Dr. Duncan Forbes challenges the church to rethink leadership in order to develop a church culture that gives life to people of every class and culture.
In Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.
I grew up in poverty and have lived on an estate most of my life. Having spent considerable time in both white majority and black majority churches, it appears to me that there is a dominant culture in Christianity that is white middle class, and most leadership training perpetuates this.
I believe there’s two areas for the whole church to work on: giving priority to character over giftedness in our leaders, and developing leaders who can love beyond their own cultural experiences and blind spots.
Not Your Sort!
While many different ethnicities and classes live and work together in London, not many work together on church leadership teams. The multi-ethnic teams that do exist tend to be mono-class, and the multi-class teams tend to be mono-ethnic.
In multi-cultural London, this sends the message to many future converts and leaders: ‘we’re not looking for your sort!’
The Book of James says clearly, ‘if you show partiality, you commit sin’. But we show favouritism to young professionals, who are given a lot of respect and encouraged to use their voice and lead ministries. At the same time, vocal minorities are treated with suspicion, and are rarely encouraged to lead and disciple people from the dominant culture. Instead, they are mainly used for optics such as photo opportunities (that aren’t fooling sub-dominant groups).
Oftentimes the preaching speaks only to the leaders’ own culture, rather than the experiences of people.
I remember a time I heard a preacher say that people in prison couldn’t really make moral judgments about others. I was so glad my mate who’d just got out of prison was late to church that day.
Many times I’ve heard preachers water down and reinterpret Jesus’ imperatives to give to the poor, as merely an analogy to explain justification by faith.
Such blind spots are frustrating when you’ve grown up in poverty, and realise that your Christian brothers don’t always understand the realities of poverty and how much the Bible addresses it.
The message communicated through this well-meaning, but myopic preaching is, ‘if you’re not from the dominant culture, this is not really the religion for you.’
A lot of leaders aren’t aware of this, and many think they’re good cross-cultural communicators, but I’ve found that sub-dominant groups in churches don’t tend to tell the pastor they feel alienated. Those who have done so, usually learn their lesson!
When I’m a visiting speaker, it’s common for a working-class person to come up to me and share how they struggle with their church culture.
We need to develop leaders who work well in multi-class and multi-ethnic teams. How? Let’s look at training.
We need to recognise our present system perpetuates the problem. Our present training structures are pre-disposed to equipping more of the dominant culture, whilst excluding sub-dominant cultures we badly need. Our resources are written from a white middle class perspective, and we teach them in majority white middle class settings. People who are then promoted into leadership positions tend to be those who fit the mould best.
Resources from the Margins
It’s not enough to be equipped with some tips on how to not offend – we need to experience being in the minority, so that we can understand what it feels like to not be in control and to submit to others not like us. For our blind spots to be exposed, we need our eyes opened to the things Jesus said we’ve whitewashed over.
Practically, that means being trained by people who have different experiences to us, so that we know what it is like to sit under someone who looks and acts differently to us; and so we learn how God can use teachers from other backgrounds to spot things in the Bible we glossed over.
Today’s training needs to equip us for being cross-cultural missionaries, and avoiding ethnocentrism. Such training also includes how to communicate biblical truths to all different types of cultures. For example, on the Urban Ministry Program preaching course, we list all the different cultures in our neighbourhood, and consider how the selected Bible passage speaks to them.
Recently I had to do this myself. I saw that while many Christians interpret Ephesians 2 as reassuring them of their individual peace with God, for the Ephesian Jews and Gentiles, and for the many foreigners and lower class people on London’s estates, there is the message of us all being brought together into one new people.
This process helps us craft a message that speaks to everyone, and communicates that Christ died for all kinds of people.
Gifted And Talented
A second major area is an unhealthy focus on ability. We get excited when we see someone using their gifts well, and rightly so. But sadly, we’ve elevated this above character. We put people in positions of power when their character isn’t ready for it.
Godliness, Not Brilliance
One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made in training people is to spend more time teaching people techniques than holiness. It’s so dangerous because it actually teaches people how to cover up their sinfulness with their giftedness. Here’s some things we can do to help develop character more.
Local Church Training
It’s in the local church that you really find out someone’s character. Some people look good when they’re at a college, or serving at a charity from 9 to 5, but in their local church, you’ll really see their character.
It’s in the local church, where they’re not paid to serve, where they have to serve people they don’t like, where they can’t do their serving in a neat timetable, but instead sometimes in the early hours of the morning when someone needs help – it’s here where you see their character.
Learn to Repent
I keep making the same mistake of thinking that knowledge acquisition will make people better. I’ve made this mistake as a trainer, a pastor, and a parent.
But being well-educated hasn’t stopped dictators and tyrants in both the political and church scene! If the gospel message is ‘Repent and Believe’, then surely we want leaders who are trained well in repenting and believing.
All our character problems have unbelief at their core. We don’t trust that Jesus is everything that he says he is, or that he will do everything he’s said he will, so out of unbelief we sin and hurt people.
When people confront us, we get defensive, because we don’t trust Jesus enough to turn from our sin to him. It hasn’t been drilled into us leaders that we need to be daily repenting, and turning to Christ, and to do this publicly where necessary.
Back to ministry in a multi-ethnic and multi-class city, us leaders need to be mentored to trust in Christ’s imputed righteousness so much that we can turn away from the sin of trusting in whatever is to our cultural credit (Phil 3:3–11).
This way, sub-dominant groups will get used to hearing us say, ‘I’m sorry, I was wrong, I must have hurt you, and that’s wrong,’ instead of hearing us defend ourselves, and telling sub-dominant groups that they are the ones with a chip on their shoulder.
God is creating a new people for himself in London, made up of all the different ethnicities and classes, let’s pray for leaders and leadership training that helps us in this goal.