Distrust has become a serious problem in our culture. Watch any news program, peruse any social media platform, and you will become aware of the distrust that is informing our thinking and behavior. The lack of trust has become so serious that it now shapes the way we interact with one another in our communities and in the church.

Distrust’s Impact on Communities and the Church

Distrust has become such a problem that we treat people outside our circles with so much suspicion that our circles of trust are getting smaller and smaller. It is undermining the very foundations upon which we build relationships. It is destroying friendships and is causing psychological harm.

Statistics on Trust: A Troubling Decline

Kevin Vallier, Trust in a Polarized Age, points out that there has been a 40% decrease in trust in 50 years. In the late 1960s, half of the people in the United States said that most people could be trusted. Today it is less than a third. In the 1960s over 70 percent of Americans said they trusted the government most of the time. That number has collapsed to below 20 percent today. Even politicians don’t trust each other. Whether Republican or Democrat, 70 percent of both groups said they distrusted anyone who voted for the opposing candidate.

Root Causes of Distrust

The major underlying factors seem to be administrative policy, attitude, and control. We have become suspicious of anyone and anything we cannot control. Leaders are looked upon with suspicion, distrust, and fear because of the confusing cries of assumed theological and doctrinal changes.

At the very heart of distrust is the fear that we have placed our faith in the wrong place or person, revealing we are unsure of the grounding of our faith. As a result, our trust in God, God’s truth, and each other has broken down even while we deny it has happened. Distrust is seen in our fear of being hurt, misled, or looking silly.

Biblical Insights on Distrust: Genesis 3:1-7

There is a story in the scripture that gives insight to the distrust so prevalent in our culture today.

Read: Genesis 3:1-7

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden,but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die, for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So, when the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was a delight to the eyes and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took off its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Understanding the Origin of Distrust in the Scripture

Having set the experiment of joy into action, God showed the man and woman how things were meant to be in the garden. God said they were free to eat the fruit from all the trees of the garden except one tree. It was the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. God said the fruit of that tree was poisonous to their systems. It was placed there to serve a religious purpose rather than a nutritional purpose. 

God was pleased and saw that it was good. It was at that point the snake entered the picture. The snake addressing the woman asked, “Did God put you in the beautiful place and then prohibit you from eating all this fruit?” Notice the overstatement and false characterization. 

The woman replied, “Oh no. We can eat everything in the garden except this one tree. God said it is poisonous to us.” 

The snake shook his head and said, “That old scoundrel. God is threatened by you. God knows that if you eat that fruit, you will be like God. You know God cannot stand that. You were created to feed God’s ego. Holding you down builds God up. If you know what is good for you, you will call God’s bluff. You will eat the fruit and take over this place.”

Carelessness Brought Devastating Results

That one conversation put creation into a whole different light. There was no indication that such suspicion had ever entered their minds. There was no evidence for such an attitude of mistrust. Nothing up to that point had God done to give the humans reason to believe the snake’s accusations. So, without checking things out or going to the source trying to get the truth of the situation, the first humans bought into that unfounded suspicion. For no good reason, they embraced the rumor and began to act as if it contained the truth about God. Such carelessness brought about devastating results. 

That is the point of this story. Our forebears took the word of a snake over the word of God the creator when it came to interpreting life. Because of their carelessness, the world became a conspiracy rather than a creation of joy. God became a foe rather than a caring parent of love. This is the story that explains why we humans continue to take life apart and try to put it back together in ways that do not work. 

Culture of Distrust

The first humans drank the poison and got sick. That is how God got a bad reputation. It is based upon a flimsy accusation along with some sloppy careless assumption work. We humans, to this day, continue to build our assumptions in the same way. We have created a culture of distrust.

I confess that my earliest impressions of God were negative. I thought if I became a Christian, I would be giving up all the fun things in life. In my earliest impressions of God, I was convinced that if I did not live a certain way, God would send me to hell. The result was that I attempted to change my behavior, but my heart remained unchanged. Deep within, God suffered from bad press. I developed a culture of distrust in my heart.

So, how has God responded to our careless attitudes and distrust? Did God blow up in rage? Did God become defensive or strike back? Was God revengeful? No. The single most creative thing God could have done is heard in the words of Paul to the Romans, “God did not spare his own son but gave him us for us all,” It is while we are yet sinners, missing the point of God’s love and joy for us, that Christ died for us. It is in the midst of distrust that God’s love comes to us with its greatest force.

Reshaping Assumptions and Attitudes through Jesus

My assumptions were reshaped, and my attitude changed when I encountered God in and through Jesus. John Killinger said, “Jesus is God’s way of getting rid of a bad reputation.” In Jesus, I began to see and understand God’s love for us and God’s joy in sharing creation with us. It was over and against this confusion and suspicion, that God sent Jesus so we could see what God looked like in history and understand what God looks like every day. 

Can you trust a God like you see in Jesus? If so, will you let Jesus reshape your assumptions about God and your distrust of the people you encounter each day? To put it another way, are you willing to take the action of God, in Jesus, seriously enough to let it do its work in you? Will you allow the image of Jesus to penetrate your distrust so your attitudes will change? 

When you are shaping your assumptions about God, politics, race, gender, health care, etc., will you do it carefully and realistically? 

Jesus is God’s way of getting rid of a bad reputation. Will you let God do his redemptive work in you?  

Respond 

How do you respond to the distrust permeating our culture and church? Be a healthy, courageous, and competent Christ-centered leader who will encourage and sustain diverse conversations and communities. Be a trustworthy leader who will create environments of trust where promises are kept, and people feel safe to engage in conversation regarding faith, hope, and the future. 

