Oh, I can hear you already. “Evangelicalism is dead. Get over it, Fitch! Let it sink into the ocean, for Pete’s sake! The church that has been named evangelicalism in the United States has gone through Trumpism, COVID-19, culture wars, the failures of its biggest megachurch leaders. Kristen Du Mez and Jemar Tisby have revealed some of its worst historical failures. This whole five years has been one big long truth event, revealing the dark underbelly of last 20-30 years. Evangelicalism is one big dumpster fire. Let it burn!”
But I suggest, “Not so fast!” For sure, there is a mass exodus of Christians under the age of 40 out of evangelicalism. But there will be some, maybe very few, who stay within some form of Christianity morphing out of the evangelicalism debacle of the past decade. Among the ones who remain there will surely be those who dig in. They will double down on evangelicalism’s signature beliefs and practice of church. It is the way most comfortable for some. But there will also be those who will be processing a deconstruction of those same beliefs and practices, who are seeing the various cultural revelations as truth moments and opportunities for lament, who seek a new joining with and navigating a future that God might use for a renewal of the gospel, his justice, and a gathering of people into his kingdom. What shall become of these people? From whence shall the leaders come who shall lead these folk from here? Who will lead this emerging church? In response to these questions, I suggest we will need leaders who are different from the past and who have the following:
1) A Different Kind of Woke
There are many Christians who have been caught up in echo chambers these past five years. They have been sheltered in places of safety and seclusion such as the suburbs, sequestered from the racialized oppression, the gendered antagonisms, and the broken and coercive sexuality systems of our culture. These Christians will need leaders who can raise awareness of the layers of social injustice around us. It is still an important part of the process to bring the church into engagement with the social sins of our times for the gospel of Jesus Christ. Speaking on social media platforms, writing blog posts and books, and calling out societal sins are all part of the work of leading in this regard. But we will need more than this. Christians will need leaders who can raise awareness of the layers of social injustice around us. Click To Tweet
We will need a different kind of leader who can move communities into an awareness that does not “other” or infantilize people who as “stupid” because they do not yet see. This leader must be a skilled facilitator of conversations that connect the awareness of social injustice to real relationships and networks in our lives that can do the actual grassroots work of justice taking shape among us. If our work for awareness becomes detached from real life and relationships, if our language becomes detached from actual discipleship on the ground, then ‘wokeness’ turns groups to antagonism and to conceptualizing the “other” who they may have not talked with in years (in real life—not just on social media). At that point the “wokeness” actually extracts us from the real life work for justice. It perpetuates and exacerbates the antagonism. The unjust frames get further dug in. This is a sociological observation well known in the studies of pre-World War II Germany.
All this is to say that we need unique leaders skilled in leading people from awareness to on-the-ground relational engagement, bringing together concrete conversations in actual time and space, that make possible the lamenting of sin, reconciliation, restoration, and healing in Jesus Christ amidst and within the social systems where we live. We need unique leaders skilled in leading people from awareness to on-the-ground relational engagement, bringing together concrete conversations in actual time and space. Click To Tweet
2) A Different Kind of Angry
With new awareness comes anger. The mistreatment and injustice experienced by long-suffering BIPOC communities, including the more recent revelations of abuse, oppression, and racialized violence against Black persons and AAPI communities, and the uncoverings of abuse by male leaders of all kinds in church and against women brings anger. Anger is to be both expected and received amid the conflicts and pains of our present day. We will need leaders who can receive the anger, refuse to dismiss the anger, and make space for the anger.
In addition, though, we will need leaders who can help us process the anger and allow space for the anger to unwind so that the anger takes us somewhere. If the anger is righteous, processing it will lead to engaging the injustices that have caused the anger. I can only assume that the apostle Paul’s admonitions (and Jesus’ as well) to “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger…” (Eph 4:26) points toward the importance of processing anger. This will take patience and listening. For these times, if we would lead the new in-gathering of the post-COVID church, we will need a different kind of angry leader, one capable of leading through anger with patience, making space to process, moving toward conversation, who leads spaces into lament, presence, repentance, and transformation.
