and society. If it recognizes and embraces this minority status, it can have even greater impact on the culture as a minority voice. This will require a different kind of leadership than we’ve needed in past decades where leaders struggled to engage a Church that enjoyed its comfort and fell into complacency. Now the culture, societal pressures and even government regulations are forcing the Church to be fully engaged, standing for religious freedom and expression, “exclusionary” truths and marginalized people. The gospel needs to be lived out clearly by the institutional Church and the people of God. Leadership will be critical in guiding the Church through this change of approach.

In the Bible translation world, leadership is going to get increasingly difficult. We’ve weathered storms over the years that threatened to destroy us, and some of those storms have intensified in the last couple of years. If I’m correct, the clouds will continue to build. Why? Because of Vision 2025. We don’t often look at it this way, but how would Satan view a vision to empower a sustainable worldwide Bible translation movement, with the specific goal of starting translation in the remaining languages that need it by 2025? What else is that vision but an all-out offensive on the kingdom of darkness? Before 1999, we poked and prodded, slowly advancing the kingdom. This vision plans to expose every dark corner of this planet to the light of God’s Word within this decade. Many of the places we will be going in the next ten years are longtime strongholds. These changes call for bold, courageous leadership.

In short, our tactics and our leadership must be fashioned for wartime, not peacetime. The problem is that we’ve always been at war, as much of the rest of Church outside the West could have told us. The greatest victory our enemy has accomplished is in convincing such a large part of the Western Church that we were at peace. The enemy has taken vast tracts of territory while we slept.

Fortunately, there’s some good news. The Bible has plenty to say about how to live and lead in wartime. In fact, little of the Bible concerns itself with how the Church should operate in peacetime. Peace is something spoken of as hope for the future, not something we’ll attain on this earth.

Second, this context is very familiar to the Church around the world. That means we can learn leadership skills from our brothers and sisters outside the West.

Over the next few posts, we’ll examine the leadership implications of what the Bible says about wartime leadership.

Bi-generational leadership

When I was in Peru last year, a friend of mine told me the general nature of leadership in the Latin church. The goal, he said, was not a handoff. Sure, Latins want to be given responsibility and leadership in the missions movement, and deservedly so. In fact, the Church needs them to take leadership. But the nuance he introduced me to was that Latins don’t want the ex-patriates to leave. They want to serve alongside us.

I apply the same filter when reading the article, Google’s Greatest Innovation May Be Its Management Practice, from Fast Company. What if generations served together, even from the CEO role? It’s a fascinating idea. What are your thoughts?

Heed the artists

In The Age of the Unthinkable, Ramo tells the story of Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso walking down a street one evening in Paris when a military convoy rumbled by. What caught their attention was that it looked different: the first time either of them had seen camouflage. Picasso cried out, amazed. “Yes, it is we who made it, that is Cubism!” Sure, camouflage was the direct application of Cubism by a lesser artist than Picasso, who thought he could apply art to transform warfare. But at the same time, that moment summarized in a moment the completely different way of seeing the world that was Cubism. It took artists to start the transformation, and it took artists to note the cultural shift.

Today’s prophets are found among artists. They’re the ones who have the pulse of what’s next. For instance, they’re the ones who first debated postmodernism… in the 1970s. The rest of the world took notice thirty years later. And the Church began to debate it within the last ten years, as if they could make a difference entering the debate that late in the day.

I was first exposed to Postmodern thought at a conference in 1999. It was eye-opening for me. I still remember one of the organizers lamenting about the state of artistic expression in most churches as well as the exodus of young people — particularly the artistic class — from the Church. Her conclusion: “The Church kicked out all the artists and then decided it wanted art.” She’s right on so many points. Without artists, worship becomes formulaic and stagnant. Without artists, the Church is so late in attempts to contextualize the Gospel as to be irrelevant. Without artists, the Church is left out of public debate on culture shifts.

So, while the Church engages with yesterday’s cultural shift, the artists long ago moved on to other shifts. What were they discussing at the turn of the century? What are they discussing today? The reason artists can express or portray an idea in fresh ways is that they see in fresh ways. The key to thinking differently is seeing differently.

Remember the old Apple ad series? The only one I clipped was the one featuring Ansel Adams. I wish I had the one featuring Paul Rand. Recall the narration: “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers.”

Leaders would do well to maintain relationships with the arts community. Artists can make you uncomfortable. They are not always appreciated in their hometown. They love to note hypocrisy. But don’t try to forecast without your best “seers.” When it comes to anticipating the future, keep your artists close by.

People in parachurch agencies

I asked the question recently: In the world of social sectors, where should “parachurch” mission agencies like Wycliffe fall in the continuum between church and business? Let me try to outline the issues around the topic, and then next post we’ll look at how an organization like ours should act toward “the wrong people.”

One of my favorite metaphors for church is that it’s a hospital. Jesus himself said the healthy don’t need a doctor; those that need him are the sick, the poor and the needy. Those are the kinds of people the church is best suited to attract. The healthy aren’t the core audience, and certainly not the rich. Jesus said those are harder to corale for his kingdom than putting a camel through the eye of a needle.

A business exists to create value for its owners or shareholders. In order to do that well, it has to deliver a product or service of value to its customers, but a business doesn’t exist for its customers. At the end of the day, it has to make money.

Wycliffe is designed neither to heal the broken nor to make money. Its ultimate goal is to bring value to people in other parts of the world, but in order to do that, it must create value for that end with people and churches who are local. It therefore becomes a bridge, making connections between the two parties, and a broker, moving resources from one to the other and then communicating the effective use of those resources.

So, when the question is posed about how an organization like Wycliffe should act toward “the wrong people,” the response is complicated. If we have the wrong people on our bus, we will not effectively complete our mission. In that sense, we are like a business. We need to pursue sound strategies and good stewardship. On the other hand, few businesses recognize the role of the Holy Spirit, who is at the least a force multiplier, amplifying our meager resources and efforts. The Holy Spirit should play a huge role in our organization, as he does in each individual.

If you ask any business leader what his most important resource is, he’ll say it’s his people. With an organization whose members raise their own salaries, it may be even more so. Wycliffe is built on our staff and the relationships they bring with them. Personal relationships are our driving force, our economic engine. In addition, staff members not only serves the organization but their constituents: churches and individuals who sent them.

An organization built on a model where you screen heavily and only take in the top tier of candidates comes with a parallel value that you don’t let go of them easily or quickly. On the other hand, it comes with a value that you try to repackage and develop people for another role if they don’t work out in the initial one.

Let’s just say it’s complicated. Looking forward to further musings on the topic, and I welcome your thoughts as well.