In this time of polarization and distrust, model your commitment to be a follower of Jesus. Sit down across the table with those with whom you disagree. Drink coffee, tea, or Diet Coke with one another. Even though there might be disagreements, help people be encouraged and supported by the love and peace we know in Jesus. Be a model for the community of Jesus followers who are the evidence of God’s love and wisdom. 

Cultivating Trust in the Role of a Leader

So, as a Christ-centered leader, create a space, an attitude, a lifestyle where honest disagreement in love and care can take place. The writer of James said it this way, “First, it is pure, and then peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine. Those who make peace sow the seeds of justice by their peaceful acts” (James 3:13-18). 

As a follower of Jesus and a leader, you are called to cultivate trust. Promoting trust and stopping the constant decline into distrust is not easy. It will require critical reasoning and judgment. You are leading with love, just as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “For love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7). 

Model God’s redemptive work taking place in your life so that those around you will learn to trust God and God’s love for themselves and for others.    

Return: Giving Thanks

Give God thanks for the day and for the people you met and encountered today? In whom did you encounter God? How did you show your trust in them? What were your underlying assumptions? How were they formed? With whom do you need to confess your distrust? With whom do you need to celebrate God’s presence and love?  

It is my prayer that you will allow God’s love in Jesus to replace your attitudes of distrust with trust and compassion. Your trust and attitudes shape your leadership. Who you are is how you lead.

Prayer

O God, I am grateful for your grace when it comes to my careless distrust and attitudes toward you and toward the people you send into my life. In Jesus, I have experienced your extravagant love. Again, by your grace, help me let Jesus do his work in me so that I take more seriously the work of building and shaping trust in my life. By your grace, help me become more the person you have created me to be and become a conduit of your love and joy to be people entrusted to my care. I offer myself to you in Jesus. Amen 

As a Jesus follower, you have been called and gifted to be a Christ-centered leader. You have a responsibility to live and lead as God has created you to live and lead. The question is, “What does it mean to live and lead as a Christ-centered leader?

The Role of a Christ-Centered Leader

Your first and primary task is to be faithful to Jesus. So, your first task is not a political or social one, though you will certainly make an impact politically and socially. Your first task is to be shaped by God’s love so you can be who God created you to be. It is to live and be the truth of God’s love in everyday situations and circumstances.

Your goal is not success in terms of bigger and better or more people means more money. Your goal is to demonstrate that Jesus makes possible a new order based not upon what works or competing self-interest, but upon the truth of God’s love.

Living Out God’s Love in Everyday Situations

This is not a withdrawal from the world. God’s love invites, leads, and drives you into the world to work for justice and peace. You must take seriously the political processes that change systems and structures. You develop relationships with political leaders and assist them in working for the common good.

But you don’t put your hope in the political systems that serve self-interest or in societal norms of personal preference. As you live and lead you offer an invitation to the people entrusted to your care to confront the world. In obedience to Jesus’ invitation, you are first focused upon who you are by responding to, “Come unto me,” and “Do this in remembrance of me,” and then upon living as you have been created to live, “Follow me” and “Go into all the world.”

Balancing Belief and Behavior

As a leader of the people of God, you serve the church and the community. Your service is not in running errands but in providing light. You lead to provide an imaginative alternative to the culture. As you model leadership, you are providing hope for people who are struggling to create the structures and alternatives that the world cannot achieve through governmental power of self-interest.

You might wonder if your leading is worth the hassle. Here is where your courageous leadership comes in. Keep your eyes, heart, and mind on Jesus. When you feel your living and leading are ineffective, remember that Jesus appeared ineffective in the world. Then remember that his power was the truth of the nature of God and not power, strength, and violence within the culture.

Modeling Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Modeling God’s love will always be more radical than the world can provide. Legislation cannot serve the poorest and most powerless. The best policies can do is to give the less powerful a little more power and call it justice. The world cannot give dignity to the young, the old, the sick, the disabled, the marginalized. All it can do is hand out a few meager rights and call it compassion.

For the poorest of the poor and the sickest of the sick, there must be hope that is not dependent upon public policy but upon the promise that God’s love is stronger than death, and that nothing can separate them or any of us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. You living into your call and giftedness helps bring that about.

As a Christ-centered leader, your living and loving help develop and provide a radical hope that forms a community of faith around the truth of God’s love as experienced in and through Jesus.

So first be faithful to Jesus.

Putting Faith into Everyday Action

Your second task is to live your faith in everyday relationships, encounters, situations, and circumstances. It is important to put belief and behavior together. As a leader influenced by John Wesley, you balance personal piety and social holiness.

In the scripture, proper behavior is a response to faith in God who is acting on your behalf. God’s requirements are always preceded by God’s actions. In the Old Testament, belief and behavior are brought together, “Hear O Israel: The Lord your God is one Lord” (Deuteronomy 6:4). That is the belief. Then follows the response: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5). So, to be faithful to Jesus is to live your faith in everyday relationships, encounters, situations, and circumstances.

The Ten Commandments begin with the words, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). That is faith and belief. The commandments represent appropriate behavior in response to God’s acts of deliverance from slavery in Egypt.

The Good News in the New Testament

In good news according to Mark, Jesus walked along the lakeside announcing, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15). That was an invitation to faith. It was an invitation to believe that God was bringing a new world. Then comes the appropriate response, “Repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). All of Jesus’ demands, from “Come follow me” to “Take up your cross,” from “Go sell all you have and give to the poor” to “Turn the other cheek and go the second mile” are rooted in God’s invitation to love.

Paul in his letter to the Galatians writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1). That is belief. Jesus has set us free. Then comes the invitation to respond, “Stand firm, therefore and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery…For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters” (Galatians 5:1, 13). Then Paul offers the expected behavior, “Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another” (Galatians 5:13). So, to be faithful to Jesus is to live your faith in everyday situations and circumstances.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (II Corinthians 5:19). God acted in Jesus to reconcile us to God, to our true selves, and to others. In other words, God has acted in Jesus so we can be who God created us to be. The question is, what is the behavior to be balanced with this good news? Paul answers the questions for us, “And entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So, we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us” (II Corinthians 5:19-20). Your response to God’s reconciling love is to model through your leading the gifts of forgiveness and reconciliation.

