Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
Jesus the Anti-CEO | Righting America

by Zach Spidel

Today’s post is a continuation of our colleague Zach Spidel’s reflections on the Willow Creek Community’s Global Leadership Summit. Below, Zach describes the ways he sees the leadership lessons to be at odds with Christian ministry. 

Among the many things that trouble me about the Global Leadership Summit, which I described in my last post, let me focus on just one core area of concern, and that is the Summit’s inappropriately instrumental approach to Christian ministry.

The Summit is explicitly intended to help Christians be better leaders and is attended by many ministers, church staff, and lay leaders. Yet there is vanishingly little scriptural exposition or theological reflection in its main sessions. The content of those sessions is, rather, mostly taken up with corporate-style leadership advice. The Summit offers systems management, drawing on sociology, psychology, economic theory, and many other disciplines to help Christian leaders arrange their resources in “maximally efficient” ways designed to produce more results, better results, more quickly.

The inherent logic of this approach seems to be as follows: God has given us certain goals to pursue, most importantly, the salvation of souls and the growth of the church. While God has given us these goals, he has left it up to us to ascertain the best ways to accomplish them. That is to say, the methodology of ministry is up to us. In order to serve God well, then, we should seek to create the most efficient methodologies possible. If, for instance, God means for us to bring people into a saving relationship with him, then we should seek methods of ministry which bring more people more quickly into such a relationship.

The final assumption underlying the Summit is that there is clearly successful wisdom on offer in the corporate realm about how to effectively pursue efficiencies in systems and in personnel management. The corporate, political, non-profit, and mega-church leaders typically brought in to present have all gotten big results – lots of profits, lots of votes, lots of consumers, lots of worshipers, etc. Christian leaders can and should take the methodological wisdom of these people and apply it.

The Summit’s basic approach to Christian leadership training is, sadly enough, fatally flawed. Here are the three most egregious examples of the Summit’s misconceptions:

1. The Summit wrongly assumes that Jesus has not provided us with a methodology to follow. Far from giving us a list of things he wants us to accomplish and asking us to figure out the best way of accomplishing them, Jesus has given us himself as the Way. Jesus has, to use the Summit’s terminology, given us the methodology he wishes us to use and asked us to leave the results up to him. Jesus is not simply a source of personal devotional uplift offered up before people engage the real meat of leadership training. Instead, Jesus’ life – particularly his death on the cross, illuminated by his teachings – is the master class Christian leaders need. Therefore, a Christian leadership conference’s content should largely be composed of Christocentric hermeneutics (of the Bible and our missional context) and theology.

2. More than this, the Way of Jesus is fundamentally at odds with the typical methodologies presented at the Summit. Jesus’ life led up to and is fittingly summarized by his struggle in Gethsemane and his willing death on the cross. The Way of Jesus is the Way of patient, cruciform love. His only strategy is the cross. After three years of ministry, Jesus was reviled by the vast majority of his contemporaries (that small fraction of whom had ever heard of this itinerant preacher from the backwoods of a far flung imperial province) and abandoned by his closest followers. Far from pursuing “success,” as judged by numbers of converts, influence in the culture, speed of results or any other such metric, Jesus embraced the cross – which was then and is still today failure in the scales of any worldly metric. Christian leaders, called to imitation of Christ, should do the same.

3. Perhaps most important, the purposes for which Jesus founded his church are poisoned by the pursuit of efficiency. God is out to accomplish things through us (the accomplishment being up to Him, not us). Rather than “save souls,” however, God is out to “make disciples” – a very different proposition! Numerical church growth may result, but that is not the point. There is nothing more inimical to growth as a disciple than asking for the fastest and easiest route to being one. “Lord, tell me the easiest and quickest way to become holy!” To pursue “efficient” means of discipling people is to ensure you will largely fail to do so. And that is why, for the sake of God’s mission in the world, I hope the Summit, and the strand of Christian leadership thinking it represents, will turn from the board rooms of America to the hill of Golgotha to learn what leadership looks like.