Three Pitfalls for Young Evangelical Leaders

I’m young. I’m an evangelical. And I’m a leader (at least of my family, my church, and in some disconnected sense, to my small audience of readers). It’s exciting to be a leader, but it’s also sobering and carries many responsibilities.

As I interact and read some of the work of the evangelicals in my generation I’m noticing some tendencies. I notice them in my own leadership and in the leadership of others. Here are the three that concern me most:

1) The tendency to caricature those with whom we disagree.

Tim Keller has a saying that goes something like this, “The way to charitably argue with someone is to present their argument in the best possible light.” I’m not sure I got that quote right, but it’s close. The point is this. If you disagree with someone, its best to disagree with the actual substance of their argument, not a straw man we can easily knock down. One of the temptations of young leaders is to lazily run with the caricature of someone with whom we disagree. It happens in all kinds of arguments.

We do this for two reasons: 1) It makes our argument look more reasonable and 2) It makes for a cheap applause line. But there are long-term ramifications of the straw man. For one thing, it promotes intellectual laziness. We end up training a generation of people who believe things, not because they are true, worthy, and right, but because they were taught that the opposing argument is unreasonable or scary. Secondly, it promotes disunity in the Church. Mockery and ad-hominem attacks don’t convince anyone except the converted and only sow divisions in Christ’s body. We ought to be able to present our case without having to tear down the opposing person or movement. Otherwise we may not be as firm in our position as we thought we were.

2) The tendency to think “we are the rising movement that will correct all errors.”

There is a sense of triumphalism that hurts the work of young evangelical leaders. It’s this sense that our parents’ generation was totally out to lunch, that they were backward, intolerant, and unthinking. Thankfully, the world has us, who will finally patch all the holes (or supposed holes) in Christianity. This sounds arrogant, but a form of this idea is appearing in more and more books I’m reading. So you have a new theological idea and instead of just presenting the case, it is presented like this, “Most of the Church believes this, but they have really been wrong for 2,000 years. Finally we have this.” Or you have a new methodological idea and rather than presenting some creative new approach, it has be like this, “Most churches are doing church this way and it’s inffective. We need to do it this way . . .” There is a certain hubris that thinks it is “our generation” that will finally get things right. I read in Scripture something different, where God says He “resists the proud but gives grace to the humble, “(James 4:16; 1 Peter 1:5; Proverbs 3:34).

There is something wonderful about new ideas, new arguments, new approaches. But let’s not, as a generation, be so arrogant to think that we have something our fathers didn’t have. The truth is that the generation after us will probably have it’s list of errors our generation of the Church made. Instead, let’s respect and honor the generations before us, even as we adapt and adjust our ministry to the 21st Century.

3) The overuse of the “haters gonna hate” meme.

Nobody likes to receive criticism and even the most thick-skinned leader is wounded by it. And the more successful you are, the more criticism will be lofted your way. Thankfully, I’ve not had to endure what many more gifted and prominent leaders have in terms of public and stinging rebukes. I’m not sure how I’d handle those. It seems, though, that there is a tendency among some young, successful, evangelicals leaders to shut out all criticism. Perhaps they’ve been wounded by the trolls and nasty people who offer less than gracious rebuke. But I think it’s a mistake to shut it all out and to adopt a finger-in-the-ear response. Sometimes there is value in the criticism we are hearing. Sometimes the person issuing it is not a “hater”, but a lover, who wishes to see our ministry grow and prosper and for peoples’ lives to be changed. Furthermore, establishing an echo-chamber of leadership will, over the long haul, lead to a dangerous church culture. There does need to be a filter and not all voices need to be heeded, but we also need to be as wise as King David, who had the temerity to listen when the prophet Nathan pointed the finger at him and said, “You are the man.” I wonder how many evangelical leaders have men in their lives who have the authority to say that to them. Or would they respond, “Well, haters gonna hate. I’m serving Jesus”?

Daniel Darling is the Vice President for Communications at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He previously served five years as Senior Pastor of Gages Lake Bible Church. He is a contributor to Leadership Journal, Homelife,, Stand Firm,” and a variety of other evangelical publications. He has written several books, including his latest, Activist Faith.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

15 thoughts on “Three Pitfalls for Young Evangelical Leaders

  1. First of all…get out of my head!!

    But seriously, all important points for youngish leader-types to heed. The one that particularly worries me is the "we're finally getting it right" stream. I worry about it because I find something in myself drawn toward that feeling of being "revolutionary", and the instinct to denigrate what came right before. I do this even when I'm appealing to tradition. Thing is, we might be right on a certain point, but if knowing it provokes us to pride, it's not a win because that pride's going to come back to bite us somewhere else.

    In any case, great piece. Thanks for this!

  2. The same attidudes are sometimes displayed by "contemporary" worship musicians toward older musicians who were raised and trained in "traditional' worship. They have no patience with anyone who would suggest that "traditional" worship has any redeeming qualities at all. I am an organist with years of experience and a professional music education. I've often felt insulted by the caricatures of the little ole lady organist who can barely see her way to the console and can't play her way out of a paper bag. It's obvious that those who make those jokes aren't thinking about how their attitude affects others. It certainly doesn't make them look very good as Christians.