The Leadership Role of Gratitude

At the heart of your faith and action is gratitude for God’s faith in you. Gratitude transforms obedience from a dreaded duty to a joyful expression of love. We simply enjoy doing what we do out of gratitude and love.

I remember a friend of mine telling me about his wife being on a business trip and what his children did to surprise her. On the day she was to return, my friend said he tried to persuade his son and daughter to help him clean the house before she arrived. He said they grumbled and procrastinated because they had other things to do.

As he served them their lunch, he said to them, “You know, Mom has been very good to us. She works hard and long, and she loves us very much. She will come in the door tonight with a hug and a gift for each of us. That is who she is. We are lucky to be loved so much. Why don’t we give her something as a gift? Let’s give her a clean house.” The children agreed. After lunch, they helped clean the house and even had fun making a game out of it.

I remember thinking that a clean house became a grateful response to a loving parent. That is behavior linked to belief. What a beautiful expression of faith in Jesus lived out in everyday situations and circumstances. That is what it means to lead as a Christ-centered leader. First you are faithful to Jesus, and you live your faith in everyday relationships, encounters, situations, and circumstances.

The Impact of Leadership

As a Christ-centered leader, why do you put your faith in Jesus into everyday action?

Several years ago, I read a story of a Canadian photographer by the name of Yousaf Karsh. The only portrait he took of a person’s back was taken of Pablo Casals in a small French Abbey in 1954. Karsh said he was setting up his equipment when Casals began playing Bach on his cello. Karsh was so taken by the music that he said he almost forgot why he was there. He took his portrait of Casals with the musician bent over his cello, frozen in time against the plain stone wall of the chapel. Karsh said that he took it that way to capture the loneliness of the truly great artists and the loneliness of the exile.

You are God’s Masterpiece

Years later, when the portrait was on exhibit in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, another old man came day after day and stood for long periods of time in front of the portrait. The Curator of the Museum noticed him, and when his curiosity got the best of him, he went over, tapped the man on the shoulder, and asked him why he stood so long before the picture. The old man, with obvious irritation, turned toward the curator and said, “Hush, young man. Can’t you see I’m listening to the music!”

Karsh watched Casals play his cello and presented a picture. The old man, looking at that picture, could hear the music.

You have been called and gifted to be a Christ-centered leader. You have a responsibility to live and lead as God has created you to live and lead. As a leader, you are God’s model, God’s picture, God’s music of what God wants your community, your neighborhood, your city to be.

As a Christ-centered leader, when you live and lead with God’s love you provide a radical hope all people need. Your music, your leadership, will permeate the whole of life and people will listen to you and follow you to Jesus.

Remember, who you are is how you lead!

Defining Leadership in Today’s World

Who or what defines a leader? How do you understand the concept of leadership?

I am discovering that most people assume that they know good leadership. Their understandings are based upon what they have seen or experienced. Sometimes their view is limited to a particular place, like the workplace, a service club, the PTA, or the church. Other times their view is based upon a person who has helped meet a need or shown some particular interest in relating to people.

Shifting Views on Leadership

Some people experience leadership all the time. Whether at work, school, the grocery store, or wherever they interact with people. They experience some form of leadership. They understand themselves as leaders, regardless of position or power. Wherever they encounter people, they have the opportunity to influence and to motivate people in one way or another.

In today’s culture, there are many ways to define, think about, and approach leadership. Some say a leader is one who inspires and motivates action. Others say a leader influences and advances change for a more equitable world. Then, there are others who say that a leader is anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes and has the courage to develop that potential (Brené Brown). Regardless of your definition, your belief about leadership informs what you think about and practice as a leader. So, how do you understand leadership?

The Need for New Leadership Models

Over my time in ministry, leadership has been limited in understanding. It has been seen as either pastoral (caring for God’s people, counseling, and spiritual care) or entrepreneurial (the leader knows where the church needs to go and has the vision, passion, and strategy to take it there). Pastoral leadership has its roots in scripture. Entrepreneurial leadership has its roots in the sociological aspects of the culture. Both models have their strengths and have met particular needs at particular times.

Because of the cultural shifts being experienced today, the time has come to rethink our leadership models. Most of us have been trained to be good caregivers and caretakers of the people entrusted to us. As we seek uniformity and stability in our congregations, we have learned that good pastoral care helps to get better results. I agree that good pastoral leadership is needed, but it is not enough to navigate the shifts taking place.

Because of the sharp decline in church membership and worship attendance, we have decided to rethink how we develop congregations. Some of you have special gifts of vision and development. You know how to start new faith communities and grow new congregations. I agree that leaders with entrepreneurial gifts are needed, but entrepreneurial leadership is not enough to overcome the shifts taking place.

Please hear me, I am not saying we don’t need pastoral and entrepreneurial leadership. But I am saying neither are adequate, by themselves, to lead through the cultural shifts of today. Both models have their place in providing effective Christ-centered leadership. But, even together, they fall short of the leadership needed to navigate the shifts being experienced today.

Cultural Shifts and the Role of Missional Leadership

Several years ago, I read a story about Halloween Mischief Night in a Philadelphia neighborhood. Two boys broke into a store. They didn’t steal anything, but they did something worse. They went around and changed the price tags on everything in the store. The next morning, people found televisions selling for $10.00, while phone adapters were selling for $1200. What had been made valuable was made cheap, and what was cheap had been made valuable.

