When I was nine years old, a missionary visiting our gray Foursquare church put his hand on my head and loudly prophesied that I would become a church leader. I would, he said in a voice that filled the foyer, rise to face the church's "leadership crisis," and grow up to cross oceans, leading many sheep into the fold of God.

I don't remember much more than that (I was young, probably squirming awkwardly in one of my favorite grubby turtlenecks), but those words stuck with me.

Leadership crisis. I didn't understand what he meant, but it sounded like a problem. And I, according to this man from across the sea, was going to be part of the solution.

Break down

Today, I don't know what the heck to think of his words. But I came across them again a little while back.

A new survey from Barna (referenced in "A Missing Link in Christian Leadership") finds that 58 percent of Christians in America identify themselves as leaders, but 82 percent of the same survey's participants believe that the United States is facing a "leadership crisis." What do they think is the problem? Not enough leaders.

Let that steep for a second.

Out of a church made up of 1,000 of these Christians, 580 would describe themselves as leaders. Followers are a bald minority in this hypothetical congregation, where 160 of the leaders will have to double up just to share a single follower. What do Sunday mornings look like there? Do they put the pews on stage?

I'm usually skeptical when people pull the "crisis" card. In my view, crises are mighty hard to spot until you're 5 or 50 years past them. But in this case, I think I agree. If Barna's survey stands true for the wider church, then we do indeed have a crisis of leadership. A bad one. But not the one we think.

There could be a number of reasons for the break down in our collective understanding of ourselves and the leadership landscape of the American church. I think the problem is one of perception. En masse, we have swallowed two indigestible misunderstandings. One is sociological—we've misidentified leadership as influence. The other is theological—we have largely missed the "Christ" part of Christian leadership.

We're conflicted and self-deceived. As a result we sense the gap in leadership, painting it as a crisis of numbers, when the root problem is more pernicious.

One-way equation

In a sentence sadly destined to become cliché, John Maxwell said this:

"Leadership is influence: nothing more, nothing less."

He's basically right. Leadership distilled is influence. But in our present culture, we often make a fatal swap. While leadership might equal influence, influence does not equal leadership. It's a one-way equation.

All leadership is influence. Not all influence is leadership. Advertising influences me. It doesn't lead me. If I get thirsty when I see your beer commercial, you may have influenced me. But that doesn't make you a leader.

We are particularly tempted to make this mistake when so much of our lives take place online. It's an environment where our social influence has hard metrics: followers, friends, retweets, shares, tags. Our interactions with other people can be tracked and tallied. We can see the ripples as we splash around in the social pool, and something in the back of our minds paints this as leadership.

Of course, the issue is in the analog world too. A well-intentioned (and worthy) national leadership conference touts itself as a gathering of thousands of "young influentials." Fair enough. But it betrays us a bit, when we appeal to our influence—increasingly defined as the number of people who listen up when we say something—as practically synonymous with leadership. They aren't the same at all.

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