Leading a Way Forward with Our Words
“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor. That sums up the progress of an artful leader.”
-Max DePree, Leadership is an Art
Leaders Giving Language to Reality
When Thomas Jefferson drafted The Declaration of Independence, he said that his choice of language was not made in an attempt to be unique or original, but instead he hoped that his words would serve as an “expression of the American mind.” For Jefferson and the members of Congress who would soon present this document to a recently birthed nation, the task at hand was definition. What the people needed was not a rousing speech to go forth and conquer, they needed someone to tell them what they had just done, why they had done it, and what it meant for their future. They needed someone to help them make sense of the new world they were waking up to. They needed someone to tell them why they had separated from Great Britain, why they had left their homes, families, and careers to fight for something unknown, untested, and unproven. The first paragraph of The Declaration of Independence agrees that answers are needed, saying, “…decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” More necessary than physical maps that outlined the landscape of North America, this document gave early pioneers a map to a new reality.
In his seminal work, Leadership is an Art, Max DePree describes the first and final acts of a leader. The first: to define reality. The final: to say thank you. In between these two bookends, DePree teaches that leaders’ lives are marked by service. In order for a leader to begin the critical task of defining reality for others, they must first ascertain it for themselves. This phase of reality-perception will expose a leader’s ability to look deeply and listen well. As inhabitants of the information age we are bombarded with relentless streams of datum. Our feeds are filled to the brim on a daily basis with paradigm altering forces such as the advent of artificial intelligence, reasons to mistrust long standing institutions, the proliferation of false and fringe media sources, tectonic shifts in economic power across national lines, and on top of all of this, a continual IV drip of advertisements and marketing ploys that are fine tuned to be psychologically hijacking. These globally significant events have stress-tested our ability to make sense of reality to an extent that we have never encountered before.
The Pandemic that Broke the Mapmaker’s Back
The Covid pandemic was catalytic insofar as it increased our attentiveness to the maelstrom of reality-shifting forces that have been at play for quite some time now. Further exposing the crisis of meaning in our lives, escalating our mistrust in institutions to a fever pitch, shifting our working environments, and marking us in developmental ways that will take years to fully comprehend and diagnose. All of this uncertainty has further increased the demand for new maps of reality. What is a person supposed to do if they still haven’t gotten a hold of the world they are living in post-Covid? They must either draw upon their previous definitions of reality, believing them to still be true, or they’ll have to hope that no one finds out they are using an outdated map as they set out to find a new one. In either case, we are finding that the organizations and leaders who used to help us make sense of the world have not been able to produce an updated map for this fierce new landscape. We are in need of mapmakers! Before these new and accurate maps are produced, followers of outdated maps will find themselves bumping up against barriers and landmarks that weren’t there before as cartographers frantically scramble to document their existence. This span of time will continue to be filled with disorientation, disequilibrium, and at worst, shipwreck for many as they wait for new and more accurate depictions of reality to be drafted.
The Dusty Maps of American Evangelicalism
Long before the Coronavirus was a twinkle in the eye of a diseased bat, or percolating in a petri-dish, there existed more than a few concerning trends with the language many American Evangelicals had been using to explain the world around them. With a reflex to present things in either an overly optimistic, self-esteem pumping framework or an overly tribal, culture-war framework, the words echoing from many pulpits across the U.S. have not been matching up with the lived experience of those listening for quite some time now. These maps are dusty. Whether the language comes across as self-help sprinkled cupcakes or hell in a handbasket culture-stomping, the rhetoric seems to take on a tone of victory in both cases. A deep reduction of the language would make it sound something like, “if you want to win, join God’s team”. Instead of triumph, what people need now is to be led into a pause, potentially even a period of lamentation for all that has been lost as of late. What if our language began to move further inward? Past the self-help packaging that promises “your best life now”. Instead of throwing hell out the windows at the world around us, what if we began to question how close hell was to the center of our church buildings? Mapping the depths of our own dysfunction is a job that someone has to do.
The Identity Crisis in the American Church
In August of 2021, George Barna conducted a study on the American Worldview through The Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University. In it they found that only 6% of American adults fit into the category of “Integrated Disciples” of Jesus. This group was identified on the basis of criteria such as:
- believing the Bible to be the Word of God
- trying to avoid sin in their lives
- making moral decisions to honor God
- trusting God more than their own feelings.