That story is a silly illustration of what has happened in our culture over the past several years. It is almost as though someone has broken into our culture and changed the price tags. What we once thought was really valuable and precious does get as much attention as what has always been considered frivolous and worthless. The ground seems to be moving under our feet, and there is no firm place to stand. We are in the midst of some sharp cultural shifts.

The Call for Missional Leaders

The followers of Jesus have navigated cultural shifts from the very beginning. In the early church, the followers of Jesus were sent to serve and convert the world, to care for the sick, the prisoner, the widow, the children, and the poor. They knew they had been called and commissioned by Jesus to carry on his loving service in the world.

They were to engage the world, not withdraw from it. In the middle of a hostile environment, they were to witness to God’s love The front door was the frontier into mission. They were compelled to take the life they shared in the congregation and cross over the threshold into the hostile world outside.

Baptism was a powerful symbol of death to things of the hostile culture and a new birth into the way of Jesus. It was their call to be missional leaders. It meant that they put their lives on the line for the love of God they had experienced in and through Jesus. (The Greek word translated for “witness” is the same word for “martyr”). Leaders put their lives on the line for the love of God.

Living Out the Mission

Then with the conversion of the Roman emperor, Constantine, Christianity became the official religion of the empire. The church was no longer in a hostile environment because the church and the culture became intertwined. The followers of Jesus were no longer called upon to witness in a hostile world because everyone in the culture was Christian.

Over time the church shifted from a community of convinced, committed, believers supporting one another within a hostile environment to a community of good, law-abiding citizens, who paid taxes and supported both religious and secular institutions. Unity was no longer centered upon Jesus but shifted to administration, theology, and politics. Institutional structures were developed to minimize discord and to reconcile differences.

To become a follower of Jesus was to be born into the church. Baptism was no longer a call to mission but an affirmation of your place in the church. People became organizational leaders who became loyal and obedient to the institution.

Today, we no longer live in a culture where we can assume everyone is a follower of Jesus. We can no longer assume that the church is part of the community or vice versa. Although the culture is not totally hostile to the good news of God’s love, A new way of living out the mission is emerging. The shift is back to the mission field being just outside the front door of the church, of the workplace, of your home.

A New Way of Leading: Missional Leadership

In a time in which the mission field is changing, pastoral and entrepreneurial leadership alone are inadequate. The cultural shifts call for more than transitional change. There is a deep need and yearning for transformation. There is a call for a new understanding of leadership. Although pastoral and entrepreneurial leadership are part of it, a new way of leading is emerging. The orientation of leadership is different.

For the sake of clarity, I am calling this new leadership orientation missional leadership. It is not a new leadership concept or model, but it is a new and different orientation for most Christ-centered leaders today.

Missional leadership has its roots in the love of God. At the very heart of missional leadership is the development of a congregational environment where God is the center of conversation and where God shapes the focus and work of the people. It is about a cultural change that is powered by curiosity and imagination more than new techniques or programs.

Shaping Cultural Imagination and Embracing God’s Love

It is about shaping cultural imagination in order to create an environment where people, both in the community and in the church, are embraced by God’s love and set free to love others as they have been loved. It is a missional orientation that cultivates the practice of searching scripture, discerning prayer, and Christian conversation for the purpose of discovering places of God’s life-giving future in Jesus.

Missional leaders know the difference between transitional and transformational change.

They know that transitional change is focused on maintaining stability. What changes are made are reactions to what has caused a disruption or discomfort. The ultimate goal, whether intended or not, is stability at all costs, while transformational change names current reality, focuses upon the goal of new life, and leads the necessary change to build upon the fundamentals that bring about new life.

Differentiating Transitional and Transformational Change

They understand that transitional change is concerned with creating as little pain as possible, while transformational change is “ripping off the band-aid” and moving toward a new reality.

They recognize that transitional change works to maintain the status quo, even if by a different name, while transformational change works to adapt to the changing world and is willing to pay the cost to become effective and fruitful.

Missional leaders have a growing understanding that the church, which is made up of Jesus followers, lives the gospel message that not only embraces personal salvation for individuals but also embraces salvation for communities, cities, social systems, and all of creation. They lead by putting God’s mission at the center.

With entrepreneurial gifts, they develop relationships that assist people in understanding that God’s mission is not about personal preferences, pleasing people, or promoting prosperity. With the care and compassion of the pastor, they lead the shift from program-focused ministry to people-focused ministry. They model leadership by engaging with the community, adapting to societal changes, and helping people become followers of Jesus. They highlight the need to understand and embrace the local community, moving from attractional models to celebrating what God is doing in the community and in the lives of the people.

Engaging the Church and Community

Missional leaders engage the church in God’s active healing and wholeness, leading people to break down the barriers and navigate the obstacles to God’s mercy, equity, justice, and reconciliation. They engage the church and community to “scatter across the countryside” with the love of God experienced and known in Jesus.

So, said in another way, missional leadership isn’t about getting people to a church building on Sunday mornings; it’s about meeting people where they are and forming genuine connections. These connections are the catalyst for healthy and mutual transformation.

In a culture that feels like the price tags have been changed, missional leaders help the church be who God created the church to be at unexpected times in unexpected ways.

A few years ago, in a small rural community Presbyterian church, a young single mother brought her baby to the church to be baptized. On the day of the baptism, she stood alone before the congregation, holding her baby in her arms.

The pastor had not recognized the awkwardness of the situation. He came to the part in the baptismal service when the questions were asked, “Who stands with this child to assure the commitments and promises made here will be carried out? Who will be there for this child in times of need and assure that this child is brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord?”

It was then that the pastor realized there was no grandparent or godparent to answer the questions. But without hesitation, as though on cue, the entire congregation stood and with one voice said, “We will.”