3) A Different Kind of Inquisitive
After the last few years of COVID, with us all living in some form of isolation, most people have come to their own positions on cultural issues. Debating and discussing on social media will do that to the best of us. As we re-gather the post-COVID church, then, we will find the terms of the debate for many people have already been (pre)determined. Many have their very identity wrapped up in taking a certain position. And so many churches re-gather as a community already deadlocked into a paralyzing divisiveness. There is little imagination for what God might be working in an actual situation of injustice before our very eyes or in our neighborhoods. And so if we are actually to gather as a people of God discerning the issues for our town/where we live, we will need a leader who can do more than be educated on an issue, take a side on an issue, and argue as many people as he or she can into that position. These kinds of leaders most likely will get only the ones who already agree with him/her to gather as a church and then go about ‘enforcing’ their take on things on other people or the neighborhood, getting nowhere. Most people have come to their own positions on cultural issues. Debating and discussing on social media will do that to the best of us. Click To Tweet
And so we need a different kind of leader who is skilled in patiently posing good questions incisively in ways that jar, reveal contradictions, and yet is filled with grace in a way that opens space for the Spirit to process and create a new imagination for what God would do in and among us. We need leaders who can start conversations with good questions. It is amazing how much Jesus engaged divisive situations with questions and the telling of stories. In doing so he opened imaginations to the kingdom. If we would gather the church anew, we need inquisitive kinds of leaders.
4) A Different Kind of Intercultural Cultivation
Coming out of COVID, our culture has never been more fractured, strife-ridden, or violent. We now live among many cultures centered on multiple driving concerns and speaking different languages. It goes without saying that we need leaders who can listen, not presume, and be patient enough to discern what words mean, and what drives persons in multiple cultures. But it goes beyond this, due to the fact that the re-gathered church must be based in core practices that facilitate people of various ethnicities and cultures coming together to shape a worship, a discipleship, and a mission that is new and connects with the various peoples involved. These leaders cannot operate in a top-down manner. They must cultivate life from the bottom up. To lead from a posture from above enforces a way of being together, worshiping, discipling, and mission that is one man/woman’s ideas. This may include other people of various ethnicities, languages, etc. But it often is one culture including others into its culture. Often it is white hegemony. To cultivate the practices of discipleship, eating together, Bible study, and being with the least of these on the ground shapes a church that worships, disciples, and does mission as a coalescence, not a top down orchestration. The persons that lead like this are truly a different kind of intercultural leader. We now live among many cultures centered on multiple driving concerns and speaking different languages. It goes without saying that we need leaders who can listen, not presume. Click To Tweet
5) A Different Kind of Truth Speaking
The gross injustices among our neighborhoods beg for someone to speak truth. But we need truth speaking of a different kind. There is the temptation to speak truth from a posture of moral superiority, a posture above a community, a flaming tweet detached from any real-life engagement. There is no question we need truth spoken boldly into situations, but is not truth best communicated when it is spoken out of our character and location?
The word parrhesia, as used for instance in Acts 4:31 (or Eph 6:19-20) describes how the apostles preached truth in all situations. It was often spoken after prayer. Prayer locates a person in a specific place, for a specific person/people, in the very presence of God. The place was shaking and they spoke out of the presence of the Spirit enlivening them to what is going on in this place. The word parrhesia is often translated ‘speak truth boldly.’ But this does not mean ‘in your face.’ Rather, it’s a unique kind of speech that speaks sincerely, embodying the truth in one’s life and character, risking one’s whole self. There is a presence to this truth. This is no act of manipulation here for a pragmatic motive. This is speaking the truth putting one’s very life on display.
In 1983, Foucault gave seven lectures on “parrhesia”. He described this rhetorical way of speaking where the person speaking had nothing to gain personally, no virtue signaling, no branding, no power tactics. Indeed, if in speaking this truth somberly you had a lot to lose, including your very life, this truth was made so credible that it shook people and disrupted societies. Parrhesia was a source of political change. I suggest today we need people willing to put a lot on the line to speak truth in a way that costs them something. It’s a different kind of truth telling that shakes the foundations of a culture and brings in his kingdom. I suggest today we need people willing to put a lot on the line to speak truth in a way that costs them something. Click To Tweet
In summary, if a church of Jesus Christ is to emerge after the debacle of evangelicalism of the past five years, one that turns the world upside down for God’s kingdom, we will need a different kind of leader. The people will need to possess a different kind of presence that will not be moved, but that will indeed disrupt the evil powers, dislodge ideologies, and coalesce new communities to live change. In other words, we need a church of Jesus Christ to emerge that turns the world upside down for his kingdom. How are you at cultivating these unusual skills for the re-gathering of the church in North America?
Note: I recommend two commentaries on Acts that can help shape our imaginations for this kind of re-gathering of a people. World Upside Down by C. Kavin Rowe and Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible by Willie Jennings.