Dr. Bob Rhoden
Dr. Bob Rhoden

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The main point for a pastor or any Christian leader is not simply to keep a lid on things, to maintain the status quo, to keep the wheels greased. A leader is to be a thermostat, not a thermometer.

Leaders seek to know what is in God’s heart and then set the tone of the discussion. This calls for boldness, for being secure in one’s calling. But that’s the essence of leadership, which I define as courage in action.

This may sound theoretical—but, in fact, it gets very specific as you live it out. I know a pastor who saw the need to add 100 parking spaces to the church’s lot. Of course, it’s not easy to raise money for asphalt.

But he and his team weren’t doing this just to provide business for the paving company. They linked the project to the church’s mission, which was to provide access to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Out of this came their slogan, “Asphalt Gives Access.” The congregation caught the larger point, and the necessary money was raised.

If a leader does not make this kind of connection, people can assume it’s just a matter of personal preference or ambition. If they think you’re proposing a change just because you want to, they will wonder why you’re pushing this. There has to be a theological undergirding for the change, for the outlay of money.

Seeing the Culture

Ministers must forever watch for shifts in the cultural wind. Today is not like the 1970s or the 1980s or even the 1990s. And even if it was, individual people are not in the same season of life as they were back in those decades.

They’ve traversed from being young singles to newly marrieds to busy parents to ...

The fact is, nobody stands still. Boomers are less loyal to church traditions than their predecessors were. They care little about the name on the sign out front. They care deeply, however, about what connections they’re making with other people.

Generation X and millennials are different yet again. They’re less keyed to propositions and more keyed to narrative (that’s why they watch so many movies). They don’t worry about efficiency and pragmatic solutions; they just want to be “authentic” and “real,” even “raw.”

On top of this, our society is subject to constant cross-pollination as people move geographically. They bring values and ideas from Dallas to Minneapolis, or vice versa, that stir the pot. Plus, we have internationals arriving all the time.

All of these changes are significant to those of us who are trying to lead. It’s important to keep current with the shifting cultural winds—so long as they do not become our master. We could turn ourselves into full-time armchair sociologists if we’re not careful. If we become obsessed with chasing whatever is “hot” at the moment, we will lose our tie to the One who called us to serve His interests. He is the One who truly knows what’s going on and how He wants us to relate to the present milieu.

We sometimes think we’re in a unique, never-seen-before environment. But stop and think a minute about the world of the first century. The crowd that gathered downstairs from the Upper Room on the Day of Pentecost spoke more than a dozen languages.

Peter stood up and had to address everyone, from local Jews to North Africans to Mesopotamians. If you analyze his message, he spent a good 75 percent of the time just talking about Jesus—which might be a worthy model for us in today’s multicultural world. Peter rose above style, subculture and personal preference. No wonder “about three thousand were added to their number that day” (Acts 2:41, NIV).

Navigating the Challenges of 'Niche’

Here in our time, we who aspire to build God’s church are sailing into a stiff societal headwind called “niche.” More and more people today hold stronger and stronger opinions about what they like and don’t like. If the subject is restaurants, the menu choices are Italian, Chinese, Mexican, Thai, Middle Eastern, Greek and a dozen other specialties. If the subject is radio, you’ve got country stations, rock stations, talk-news stations (some liberal, others conservative), adult-contemporary stations, classical stations … the list goes on and on. Choice is king these days.

And here’s the church of Jesus Christ, trying to be a family, which by its very nature means cross-niche and heterogeneous. Look at any family around the Thanksgiving table; there may be 14-year-olds and 34-year-olds and 54-year-olds and maybe even 74-year-olds. There are males and females. Some of them may live in metropolitan areas, while others are from small towns.

Each person has to flex for the others. That’s the nature of a family.

Close by the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University in downtown Richmond, Va., sits a church called, fittingly, Commonwealth Chapel. Its congregation of some 500 attenders is, as you might imagine, young and urban … the Starbucks crowd.

But there’s also a dear saint affectionately known by the rest as Sister Chappell, now in her 80s. She’s been there since the days long ago when the church was called Bethel Assembly of God. At this stage of life, she’s not going anywhere else! And the young people honor her.

I’ve been in the Tuesday night prayer gathering and have seen her shuffle down the aisle in her matronly flowered dress and tennis shoes, approach the microphone and start “testifying,” maybe even sing a bit of an old-time song—and the jeans-and-sweatshirt crowd breaks out in applause.

She’s not a category to them, an “old lady” from the dusty past. She’s a person, a sister (well, maybe an aunt) in Christ. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.

The family of God desperately needs wise, perceptive leadership to bring diverse people together under the common rule of Christ.

Bob Rhoden, a former pastor and district superintendent who is now an executive presbyter with the Assemblies of God, is the author of Four Faces of a Leader, from which this article is condensed with permission (2013, My Healthy Church). He and his wife, Joan, live in Richmond, Va. You can follow him on Twitter @bob_rhoden.

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