Missional Leaders Embody God’s Love

At the very heart of missional leadership is God’s love for all people. Missional leaders develop a congregational environment where God shapes the focus and work of the people. They help shape the cultural imagination in order to create an environment where people, both in the community and in the church, are embraced by God’s love and set free to love others as they have been loved.

Although there is much more that can be and should be said about missional leadership, I will end with this: How do you understand the concept of leadership? Who will stand with the community to ensure the love of God is experienced and known in and through the church? Will you be present and available in times of need and assurance to nurture and guide the community to become who God has created the community to be? Who is ready and willing to be a missional leader? Who you are is how you lead.

May I state the obvious? We are living in a time of great division in our country, our communities, and even our churches. Whether it be political divisions caused by particular agendas or a cancel culture perpetuated by social media, there is a tension that leads to fear and a lack of trust. 

There are no easy answers on how to lead through divisiveness. One of the first places I go to is to the scripture. But we have just come through a time in the church when scripture has been used to separate people. It has been painful to experience. Something like this has happened: If you and I don’t agree on the interpretation of certain scriptures then there must be something wrong with you or at least one of us. Because of how scripture has been used as a weapon, it is hard to trust the truth that leads us to God’s Word made flesh in Jesus. 

Don’t Confuse Your Understanding of Scripture

At other times people have confused their political views with their understanding of scripture. Because we have made scripture more about morality than we have reality, people use scripture to support their views more than allow scripture to transform their lives. There is a culture of fear growing around the understanding of scripture. I think of it this way. You start talking about God’s love for all people and an old snake will come crawling out from under a rock to scare you away. 

So, let me put it into context and then we will explore a scripture that can be helpful in meeting the challenge of divisiveness. 

The Word Made Flesh

As Christians, we believe in the Word made flesh, not in the Word made words. The scripture points us to Jesus, God’s love in human form. Following Jesus is more than a set of beliefs. It is a way of life. Following Jesus is about loving one another, especially those who are strangers or who are different from us.    

According to the scripture, the world will know that we are followers of Jesus, God’s love in human form, by the way we relate to, interact with, and love one another. When I start with that perspective, I am convinced that Scripture provides a way to lead through divisiveness. 

Read Acts 17:24-25 

For the total story, read Acts 17:16-34

24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.  

Reflect

The apostle Paul found himself in a new world. His old world in which all questions had clear, precise answers had been shattered by his Damascus Road encounter with the Risen Christ. 

He had to sort out that experience and its impact on his perception of himself, his tradition, and what he believed. He needed direction to begin his mission of love and acceptance of the Gentiles. Before his experience with Jesus, he had considered the Gentiles beyond mercy. Now, he was an ambassador of love to the Gentiles. 

New World Required New Tools

He traveled to Athens, a center of Greek culture, where new ideas, competing values, and diverse philosophies were the norm of the city. Sharing the gospel of God’s love in that setting demanded that simplistic answers to difficult questions would not suffice. 

The new world required new tools. So, Paul had to learn new ways, understand his context, and earn respect to deal with the new world that was thrust upon him. He had to take what he knew and what he was learning to meet the demands of faith in the pluralist environment in which he found himself. 

How did he respond to the demands of the new environment? What tools did he use to meet the challenges of the new culture? 

Leading Through The Lens of Scripture

One of his tools was his grounding in the Hebrew scripture. In this story, he is surrounded by a different worldview. He was dealing with people who were more familiar with Zeus than with Yahweh. Their heroes were Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle rather than Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 

Paul saw the situation through the lenses of scripture. The Old Testament’s emphasis on belief in one God and its warning against graven images shaped Paul’s perception of and response to the Greek world. His grounding in scripture shaped him and provided a framework for approaching a different culture. The scripture provided a foundation upon which his new faith in Christ was built. 

The shifting sands of our world today, with its conflicting values and diverse relationships, call us to reexamine the primary tool for discerning God’s presence and purposes. The Bible has always been our primary witness to God’s revelation and loving activity.   

Use the Bible for Illumination

John Wesley dealt with the changing social currents of eighteenth-century England with his faith firmly rooted in scripture. He was so steeped in the biblical story that every personal and societal issue he faced was shaped by the bible. 

The Bible remains the primary tool we use to approach the issues of our time. The question is, how do you use the truth of the scripture to address the challenges of our day? William Sloan Coffin, former chaplain of Yale University and senior minister of Riverside Church in New York City, once wrote, “Too many Christians use the Bible as a drunk does a lamppost, more for support rather than for illumination.”   

Instead of scripture providing a light to help us navigate our way through conflicting values, it is being used to support our political and theological perspectives. Instead of scripture being a framework for approaching cultural change, it is being used to separate and divide people. 

How Do You Read Scripture?

As I have written before, it matters where you start. If you start from the perspective that scripture supports your point of view, you will use scripture as a weapon to get what you want. If you start from the perspective that scripture gives you direction on loving and relating to people, you will be transformed to love others as God in Jesus has loved you.   

Paul used his grounding in scripture to shape his understanding of people and the culture in which they lived. The scripture became his framework for approaching a different culture and a foundation upon which his new faith in Jesus was built. 

The Tool of Tradition

Another one of Paul’s tools was tradition. As a respected Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin, Paul was accustomed to interpreting and applying Jewish tradition to new situations. He knew the Torah and rabbinic literature. He drew upon his tradition when confronting the alien gods and philosophies of the Greek world. It is obvious from Paul’s speech to the philosophers that passages from the Wisdom of Solomon, from Isaiah 42, and from Psalm 74 were in his mind and heart. 

He not only drew upon his own tradition, but he took the tradition of the Athenians seriously. He quoted from their philosophers and called attention to their heritage. He saw connecting points between his own tradition and those of the people whom he confronted in Athens. 

