By Eddie Lowen
Few values have bigger buzzword status in the Christian community than authenticity. I’m glad. Sincerity is always in season. When churches and church leaders are genuine in motive and style, spiritual seekers find and follow them. Everything written about reaching young adults stresses the importance of “authentic community.” While the phrase now seems overused, the value can’t be overemphasized. It’s crucial.
In my own journey with God, growth has not always felt natural. Some of the progress I’ve made has been forced and awkward, rather than instinctive. So, I’ve concluded we all need permission to engage in a certain brand of pretense. I realize we have an instinctive negative reaction to that term. But if you’ll allow me to describe what I mean, perhaps I can convince you.
From Awkward to Natural
One way we grow is by imitating mentors and models. I did this as a young minister. When I observed traits or practices in my ministry heroes, I would sometimes try them on for size. I would read the books they read. I would experiment with their sermon writing schedules or techniques. When I first borrowed these behaviors, they always felt weird. Sometimes I learned they were not for me. Sometimes they stuck.
I did a few silly things in my search for a ministry persona. One time, I literally tried on someone else’s attire. It was 20 years ago when I noticed a photo of a ministry hero wearing a cool necktie. (Yes, there was a time when some ties were actually cool. I think the toga was in style around the same time.) A few days later, the church I served had a major event scheduled, so I shopped for two hours that Saturday for a tie that looked exactly like the one worn by the pastor I admired. I was successful. Looking back, it seems immature and very silly.
But I have patterned my ministry after others in other ways that have been beneficial, not silly. I noticed and emulated the way . . .
• Bob Russell blended Scripture and reason.
• Bill Hybels used written communication to reinforce vision.
• Andy Stanley mastered the memorable phrase.
• Jeff Stone networked with ministry peers.
I may never do these things as well as the guys I’ve tried to imitate. But I’m convinced my clumsy early attempts to learn new skills from others were wise, even if they weren’t completely instinctive and self-taught.
When my now 21-year-old son was a toddler, our family was at a rest stop on vacation. He was wearing a new pair of shoes that were slightly longer than his old pair. Unaccustomed to the length of the new shoes, he ran for just a few steps, caught his new, longer shoe on a paver, and bit the dust—or the pavement, actually. He received a temporary dent in his forehead because using his new shoes wasn’t yet natural for him. But it was part of the growth process, so he pushed through the awkward phase until using his new shoes was second nature.
Part of authenticity is acknowledging the discomfort of learning new ways. That’s why I think a lot more church leaders and churches should do more pretending!
I’m thinking especially of small churches. If they can pretend to be larger, I believe they will unleash a church’s potential. Let me explain.
Structured for Smallness
I grew up physically and spiritually in a part of the world that included no megachurches connected to our tribe of believers. Today, there are a few; but back in the day, there were zero. I was saved in a small church, discipled by small-church leaders and volunteers, and then sent into ministry by my smaller hometown church. I’ve spent the majority of my life in small- to medium-size churches. Small- to medium-size churches still comprise the bulk of our tribe’s congregations.
My concern is not that many churches are small. My concern is that many churches are structured to remain small.
I suggest that smaller churches pretend to be larger in the structure they choose and the way leaders carry out their roles. What do I mean? The elders in most larger churches are true overseers. The elders in many small churches are true micromanagers. Micromanagement is one of the dynamics that prevents churches from experiencing breakaway growth. And let’s be real: if we say we want our churches to remain small, we’re saying we want fewer people to know and follow Jesus.
From a mission point of view, it’s insane to romanticize small churches, as if we prefer a church remain small. I’ve met some terrific people in churches of 100 people. But I’d prefer to see all of them grow to 1,000 people. How could I not? We must want our churches to grow as large as possible; otherwise, let’s just admit that we have set aside the Great Commission. Jesus said he wants us to bear “much fruit.”
In a large church, the shepherds hire capable and authentic ministers, then intentionally step back from everyday ministry strategy.
Guardrails Not Everyday Strategy
I love what the elders and apostles (if anyone had authority to make demands on other leaders, the apostles did) wrote to the Gentile churches in Acts 15:28. They said, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements.” Absorb what they are saying: God (the Holy Spirit) wants us to avoid dominating you and pontificating about our personal preferences. God wants restrained leadership in the church.
Please, read the passage I’m citing and draw out what these leaders are communicating. Their message: “We will not allow ourselves to dictate or dominate, simply because we have authority. So, here are just a few important guardrails—stay inside them.” My favorite line in this Acts 15 passage is verse 19, where James articulates the reason for their minimalist approach to rule-making and edict-issuing: “We should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” In other words, we don’t want to diminish the effectiveness of the church by overexercising our authority. This is biblical eldership.
Larger (more importantly, healthier) churches have elder teams that speak with one voice, or not at all. Individual egos fade into the identity of the whole. Such elders release church staff to recruit volunteers, determine strategy, and recommend a budget that supports the strategy. The elders in these churches empower staff and volunteers to drive ministry forward. If values or doctrines are violated, the violation is addressed. Otherwise, freedom abounds.
In too many small churches (and some unhealthy larger ones), much time and energy is expended when elders do not possess this spirit of self-restraint. When elders begin to replace the judgment of the staff with their own judgment regarding daily and weekly decisions, a church is structured to remain small.
Sound risky? It is. But just as God entrusts humans with free will, there is a sense in which ministers and pastors must be trusted (and evaluated) until they demonstrate that they lack the capacity or character needed. Are there balancing principles and points at which this level of trust can break down or serve the church poorly? Oh, yes. But it’s worth the risk to let ministry leaders actually lead. Perhaps God has gifted your church with staff leaders who can lead the church to unprecedented growth, if they are allowed to try.
Elders need to model for church members how to respond to staff leaders. As a team, the elders determine the church’s course. As individuals, the elders follow their staff leaders.
If that’s not natural for you or your church at this point, pretend it is.
Eddie Lowen serves as lead minister with West Side Christian Church in Springfield, Illinois, and on Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.