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”?