In 2008, Mark Sayers was leading a Melbourne, Australia, church known for being culturally engaged and missionally inventive. But a simple question threw it all into doubt. Shortly after the birth of their first child, Sayers’s wife asked if he thought the church would be around when their daughter turned 14. “I was silenced by the question,” says Sayers, 40. “I was forced to confront the answer: a resounding no.”
Why such a bleak outlook? “We were recognized for our revolutionary spirit, our imagination, hipness, and creativity. But we didn’t have the structures and the leadership to sustain, cultivate, and grow it over the long haul,” says the author of The Vertical Self, a 2010 biblical take on identity in an age of consumerism. Sayers was also disheartened by spiritual immaturity among his fellow ministers. “We had rallied together to reach what we saw as the chaotic postmodern culture. Yet instead of us reaching it, its chaos seemingly had swamped us.”
This set Sayers on a quest to find a ministry approach that would stand the test of time. Today Sayers leads Red Church, which seeks to “show others that despite everything our culture tells us, there is another story.” A keen exegete of contemporary culture, Sayers published a series of books tracing cultural trends’ historical roots. His latest, Facing Leviathan: Leadership, Influence, and Creating in a Cultural Storm (Moody), explores ways Christians can lead effectively in a “society of spectacle” while facing the threat of Leviathan: an embodiment of personal, social, and institutional sin and chaos. Leadership Journal managing editor Drew Dyck recently talked to Sayers.
In your 20s you founded several unconventional churches designed to reach people shaped by postmodernism. Then you became disillusioned with that approach. What happened?
During the 1990s the idea that we were entering a “postmodern” era became popular in the Western church. Some leaders started to sound the alarm. The church had been compromised by “modernity.” We had to adapt to “postmodern times” or face irrelevance, they suggested. Everything had to change.
This assessment had some problems. Yes, there was a French philosophical movement called postmodernism, but the West wasn’t completely rejecting modernity. We weren’t dispensing with such things as rationalism, the hope that technology can build a better future, or industrialism, capitalism, and democracy. Plus, Christian leaders underestimated how difficult it would be to incarnate the gospel into postmodern culture. It wasn’t the way a missionary might incarnate into Masai culture in Kenya, by simply shedding the imperialist garb of modernity and Western culture. Things were far more complex.
We realized that the kind of liquid faith communities we founded—those that reacted against anything that represented mainstream Christian culture—weren’t sustainable. There was also a disturbing lack of people coming to a saving knowledge of Jesus, which was why we were doing ministry in the first place.
You wrote about a particularly challenging season of ministry. What did that time teach you about leadership?
I was burnt out from ministry, then became engaged in a battle with bipolar disorder. I was wondering how I could continue pastoring and writing and just survive. The psychiatrist told me I needed to have a quiet life, sleep well, and rest. A couple of weeks later we found out we were having twins, which meant the exact opposite of a quiet life and rest. I was overwhelmed and wondered what God was doing to me.
Things hit bottom when my bipolarity got the better of me. I was in the middle of preaching a sermon when I became disoriented and walked off the stage and out of the church building. I thought I had blown it. But the church supported me. The twins came and the next couple of years were exhausting. My mental health was still a battle. All I could do was rely on God.
The strange thing was that our church grew, and my leadership style was transformed. A number of people told me that one of the defining moments in our church’s turnaround was the moment I walked off stage. I learned that God shapes leaders in the midst of storms.
In what ways did your leadership style change?
The way I had measured success was wrong. It wasn’t about retweets, book sales, and buzz. It was about dying to self in public. It was not about building a career or a name. It was about operating out of complete dependency upon God. He was far more interested in what he wanted to do in me than in what I was doing. So I became focused on passing the baton to others, stepping out of the way so others could flourish. I learned that Christian leadership in a shallow age had to depend on him. I learned that when God leads you through suffering and trial, and when you press into him, you return with spiritual authority.
A lot of blogs today are devoted to critiquing Christian subculture. They highlight “Christian nightmares” and argue that “Jesus needs new PR.” Is there danger in that?
Critique can be healthy. However, many have failed to understand that there’s been a profound power shift within the church. Today a blogger with strong opinions and a large audience is probably more influential in contemporary Christian culture than someone leading a large organization.
The shift has some serious implications. It is easy to have opinions when you don’t have any skin in the game. A blogger with controversial ideas and a large readership will probably land book deals and speaking invites. We are tempted to build a career around critique and deconstructing without ever having the responsibility of building something. The danger is that you can become parasitic: You live off the Christian scene you are critiquing. There is a world of difference between pundits and prophets.
What do you mean by leading in a “cultural storm”? Is our moment in history that unique?
We are not in a totally unique moment in history. But we are in one of those transitional moments in which the meanings attached to foundational institutions—marriage, government, ethnicity, citizenship, education, religion, commerce, and production—are constantly examined, questioned, and reframed.
