By Brad Watson
Leadership is such a strange thing, especially in the West. The position of leadership is idolized while the role of leadership is neglected.
Many children are pushed to being the “leader” of the pack by their parents for no other reason than holding that position. The ambition of leadership (for those that lead) is prestigious in title only. For example, through much of the electoral process for presidents, governors, and prime-ministers, the principle motivation, it seems, for the candidates is to be the president. Not do, live, or serve as the president. There is a leadership obsession and drive that not only isn’t healthy, it isn’t leadership. This is the leadership void.
On the flip side, leadership is also distorted among those who have decided to follow. Leaders are viewed as the problem solvers for every issue you have. Followers view leaders like patrons view their waiters: you can place an order and get served until your order arrives. If your order doesn’t arrive promptly and as you ordered, you have the right to send it back or walk out of the restaurant.
Within the context of a community, leaders are viewed as those who provide for our social wellbeing: they make sure everyone is involved, connected, and making friends. Leaders are also supposed to provide biblical counsel, care, and help for marriage, emotional, financial, and even romantic struggles. Leaders are there to guarantee that everyone is growing in following Jesus. Leaders are to provide the right amount of inspiration, drive, and vision to compel us to live radical lives, but not too extreme so that we get tired. Followers consume leaders. Sadly, this is often how people view Jesus as their leader. He is the service provider to fix, help, and aid perceived needs. When leaders comply with this view of leadership, we reinforce this picture of Jesus.
The true picture of Jesus’ leadership is as a servant-king. Jesus came to make the truth explicit through his words, stories, and actions. He came to call people to repentance, faith, and abundant life. Jesus allowed talented, rich, and popular people to walk away. He also allowed people he led to make mistakes, misunderstand, and even betray him. Jesus came and poured his life out for others. He came as a servant and a king.
We misunderstand leadership. Leadership ought to be defined as taking initiative for the benefit of others. Christian leadership goes even further to define the “others.” Leadership is taking initiative for the benefit of Christ, fellow believer, and neighbor. Christian leadership is profoundly a role of service to Jesus. The only hint of romanticism is that of a lost life at the feet of a worthy king.
The Christian leader desires to faithfully labor so that others might catch a glimpse of the gospel. The people you lead are responsible for their own obedience, faithfulness, and growth. You, as a leader, are responsible for creating an environment where people are confronted with the truth and grace of the gospel, challenged to follow and obey Jesus, and spurred on to take hold of the life of hope, mission, and justice they are called to have.
Three metaphors describe the work of a missional community leader: gardener, model, and catalyst.
1. Leading as a Gardener
Gardeners have quite a bit of work to do to create the best possible opportunity for growth. They have to prepare the soil through tilling and fertilizer; they have to plant seeds, water the seeds, remove weeds regularly that would choke out the plants. They also have to wait and see. Despite the regular care, concern, and even expertise of the gardener, they can’t force the plants to grow and become fruitful.
I have one of the most ideal set-ups for gardening. I live in Portland where the soil is deep black and nutritious, the sun comes right over our house for long stretches during the summer, and we buy good starters and seeds. Some seasons we have amazing crops and others seasons they are average. Why? I have no idea. Most of the time it is a mystery to me.
One year our crops were below average and it wasn’t a mystery. We planted late and haphazardly (we planted tomatoes in the shade), we rarely weeded, and we didn’t mulch around the plants to hold in moisture. We basically planted then forgot about the garden. Life got busy, we traveled, and other things occupied our time. When our tomatoes never really produced, and our zucchinis were sub-par, it wasn’t a mystery—it was neglect. The real mystery was that our garden produced anything at all!
Leading a gospel community is like being a gardener. You facilitate gospel growth by creating an environment where growth can happen but you can’t make people believe and you can’t make people obey. You do the best you can to supply the right food a group of people needs to grow up in the love, grace, and truth of the gospel. However, you can’t make people grow—you aren’t in charge of the fruit.
It’s also like trying to get a toddler to eat their veggies. You can put it on the plate, tell them it is good for them, add spices, and be an example by eating them yourself, but you can’t force the kid to swallow. This is what leading a gospel community is like.
As a leader, you point to the gospel, speak the gospel, connect the gospel to people’s stories, pray in light of the gospel, and call people to serve as demonstrations of the gospel, but you can’t make repentance and faith happen. That is God’s wonderful work.
It’s the mystery of discipleship—which is why gardening is the perfect metaphor for what you are doing as a leader.
As you step into leadership, you are committing to the regular cultivation of a community around the gospel. You are praying for and expecting growth to happen. You ought to expect the Spirit to be working in people’s lives as you share meals, hear stories, pray, learn from the Scriptures, serve the poor, and share the gospel with friends. You can expect growth, just like the gardener who cares for his garden can expect a crop as he prays for the crop to come. Expect the Spirit to convict and increase faith as people step into more and more obedience.
2. Leading as an Example
The other big piece of leading a gospel community on mission is being an example. Leaders are a picture the community can look at as someone who is believing the gospel and walking in obedience. As a leader, you are inviting people to watch your life and follow you as you follow Jesus. At this point people carry heavy leadership baggage.
Being an example has often been the mark of a leader within the Church. However, the example being displayed is one of perfection. Someone with all the answers, free from sin and harmful vices, has the Bible memorized, and always knows the right thing to do. This, however, is a picture of Jesus, not leaders within a community or church. Instead, the example and model we find within the Bible is that the best leaders are humble, repent of their sins, depend on God, boast in nothing except God’s grace in light of their sin, and serve their community. We know leaders make big and small mistakes. We know leaders sin, receive rebuke, repent, and worship God. In the end, they should be bold in speaking the gospel because they need the gospel. Leaders are desperate for their gracious Savior.
This is what a leader is called to be an example of: repentance, faith, and belief. That type of repentance, faith, and belief produces confident obedience in action. You will likely become frustrated with your community’s involvement and engagement in God’s mission. Before you create an ultimatum and kick out the slackers, ask yourself how you are being an example of humble obedience. Invite people to live a life of faith by showing it to them first.
3. Leading as a Catalyst
Lastly, leaders of missional communities are catalysts. They speak up and call God’s people to the mission, to community, and, most important of all, to belief in the gospel. As a leader, you care about the mission because God has called you to care about it. This is catalytic.
The leader is not the one who stands and says, “I’m going to do this thing. Can you guys encourage me as I do it?” No, a leader stands and says, “God has called us all to make disciples and be disciples, please join me in that journey. How are we going to do that?”
A leader doesn’t do all the tasks or come up with the strategy, structure, and execution alone. Leaders are the ones that light a spark and welcome people into gospel community on mission. A leader welcomes people into the mess of it and works with a community to figure out how they will do it together. They don’t have to solve each problem or create each opportunity. Leaders initiate by bringing the problems and opportunities up in conversations.
He healed people and fed people. However, he did not allow himself to be consumed as a magician performing tricks.
Brad Watson is a pastor in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of Called Together: A Guide to Forming Missional Communities. He also serves as the executive director of Gospel Centered Discipleship.