  3. As a Mormon (that is, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints)?

    I've been subject to all three by many a mainline Christian who has desired to "save" me.

    I've had too many people come into a discussion armed with nothing more than a few anti-Mormon pamphlets and/or whatever their minister told them the previous Sunday. Their arguments are often years, if not decades, out of date (if it tells you anything, there are people who think that we have horns), but they were told that all Mormons are ignorant and so those arguments are supposed to be sufficient to "win" the debate. When I note at length how the arguments aren't valid and point them to actual reference materials that they can use, far too many have a fit because they can't believe what's going on.

    In extreme cases, the person I'm dealing with will experience either a total nervous breakdown or a total psychotic breakdown. The former usually ends with the person having a crisis of faith and sinking deeper into the vicious cycle of desperately trying to dredge up anti-Mormon information in the hopes that something sticks. You don't wanna know about the latter.

    In the end, all the person has done is embarrass themself in public, damage their own faith, and make mainline Christianity look bad in the eyes of whatever audience we might have had. In extreme instances, people actually want to *become* Mormon because they no longer wish to associate with what they feel the person I'm dealing with to represent.

    I question how the cause of mainline Christianity is truly being served when these things happen.

    Thank you for writing this article. Suffice to say that I will be sharing it.

    • Darren,

      I'm sorry you've had those interactions with evangelicals over the years. I would hope that your experience represents the minority of them and that, in the future, we would make our case based on the strengths of your position. As a faithful Mormon, you're likely aware of the significant theological differences between your church and orthodox Christianity–differences faithful evangelicals are not willing to give up and which faithful Mormons accept as well. I would hope that upon a more reasonable presentation of evangelical Christianity, you might consider what we consider to be the truthful claims of the historic Christian faith.

      At any rate, I'm thankful for taking the time to post your comments here. God bless,

      • In his book "Kiss and Make Up", KISS frontman Gene Simmons notes that during the band's early years, he would frequently be accosted by holier-than-thou types who would try to accuse the band of being Satanic… only for those holier-than-thou types to be left dumbfounded when he quoted the Bible right back at them.

        You see, Simmons is Jewish (in fact, both of his biological parents were Holocaust survivors who were part of the early settlers of modern-day Israel). As part of his upbringing, he went to a religious school wherein the curriculum included both regular scholastic topics and Jewish history & theology. Because of this, he knew the Old Testament just as well as, if not better than, a lot of the people who were making accusations against him.

        Had the holier-than-thou types thought to witness to him rather than witness *at* him, then they might have enjoyed a profitable discussion about Judaism. Instead, they were left dumbfounded and Gene was left unimpressed.

        So it is with most of us Mormons. If you wish to talk to us, we can go all day on our favorite topics. But if people wish to talk *at* us, then it generally doesn't end well.

        What's more, a larger percentage of Mormons are living *outside* of Utah than ever before. For those of us who live elsewhere (I live in a rather… religiously unpleasant part of the Bible Belt), learning how to get along with those of other religions is part of everyday life. I myself once took a few non-denominational survey classes (OT survey, NT survey, intro to world religions) at a local community college in an effort to try and learn about other groups. Furthermore, among the books in my possession are "Mere Christianity", "The Screwtape Letters", and "How Wide The Divide?" (the latter being autographed; it was a gift from my parents, who found a second-hand copy in an LDS bookstore).

        Additionally, a quick check of LDS bookstore chain Deseret Books website revealed that C. S. Lewis is well represented in their inventory:… . Not only are a number of his theological works (like "Mere Christianity" and "The Screwtape Letters") in stock, so are a number of works assessing his writings in light of LDS theology. Bear in mind that this is the same Deseret Book who has, over the years, stocked Snoopy, Shrek, Lego, High School Musical, and Harry Potter in additional to the usual Mormon works, indicating an effort by the company to look for "good" creative works regardless of the source.

        I honestly see no reason why Mormons and mainline Christians can't have a meaningful, constructive dialogue aside from the old prejudices and battle scars.

  4. Dan, great insight here. Definitely truth in those 3 pitfalls. What do you think about the "peace out" pitfall of young leaders? Similar to "haters gonna hate," the "peace out" mentality works in group settings where there are older leaders who won't agree with the youngin'. Instead of falling in line and following, the young leader "peaces out" and won't be a part of it and tries to go do something on their own or completely quits. It's a big pitfall in any confrontation and reflects the laziness you talk about in Pitfall #1, too.

    • That's an interesting dynamic. Bottom line, I think is for both generations to die to self and serve what is best for the organization.

  5. Given that the major role of evangelical leaders [old or new] is as a pastor/teacher in the local church, a major pitfall of our day is urgency/hype of the "new" with the resultant failure to give close attention to the study and teaching of God's word.

    • I agree with you completely. There is a danger in chasing trends as opposed to the committed study of the Word.

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