This same study shows that 69% of all American adults self-identify as “Christian”. A Pew research study released even more recently, puts that number at 64% and projects it to be between 35% and 54% by the year 2070 if current rates of decline continue. Whether you agree with the criteria Barna used or not, it is clear to see that the balloon of Americans who identify as Christians is rapidly deflating around the small minority who are active in their faith. Have the leaders of our churches been able to accurately document these shifts? Have they been able to map them into their own definitions of reality? Have they made their way into yours? If the next chapter of Church history in the United States is going to be marked by further hemorrhaging of adherents, leaders are going to have to decide if they are going to make maps to serve Integrated Disciples of Jesus or to serve Christians looking for an exit.
The Birth of a New Reality?
Making up less than one-tenth of the larger Christian pie, Integrated Disciples of Jesus can be hard to spot in our current context. The name itself implies that they have submitted to an apprenticeship that is bigger than themselves. They have submitted as learners under the tutelage of Christ and as a result may take on some of his hidden qualities. This combination makes them an easy group to overlook addressing. They are not usually described as the squeaky wheels who are asking for some grease. This smaller subset of American Christians may not have the largest, most demanding voice, but where they lack in volume they make up for in perseverance. And perseverance is the stuff that reality is built upon. This perseverance will come into sharper focus as more and more Christians dissociate from their religious identity. As the outline and edges of Integrated Disciples begin to reveal themselves within the shrinking population of American Christians, a new shape of Christianity will begin to emerge. Just as a mother experiences deep pain and confusion during the delivery of her baby, this birthing process may last much longer than anyone is comfortable with, but the joy of new life is always worth it. Emergent leaders will spring forth, having endured the crucibles of self-examination, asking themselves honestly why they truly wish to claim the name Christian. They will bear the marks of a nuanced soul, having grappled with the complexities of joy and suffering. These leaders will be, as therapist and author Dan Allender would put it, “leading with a limp” as they serve others by sharing their hard-won wisdom maps with the world around them.
Every Map has a Key
Each Sunday, hundreds of thousands of sermons are delivered all over the country. While many churches are busy with the business of restocking pews, taking inventory of their sheep, and firing up the sterno candles underneath potluck dishes, a massive new reality is waiting for its apprehension and naming. Many pastors will speak eloquently about the reality shifting nature of Christ’s incarnation, coming in a place and package that no one expected and almost everyone overlooked. In fact, the only Integrated Disciples who were waiting for the birth of Jesus were the characters of Anna and Simeon. These two were easy to miss. They didn’t seem to have much influence or pull among the religious establishment. Instead, they patiently, humbly and quietly integrated their lives into the life of God so that when God himself came to earth, they were ready to have their reality reframed by him. They were awaiting a master mapmaker who would give meaning to their lives. Many churches will hear about the crucifixion of Jesus this week. Will we notice characters like Nicodmeus in this story? A religious expert who was too anxiety ridden to give his allegiance to Jesus on their first meeting, but was there at his death, quietly stating his commitment to the Rabbi he believed to be the Savior of the world. Many pews will echo with words about the resurrection of Jesus. Will we see the conflicted, but resolute figure of Thomas there? A struggling follower of Jesus who brought all of his doubts with him as he tried to reconcile his own logic with a new faith that was being birthed in the presence of the risen Christ.
Are we overlooking the Anna and Simeons among us today? Are we noticing the hidden figures who seem to be navigating our world according to a different route? Do we see the characters of Nicodemus and Thomas in our midst? Individuals who have integrated their pain, fear and doubts into a living and vibrant faith? Have we looked at the one they claim to be the key to their map of reality? Sometimes you have to be willing to look in the dim, small, and forgotten corners of a map to find its key. Are you up for the task at hand? All of us are leaders in our own right. Whether it is leadership within the lives of our friends and families, the lives of our co-workers and organizations or simply directing our own self-will. An invitation to craft fresh maps is beckoning to each of us. A need remains for leaders who will seek to define reality for a frustrated and confused world. Leaders who will not sugar-coat or condemn our lived experience, but help us to make sense of it in a new light. Leaders who will pour out their lives in the service of others and in the end, say thank you. Wanted: Mapmakers for a New World.
Photo courtesy of the Census Bureau