Responding to Cultural Change

When confronted by personal tragedies as well as new challenges in the form of cultural change you must not only stay in touch with your values and traditions. You must also learn about and understand the values and traditions of others. 

You need to be clear about who you are in order to stand firm when the ground starts moving. But if you are aware only of your own tradition you will not be able to develop the relationships needed to address the complex challenges when the ground is moving. 

Claiming Tradition and Relating to Others

Please continue to learn about and stand upon the tradition of historic creeds and liturgies, the great stories of faith, the bloodstained examples of the martyrs, and the heartwarming sermons and hymns of our ancestors. They are part of who you are as a follower of Jesus. 

But, at the same time, don’t forget that those to whom you are trying to relate have their own creeds and liturgies, great heroes of faith, and heartwarming stories and songs. Remember, it is God’s love for you in and through Jesus who is at the heart of your tradition. 

The Power of Experience

For Paul confronting the Athenians, scripture and tradition were not enough. He had to call upon another tool in order for the gospel to be relevant in a new setting. Paul met the Athenians at the point of their experience. 

He acknowledged their desire to know the Divine. Rather than put down their experience, he affirmed their genuine search for the ultimate. He accepted the validity of the insights of their traditions and heroes. Rather than introduce them to God, as if they had no experience of the Divine, Paul named that which they had experienced but had labeled unknown. 

The Validity of Experience

Here is a clue to courageous and faithful leadership in a world of conflicting voices and values. If there is validity in your experience, then you will allow others the validity of their own experience. As a follower of Jesus, you know that God is present in and with every person and in all of life. 

In other words, God is not present with some absent from others. All persons experience the reality of God in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). But, not all persons, know that it is God whom they experience.  

In Jesus, God has claimed each and every one of us. You have been claimed as a member of a loving household and called to be a giver of God’s grace. The scriptural story is a story of God’s love for all persons, but not all people know they have been claimed by God. Your experience of God’s love is a tool to connect with the experience of others and to identify the intersections of God’s grace and their experience. 

Love as You Have Been Loved

Just as Paul with the Athenians, it is your task as a Christ-centered leader, to be open to God’s presence in others and to hold the common experience in the light of scripture and tradition. God often comes to us from the experiences of those whom we assume do not know God. 

So, keep in your heart and mind the command to love as you have been loved. It remains at the center of what it means to be faithful to God. In the world in which we live, many complex realities are before us. The fundamental question remains the same, “Where have you experienced the presence and reality of God? 

The Tool of Reason

Notice that Paul did not stop with the Athenians’ unnamed experience. He connected their experience to the Risen Christ, who is the shape and source of authentic love. Scripture, tradition, and experience were resources used by Paul as he stood in the Areopagus. But he had one more vital tool, reason. 

The Athenian philosophers worshiped at the altar of reason, so Paul met them there. Drawing upon the insights of their philosophers, Paul attempted to connect the Greek culture to the God made known in Jesus. Paul told the Athenians, “From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth” (Acts 17:26). He then quoted their own thinkers and poets: “In him we live and move and have our being…For we too are his offspring” (Acts 17:28). 

Reason, motivated by love, under the banner of faith, can be fertile ground for eternal truth to grow and mature. In 1768, John Wesley wrote a reply to a theologian at Cambridge University, “To renounce reason is to renounce religion…for all irrational religion is false religion.” 

Reason as a Path of God’s Presence

When I was in Peoria, there was a young man, a physicist, who had difficulty believing God’s love for him, especially in and through Jesus. He spent hours reading, researching, and asking questions. Eventually, he took a step toward God. 

He found the universe to be full of mystery and wonder. He made his way to worship. In the liturgy, he found a way to express his sense of praise and adoration toward a reality he called God. Through many conversations and reading the writings of theologians, he was challenged to read the scripture with a fresh openness and to recite the creeds with integrity. Reason was a path of God’s presence for him. 

Ask Your Questions

I know a pastor who tells the story of receiving a letter from an eleven-year-old member of his congregation. Here is part of the letter: 

In the Bible, it says that several days after making the earth God made Adam and Eve. But in science, it says that no one lived before the dinosaurs or while they were living. How could dinosaurs have lived for millions of years before people if God made Adam and Eve seven days after the earth was made? …I hope you won’t be mad at me, but sometimes I have trouble believing…but I still believe in God. 

The pastor encouraged him to ask his questions. Somewhere this bright and articulate eleven-year-old got the notion that to use his mind was outside of having faith. Because he asked questions it meant he did not or could not believe. On the contrary, through reason, he and many others have come to glorify the God who is the source of all truth. 

Scripture, Tradition, Experience & Reason

Paul used the tools of scripture, tradition, experience, and reason to relate to the Athenians and to introduce them to the God who they had labeled unknown. These same tools are instruments by which God comes to us from that world out there beyond our church walls. They are the means by which God transforms the world through us. 

Respond

As a Christ-centered leader, how will you lead through the divisiveness of our culture? Here is something to keep in your heart and mind as you navigate the separation and pain of our day. 

  • It is not scripture, tradition, experience, or reason that creates the hostility we experience today. It is fear. So, as you lead with courage keep this in your heart. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). 
  • It is love that banishes fear and prejudice, which allows us to grow in understanding, freedom, and compassion. It was love that made Jesus draw to himself those who the world abandoned. It is love that will assist us to do the same. 
  • In the midst of the divisiveness, be who you are supposed to be. Love as you have been loved. Learn from Paul’s response to the challenges he faced in Athens and lead as you were created to lead. Be who you are because who you are is how you lead. 

Return

Give God thanks for the people you met today. Where did you see God? What new thing was taking place? Who from the community did you meet? What did you learn about them? How can you best develop a relationship with them? Through whom did you receive love and care? What will you do differently tomorrow? Give God thanks for the opportunities you had to love others as you have been loved.

