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 new world

It’s easy to look out the window and see a world where it seems nothing has really changed. Maybe we’ll soon be able to return to normal, right? For many of us, that’s our deepest longing. But I believe the profound change in four fundamental areas can’t help but lead to a deep, deep change to the world we’ve known:

  1. The economy. Most western governments have acted like they have unlimited bank accounts to roll out programs. How will they pay for it? With austerity? With taxation? Or printing money? Or further stimulus to speed up the velocity of money? How many quarters, or how many years, will this impact our economy, and what will the implications be?
  2. The nature of government itself. How much risk should the government protect its citizens and businesses from? How extensive a safety net is going to be constructed? How will governments use or abuse contact tracing and health tracking? What liberties will citizens demand back from their governments?
  3. The charitable sector. Giving has been or will eventually be impacted by unemployment, increased government handouts, the up-and-down stock market and the continued threat to vulnerable populations. For non-profits and charities, all of these factors are bound to affect current and potential workforce, as well as philanthropy and generosity. Likely, impacts will come in waves. Where charities fail, who will step in to meet needs and fulfill charitable purposes?
  4. International relations. Closed borders, anti-foreigner resentment, tracking of citizens, visa restrictions and localization are just some of the factors that will impact travel and delivery of services around the world. For an organization that engages in sending expatriate missionaries as well as contributing funds for local projects, our priorities and strategies may need to shift.

“These are unprecedented times.” How many times have you heard someone say that? How many times have you said those words? While this particular alignment of factors may be unique, it is naive to believe no one else has faced such profound levels of change. Over a few blog posts, I want to draw out some lessons from three biblical characters that I believe are relevant today. Today, let’s look at Noah.

In some ways, we’re in a similar place as Noah in Genesis 8:4. After he and his immediate family have been on the ark for 5 months, they experience a great grinding shudder as the ark beaches itself on Mount Ararat. The immediate crisis over, it’s now time to look out the window. The earth Noah is returning to is the same one he left, but it is now going to be unrecognizable. Everything has changed. 

Perhaps these changes will prove to have only short-term consequences; the land below our ark is still drying up and taking form. But I believe it’s more than that. The similarities we see between the world outside our window and the world we left in March are only surface-deep. If we don’t prepare ourselves for what’s changed, we will miss opportunities as leaders. Here are a few thoughts.

1. The next six months will be a slow and often-frustrating re-emergence.

Land! I can imagine Noah’s eagerness to get off the ark. But the beaching of the ark was just the first step of restoration. They had to wait for the water to recede: to see the tops of the mountains, for the land to solidify, for greenery to emerge. Until that happened, they stayed in their lockdown. You know how long that was? Another 7 months and 10 days. I can’t imagine the patience that took!

As provinces and states are rolling out re-opening plans, each of our experiences across North America will look different. There will be inequities, delays and setbacks that test our patience, our contentment and our ability to follow those God has put in authority over us. Those we lead will need help with those frustrations, even as we struggle with our own responses. 

In a recent Zoom call with other leaders, one suggested that we haven’t faced our real leadership challenges yet; the next phase will require much greater leadership than the crisis phase. Ahead of us are many gray areas, many consequential decisions, and many existential choices that will redefine our ministries, organizations and businesses. But he also specifically mentioned navigating a world that is polarized and splintering, and a Church that is too quick to embrace conspiracy theories. He was considering how to proactively prepare his staff to be discerning without assuming they’ll take the wrong path.

2. This is not a blip that we need to survive; it’s a re-ordering of the way things have been. 

Whether you work for a for-profit or non-profit, your mission and vision are still relevant, and you have work to do. But strategy and plans that were developed before the pandemic need to be weighed against criteria to see whether they’re essential to accomplishing the mission and whether they’re the best way to approach something in light of the new realities.

Some observers are saying that the quicker organizations can throw out previous assumptions and strategy and develop new strategy consistent with who they are, the better they will be positioned for success. There are new opportunities coming that were not even possible a month ago that we need to prepare for. My fear is that my organization will fill our plans and budgets with activities that are based on old assumptions and leave no room to develop new ideas that take advantage of opportunities that arise. That’s where leadership is required. 

3. New realities require different competencies.

There’s no indication in Genesis of what Noah’s competencies were before God asked him to build an ark. Think of the competencies required to build such a large sea-going structure. Think of the entirely different set of competencies required to manage a floating zoo for a year. Think of those necessary to re-establish infrastructure, cultivate the land and defend from nature in the new world. Individuals have competencies, and teams have collective competencies. A team, and a leader, must ask whether the competencies that served well in the past are still relevant for the context they will face in the future.

It may require a restructure to make that shift, but it’s also possible to pivot, as Moah and his sons did. For instance:

  • At the 2008 Catalyst conference in Atlanta, Andy Stanley shared a question he considers on a regular basis:

“If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what would he do? Why shouldn’t we walk out the door, come back in, and do it ourselves?”— Only the Paranoid Survive, Andy Grove

  • John Pellowe, president of the Canadian Council of Christian Charities, says his secret for serving in the role 17 years is self reflection. Every five years he asks himself what the organization needs for the next five years, evaluates whether he fits the criteria and then creates a personal and professional development plan to reinvent his leadership to become the leader the organization needs. Read more of his thoughts about Keeping your leadership fresh on his blog.

What kind of competencies do we need right now for this uncertain future? I’m going with futuring, forward thinking, asking good questions that challenge assumptions, performance management and metrics. Let me know if you have some others to add to that list.

Rest assured that, if you are in a leadership position, it is by God’s design. You may not know what to do—there is no model for the circumstances we’re facing—but He who put you in your position will help you as you call on him. God bless you as you lead in these extraordinary times. They may not be unprecedented, but they certainly demand leadership!