Why reluctance part 3: criticism is easier than leading

Another factor in leaders’ reluctance is that it’s easier to deconstruct than it is to construct. Postmodernity is at its heart a critical theory. As Sarah Arthur and others have said, it’s not really an –ism because it isn’t really a philosophy itself (at least, not yet). So young people today are great at pointing out what’s wrong, but they often don’t know what should take the place of what they’ve critiqued. That, of course, leads to great frustration by established leaders who are taking all the risks. It’s simply easier and more comfortable to sit in the back row and shoot at the leaders. So the challenge is to find ways to get young people to enter the dialog. It’s not that they don’t have ideas or suggestions; usually it’s quite the opposite, and they don’t think anyone in authority is willing to listen.

A thirty-something friend of mine, who had developed an unfortunate reputation as a back-row complainer, has recently felt called by God to step up to the front and lead. It’s a different role, and it comes with risks. In taking on a new position of responsibility, this friend is adjusting to a different role, with new influence but different options available to her to voice frustrations and ideas. As she told me the other day, “If nothing else, I have no problem being a front-row criticizer who’s in on the planning as well.”

Leadership has its privileges and responsibilities. You simply can’t do the same things as the back row critics. But it’s contagious. As a mentor told me early on in my career, “Once you’re in the game, it’s hard to leave it.” If you want to change the world, there’s no better alternative to earning a voice of influence that gives you the means to do something about an issue rather than just complain about it. I’m not talking about a desire for power, but a tipping point where the desire to be heard overcomes your fears of responsibility.

My suggestions? As an established leader, find a way to give voice to the rising, reluctant and potential leaders. You need to hear their critiques and ideas. And they need you to hear them. And challenge them to step up. I watched a situation where one of my direct reports had a great idea to completely revamp the way we do our short term trips. I admire my boss’s response when he heard the idea: he asked the young leader if he believed in the idea enough to make it happen. It was a challenge to step up and show his stuff.

Part 2: Young leaders take what they get

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.