Prayer

O God, give me eyes to see and ears to hear you in the lives of the people entrusted to my care. Create a pure heart in me, because I have learned that the pure in heart can see you. With my pure heart, and open eyes and ears, help me experience you in the people I meet tomorrow and every day. In the name of Jesus. Amen

As a Christ-centered leader, you have the awesome responsibility of holding and leading the mission of the church. There is no greater work than equipping people to follow Jesus and to lead them into the community to love others. There is no greater work than to love others as God in Christ has loved you. 

I know I am not telling you anything new, but over the past several years, it has been difficult to stay focused on the mission. Because of several cultural shifts, the church is shifting as well. Without your courageous leadership, the church will lose focus on the mission and drift astray. 

As a Christ-centered leader your work is always to assist people to follow Jesus, but how you assist them is shifting. Your work is shifting from developing programs of preference to engaging people in loving others as God is Jesus has loved them. The shift is from a full calendar of activities to equipping them to pray, study scripture, and share life together. The shift is from bigger and better to “what do we need to do that no one else is doing?” 

Equipping People to Follow Jesus

Over my years of ministry, the shift has been from providing programs that would bring people into the church building to equipping people to follow Jesus into the community to love others as Jesus has loved them. 

To lead through these shifts is not easy. It means having a clear understanding of identity. “Who are we as followers of Jesus” and “What does being a follower of Jesus have to do with the church?” 

A Fable

There is a Hindu fable about a tiger cub who was separated from his mother and fellow tigers. He was adopted by goats who raised him as if he were a goat. So, instead of roaring with a voice that shook the forest, the tiger bleated softly in sounds heard only by his adopted family.

Instead of eating red meat, the tiger grazed on the soft grass and ate bark from tender saplings, which caused him to lack the robust strength characteristic of well-fed tigers. Instead of roaming the lofty peaks and leaping the treacherous mountain crevices, the tiger, who thought he was a goat, roamed the paths of the lowlands. 

He didn’t know who he was. His only image of himself was taken from the world around him, a world of goats rather than of tigers. He was less than a tiger because he had no understanding of what it meant to be a tiger. He had been cut off from his true identity.

An Uncertain Identity

The church suffers from a similar situation. We are unsure of our identity because of our broken connection with our biblical and theological roots. Our failure to stay in daily contact with the images of the church found in the scripture has blurred our identity. Because we are unclear about who we are, we have turned to images of the world around us to provide models of being and doing. 

The business world, civic clubs, and social and political organizations have become our patterns. Because of our lack of clarity, the church is treated as an institution among institutions. The church has become an organization among many organizations to which we belong, in which we find fellowship, and in which we engage in endless activities. 

The Result of Lack of Identity

The result is that we wander around on the smooth, well-worn lowland paths, grazing on tasty but unnourishing pious junk food. No one trembles at our blah messages or pays much attention to our bleating pronouncements. We hear the echo of a distant roar which temporarily strikes a responsive curiosity, and we have a vague hunger that is not satisfied by pious platitudes.

Occasionally we catch a glimpse of a Christlike image that gives a nudge to being more than we are as a church. We go through the motions, but our hearts are elsewhere. We know deep down in our souls that there is more to church than going to meetings and promoting an institution. 

Effectiveness of the Church

In every age, the church has wrestled with its identity. John Wesley, in his sermon titled “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity,” raised the concern that Christianity, and particularly the Methodists, has not been more effective in transforming the world. One reason he gave is that so few understand the basic doctrines and beliefs of the faith. 

According to Wesley, before the church can be effective, it must know the doctrines, practice the disciplines, and give itself sacrificially in obedience to Jesus Christ. In other words, the church’s effectiveness requires that we know our true identity and live out that identity in the world. (The Works of John Wesley, Albert Outler). 

Our Identity is Rooted in Jesus

Let me be clear, our basic identity is rooted in Jesus. However the prevailing understanding of the church today is rooted in sociology. Rather than images like “people of God,” “Body of Christ,” or “community of faith” being the images for our life and work together, we have given into images like buildings, budgets, conferences, meetings, boards, committees, agencies, and programs.  Instead of prayer, searching the scripture, and life together being our main focus for carrying out our mission, we have adopted management by objectives, strategic planning, marketing techniques, organizational structures, and institutional maintenance, as our mode of operation. Please hear me, I am not saying any of those things are wrong, but they are not the root identity of the church. 

Prayer has been reduced to a functional way to open meetings. Bible study often is nothing more than an attempt to find biblical quotations to support our self-absorbed and programmatic preferences. Worship has degenerated into an ecclesiastical performance of a variety show. 

Transforming the World

When the world gives us our identity, the mission is defined in terms of strengthening the institution rather than transforming the world. Evangelism is equated with church membership rather than loving others in word and action. Ministry becomes a profession, a career to be cultivated and promoted, rather than a calling to be fulfilled. And pastors function more as institutional CEOs rather than as spiritual leaders or as visionaries of a new heaven and a new earth. Church leaders look for the next best program for renewal rather than look to the theology of personal and social transformation. 

Being Faithful Followers of Jesus

Since I am on a roll, while Jesus dies on the cross for a broken world, his new body, the church, is preoccupied with its attractiveness to the world. While Jesus lives and serves among the poor, the addicted, the imprisoned, the wounded, and the sick in the community, the church is at the beauty shop trying to become more appealing to the masses. It is at the public relations firm working on a new slogan, brand, and marketing technique. It is in a boardroom developing a strategy to stop the downward slide of its membership. 

Again, let me be clear, it is not about the survival of an institution. It is about being faithful grace-filled Jesus followers who put faith into action. It is not our identity as a social institution that transforms the world. The world needs us to fulfill our identity as a community of God’s faithful people who are motivated by God’s love to move into the hurting places of the world. 