Cultural theorist Philip Rieff noted that cultures tend to cycle between revolutions of control (in which discipline, tradition, and convention are valued) and revolutions of release (which favor transgression, defying convention, and rejecting tradition). Writing in the ’60s, Rieff believed the West was in a revolution of release, which creates a kind of anticulture. Such a culture questions the legitimacy of any institution or tradition. It’s a kind of cultural self-hatred, which eats away at foundations. And there are few solid places on which to build a foundation. The individual is tossed about by the waves. So in a storm, a particular kind of leadership is required.
You need leaders who identify the safe rocks on which to stand—the biblical foundations of wisdom, faith, justice, holiness, family, and communal life. You need leaders who can differentiate between the genuine prophetic biblical voice, which calls culture back to God, and the deconstructive impulse within modernity, which wants to return to the chaotic and primal. In a culture powered by individualism, you need leadership rooted in Jesus’ sacrifice upon the cross. And in a time when people either run from power or abuse it, you need the servant leadership modeled by Christ.
You differentiate between “mechanical” and “organic” leaders. Why has organic leadership triumphed?
To paint in broad brushstrokes: Mechanical leadership sprang from the Enlightenment. In the Enlightenment imagination, with its values of measurement, organization, and rationality, the leader par excellence is a successful hero figure: powerful, commanding, and conquering. With determination and organization, the leader creates systems as powerful as the hero himself.
Romanticism arose in reaction to the Enlightenment and shaped the organic leadership mode. In the Romantic vision, the leader was not an achieving hero, but rather a creative genius. The leader influences through innovation, art, and dangerously brilliant ideas. The Romantic vision imagines the creative genius as a heretic, always pushing boundaries and breaking taboos.
Over the past two centuries, these two modes have vied for attention, gaining traction in different cultural spheres. For some time, the mechanical held sway in the contemporary church. But in recent times, the organic has gained prominence. Even our language has changed: Go back a century, and the language used to describe young ministers included terms like “moral,” “faithful,” “diligent,” and “trustworthy.” Today’s pastors would rather be described as “creative,” “authentic,” “subversive,” and “unique.” Even leaders who fit into the mechanical mode clothe their language in the organic.
Even though the organic leadership model has triumphed, you write that it comes with its own temptations.
The great challenge for organic leadership is its underlying assumptions—especially the belief that in order to lead and influence, we must shed structures, traditions, and discipline. It is obsessed with creating, but also with rebelling against convention. Thus the “creative leader” may break new ground but leave a trail of destruction. The organic mode fails to recognize the doctrine of original sin. In its attempt to create, it can unleash destruction.
You write, “Without realizing it, leaders can paint their dysfunction over churches, ministries, and mission fields.” How does that happen?
We are in period of great flux in the West, when identity, sexuality, and influence are all being redefined. Moments like this actually tend to see a rise in important leaders who can minister to a culture in chaos. Yet leaders themselves can become victims of the chaos. The culture of chaos has created a landscape of broken relationships, broken families, broken concepts of gender, and broken ideas of identity.
We have a whole generation of Christian leaders who have emerged in this broken landscape, thus the brokenness is within them. God is the only one who can heal this brokenness, yet the implicit message of contemporary culture is that we can mend this brokenness through external affirmation. Therefore we must create an audience who will tell us who we really are. So when young (and not so young) leaders gain influence, there is a huge temptation to use ministry to create an audience that feeds our sense of self. Our inner lives are sacrificed, and our solitude and communion with God is swapped for constant broadcasting and affirmation addiction.
You have some harsh words for Christian celebrity. What’s wrong with Christian leaders trying to build a platform and gain influence?
We need to disentangle the idea of celebrity and the idea of Christian leadership. The technologies at hand mean that it is easier than ever to engineer our own “knownness.”
But does God want every one of us to have a huge influence? There are plenty of stories in the Bible and Christian history that show he has allowed some people to have widespread influence. At the same time, the kingdom of God is an upside-down kingdom. In C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, there is a lady in heaven who is famous for her holiness, who on earth was virtually unknown. There is a big difference between platform and spiritual authority.
Facing Leviathan spends a lot of time covering cultural developments in 19th-century Paris. Why spend so much time on that era?
I wanted to show how many of the issues we think are unique to our time have actually confronted the church for a long time. Nineteenth-century Paris was wrestling with new ideas in politics, art, terrorism, technology, sexuality, and secularism. It was in many ways the first modern city, reinvented around creativity, consumerism, and a highly visual media landscape. It was filled with competing ideologies: conservative, liberal, Christian, atheist, socialist, capitalist. It is a great period to examine in order to allow the reader to examine our own culture with fresh eyes.
It’s humbling to realize that what we see as the issues of our day are much older. When you realize this you discover that previous generations of Christians have wrestled with these questions. For example, in the mid–20th century, a whole generation of leading intellectuals and writers—T. S. Eliot, Dorothy Sayers, Evelyn Waugh, and numerous others—were concerned by what they saw as the destructive trajectory of modern culture, and returned to faith. Such stories give hope that something like that could happen again.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.