Recently I passed an old acquaintance in a crowded room. We exchanged a friendly nod, and then I froze midstride. I had to ask him a question. In the past, he had convened stadium-sized events devoted to Christian leadership. People (mostly men) would gather by the thousands and listen to dazzling speakers on everything from biblical principles of leadership to the pragmatics of building a platform and increasing your productivity. I wondered how he thought back on that chapter in evangelicals’ collective story.
The problem was not any single event or speaker. The problem was that there was once in American evangelicalism a booming industry of leadership development that was swiftly followed by a catastrophic season of leadership failure. Had the Christian leadership industry yielded a generation of faithful and effective leaders? Or had it attracted, encouraged, and equipped too many who sought leadership for the wrong reasons?
Many books, events, and courses with leadership in the title offer important insights. Not all are the same. But something felt awry, even those years ago. Advertisements featured fashionable men in dashing poses. Sometimes there was a nod toward “servant leadership,” but this felt more like the sanctification of human ambition. What was glorified was the sage on stage—typically a speaker wearing a slick headset mic while unfolding some profound point or clever anecdote.
Was the point to be a leader in the imitation of the Son of God, who humbled himself unto the point of death? Or was it to be observed as a leader on a stage, admired and adored? I confess I’ve developed an allergic reaction to the language of leadership. It used to be that the call to the pastorate—or ministry of any sort—was to die to oneself, to sacrifice, to suffer in obscurity but in fellowship with God. The best leaders tend to be those who want nothing to do with it. The New Testament does not really talk about leadership, platform, and power. It talks about servanthood, the cross, and surrender.
In this issue, you’ll meet some extraordinary servants, people who do not aspire to be leaders but whom God elevates because they bring glory to him in the ruins of Ukraine or the mountains of Nepal, in Mississippi or the former East Germany. We will continue in Christianity Today to shine a light on those who exemplify Christlike servanthood.
As for the friend who once filled stadiums for leadership events? He said he won’t do it anymore. Now he meets—offline and off the stage—with smaller groups of servants who want to follow Jesus in their brokenness. Perhaps that’s a good sign.
Timothy Dalrymple is Christianity Today’s president and CEO.
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