The New Testament is full of images that define who we are. 

Read Matthew 5:13-14 

13 “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. 14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.” 

Reflect

The good news according to Matthew was written a generation after Jesus’ death. Members of the new community of Christ were in danger of losing their identity. Matthew sought to keep the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus before the community.  He knew that only in doing so would the community remember and fulfill its true identity. 

So, he chose two images from Jesus as reminders. “You are the light of the world,” and “You are the salt of the earth.” 

“You are the light of the world; a city set on a hill cannot be hid.” So, we, as the church, are a light to the community. We live God’s vision for the world. In our personal lives and our life together, we are to model for the world God’s presence and purposes. 

Our Guiding Light

Bishop Kenneth L. Carder tells the story of serving a church that was in the flight pattern of a regional airport. The spire of the church was lit at night. It could be seen by the pilots as they made their approaches to landing or as they took off. He said that one Sunday morning a pilot attended worship. After the service, he told a few worshippers, “For years I have been using the lights from this church to get my bearings in the night. I’m sure glad you keep your light beaming.” 

As a Christ-centered leader, you are to be and hold the light by which others can keep their bearings. As a Christ-centered leader, you are to equip Jesus followers to be and hold the light in the places they live, work, and play. 

Our True Identity

Do you remember the story of the tiger cub who thought he was a goat? One day the king tiger approached the herd of goats that had adopted the tiger cub. The goats scattered, leaving the tiger alone with the king tiger. The king tiger confronted the cub who thought he was a goat with his true identity, but he didn’t understand. 

So, the king tiger took the cub to a stream. There he saw his likeness to the king tiger, but he still did not feel or act like a tiger. Then the king tiger gave him some red meat. At first, it tasted bitter, but soon it satisfied his deep hunger. It was then that the tiger roared his first roar, a roar that shook the whole forest. 

Jesus Shows Us Our Identity

Jesus has come to show us our true identity. In him, we see that we are beloved children of God. He feeds us the often-bitter meat of divine truth, but our hunger is satisfied with nothing less. We are to be the body of Christ in the world, by which bruised and alienated people are led to the living water where they see themselves as made in the divine image.  Through our relationships in the community, the people around us can taste the bread that satisfies the hungry heart. 

God’s light, in and through us, exposes the evils and heals brokenness. It nurtures us and invites us toward new horizons. It pushes back the darkness of despair and opens the curtain of a new day. That’s who we are. We are a sign of God’s reign breaking out in the world. We are a community in which God’s future invades the present. 

The Church is a Preserving, Nurturing Community

“You are the salt of the earth.” Salt preserves and gives taste. The church is a light, a mission, but it is also a preserving and nurturing community. 

As the salt of the earth, our identity is known through love. We are not a cozy fellowship of nice people trying to be nicer. We are a community of compassion loving one another, friend and stranger alike, with the love of Jesus. As the church, we are the conscience of the community, where love, just like salt or red meat, can have a bitter edge to it. We come together because Jesus, who died for us, has invited us to gather and to serve in his name.

Because we are followers of Jesus, who love like he loves, the barriers of gender, race, and class are not present in the community. Everybody is somebody. Our worth depends upon to whom we belong. All are treated with respect and dignity, like daughters and sons of God, like sisters and brothers of Jesus. 

As a Christ-centered leader, you help equip the followers of Jesus to model God’s love in the places they live, work, and play. 

Respond

What would happen if everyone who entered the church building was treated with dignity and value? And that every time they entered the sanctuary they felt as though they were being hugged by God? 

What would happen if every time the followers of Jesus left their homes, church buildings, schools, and places of work, the people they met were treated with love and dignity? What would happen if everyone you met felt as though they were being hugged by God through you? 

Our Identity from Acts

Jesus is the identity of the church. Here are the characteristics that help shape identity from the Acts of the Apostles: 

Devoted to Apostles Teaching

The early followers of Jesus devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching…  The word for “teaching” is a dynamic word. It means that they persisted in listening to the apostles as they taught.  

Related to One Another

They were related to one another. The word “koinonia” means having something in common or in fellowship. There is no true fellowship without Christ’s Spirit in us and between us. Jesus Christ is what we have in common. He is our common bond. That bond is greater than anything or anyone else. He draws us into oneness and loves each of us through each other.  

Praying Together

They prayed together. Life together was described as the breaking of bread and prayers. For people to be one with Christ and one with each other, it takes time to be together to listen to each other, to care for and be for each other. Praying together becomes the time of communication with the Lord in which we are replenished in God’s Spirit in order to continue unselfish and non-manipulative concern and caring for each other.  

Worshiping Together

They worshiped together.  They had “gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God.”  Praise became an outward sign of the indwelling of the Spirit. It continued to be an outward sign as Jesus lived in them and in their fellowship. They could not praise God enough for what God had done for them in and through Jesus.  

Attracted by Joy of Community

People were attracted to the joy of the community and wanted to know the source of it. People wanted to be with those contagious, praising followers of Jesus and have what he had given them. 

Gathered in Homes

Because there were no established church buildings, the people met in homes. As they gathered in homes they continued to gather in the temple. When they gathered, they broke bread together and praised God with glad and generous hearts.  

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.” 

Return

Give God thanks for the people you met today. Where did you see God? What new thing was taking place? Who from the community did you meet? What did you learn about them? How can you best develop a relationship with them? Through whom did you receive love and care? What will you do differently tomorrow? Give God thanks for the opportunities you had to love others as you have been loved.

Prayer

O God, give me eyes to see and ears to hear you in the lives of the people entrusted to my care. Create a pure heart in me, because I have learned that the pure in heart can see you. With my pure heart, and open eyes and ears, help me experience you in the people I meet tomorrow and every day. In the name of Jesus. Amen